In Kunta Kinte's steps: Village changed by the hero of 'Roots' tries to overcome a shabby reputation

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Carrying little Kunta in his strong arms, he walked to the edge of the village, lifted his baby up with his face to the heavens and said softly, "Behold — the only thing greater than yourself."

—Alex Haley, "Roots"

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JUFFURE, the Gambia — Her hand clamped over my wrist and dragged me into her dim little shop.

"You buy?" she said, thrusting a tie-dyed shirt toward me. "850 dalasi."

Shaking my head I tried to leave, dragging her with me like a weight.

"OK, lady, 600," she said frantically. "Now you say 400."

That was still $16. I shook my head and walked away. Swarms of children surrounded me, hands out.

Then, a local guide sharply scolded the crowd. They quickly melted away, leaving only the heat and the quiet and a strange disquiet, too.

This is what Juffure is trying to get away from — its reputation as a hustler haven.

Since writer Alex Haley traced his roots to his Mandinka ancestor Kunta Kinte in this poor Gambian village in the late 1960s, Juffure's residents have come to depend on tourists, sometimes aggressively so. Despite the town's historical importance, many visitors have taken to avoiding the place.

"Nowadays people are not showing interest like they did before," says Gambian guide Mojou Jallow of Tours Bijilo. "Most people are interested in the birds and the customs and traditions of the people."

Even the new Rivers of West Africa cruise I'm on has skipped this town, so I've taken a little tour boat back here by myself to check it out.

"Roots" sold nearly 6 million copies. It won a 1977 Pulitzer Prize and a 1977 National Book Award. The 1977 miniseries was seen by an estimated 130 million people.

In the Gambia, the impact of "Roots" was huge as well. It made this tiny nation, where hundreds of thousands of slaves were taken, the allegorical home of the estimated 12 million sold into slavery. An annual "Roots" festival was invented and still runs each February. Kunta Kinte's home town of Juffure turned into a commercial tourist attraction, as did nearby James Island and the village of Albreda.

"He was a one-man symbol for every person taken from Africa into slavery," is the way Assan Saine, a guide for Gambia Tours, puts it.

That is why officials there are trying hard to change the tourism experience from hassle to something more serious and moving. Among the new developments:

Local guides now run the tours, not outside guides. That means they are more interested and able to cut down on harassment of tourists, especially by mothers who send their children out to sing and beg when they see tourists arriving.

There's a very good small museum about the slave trade in the Gambia. There is a replica of an 18th-century slave ship. A children's center has crafts tourists can buy, helping the schools — and keeping kids from begging in the streets.

Most important is the restoration work done last year on historic James Island, three miles offshore from Juffure and Albreda. This important and eerie UNESCO World Heritage site is where slaves were held before being shipped to the Americas, so it's a critical piece of history. In February, the Gambian government renamed it Kunta Kinteh (their spelling) Island.

Still, more work needs to be done to prevent the river from one day swallowing the whole site.

Today, I meet Mariama Fofana, known in Juffure as an eighth- generation descendent. Under a covered portico, she sits in a plastic chair next to a cousin.

She speaks not at all, just smiles as people shake her hand. Behind her on the wall is taped a big newspaper photograph of the Gambia's president and dictator, His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr. Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh.

Omar Taal is selling a book he wrote. It is called "Discovery Guide to Juffureh, the Gambia" ($10). The guide explains the book, which uses a different spelling of Juffure, tells the family story from the locals' point of view. I buy it. Taal, who says he's a Kinte relative, autographs it.

The highlight of a visit to this region is the newly named Kunta Kinteh Island. A quick 10-minute boat ride from shore, it sits forlornly in the middle of the Gambia River. Nobody lives here. Nobody sells anything. Visitors wander the sad, sinister ruins on the shrinking island covered with naked trees. The island is only one sixth as big as it used to be, as the river rises and washes away the evidence of major slave trading in West Africa.

When the British outlawed slavery in the Gambia in 1807, the story goes, there were 90 slaves left on James Island. Officials told them if they could swim to Albreda-Juffure, they could be free. Not a single one made it.

Today, as the tour boat Joven Antonio motors back upriver toward Gambia's capital city Banjul, I watch the island and villages vanish in the river's mist. With a cup of tea, I settle down to read Taal's book about his ancestor. There's an interesting introduction, then a notice of copyright, then a strangely sophisticated account of how Haley found his roots.

It is only when I get home and do a quick Google search that I realize Taal has ripped me off.

His book is a word-for-word copy of Chapter 5 of a 2005 American book, "Alex Haley: Author" in the Black Americans of Achievement series, by David Shirley (Chelsea House Publications, $35).

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5 THINGS ABOUT A 'ROOTS' TOUR

—Before your trip, read (or re-read) Alex Haley's book "Roots" (Vanguard Press, $17.95). Whether Kunta Kinte actually was Haley's real ancestor or not (critics have charged he wasn't), the book is rich and compelling.

—It is possible that next year's Rivers of Africa cruise will include a stop at Juffure. If it does not, you still can go while the M/Y Pegasus is docked in the Gambia's capital city, Banjul. Best to go by boat, not by road. Book your tour through the cruise line or from Gambia Tours for about $75. Alternatively, attend the annual "Roots" Festival in February (www.rootsgambia.gm).

—Do not hand out treats, money or water bottles to children in the villages — it just leads to more begging. It also stirs up jealously between the kids. If you want to contribute, buy a product made by children that benefits the schools.

—Shop for very good woven fans (about $4 for two) or batik (about $10). With temperatures often hovering around 100 degrees, you can't have too many fans.

—Stop at the town's slave museum and James Island (now Kunta Kinteh Island), a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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Ellen Creager: ecreager@freepress.com

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(c) 2011, Detroit Free Press.

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