If I had my way, every Gambian child in High School will read the whole or part of this great work of history and genealogy, Roots, first published in 1976 by the late great Black American writer Alex Haley (1922-1992). This book took 12 years to research and write and it remains one of the most enduring, most remarkable and heart rending story ever told by any writer.
Tracing his ancestry through 200 years since the 1750s to the 1970s, Alex Haley follows his roots back to Africa, Gambia, West Africa and at Juffureh village, to be most precise. He was a descendant of a 16 year old stripling Kunta Kinte, captured into slavery in the 1750s and sold to the US where he remained in bondage and suffering as a slave. Alex, being a master writer and weaver of tiny bits and strands of stories was able to assemble the small facts until he was able to fill up a 700 page tome of fiction and non fiction telling the story of Kunta from his birth, capture, suffering as a slave and then how his descendants have endured the harrowing times till to this day. Roots also tells us more about the brutalities of the slave trade which lasted from 1400 to 1800, and in which a million Gambians were taken away to the New World.
This book is important for Gambians in many ways. Firstly, it helped to put The Gambia’s name on the map; before Roots came out in 1976, not many people outside of Africa not to talk about the USA, knew about our country. Then wham, came 1976 and hundreds of writers, tourists began to descend onto our climes to see and experience what they were reading about. The publication of Roots was therefore the greatest single promoter of Gambian tourism. Second, the story has a Gambian flavour to it from start to end; the Gambian vernacular words as on page 3; and of course the typical Gambian names such as Kunta, Omoro, Yaisa and Saloum,p.75. Third, Roots helped black Americans to connect with the mother continent, especially The Gambia.
The year after it was published, a film followed also called Roots, which cemented the success already registered by the book, and the Gambia was eager to cash on the fame and quickly sent out a 12 member cultural delegation to USA, led by Jay Saidy, to sell our destination. Hundreds of American streamed into the country, and the The Gambia got a lot of good media attention in the USA.
The story of Roots continues to hold a pervasive impact on black Americans and The Gambia continues to be proudly associated with Roots, as seen in the Roots festival which has held since 1996 to help Africans in the Diaspora reconnect with their heritage. Needless to say, Alex Haley who first visited in 1967 to research the Roots story was ever proud of his work and links with Gambia. Gambians like the late historian AE Cham Joof assisted him in his research and too deserve some credit for the success of the work; so do the griots who Alex met while on his research, and who gave him the bulk of information he has used to write the story.
Sadly, while he as a person was unable to do much for Juffureh, his work helped to put our country firmly in the minds of the world. This is the power of one novel, called Roots.
I strongly recommend it for each and every Gambian to read as it is our story and our pride.
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