Diaspora blacks trace slavery story to ancestral Gambia

African Americans and Caribbeans have joined others on a historical pilgrimage to Juffureh, the home village of a famous slave from whom descended a famous black American writer, Alex Haley.  

Slavery story

The two Haley brothers upon arrival at Juffureh: Chris to left and Bill right with a Gambian member of the Kunta Family in the middle

Forty years after one black American, Alex Haley, traced his roots to Gambia, his two great grand children have come 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 over 2 hours river journey to the Kunta Kinte Island to pay their respect to the popular kidnapped slave whose story made a blockbuster movie in 1977.

The story of Kunta Kinte, a kidnapped warrior from the Mandingo tribe from Gambia, who has been sold into slavery, was brought to light by a revealing book published by Alex Harley in 1976 titled “Roots”.

The 8th generation of Kunta Kinte, Christ Haley and his 9th generation, Bill Haley, had joined the pilgrims to the slave departure point now call Kunta Kinte Island that played witness to what a leading Gambian historian, Hassoum Ceesay, said was the ‘biggest humanitarian catastrophe’ in history.

Being first time to come into direct contact with an ancestral spirit, Christ Haley was appalled by what he saw after a tour around the Island that is about 74 meters length and 29 metres wide.

“It was a blessing that god helped uncle Alex to trace our roots to Juffureh here. Hearing again how our ancestors have been captured and brought to America has made me quite emotional,” Christ said.

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

Christ said coming to Gambia where he calls home was a dream he has hoped to achieve in his life time.

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

Emotions were quite tense as tour guides at the isolated island got visitors through the horrific history of slavery that couple of emotional blacks from diaspora had asked for an apology from a Polish white tourist who also joined the pilgrims to familiarize herself with Kunta’s history.

The popular Alex Haley book, the Roots, made into a groundbreaking 1977 television miniseries shown in the US, Turkey, and many other countries around the world has started an unprecedented discussion of the history of slavery in the US.

The actor who played young Kunta Kinte, LeVar Burton, went on to have a role in the second Star Trek series, and founded and hosted Reading Rainbow, a TV show and now app that encourages young kids to read.

A remake of the miniseries which Christ said will be 8 hours long but on the same storyline debuts this month in the U.S.

“Before I come 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,” Christ said.

The Haley family had joined other people from the diaspora— mostly from US, UK and Caribbean— who have come to attend Gambia’s biggest cultural festival, roots home coming festival.

The festival that is centered on the history of Kunta Kinte and the diverse cultural richness of the small West African nation is on its 12the edition and it happens once every two years.

Deadria Farmer Paellman, a black 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. Slavery was horrible,” she said.

The transatlantic slave trade affected 15 million people, killed hundreds of thousands and the trace of Kunta’s story by Alex revived the debate about the horrific nature of slavery and the impact it has on an African man.

 “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 there are also very effective in the fields especially rice cultivation. But men are usually very rebellious,” Hassoum Ceesay said.

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

The Gambia’s tourism minister who accompanied the pilgrims to the home of the Kinte’s which today host the kidnapped warrior’s 8 and 9 generations, told the visitors that he is not “more Gambian than you are”.

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

The Kunta Kinte Island is about 2 and a half hours river journey from Banjul, Gambia’s island capital, and about five kilometers from Juffureh, a coastline village where he was kidnapped by white slave hunters at the age of 15.

He was believed to have been caught while fetching firewood at the outskirt of his village and taken to the Island which then severed as the departure point for full slave ships.

Upon arrival at Juffureh, visitors were greeted with the view of a giant statue at the shores overlooking the mighty river Gambia with both hands raised in broken shackles with inscriptions on the feet “never again”, thus signifying the end of slavery.



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