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"
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.