GAMBIA, VISITING KUNTA KINTEH'S DESCENDANTS


Kunta Kinteh, a rebellious slave, brought to America in 1767, is one of Gambia's greatest heroes.  His life was described by his descendant, Alex Haley, in the bestseller Roots, of which a very popular series was made in the 1970s. I was looking for those 'roots' in the small village of Juffureh on the island that was named after him, in the middle of the Gambia River.

The ruins on the former slave island Kunta Kinteh.

On the Jecerene, a nice boat with a sundeck, a well stocked bar and good food, I sail down the Gambia River towards Kunta Kinteh island. The river looks a lot like a sea, there are waves and tides and I see even dolphins. There is not much wind, so the journey is quiet, sometimes a bit too quiet. The two hours that the boat trip should normally last, soon become 3 and even 4 hours. I get acquainted with GMT, no not Greenwich Mean Time, but Gambia Maybe Time. We'll get there, but when is not very clear. We seem to have engine problems, but in Africa everything is always taken care of. Only... not right away. So I continue by canoe to the slave island. The former St. Andrew's island so called by the Portuguese, later renamed James Island by the British, is a must see in The Gambia.


"I get acquainted with GMT, no not Greenwich Mean Time, but Gambia Maybe Time."


An old signboard of what was once a hostel with a swimming pool.

 A former slave island. The TV series and the book Roots by Alex Haley (7th generation descendant of Kunta Kinteh) have put the island on the map. Meanwhile it is almost 'off' the map again, because according to scientists the erosion eats away the island in such a way that within 100 years there will be nothing left of it. I am very happy that guardian angel Unesco is now interfering. Until 1826 all Gambian slaves were gathered here before they were sold and deported to America. That fate also befell Kunta Kinteh, who became a hero because he refused to accept his English slave name. The only thing that is still there, is a ruin of the fortress and a few cells. The slave houses have been washed away since a long time. The only remaining inhabitants of the island are huge yellow spiders who have literally wrapped just about every baobab on this small island.


"The only thing that is still there, is a ruin of the fortress and a few cells."


Ironing with a pre-war iron ànd a big smile in Juffureh.

 The matriarch of the Kunta Kinteh family. The villages Juffureh and Albreda are separated by a huge kapok tree that with a little imagination represents the head of an elephant. The tree is at least 300 to 400 years old. In these beautiful but quite primitive villages, children are welcoming me singing some traditional songs. Women with pre-war irons and an exceptionally big smile try to get a pile of clothes wrinkle-free, with next to them a few grazing goats.

Goats at the foot of two giant baobabs.

Exceptional for The Gambia is that the village chief in Juffureh is a woman. She took over the leadership 20 years ago from her father, who was in charge for many years and only stopped at the age of 115. I 'm not sure if that was his real age or just a wild guess, because there were no birth certificates at that time. The lady herself has already a blessed age. Her golden smile makes me instantly happy. She tries to sell me a certificate proving that I was in this legendary village, birthplace of Kunta Kinteh. So I decide why not, they can use the money. She has a lot of power, she divides the land in the village and solves all the conflicts. And there are plenty of them because a lot of men are married to several women at the same time. That's what the bantaba is for, an open space with a roof in the middle of the village, a kind of tribunal.


"Exceptional for The Gambia is that the village chief in Juffureh is a woman."

The big chief in Juffureh, girl power!

An African manual airconditioner. It gets even better when I meet a descendant of Kunta Kinteh himself. And believe it or not but her name is Mariame, just like mine. She's not rich, although the family should have gotten quite a few rights from the book and series. She sells me a manual air conditioner, a nice name for a brightly coloured wicker flag. I pay 3€, she's happy and I'm happy, because I own an African air conditioner from the matriarch of the Kunta Kinteh family. Mariame has a book full of pictures of her famous ancestor, unfortunately they are all pictures of the 1977 series. There are of course no pictures of the real Kunta, he was brought to America on a slave ship in 1767, long before photography was invented. The slave museum in Albreda isn't that interesting, but the story behind it is. And a replica of a slave boat, just like the huge statue of a chained slave with the text 'never again' make an indelible impression.


"The slave museum in Albreda isn't that interesting, but the story behind it is."

Slave museum in Albreda.

A hell of a ride. Our boat makes another attempt to bring us back to Banjul, but it breaks down, fortunately not too far from the shore. We are rescued by a canoe again and have to return over land with a dilapidated van. The inside of the seats is sticking out of the plastic benches. There's barely room for my legs and one of my fellow travelers who wants some air has the entire window in his hands. But all that is no problem. The driver doesn't want to lose too much time and drives like crazy over the narrow dirt roads. The 'Gambia Maybe Time' suddenly changes to the fifth gear. My intestines get a thorough massage. I can make good use of my manual air conditioner, because it is humid and bloody hot. Except for the window, all the other pieces stay more or less  in place. It’s a hell of a ride, but fortunately we are dropped off at the ferry in one piece. A lot of people get on and off the boat, some of them loaded like mules. It looks like I'm being dropped in a bath of 'couleur locale'. I love this kind of trips full of authenticity.


"The 'Gambia Maybe Time' suddenly changes to the fifth gear."



TEXT & PHOTO'S: © MYRIAM THYS

Read more about The Gambia: The Gambia, land of smileys

HOW & WHERE

I flew with Brussels Airlines to The Gambia: the flight Brussels-Banjul takes only 6h. www.brusselsairlines.com/nl-be

Travel information can be found on the website of the Gambian Tourist Board: www.visitthegambia.gm.

I stayed in Coconut Residence: once the showpiece hotel of Banjul, the capital. The Belgian Luc Verschelden turned it back into a luxury hotel like before. It is situated in a beautiful garden with two swimming pools. The atmosphere is very pleasant and authentic. And you can also enjoy excellent food in their restaurant. http://fave.co/1CYHxGi

Gambia Tours: they organize nice day cruises to the former slave island Kunta Kinteh: www.gambiatours.gm/index.




GAMBIA, VISITING KUNTA KINTEH'S DESCENDANTS

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