Two neighbors — Senegal and the Gambia — offer travelers this winter a choice of festivals devoted to the culture and history of Africa and the African diaspora.
In the process, they also show how African neighbors can beat the legacy of colonialism to peacefully co-exist — and give the traveler two worthwhile destinations in a single trip.
These are the times that try men’s overcoats, the season when folks north of the Equator — and my friends east of the Mississippi — start looking for any justifiable reason to flee the icy grip of winter.
Senegal and the Gambia are teaming up to offer two, a pair of major festivals celebrating black heritage in art, culture and history.
It starts in Senegal, where the World Festival of Black Arts and Cultures opens tomorrow and runs through New Year’s Eve. In February, the focus shifts to the Gambia for the International Roots Festival.
BLACK WORLD FESTIVAL
It’s only the third time in 54 years that this gathering of Afrocentric art, music and culture has ever been held. The first was held in Senegal in 1966, a mere six years after the country had gained its independence. Nigeria hosted the second one in 1977. Now, it returns to Dakar, with its original title and trans-Atlantic focus, courtesy of the nation invited as the festival’s guest of honor: Brazil.
Indeed, the festival plans to turn the streets of the Senegalese capital into a kind of Rio East — street parades, concerts, dance performances, Brazilian dishes from restaurant and street vendors.
But even that is just a small part of the total festival package. Virtually all the Mother Continent will be represented.
There will be exhibits on African art, music, dance, fashion, architecture, sports, as well as the contributions of Africans and Africans in the diaspora to science and technology. Goree Island, infamous as one of the departure points for slave ships to the Americas, will host a book fair devoted to the African renaissance. Black films and filmmakers will be on hand, along with prominent black chefs showcasing the cuisines of Africa and black cultures around the world.
A special forum of artists, filmmakers, intellectuals, journalists and scientists will take on theme of African resistance, focusing on the contributions of the black people to global civilization, from the rediscovery of the ancient Black-African civilizations in the Nile region to Africa’s current place in global affairs.
Short form: Expect to leave tired but happy.
INTERNATIONAL ROOTS FESTIVAL
It’s hard to overstate the impact of Alex Haley’s ground-breaking book “Roots: The Saga of an American Family” and the even more ground-breaking TV mini-series based on it.
It made Haley an icon of black culture, made stars of Ben Vereen, LeVar Burton, John Amos and Louis Gossett Jr. It launched countless numbers of black Americans on a quest to trace their own family heritage, a quest that turned ancestral research, complete with DNA comparisons, into a national industry.
And it sent thousands of black Americans on their own personal journeys to the Mother Continent.
All of that brings you back to one place, the Gambia, the focus of Haley’s writing.
The International Roots Festival, set for 4-8 Feb in the capital city of Banjul, is now an annual event in the Gambia, and it will take you where Haley’s story took the world, to his ancestral home in Juffureh, to James Island, another of those slave ports, and to the culture, music, history and tastes of the Gambia.
You also will see festival guests undergoing the rite of passage known as futampaf, in which they will be formally inducted int a Gambian family in Kanilai.
But perhaps the coolest thing about either of these festivals is that, for you the traveler, the geography and colonial history of both Senegal and the Gambia work out to your advantage.
How? By giving you the chance to visit two vibrant and tranquil West African countries in a single trip.
The English-speaking Gambia is the smallest nation in Africa, a sliver of a country whose borders barely seem to extend beyond the river that gives the country its name. Even more odd to your eye: The entire country is encompassed within the territory of French-speaking Senegal.
In fact, a look at a map would suggest that Senegal more or less swallowed the Gambia. But theirs is a relationship that much of Africa — indeed, much of the world — could learn from. Each maintains its own sovereignty and its own identity, but their relationship is one of neighbors and friends.
To put it another way: They don’t call this “the smiling coast of Africa” for nothing.
Which means that, if you plan it right, a trip to either country for either festival could well include a side trip to its neighbor. Two West African countries for the cost of one vacation.
Something to think about while you turn up the thermostat. Again.
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