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First published in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, May 15, 1977

POSTMARK: The Gambia

By COLLEEN and TOM McGUIRE

“Roots” has raised the small West African Republic of The Gambia out of obscurity to become a household word in America.

While visiting friends here, we knew we had to see the now famous ancestral village of Alex Haley, the author of “Roots,” who painstakingly traced his geneology back to slavery days to the Kunte Kinte clan of Jeffure.

We rented a dilapidated taxi and traveled to the remote village via a bumpy, dusty, narrow road. At each small settlement we passed throngs of children came running up to the car, shouting “toubob, toubob,” the native word for white man. The excitement we aroused as toubob in the African bush was a prelude to the elaborate fanfare awaiting us at Jeffure.

When we finally arrived in Jeffure, a Mandinka village with no stores, running water or electricity, our
presence shattered the midday tranquility. A crowd of children was ready to greet us with huge smiles and outstretched arms as we stepped from the cab. They surrounded us, eagerly competing for the thrill of our handshakes.

Suddenly an old Muslim wearing a flowing gown and a red fez broke through the cordon with a ledger held reverently in his hands as if it were the holy Koran. He indicated for us to register as guests. There still weren’t many entries in the book, but among the signatures we spotted were the American ambassador to Gambia as well as reporters from Newsweek and the Los Angeles Times. We signed in proudly, as Journal & Courier correspondents.

After these initial amenities we found ourselves being escorted straight to Kunte Kinte’s compound. As we approached his home, like magnets we attracted more and more villagers until our enormous contingent overflowed into Kunte Kinte’s compound The Kintes welcomed us as if we were two long-lost relatives!

We were given seats on old wooden benches and introduced to all the Kinte clan. The sea of black bodies drowned us with smiling faces that glowed at us as if we were celebrity superstars.

Kinte was a tall man dressed in colorful native apparel. He didn’t speak English, but his glistening eyes communicated efficiently with us. He had a good set of reddish teeth that lined his mouth as firm as kernels on a cob of autumn Indian corn — the stain due to years of chewing the bitter kola nuts.
Momentarily the crowd parted to allow the “Akalo” to enter. This chief of Jeffure was an ancient man with crooked fingers and a body shaped like a question mark. He requested our autographs, then recopied our names in Arabic script.

Kinte and the chief next showed us various newspaper clippings, calling cards and photographs donated by previous guests. We had nothing to add to the collection, but decided to share a package of cookies with the group. At first only a few bold bands reached out for the rare treat, but with increasing speed more and more hands plunged into the package like attacking pitchforks. This frantic outburst subsided only after the cookies had been crushed to crumbs. The human explosion left us thoroughly dumbfounded and even a little frightened.

Like calm after an unexpected storm, the people regained their mellow composure and the incident was ignored. Before we could analyze the incredibly scene, Kinte asked us through a translator if we would enjoy native dancing.

Immediately the natives formed an orderly circle and a hollow calabash gourd was upturned in a
tub of water to serve as a drum. As soon as the baritone tempo struck the air, the women (men don’t dance to drums) began their unique ho-down. Like stationary birds in air, they fluttered their arms back and forth while stomping up and down as if the ground were on fire.

When they invited Colleen to join them, she was reluctant at first to compete with such impeccable performers. But at their insistence she was thrust into the center of the circle. As the audience cheered jubilantly and clapped enthusiastically, she released ail inhibitions and lapsed into the wild dancing as if she had been born a Mandinka.

After the dance ended, the women hugged Colleen and one of the Kintes presented her with a safo, a square leather locket containing verses from the Koran.

The festivities continued until someone advised us that transportation was scarce and we should head back to the road before dark. After a lengthy series of goodbyes and blistering handshakes, the Kintes remained at home while the other villagers accompanied us back with all the zeal of ants converging on two sugar cubes.

One woman gave us two wild fowl’s eggs, because toubobs are “supposed” to like eggs, just as the Mandinka believe that twins are “supposed” to like black-eyed peas.

On the way home we reflected on the lavish attention devoted to us as visitors. Undoubtedly, due to the “Roots” phenomenon, more and more toubobs will flock to Jeffure, making us wonder if the villagers will continue to receive all tourists as enthusiastically as they greeted us. We chuckled at their naive assumption that as Americans we were naturally good friends with Alex Haley.

But looking at it from their perspective, it’s not really so naive. Gambia is a very small country with population of less than 500,000. Coming from a county much smaller than Indiana, they probably can’t fathom the masses of people inhabiting our colossal nation. Perhaps in their limited view, Haley lives only several villages from our native village.

Less than a week after our excursion to Jeffure, Alex Haley popped up in Gambia. Accompanied by his brother, an architect, his prime mission was to present the Jeffure people with a mosque.
Another feature of Haley’s visit was a public screening of “Roots” in McCarthy Square, an outdoor grassy stadium. The movie was free, but hardly worth attending. Besides frequent film breakdowns, it was impossible to see or hear “Roots” in the same private comfort that most Americans enjoyed.
It is absurd that the human roots of “Roots” are denied a proper viewing of the film, especially since the book is still not available in Gambia.

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