On July 7 2023 I went back to Juffureh, a town in The Gambia, for a second time after visiting Kunta Kinteh Island. I wanted to actually meet the family of one of the most famous Afrikans in history, Kunta Kinteh. Kunta, a Mandinka man, was kidnapped in today’s Gambia, sent to a small island (now renamed after him) in the middle of the Gambia River for two weeks, and then shipped to Gorée Island in what we now call Senegal. The final stop before being sent across the Atlantic Ocean as an enslaved human being.
The story of Kunta comes to us as narrated by his descendant Alex Haley. The novel titled Roots: The Saga of an American Family and subsequent TV miniseries from 1977 and 2016 engraved Kinteh’s life, courage, and exploits in the collective Black heart and imagination. A myth was born.
Kinteh became an immortal icon who personified perseverance, strength, and Afrikan pride. But what about his living descendants on this side of the Atlantic living in Juffreh?
I sat down with Adja Mariama Fofana (8th generation from Kunta) who met Haley at age 30 and her daughter Kady Taal (9th generation). Fofana’s mother (7th generation like Haley) was named after Kunta’s mother: Binta. We briefly went over the family reunification and how both sides of the family felt. We looked at the pictures and reminisced on how they all felt. But the most pressing issue to me was their current material condition.
Juffureh is a tiny village and I reached their compound in no time from the river shores. Their home reminded me of that of my grandparents: open space, the smell of cooked food and burned charcoal, and the many apartments to house the large family. There is nothing wrong with living in a humble abode but I kept thinking to myself that they deserve better than a metal roof over their head.
“They have to rely on tourism and the diaspora visiting the village without whom life gets difficult,” the guide tells me. They don’t want to depend on this type of revenue and need something more sustainable and dignified instead. It’s bittersweet because, on the one hand, a family was reunited, but on the other hand, the profit of the book and television productions are not given nor redistributed to the people of Juffureh.
Two articles from 1995 by The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times called the family and the villagers “bitter,” ungrateful “beggars.” They make a point that Juffreh should be thankful that Haley put the village on the map. As if they needed this type of visibility and recognition. As if their worth and citizen pride came from being known in the West and becoming a tourist destination. We know how deeply parasitic, insidious, exploitative, and downright colonial the business of tourism is.
Haley earned a lot of money with his ancestor’s story but it isn’t reflected in his continental cousins’ life. They should have a better and more functional house. Taal said with all the money made, their house should look like the White House. She is the one taking care of all the children, nieces, nephews, grandchildren’s clothes, food, and education. People the world over come to see them, and TV stations come to interview them, but they do not get to enjoy the riches they generate. Juffureh should be way more advanced, have reliable infrastructure, and more honest people to push for long-lasting change (i.e. electricity, roads).
Haley used the former government of The Gambia headed by Dawda Jawara as an intermediate. A sensitive choice one might think. A neutral party and middle person. But greed and corruption had the upper hand and whatever money Haley gave to electrify the village and improve the life of its inhabitants was put into politicians’ pockets. A tale as old as the universe. Yahya Jammeh, the second president, even went as far as relocating the Roots festival to his birthplace.
The government makes money by using Juffureh as a tourist attraction. The Haley family became well-off with the book. And us, Diasporans, get spiritually rich when witnessing a family reuniting despite all odds. Everybody wins. Except the people of Juffureh. We see these stories as book pages, remote memories far away in time and space. But they are living, real, breathing people.
There’s multiple layers to this beautifully tragic story:
- Despite enduring immense struggles and profound sorrow, the Diasporan 7th generation of Kinteh ascended to fame and wealth, ultimately finding its way to Afrika. Their prosperity, however, hasn’t been fairly redistributed to their Continental counterparts.
- While the descendants of Kinteh in Afrika have experienced the joy of reuniting with their relatives, their material conditions have not significantly improved and are now reliant on an unstable and undignified system.
- The government of The Gambia obtained freedom and independence from the British Empire. Instead of committing to the emancipation of the people, they have in turn become thieves and robbed the Kinteh family.
There is no law or rule that forces anyone to do anything except ethics and morality. There is no supreme authority that can say that Haley has or hasn’t done enough or that the people of Juffreh should be satisfied or demand more. This looks like Tyler Perry’s Acrimony: neither side of the family is at fault and they did the best they could (in their opinion).
What I know is that the Haleys have a certain capital due to their location (the United States) and the wealth generated by Kinteh’s story that Juffreh will never afford under these economic, political, and historical circumstances. We can partially restore the balance by making sure their material conditions improve (house renovation, sponsoring the young people in the family) until we dismantle exploitative and oppressive systems that have to rely on people’s hearts and goodwill to bring a semblance of justice.
Note: HOBU decide to launch a fundraiser to renovate their home with the support of a local Gambian contractor (NaSuuBa). Click on the link here to donate.