WEST AFRICA JOURNAL: Freedom is a wooden pole

Freedom Flagpole

Freedom Flagpole, Albreda, the Gambia | ©Greg Gross

PILGRIMAGE, noun.
1. A journey to a sacred place or shrine.
2. A long journey or search, especially one of exalted purpose or moral significance.
(SOURCE: The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition)

Not much to look at. A nondescript, whitewashed old flagpole behind an ancient iron muzzle-loading cannon on a bare patch of sandy ground in northern Gambia.

But for me, this is now my Bethlehem, my Mecca and Medina, my St. Peter’s Basilica, my Bodhi tree.

My Wailing Wall.

Albreda, Gambia | ©Greg Gross

It’s known in the Gambia as the Freedom Flagpole. You’ll find it in a place called Albreda. And it holds as much meaning for me as the above-mentioned locations do for Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Jews.

For anyone descended from Africans stolen and sold into slavery, this is, or should be, sacred ground.

For the relative handful of tourists who come here, Albreda is a village they have to walk through to reach the place they really came to see.

That would be Juffureh, the ancestral home of Kunta Kinteh, made famous by author Alex Haley in his book “Roots: The Saga of an American Family.”

The fishing village of Albreda sits on the northern shore of the wide and deceptively powerful Gambia River, about a two-hour boat ride east from the Gambian capital, Banjul.

It also sits about four miles away from James Island, not quite in the middle of the river, almost dead-center in the middle of a giant, sweeping curve in the river channel.

By all accounts, the fishing is good here — ladyfish, barracuda, shrimp, and a monstrous species of salmon with a transparent nose that the locals refer to as “the captain fish.”

From the late 1600s to the mid-19th century, a different kind of fishing was being done here.

The Gambia was one of the hubs, some say the original anchor point, of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Albreda was one of the slave ports. It traded hands back and forth for many years between British and French colonists before the British finally grabbed it for good in 1857.

By then, they’d been out of the slavery racket for 50 years. But the trade was still going on elsewhere along the river. Including James Island, where a fort had been built to warehouse the captives before they were loaded onto the slave ships.

They were kept in heavy iron chains and shackles, and fed one meal a day, all for the purpose of rendering them too weak to resist, or escape. (You can still see and feel those chains at the Slavery Museum in Juffureh.)

But some of them did escape. Which brings us back to that flagpole.

The British erected it and put out the word: Any African who could escape from James Island, somehow make their way to Albreda and touch that flagpole would be considered a free man.

That was it. Just touch that pole and you were free.

All you had to do was slip past the guards on James Island, dive into the river and swim across to Albreda. Swim through that deceptively strong current.

A distance of four miles.

After spending who-knows-how-many days under the tropical heat in heavy iron chains and shackles, being fed one meal a day.

James Island was the Gambia’s Alcatraz.

No one knows exactly how many African captives braved that swim. We do know that few made it. Most drowned.

I recently made that journey from the island to Albreda, but I made it in a motorized pirogue. And in all the hustle and hurry of our group to get to Juffureh, greet the village elder and listen to the descendants of Kunta Kinteh, I didn’t get a chance to stop at the Freedom Flagpole.

Nor did I find out until long after we’d left that in making that little four-mile pirogue ride, we were passing over the bones of uncounted numbers of African ancestors, all of whom died trying to reach that spot and touch that pole.

All of this, to me, is now sacred ground. It would be even had Alex Haley never written a word about Kunta Kinteh. The island, the river, Albreda. All of it.

I need to return to Albreda. I need to touch that flagpole, if only to honor the memory of all those who died trying to do the same.

No pilgrimage should be left unfinished.

Young men in Albreda, Gambia

Young men in Albreda, Gambia | ©Greg Gross

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