‘Roots’ author’s family trace slavery story to Gambia

By Mustapha K. Darboe

BANJUL, Gambia (AA) – Forty years after African-American writer Alex Haley traced his roots to Gambia in a searing exploration of slavery, his two great grand-children have made the long journey to the west African nation to reconnect with their past.

It was a bitter and somber reflection as descendants of Africans in America and elsewhere took a two-hour river journey from Gambia’s capital Banjul to Kunta Kinte Island to pay their respects to a kidnapped slave whose story was made into a blockbusting TV miniseries in 1977.

The story of Kunta Kinte, a Gambian warrior kidnapped from the Mandingo tribe and sold into slavery, was brought to light in a revealing book called “Roots,” written by Harley in 1976.

The eighth- and ninth-generation descendants of Kunta Kinte – Chris and Bill Haley – joined the pilgrims to the slave departure point – now called Kunta Kinte Island – which played witness to what a leading Gambian historian, Hassoum Ceesay, said was the “biggest humanitarian catastrophe” in history.

The island is about five kilometers [three miles] from Juffureh, a coastline village where Kunta Kinte was kidnapped by white slave hunters at the age of 15.

He is believed to have been captured while fetching firewood on the outskirts of his village before being taken to the island which then severed as the departure point for fully laden slave ships.

Being the first time of coming into direct contact with an ancestral spirit, Chris Haley was appalled by what he saw after a tour around the small island.

“It was a blessing that God helped Uncle Alex to trace our roots to Juffureh here. Hearing again how our ancestors had been captured and brought to America has made me quite emotional,” he told Anadolu Agency.

“It is never worthwhile to brutalize another man for your benefit because no matter what you may do, you lessen yourself by brutalizing another,” he added.

Chris Haley said coming to Gambia – which he describes as home – was a dream he had hoped to achieve in his lifetime.

“I want my toes to feel this ground, the motherland,” he said.

Feelings ran so high that as tour guides talked visitors through the horrific history of slavery, a few emotional visitors asked for an apology from a white Polish tourist who had joined the group.

‘Roots’ was made into a groundbreaking 1977 television miniseries and shown in the U.S., Turkey and many other countries, sparking an unprecedented discussion of the history of slavery.

A remake of the miniseries, which Chris Haley said will be eight hours long but will utilize the same storyline, debuts this month in the U.S.

“Before I came here, I watched things like everyone on the TV. But this place [Kunta Kinte Island] reminds me of how things were when Kunta was alive,” he added.

The Haley family joined other people from the diaspora — mostly from the U.S., U.K. and Caribbean — who came to attend Gambia’s biggest cultural event, the Roots Homecoming festival.

The festival is centered on the history of Kunta Kinte and the diverse cultural richness of the small West African nation. The biannual event is now in its twelfth year.

Deadria Farmer Paellman, an African-American lawyer with interest in reparation for slavery from European and American companies who were known to have had a hand in the trade, said Kunta’s story shocked her.

“I can’t imagine putting myself in the shoes of Kunta Kinte,” she said.

The transatlantic slave trade affected 15 million people, killed hundreds of thousands and the arc of Kunta’s story revived the debate about the horrific nature of slavery.

Leading Gambian historian and author Ceesay told Anadolu Agency: “The first priority for the slave raider was always women, then children and then the grown-ups.

“The understanding was that when you have a woman, she can deliver children for you and they are also very effective in the fields, especially in rice cultivation. But men are usually very rebellious.”

A UNESCO world heritage site since 2003, Kunta Kinte Island – formerly known as James Island – was the location of the building in Gambia where slave caravans were stationed before they were eventually shipped to the Americas.

Gambia’s tourism minister, who accompanied the pilgrims, told the visitors that he was not “more Gambian than you are”.

“We welcome you all to come and reconnect with your roots in this land of Kunta Kinte,” Benjamin Roberts said.

Upon arrival at Juffureh, visitors are greeted with the view of a giant statue on the shore overlooking the mighty Gambia River; the figure has both hands raised in broken shackles with an inscription below the feet reading ‘Never Again’.