As a kid, I was obsessed by the continent of Africa and remember well the television mini-series Roots, based upon the book by Alex Haley. A quick look on wikipedia shows that in the spring of 1977, my family would have gathered on Sunday evenings to watch the latest instalment of the drama where Haley traces his family history back more than 200 years to captured slave Kunta Kinteh.
After all this time in these parts, I’d not yet made the “Roots tour,” a classic excursion offered by all the tour operators in the Gambia. My parents also remembered us watching Roots and had recently seen the 2016 revamped version, so we decided to make the trip ourselves and not really wishing to spend £200+ for all of us to go on one of the tours, we did it ourselves which turned out to be a great adventure – with some typically “accidental African” moments, although of course the slave history of the tour put our minor inconveniences into perspective.
My friend Allah showed up in his battered taxi and puttered up the highway at about 25 mph, seemingly afraid it would fall to pieces if he went any faster. In the event, it seems he was right. By the time we reached Tanji something was making odd noises, there was a “crack” and I felt something bang against the undercarriage beneath my feet. Allah conceded defeat and sold us onto another taxi who took us up to Banjul without problem.
We hopped aboard the Barra ferry – I considered the pirogues momentarily and Dad seemed game, but I couldn’t quite imagine my mother being carried aboard up on some blokes shoulders.
Descending into the chaos on the north bank, we were offered many taxis, so chose one and followed the driver through a maze of market alleys into a congested garage filled with geli-geli’s and taxis, probably not one of which would be roadworthy anywhere in Europe.
After negotiations, we set off, first along a paved road, before turning south onto a dirt road that winds its way 30 km or so to Juffureh and Albreda, the “Roots villages” that merge together. We bumped our way along the potholed dirt road, through shimmering salt pans, bleached out tropical landscapes and through dusty villages of cement and corrugate houses full of kids screaming “toubab.” The air blew through the taxi like a hot hair dryer.
Aside from a large monument, the village looked much like any other in the country.
There was certainly no sign of any wealth generated over the years by Roots tourism. The book, Roots, spent 22 weeks at the top of the New York Times best seller list and earned it’s author the Pulitzer prize. The tv series was nominated for 37 Emmy awards and attracted 130 million viewers in the US alone. The villages are visited by a high percentage of tourists to the country and almost all Americans with African ancestry.
It later transpired that Haley had mixed fact with fiction in the book, plagiarised some sections and fabricated the links between himself and Kunta Kinteh. But, as the original author of the Gambia Bradt guide, Philip Briggs states: “there is no denying the deep symbolic truth underlying the Roots saga, nor the horrific trade in human lives that formed its inspiration.
After downing some water and a snack, we jumped aboard a pirogue and traveled 3km to Kunta Kinteh (formally James) Island, the site of a fort built by Latvians and then run by the British who fought off various takeover bids by the French and some Welsh pirates.
The island, suffering from sea erosion, is almost entirely covered by the fort, the ruins of which appear to be held together by the bulbous roots of the many baobab trees.
A guide recounted the history, explaining a tiny airless room that was sweltering, would hold up to 140 slaves who’d be fed through a tiny window, leading to fights over the rations.
The fort was the main staging post in the region for captured slaves who were transported here and then on to Goree near Dakar before going to the New World. Those deemed to weak were simply tossed in the river.
Upon return to mainland, we visited the small museum and then the others sat under the bantaba whilst I went to the house of the Kinteh family with a local guide.
We passed several compounds and wound along the sandy alleys before reaching the Kinteh one – no different to the rest. The next bit perplexed me somewhat. I’d read numerous accounts of the tourist trap this place has become – everyone claiming to be a descendant of Kunta Kinteh, demanding money and so on but I got none of that. The Kinteh family seemed surprised to see me and bewildered as to why I was there – perhaps they’re only used to large tourist groups. One of the younger women suggested I take her away and marry her which I hadn’t expected. Was I in the right place? Seemingly yes – there were some laminated newspaper articles dotted around. Eventually I got the information I needed for the guidebook and then left them to get on with their day, feeling a bit of an intruder.
I also had to gather some information about some of the guesthouses. One of them was rather odd – the manager seemed very suspicious when I asked the room price and demanded to see his entry in the first edition. As I showed him, I read over his shoulder and noticed it mentioned the paranoid management style and how the menu wasn’t available to guidebook writers for security reasons. Oops, this might not help me get the info I needed… but the guy seemed happy with the entry and then told me everything I needed to kno – except for what’s on the menu. But then I doubt it differs from the hundreds of other similar places around the country.
It would have been nice at this point to get on a boat and sail back to Banjul. Instead we had an hour or two of bumping back the way we had come and then another ferry crossing. If that had been the case, life would be easy. Halfway back there was a banging sound and we lurched to a stop. This had happened:
No problem – we could just tie it back on!
But no, we weren’t going to get back in this car and the driver called his friend to come and pick us up.
That meant an hour or so’s wait – the local kids came out and these two little baobabs stayed cheerful:
We finally got back to Barra as the sun was setting and to our next hotel, Radio Syd, quite late that evening. I later discovered my wallet, complete with five credit cards, but thankfully little money, had been pick pocketed from a zipped hidden pocket. Just when I thought I was streetwise to Africa.
That meant an hour or so’s wait and we finally got back to Barra as the sun was setting and to our next hotel, Radio Syd, quite late that evening. I later discovered my wallet, complete with five credit cards, but thankfully little money, had been pick pocketed from a zipped hidden pocket. Just when I thought I was streetwise to Africa.
Radio Syd was an unusual but friendly little place on a wide open beach just outside of Banjul city. It had started life as a pirate radio station run by a Swedish couple who were still there and had cooked dinner for us. When the radio mast had collapsed, they decided to close the radio, given there was now plenty of Gambian stations, and turned it into the guesthouse. The lady, Connie, now in her seventies, showed us picture of her with a young Mick Jagger and then told tales of life in Banjul in the early seventies. She was personal friends with Jawara, the first president, with Bertil Harding (the guy who’d introduced tourism to the Gambia and after whom one of the highways is named) and Alex Haley who’d openly told her that he’d made half of Roots up.