My love for The Gambia began over two years ago at the 2011 International Roots Festival. I had hear so much about West Africa, and I was excited to get the chance to attend the Roots Festival. And it turned out to be beyond anything that I could imagine. I cannot think of a term to adequately describe it. It was exhilarating, unbelievable, tantalizing and soul stirring, all at the same time. An educational, cultural and spiritual experience that I will always cherish, it was a true awakening, a start on the search of who I really was.
Enjoyable and entertaining, the Roots Festival is a Pan African Edutainment event! Inspired by the noted late author Alex Haley's novel 'Roots' and later followed by the TV series, it is a great way to get a taste of African culture. If you have longed to get in touch with your West African Roots and have fun at the same time, then this celebration of love, heritage and ancestry is for you. Taking place on May 9th -16th, the 2014 Gambia International Roots Festival promises as much cultural enlightenment as the previous one. It is no wonder I fell madly in love with The Gambia. Who wouldn’t with all that there is going on during the week?
The week-long celebration at the 2011 Roots Festival gave me the chance to rejoice and reconnect with my Gambian and African brothers and sisters through food, music, dance and learning about my ancestry and cultural heritage. Festival attendees included people from the USA, South Africa, other West African Countries, United Kingdom, the Caribbean islands and beyond. Festival events included cultural programs and performances by different ethnic groups, tours to historic sites like Juffure and Kunta Kinteh Island, dance, music and drumming sessions, carnival celebrations, concerts, parades, symposia, trade shows, vendor markets, sporting events, spiritual ceremonies and more.
On the first day of the festival, we attended the 2011 Opening Reception that began with a warm welcome by the Honorable Fatou Mas Jobe-Njie, Hostess of the Festival and Minister of Tourism, and Mr. Momodou C. Joof the Deputy Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Tourism and Culture. Then a panel of distinguished intellectuals from Gambia and beyond delivered insightful information about the development of Africa and the connection with her Diaspora. Afterwards, we enjoyed a cultural extravaganza reception with delicious West African cuisine and the sounds of delightful music of the Cora and Balafon, unique African instruments, playing in the background.
During the main parade celebration the next day, we witnessed with excitement different drummers and Cora players, various tribes dressed in custom traditions including the Kankurang and Sewruba community from the Mandingo tribe, Sierra Leonian community tribes, the Rainbow Gesse Group and the Zimber community from Banjul and many more participants who danced and sang in the streets. A spectacular of grandeur that seemed surreal, the parade was something to behold, impossible to imagine without actually seeing.
The highlight of that day was His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr. Yahya A. J.J. Jammeh, President of the Republic of The Gambia making a grand entrance to an overzealous crowd who was dancing and shouting with joy to see him. He took the stage before the parade processional and spoke about how the Roots Festival was created to build closer ties with people of African descent around the world and that Africa as well as Gambia was their true home. The president’s words resonated and his message was demonstrated throughout the week. People everywhere in The Gambia greeted us with “Welcome Home.”
The 2011 Roots Festival provided opportunities for reconciliation for people of the African descent whose ancestors were forced into slavery. We got to experience a deep cultural and spiritual identity, and reconnection to our African heritage from exposure to Gambia traditions and ancient customs. We participated in the Futampaf African rites of passage ceremony in Kanila, the birth village of Gambia’s president, where we went through an initiation and was adopted into families. President Jammeh performed a special initiation that involved a sacred ritual and a libation. Afterwards we learned about the African culture, African dances and then given African names with our adoptive families. We performed the dances that we learned before the president at a celebration ceremony that evening.
We got to visit Kunta Kinteh Island as you will do during the upcoming 2014 Roots Festival. It is the island in the River Gambia that bears the last remains of a Slave Fort where Africans were held captive before they were forcibly put into slave ships to the New World. Kunta Kinteh Island was once called James Island and was renamed at the 2011 Roots Festival. I got to take part in this historic renaming ceremony and to view the remains of the slave forts. The main speaker for the renaming ceremony was Minister of Tourism Jobe-Njie and Vice President of the Republic of The Gambia Aja Dr. Isatou Njie-Saidy, who both spoke on the importance and significance of renaming the island.
Afterwards Deputy Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Tourism Mr. Joof led us by boat to the nearby village of Juffureh, the birth place of Kunta Kinteh. We were welcomed by the smiling faces of the village people who embraced us with open arms. We visited the village’s school and the Slavery Museum where we learned about some of the island’s history before visiting with the ancestors of Kinteh, who has become a one-man symbol for every person taken from Africa into slavery. We met an elder woman name Mariama Fofana, known in Juffure as an eighth- generation descendent of Kinteh. A guy name Taal, another descendent of Kinteh autographed a guide book on Juffureh for visitors. The ancestors shared an oral history that included a story about how Kinteh’s brother came after him and drowned trying to swim the rough river Gambia to St. James Island. We all took pictures, embraced the ancestors and expressed how honored we were to meet them before our farewells and goodbyes.
The final part of the festival included mini- excursions, sporting activities, an African Fashion Show, an Art Expo, buffets of Gambian cuisine, cultural and musical entertainment and more. We visited the Tanje Village Museum, the first private museum of The Gambia where there are displays of ethnographic and natural history; traditional crafts such as weaving, a nature trail of medicinal trees and over 60 species of plants. The Tanje Museum, which offers school programs and guests overnight stays, even has a replica of a traditional Gambian compound. That evening there was the African Gala Dinner and Farewell Ceremony where national and international performances marked the closing of the 2011 Roots Festival.
This Roots Festival was the 10th edition of the coming together of long lost brothers and sisters of the Diaspora, and Africans on the continent. It was a celebration of love and a new beginning for many of us, and the upcoming 11th edition will be even better. You will get to experience all that I experienced at the last festival and even more at the 2014 Roots Festival. I guarantee you will feel a connection to the ancestors of Kunta Kinteh and other Gambians. Once again the Roots Festival will bring together people who not only share the same African origins and heritage, but also people who share common objectives that focus on positive social, cultural and economic objectives for the continent and her Diaspora. Like all of the previous Roots Festival, this festival will be educational, entertaining and invigorating, and it will also allow opportunities for higher levels of communications and cooperation among the people of African and the Diaspora. The 2014 Gambia International Roots Festival is a must-attend event for everyone who want to learn more about themselves and their African brothers and sisters.