Tracing the Gambian Footsteps of Kunta Kinte

Day 85, Grand World Voyage

Wednesday, March 29, 2023; Banjul, The Gambia.

In 1977, more than half of the U.S. population at the time watched the TV miniseries “Roots.” I was just out of college and remember being mesmerized by the story about the young African Kunta Kinte, who was captured and sold into slavery in Virginia. Alex Haley’s book (Roots: The Saga of an American Family, upon which the miniseries was based) follows Kunta Kinte and his ancestors, leading seven generations later to Haley.

Today I visited the Gambian village of Jufureh and met a woman who is said to be the eighth generation from Kunta Kinte on the African side.

Eighth Generation from Kunta Kinte in The Gambia

After much searching, Haley years ago identified the village as the home of Kinte, and he met his seventh generation “cousin,” the mother of the woman we saw today. Some scholars question the accuracy of Haley’s research, but for now I will take it at face value.

Actually, the controversy about our stop in Banjul, the capital of The Gambia, started a couple of days ago. The ship originally notified America citizens that, in order to go ashore in The Gambia, we would need to buy a $155 visa, the same amount the United States charges Gambians to visit. Canadians and citizens of some other countries didn’t need the expensive visa, as their countries didn’t charge for visas. Many passengers decided that the hefty visa charge, on top of relatively expensive excursion prices, wasn’t worth it and canceled their tours or just simply decided to stay onboard.

At the last minute The Gambia announced that every American must purchase the visa, whether or not getting off the ship. Most countries do that, but their visas are are much less expensive. So there were some unhappy campers on board. I already had paid $240 for Holland America’s “The Roots Experience, Jufureh and James Island” tour. In for a penny, in for a pound, I thought. It was to be my one big tour in West Africa and would expose me to the African side of the slavery tragedy.

The port at Banjul was full of ships in various conditions, including one that was beached and few that were slowly sinking.

After a short bus ride within the port area, we loaded on two rather basic boats, each powered by a 40-horsepower outboard motor. Ours was the smaller on, to the right.

In retrospect, I should have at least asked where the lifejackets were (but they weren’t needed). The Gambia river at its mouth is six miles wide, and it looked more like the Chesapeake Bay than a river to me. We moved slowly upstream, taking more than two hours to reach the village of Jufureh.

Local guides took us to a slavery museum with three rooms of artifacts and another honoring famous people whose ancestors came from The Gambia, including George Washington Carver and LeBron James.

Next, we stopped to see the village chief – or chieftess in this case – who sat quietly for photos and offered to sell photocopied certificates of the visit ($2).

The Chieftess of Jufureh

Hardly anyone had time to make a purchase, as we were hurried on to the home of Kunta Kinte’s eighth generation family members. There was no charge for photographs, but we were encouraged to make a donation to the family.

Perhaps local villagers see the arrival of tourists as a prime — and rare — opportunity to make some money. Only three cruise ships a year dock at the large Banjul port. Many villagers were selling wooden carvings and necklaces. Children performed a simple sing-song of “welcome” and collected money in exchange.

Young teenage mothers asked for contributions to the babies in their arms. After seeing my fountain pen in the pocket of my backpack, many children asked me to give it to them.

It wouldn’t have done them much good, as it was almost out of ink. Next time I will add paper and pencils to my packing list for travel in third world countries.

After circling the small James Island – renamed Kunta Kinte Island – where slaves were held until they could be transported out of Africa, the boat’s crew served us fish, rice and other food they had prepared during the journey.

It was a lazy, slow trip back to Banjul, where we arrived at the ship almost an hour past “all-aboard.” Fortunately, they waited for us. Despite the length and expense of the tour, after coming all this way I was glad I saw the country and had a taste of its history.