Wabash Blogs Tim Lake in Senegal, Gambia

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July 10, 2009

Lake Visits Villages of Kunta Kinte

I actually met Alex Haley in 1989 during the Annual African American Family Reunion held on the Smithsonian Mall in Washington, D.C.. This was the start of a near decade long reign of Afrocentrism (i.e., the popular culture version of the highbrow Afrocentricity theorized by Molefi Kete Asante) when red, black and green medallions with Queen Nefertiti, Africa, and/or a clinched black fist embroidered on it hung from the neck of every truly conscious Afrikan America.

Who can forget those Kufi hats, neckties, and long flowing gowns made out of African print fabrics such as mud and kente cloths. And, of course, those sloganeering tee-shirts we wore (e.g., “Black to the Future,” “Danger: Educated Black Man,” “Too Black/Too Strong”) that bespoke a quest for self-definition and perseverance as the Reagan years were ending. And Malcolm X was everywhere! So when, as a twenty-five year old intellectual in the making, I shook Haley’s hand on the Mall, it was his work in writing The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) that I thought of first.

As a teenager, I watched every episode of the television mini-series Roots. For me, it was a story of the African American experience (as John Hope Franklin called it “From Slavery to Freedom”), but later I would see it as one man’s search for a sense of heritage – for family connections. I visited Juffureh and walked the land of Haley’s Kunta Kinte’s birth and capture respectively. In Juffureh, I was told the story of how the Kinte’s came to The Gambia and how as a teenage boy Kunta was capture by Portuguese traders and taken to St. James Island. He was held on St. James (the first Slave Fort in West Africa) for 14 days before taken to Goree Island and, then, transported to America where he was sold in Virginia (1767).
I also visited St. James Island and walked the ground where many of those who comprised the first generation of Africans to enter the Transatlantic Slave Trade began their horrible nightmare of the “New World.” The Gambia is the home of the biennial Roots Heritage Festival which attracts both continental and Diasporain Blacks. What a peculiar heritage.
It was a great honor to meet a member of the ninth generation of the Kinteh (their spelling) family.I was also thrilled at meeting the Chief of the village – the first female chief in The Gambia. (In photo at left). My chance meeting with Haley twenty years ago was obscured by Malcolm’s hagiography, however, the visit to Juffureh has allowed me to see his Roots as part of our collective heritage. In a real sense, Kunta is (as my grandmother would say) “kinfolk” to all of us.

July 06, 2009

Tim Lake Arrives in Gambia

“Psst.” Someone is trying to get my attention. “Psst, Brother, please.” The young man behind bars was looking at me and making gestures meant to communicate that he wants food. “Please, Brother, I give me something so that I can eat.”

There was a wonderful farewell dinner with WARC staff before returning to the hotel room to pack and rest for a full day of travel. By 8:30AM Sunday morning, the van was loaded and leaving Senegal. After a grueling 14 hours van ride through this semi-desert land, which also included a 30 minute ferry ride – van and all, we arrived to Paradise. That is, “Paradise Suite Hotels” located in the Greater Banjul area outside the capital of city in The Gambia.
“Gambia is like a tongue in the mouth of Senegal,” is the way that one Senegalese described it. “I wonder what Gambians would say about that,” someone retorted. Well, I wondered the same thing too. So I asked Mr. Michael Jusu, member of the History Department at the University of The Gambia, what he thought about Gambia being characterized by such a metaphor. He laughed and said, “Gambians don’t expect Senegalese to say anything nice about them.”
These two countries share the same language – Wolof is the majority native language spoken in both places – and many of the same people groups (e.g., Fula, Jola, Wolof, Mandinka and Serer). Of course, the two countries have very different colonial histories. Senegal was a former French colony and The Gambia was colonized by Britain. In fact, The Gambia was, according to Mr. Jusu, the very first British colony. The major difference for me, however, is that English is the official language of The Gambia.
This is a relatively small country with a population of 1.7 million. Like Senegal, Islam is the majority religion (90%) with Christianity a distant second (9%). The Gambia received its independence in 1964.
Our daily lectures occur at the University of The Gambia (UTG). The lecture topics have included: “The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and Gambian History” and “Education in The Gambia.” Established just 10 years ago, the UTG has a student enrollment of 1,500 with 95 faculty across 11 departments. There is even a medical school.
One of the highlights of the visit has been meeting students. They are ambitious and engaging young men and women – the faces of new Gambia – with promising futures. Indeed, UTG boasts a 100% employment rate for its graduates. 
There is so much to learn and experience in The Gambia, but saying goodbye to Senegal was tough. As tough as not being able to respond to the “Psst” and pleads of the detainee being held at the border crossing between Senegal and The Gambia.
Welcome to The Gambia.

In photos: Top, Tim Lake and his traveling group have arrived in Gambia. Lower left, Tim with Dr. Saja Taal.