I hope you are well. It is not often these days that I take the time as I once did to pen notes on yahoo about my travels. I spend so much time on Facebook these days! But today I felt the need. I just returned from the Gambia a few hours ago. It was an extraordinary trip. I went as a guest of the Roots International Festival. I was a key note speaker at the Roots symposium, along with Dr. Julius Garvey, and the trip was so profound, even personally, that I wanted to try to capture a bit of it for you.
First of all, the conference organizers just gave us a royal welcome and we were treated like real dignitaries. I flew over with Mutabaruka and Dr. Garvey. When we got off the plane there was a crowd waiting for us, including members of the press and the National Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture. She was an African woman and you could not imagine a nicer, more humble and enthusiastic person. She was professional and caring and completely unpretentious. Dancers and drummers then awaited us. Then we were interviewed by the press before being taken to the best hotels in the Gambia. Nothing was too good for us.
Upon arrival at my hotel I was met by the director of hotel promotions--another beautiful African--who told me that she was my biggest Facebook Fan in the Gambia. Okay. So far, so good. I was given a shiny Black car with a customized license plate that read Roots 3. This was my private car during my stay in the Gambia. But what good is a car with a driver? So I got that too. And to escort me around and keep me safe and without harm I was assigned a police corporal, whose mission was my personal well-being and safely. This brother was always by my side. And like everybody else that I met in the Gambia, he always professional, always punctual, always polite. And then I was given as my constant escort and guide a member of the tourism ministry. I essentially had a staff of people organized to see to my every need.
Now the festival did not officially start until Sunday and being the shy and reserved person that I am I was more than content to lay around my beach resort hotel that day and do nothing, but my hosts were determined to show me around. So I was taken to a crocodile pond, a fishing village, an arts and crafts market, a museum and an art gallery owned by a local historian.
Now coming back to the hotel I thought that I saw from a distance the Jamaican reggae star Sizzla. I had heard that he was going to be at the festival. I was a little annoyed because he disappeared just as quickly as I saw him. I really would have liked to have met him and shook his hand. But that did not happen.
Later that afternoon I was sitting in front of my hotel waiting for the arrival of one of the students at the university. A huge commotion ensued. Cars and trucks starting arriving, soldiers were running and a crowd was gathering. I thought that maybe the president of Gambia was coming. And then I saw the brother that all of the fuss was about. And, sure enough, it was Sizzla Kilongi. I easily recognized him from his videos on you tube. I saw him and he seemed to see me at the same time. And much to my surprise he burst out of the car and came running to me. He addressed me as "Daddy", grabbed both my hands and shook them vigorously as we stood there telling each other how much we admired each other. I had no idea that this very successful brother was in any way familiar with my work. It was very flattering and I was really humbled. We took a lot of photos together and he proudly gave me his new CD. I loved it.
That was that day.
The next day the festival formally began with speeches by various dignitaries, including the minister of culture and the vice-president, both of them African women. Muta and Dr. Garvey were also called upon to speak to represent the hundreds of Africans in the Diaspora who were there, from the UK, the US, Canada and Haiti. Many of them were Rastafarians. And this was followed by a long parade and masquerades by what seemed like dozens of groups of dancers, drummers and performers. If you like parades this one was just for you! The First Mother of Gambia was also in attendance. I liked this. I like to see African women celebrated and in powerful positions.
The following day, this was Monday, was the longest day. We went by boat on the Gambia River to James Island, renamed Kunte Kenteh Island. This is where the great Ancestor Kunte Kenteh and so many other Africans were taken from. It was my second visit there. I went to the Gambia the first time in April 2012. But the great thing about his experience is that I spent almost all of it with Julius Garvey--son of Marcus Garvey--the person that I revere as the greatest African of modern times. And we talked and talked and talked--all about Garvey--his legacy, his personality, his family, his organization. I mean everything. Things like I had never heard about Garvey before. And this was the way it was the rest of the festival with us. We talked constantly and really became something like brothers. I think that he felt the same way. We were really just comfortable with each other. We even share the same birthday!
James Island is a dreary place. It took more than three hours to get there and three hours to get back. To get to the island itself we had to clamber off the big boat that we were on and board a small little rubber motor boat. You had to really be serious about honoring our Ancestors to do this! It was not for the fainthearted and was actually a little dangerous.
But it was hot that day and there were maybe two-hundred people on the island. So the atmosphere was a bit subdued but also noticeably defiant. I think that the feeling was "We have been through hell but we survived and we are going defeat white supremacy." That attitude permeated the entire festival. There were a few white people around but nobody apologized around them, nobody stuttered around them, nobody compromised themselves around them. Essentially, they were ignored. But I think that they learned a lot also. Nobody was hostile to them but nobody catered to them either.
Leaving the island we took the short boat ride to Alfreda/Juffureh--known as the ancestral village of Kunte Kenteh himself. We were met at the landing area by all of local dignitaries--who shook our hands one by one. But it is also a very poor community with great needs. I would like to help do something about that. And would like for you to help. Why not adopt a local school there? And the local museum needs a lot of work. Why not build a library? These kinds of things are very doable. They would make us feel good about ourselves and positively impact generations of African people. I want to do it.
That day was a long day. On the long boat ride back the Banjul area a number of us did some serious brainstorming about how we could contribute to make Africa, Africans and the Gambia in particular better off. That was a very good thing.
The next day, Tuesday, was the day that I has been waiting for. It was the day of the Roots International Festival Symposium. It was my time to shine. And shine I did! My presentation focused on using our history as our foundation block. I also emphasized that our history should not be defined by slavery. It was a historic presentation and one of my best ever. I don't know when I have felt more relaxed and at ease in front of such an important setting. On that day, I smoked. And I was so proud to see Sizzla and Mutabaruka sitting in the front row right in front of me taking it all in. Yes.
The rest of that afternoon was spent talking to Julius Garvey. We both took a lot of photos with people but then we got away from the crowd, had a few beers and just talked. I will always treasure that.
Yesterday was the last day. We were driven to the president's village as observers of an initiation ceremony. It was a fitting way to complete our journey. I met first with the Director General of the Gambia Tourism Board and before that I joked around with the National Minister of Arts, Culture and Tourism. This was followed by a conversation with Nigerian journalists. From there we were driven to a gathering spot underneath a huge baobab tree. And I sat under that tree protected from the blazing sun with Julius Garvey and Mutabaruka sharing African wisdom. And then the president of Gambia came and gave all three of us affectionate brotherly hugs. He shook hands with everybody else but stopped, recognized and hugged us--we three!
After that, Dr. Garvey and I were driven away for a parting meal and then driven to the airport for our evening flight out of the Gambia. We even had a police escort, complete with flashing lights. At the airport we were treated like nobility.
Those are some of the highlights of my visit to the Gambia.
The Gambia is a small African country in size and with less than two million people. It is a poor country but I didn't see anybody starving. And nobody asked me for anything! The Gambia is a stable country populated by proud and yet humble people. And the country seems to be at peace. And the people of Gambia--from high officials to the average person--seemed to genuinely embrace us. This much needed for us Africans in the Diaspora. I felt genuinely cared about. And I will never forget it. So now I am thinking about what can do to help, to build on relationship.
For one thing, I am going to take some people there. I figure it will take about two years to organize it the way that I really want to but we are going to do it. We will probably coordinate our trip with the Roots Festival 2016 but I am going to do a Black Morocco, Senegal and Gambia trip. Or maybe I will make it a Senegal, Gambia, Benin trip. But I am going to take some there to get the lay of the land and see what we can contribute and how Africans from both sides of the water can build together.
In fact, I am not going to wait for the Gambia trip. This December I am taking a group to Nigeria and Cameroon. We will be in Yoruba Land--in and around Lagos. We will be far from the area where our girls were kidnapped. But our visit also gives us an opportunity to put more focus on the status of women and girls in Nigeria. We want to visit some schools and we want to bring tons of school supplies. We need to take these tragedies as springboards for action, so that we are not reacting all of the time but doing something proactive. That's what I am talking about. And next May we are taking a group to Ethiopia and Kenya. I want to so something special.
Family, right now I am feeling very excited. And that is a good feeling indeed. I am uplifted and upbeat!
My tours are handled by a wonderful African sister. Her name is Betty Ray. Contact her at: Access Africa, 244 5th Avenue, # B268, New York, NY 10001 Tel: 646-308-1232, email: Betty@access dot com
And don't forget our other tours too! In July 2014 I take a group to see the African heritage in Mexico, in August to see the great African artifacts in European museums and in December to Nigeria in Cameroon. For a detailed overview of the trips go to www.travelwithrunoko.com
Blessings sisters and brothers!
In love of Africa!