We’re in The Gambia. It’s the second time we’re looking up the sun in winter – maybe a new tradition? Last year we visited Senegal and it was so good to have a week or so of warmth and sunshine, away from the Belgian climate. So when I started planning our trip to Iceland this summer, Sonia decided we needed at least one vacation in the sun.
This is much more a holiday for rest and relaxation than anything else, a getaway from cold Belgium. Still, it would be stupid to travel to Africa and just stay around the pool in a resort. So we looked for places to go and things to see. Still being a novice to this continent, by exception we checked out the organized tours.
It’s this way that we found the Alex Haley Roots tour. The subject did not ring a bell just from looking at the name of the tour, but when I started reading, the story came back quickly.
In the footsteps of Alex Haley, the Roots tour in Gambia
The story of Alex Haley
I was still a kid when in the US a man called Alex Haley started a quest looking for his roots. As so many African Americans, he was a descendant of slaves and wanted to find out where his ancestors lived.
Normally, this would have been an impossible task. All slaves brought to the Americas received “American” or “European” names immediately upon arrival and any link to the homeland would be broken as much as possible. Alex’ ancestor, however, was a proud Madinka warrior, and refused to abandon his name “Kunta Kinte”. It was this fact that finally led Alex to The Gambia and helped him locate his family.
This search and the story of Kunta Kinte and his offspring in the US up to Alex Haley resulted in Alex’ bestseller book “Roots” and later on to the TV series of the same name.
Taking the Roots tour
And now, I was to embark on a Roots tour to the Madinka village of Juffure, from where Kunta Kinte had been taken in 1767 at the age of 17.
We were collected from our hotel in the typical “Gambia Tours” bus. We had learned from previous tours that there were at least three people to accompany us: the bus driver (obviously), the tour guide and the “video man”: a person registering whatever moved in and around our company, and from whom one could obtain the DVD with the events of the day for a democratic price.
After the obligatory stops at several hotels picking up tour participants, we headed for the Banjul harbor to find our “ride”. Jufureh is almost two hours by boat up the Gambia River. I must say that, when I walked through the harbor, what I saw was not really encouraging me to get onto any kind of vessel there.
Two sunken ships were the first things that caught my attention. Arriving at our dock, our transport seemed quite okay, so reassured we got settled for the trip. I chose a nice spot on the front deck. It was sunny but very windy, and the occasional high waves and resulting shower made Sonia retreat into the cabin soon.
The trip on the Gambia does not feel like being on a river: the stream is so wide you really feel as if at sea. Also, the water remains salt until more than 100 miles inland, feeding the swamps alongside and allowing the mangroves to grow.
After about two hours boat ride we docked at Albreda, the neighboring village of Jufureh, which lies a bit further from the river. Both villages profit today from the tourism in a more structured way than in the past.
When the area became known because of Alex Haley’s research for his roots, which turned out to be in Jufureh, this raised expectations of wealth and richness with the locals. However, despite the fact that tourists were coming, the local community remained poor.
The village people blamed the Haleys (Alex’s son also visited the area) for their poverty. Money donated by the Haleys did not get used the way intended (e.g. $15,000 donated by Alex Haley for a new mosque that got never built). It is clear that tourist income at the time was sticking to the wrong hands.
Tourists corrupting people by handing out money raised expectations for more, and the situation escalated some 10-15 years ago, resulting in Haley-bashing by the locals. Luckily, understanding grew that the villagers needed to benefit from the tourism and attention in a fair and even way if the situation were to be made sustainable.
Although obviously still much commercialized, funds from tourism now better serve the whole community and young men are thought to be a tour guide on tours such as the Roots tour rather than just hustling or harassing people for money.
But commerce is all around: you can meet the (lady) chief of the village and can buy a photocopied certificate to prove you’ve been there. Idem for meeting Binta Kinte, 8th generation descendant of one of Kunta Kinte’s brothers. Of course, the certificate for meeting him is more expensive.
Even when photography is explicitly permitted, the locals will still try and get some money when you take photos.
When walking through the village it is obvious that a performance is staged for us, the participants of the Roots tour: children dancing, women working… It starts when the tourists approach and stops again when they've left.
In Belgium, we have an artificial village where old houses, barns, windmills have been collected and restored, and you can find back many of the old crafts as well; it’s called Bokrijk. I felt a bit like being in Gambian Bokrijk: a well-staged look into the past, as well as into daily Gambian life, beautifully set in scene for the tourists. Still a worthwhile visit, though, even if a tad artificial.
St James Island
After touring the village and the National Museum, we headed back to our boat. Lunch was served while we sailed to St James Island (a very nice lunch by the way).
On St James, there used to be a large fortress, now in ruins. More than 200 years ago it was used as a collection point for the newly captured slaves. Before they would be picked up by the ships for the transatlantic voyage, they would first stay at least two weeks on the island, only getting food and water once a day, to be weakened physically and mentally so they wouldn't pose any trouble during the trip.
Slaves could be locked up in tiny dungeons, sometimes 20 to 24 people at once on a few square meters. Over the years, the Gambia River has reclaimed land from the island so only the ruins of the center part of the fortress are left.
The site is UNESCO heritage but funds are required to preserve what is left of it. We briefly visited the island. As our vessel could not dock there due to the shallow water we had to transfer to a local Pirogue.
Food for thought
Despite the commercial approach, the Roots tour did make me think about a period of history in mankind that – like other horrors men have shown capable of – should never be forgotten. The two-hour long boat ride back was a good time to start reflecting on that.
With the new film “12 years a slave”, the topic of slavery is all of a sudden actual again, but I think that when I get home I’ll go and find a copy of Haley’s “Roots” and find out more about proud Kunta Kinte.
Where to stay in the Gambia
Check Booking.com for an extensive list of options for all budgets and needs.
If you're looking for an apartment rather than a hotel, I recommend checking airbnb. Sign up through my link and get a discount on your first stay!
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