It’s been 30 years since Alex Haley’s Roots became a cultural touchstone in the United States. For those of you too young to remember, this book chronicles the life of Haley’s ancestor Kunta Kenteh who was captured in The Gambia and sold into slavery. The book was a blockbuster and the TV miniseries made LaVar Burton a known actor. Nowadays, many know Burton as Lt. Geordi LaForge from the Star Trek TV series and Roots has moved out of the radar of popular culture.
The recent NPR story about the 30th year anniversary got me thinking about Juffureh, the Gambian town where Kunta Kinteh lived. When Roots came out, Juffureh was put on the map as a tourist place to visit. Haley’s distant relatives spoke to those who came to this small village for a look-see in combination with a visit to nearby James Island where Africans were herded onto ships for the grim journey across the Atlantic.
Several years after Roots influenced American consciousness, I headed to The Gambia myself as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I never made it to Juffreh for whatever reason, probably because, on free weekends, I visited volunteers who were posted in other towns. Juffureh, however is still a tourist destination. Gambia Tours and Travel Ltd. offers a day trip to Juffureh where visitors travel up the Gambia River for the tour that looks like something I would really like to take. Haley’s relatives still talk with visitors. It would be interesting to see how the last 30 years have impacted them.
I have been to Goree Island off the coast of Dakar, Senegal which was also a large slave trading port. Goree Island is a stunning contrast to what humans can do-lovely architecture with a Portuguese influence on one hand– and utter cruelty and devastation on the other. What I like about these tours is that they show both.