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When Alex Haley wrote his best-selling novel, Roots, two decades ago this year, it focused international attention on The Gambia. Haley traced his roots back to the small West African country where his great- great-grandfather Kunta Kinte was captured more than 200 years ago and brought to America as a slave.
And now Gambian tourism officials are inviting African Americans to The Gambia for the Second International “Roots Homecoming” Festival, June 14- 21. The festival will include dancing workshops, drumming sessions, fashion shows, gospel festivals, wrestling matches and a film festival. All the activities are designed to focus renewed attention on the country.
“Alex Haley told me himself, before his death, that he wanted this kind of festival to occur here in The Gambia,” says Bakari Sidibe, chairman of the Roots Homecoming organizing committee. “The inspiration for the festival was Roots. The book and the miniseries opened the eyes of everyone around the world. We want to build on that.”
“We have been promoting The Gambia as a beach and sunshine destination,” explains Susan Waffa-Ogoo, Secretary of State for Tourism and Culture.”But we want to push it as a cultural destination as well because we have another asset, our people. The Roots Festival is based on the concept of cultural tourism. This festival is a way of getting people together from different cultural backgrounds and countries.”
Those attending the weeklong festival can also take in the sites and sounds of The Gambia, which has a population of about 1.2 million and is considered one of Africa’s smallest independent countries.
Much of the festival activities will occur in Banjul, the nation’s capital. While there, make it a point to visit the market where you’ll find great bargains on wood carvings and African clothing. To see how tie-dyed fabrics and batiks are made, stop by Mrs. Musukebba Drammeh’s Tie Dye Factory and Mrs. Amie Krubally’s Batik Factory. For a real adventure take a two-hour boat ride across the River Gambia to the village of Juffureh, the home of Kunta Kinte. If you’re lucky, Binta Kinte, Kunta Kinte’s great-granddaughter, will invite you inside her home for a brief visit. Other sites include Lemin Lodge, Fort James Island, and The Gambia National Museum.
Much of U.S. travel to The Gambia for the festival is being handled by Silver Spring, Maryland-based Henderson Travel Services, the oldest and largest African American-owned travel agency in the nation. Henderson specializes in travel to Africa and is working with Air Afrique to bring visitors to The Gambia.
“This area is one from which millions of African slaves were shipped to the Americas,” explains Gaynelle Henderson-Bailey. “Here you have an opportunity as an African American tourist to learn more about our history, our roots. It’s also a wonderful opportunity to learn about today’s African culture, art, dress and cuisine.” Henderson-Bailey’s company is offering festival packages beginning at $1,599 round-trip from New York to Banjul.
The festival is not only about culture. An investment symposium will be held June 19, and Gambians are hoping that African Americans interested