Monday, July 12, 2010

Back to the root(s)

I pushed the boundaries of my Gambian experience this weekend with a trip up country to the villages of Albreda and Juffureh – the place where US author Alex Haley traced his slave roots in the mid-1970s.

It was an 8am start (far too early for me in my relaxed African mode these days) and was pelting with rain when I left Safari Garden to head to Banjul port to join the river cruise.

Banjul is a commercial port and the visitor arrival experience is hardly the same as that of Dubai’s glitzy Cruise Terminal, rather a zigzag cab ride through towering columns of cargo containers and the beep-beep of reversing trucks. It’s definitely a ‘local’ experience.

It was still raining when we arrived and the sea was rather choppy, so we had to wait 30 minutes for the swell to subside before boarding the ‘Lady Jacerene’. Operated by husband-and-wife team Mervyn and Trish Baldwin, the boat was originally sailed over from the UK and now plies the River Gambia on a regular basis carrying a human cargo.

The trip to Juffureh was an opportunity to learn about human cargo of a different kind – the slave trade. West Africa and The Gambia was a prime pick-up point for slaves in the 18th century – and is where Alex Haley’s ancestor, Kunta Kinte, was captured before being transported to the tobacco plantations of Virginia in the US.

The twin villages of Albreda and Juffureh are a two-hour boat trip from Banjul and have been milked to the nth degree in the name of tourism and the Roots legacy. Recent moves have been made to make it an altogether more sensitive experience for first-time visitors to The Gambia. This doesn’t mean dumbing down the horrors of slavery, which may have been forgiven but certainly have not been forgotten (an oft repeated phrase by local villages guides), but making it a comfortable experience for western visitors to enjoy and not feel ‘preyed upon’.

A walking tour through the village is alternately traditional and trying. Kids are asked not to shout out ‘toubab toubab’ along the way or ask for things, but they invariably do and that can be dealt with, but the procession of women proffering calabash rattles, palm leaf fans and loofahs while you’re trying to get into the spirit of the place is a little taxing. And the stalls that make up the craft market at the end of the tour are best avoided as tourists are virtually manhandled into looking at bangles, masks and batik print items.

The Museum of Slavery is simple but well thought through, and there is also an audience with the village leader – another lady (go Gambia girl power) – although they do try and foist a photo opp on you as well as offering a home-printed certificate of visitation for GMD25.

Most disturbing for me was the wheeling out and photo opp of Kunta Kinte’s ninth generation descendant, a wizened old lady who just sits looking bemused at the assembled toubabs while a man named Omar Sharif, (gangsta style in aviator shades) plugs his book on the history of Juffureh from a worn briefcase.

That said, the locally trained guides are very helpful and knowledgeable and are paid for their services by the tour organiser, which avoids the whole distasteful handing over of cash on the jetty as they bid a fond farewell.

My favourite part of the day was the walk round James Island, opposite Juffureh, which, although being gradually eroded by the tide, houses the remains of the slave fort including one surviving dungeon – a dank basement room that could comfortably fit three of me inside it, but which would’ve had 24 male residents in its day. Slaves were also offered the opportunity to swim for their freedom to Juffureh on the opposite bank . A three-mile swim that looks entirely feasible but which after a few weeks spent chained, manacled and starved, led to an immeasurable number of watery graves.

We were escorted home by a small pod of black dolphins, another familiar sight on the River Gambia. The sun was beating down mercilessly on the return trip but I was grateful for the opportunity to be up on deck and mindful of the fact that the Mandinka of Juffureh, packed in to the hold like sardines, would have just been grateful for a lungful of fresh air.

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