Thursday, February 17, 2011

Put Your Roots Down

The street pulses with sound. Drums of all sizes ring in tandem with massive cowbells and earthen jars whacked with sponges. Songs in more than a dozen languages vie with one another to be heard by spectators. The sweat of a myriad of masquerade dancers soaks the pavement, dripping from cloth, tree bark, papier-mache, leaves, and plastic. All of this bedlam, this jubilation, put on for a group of special tourists, themselves decked out in what they have been told is the traditional garb of their ancestors, themselves sweating and smiling under a pavilion. They are here to recapture their "roots" at the tenth edition of the International Roots Festival in Banjul, The Gambia.

There is something very primal about that idea--the pilgrimage back to the land of one's ancestors, to recapture the significance of our past. But how often does it mean anything? When third or fourth generation Americans of certain European ancestry go back to their "motherlands," what really links them to these people in foreign countries? Maybe there is something intangible, something deep. I, myself, am mostly German, but the only thing German my family ever does is eat egg noodles at holidays, thanks to the efforts of my Grandma Max. I know only the German I have learned through studying music and through popular culture. Oh, and I like German beer, but I tend to think that has more to do with its quality than my genes. For me, I don't feel that revisiting the land of my ancestors would have that much meaning, as I am now thoroughly American. At least European Americans, however, have a distinct path to follow; family trees, genealogies, and even DNA tests can tell us the paths our families took on their way to the New World.

For African Americans, this is rarely, if ever, true. It is a matter of public knowledge that the Africans captured by Arab and African slavers and sold to Europeans were treated as livestock, with little importance being given to their names, backgrounds, and families. All we have are slave logs to go on, but what assurance do we have that the slavers wrote the right names, and how do we know who these people are related to? Kunta Kinte, the now legendary Mandinka whose life Alex Haley documented in his novel Roots, could have come from a number of Kinte families, all up and down the Gambia river. Even if we are to trust that Alex Haley was faultless in his research, which a lot of evidence indicates is not true*, the people of Juffureh, where Kunta Kinte was supposedly born, had strong incentive to supply him with a story. Most of the Gambians I know, especially those in rural villages, consider America and Europe to be places of inexhaustible wealth, and therefore will try to get patronage from any Americans or Europeans they meet. In the case of Juffereh, they received the money to build a new mosque from Haley, so they were certainly rewarded for their stories, regardless of how accurate they were.

I should clarify that I have nothing against Roots if it is taken as what it is--a work of historical fiction. There are inaccuracies, and the core of it is probably not true, but most of it could have happened, and I don't think that Haley had sinister motives. I do feel, however, that he, like many of those who have followed in his footsteps to "Mother Africa," let emotion and a longing for an ancestral home get in the way of reason and logic. While I have nothing against seeking one's beginnings, I am very wary of the mutual exploitation that goes on between African Americans and Africans. The opening ceremony of the Roots Festival that I described above is a prime example. While the cultural groups were spectacular, they added up to a mishmash of West African culture, where there are actually many distinct, complex ethnic groups with their own cultures and traditions. One dance was performed by Igbo from Nigeria. Another was from the Susu of Guinea. Yet another from the Mende, from Sierra Leone. It would be as if I, as a European American, traveled to a random country in Western Europe and was presented with Flamenco Dancing, Celtic folk music, a performance of a Brahms sonata, and served Boeuf Bourgingon, while being welcomed back to my "European Homeland."

I am a fan of African unity in an economic and political sense, but this type of cultural Pan-Africanism only serves to muddle African cultures and diminish the richness and complexity of the African continent in the minds of outsiders. It becomes even more questionable to me when this smorgasbord of Africana is served up in the interest of attracting these "Roots" pilgrims, who are often unaware of the specifics of their African heritage and are seeking to fill that void with a generic "African homecoming."

So how would I remedy these problems? For one, I would encourage anyone who is seriously interested in their own heritage to do more research. I myself, as a white-bread whitey-white toubab, am continuously amazed at the depth and complexity of the cultures of Africa, and I have only spent time in a small pocket of the West. Anyone who actually has African heritage would be better served, in my opinion, to do some research and find out specifics rather than to opt for a pre-packaged, "Mother Africa." Even if you are not sure exactly where your ancestors come from, some research into the sub region-almost all American slaves came from West Africa- should give some ideas about what their lives were like.

As to what the Gambia should do, I think the main thing is to be honest. The Gambia has an enormous wealth of culture and beauty, and it is my opinion that this does not need to be augmented with historical rewrites (such as the claim I have heard made that West Africans were the most technologically advanced societies in the world before the Europeans came) and additional performances from cultures that are not native to this region. Providing more cultural education, encouraging traditional performers by organizing festivals, and providing a vivid, accurate picture of Gambian cultures to the outside world is the path I would recommend. This would encourage tourism, foster cultural pride, and honor the ancestors that so many in the diaspora seek to find.

Picture 1: Fula girls dancing -- from Wulli, The Gambia
Picture 2: Susa dance and drum group, from Guinea Conakry
Picture 3: Mandinka secret society -- from Jarra, The Gambia

*Haley was accused of plagiarism in copying parts of Harold Courlander's work, The African. Also, investigations by genealogist Elizabeth Mills and historian Gary B. Mills, as well as journalist Mark Ottaway, found historical inaccuracies in the novel and threw Haley's sources into considerable doubt.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Roots and Culture

As a counterpart to the batch of photos and videos that I just uploaded to facebook, I am going to share a few stories I read while recopying Gambian histories and genealogies into the National Center for Arts and Culture computer database. I finished typing a history of Kombo Brikama and the surrounding area yesterday. This music, history, and culture is what the Gambian Music Preservation Project is all about. Unfortunately, we are still coming up short on funds, and my time frame for finishing the project is getting shorter and shorter. Donations of any size are much appreciated, and the donation process is quite easy. The link can be found on the left hand side of my blog in a box titled "important links."

As I said, I have been doing some typing for the National Center for Arts and Culture while I am waiting for the funds for the project to accrue. In the past, NCAC researchers frequently trekked into the field to record history and music straight from its keepers- the elders and traditional historians of each region and village. In recent years, because of lack of funding and experience, this work has rarely happened. This project is an attempt to revive the documentation of important cultural heritage in The Gambia. Here are a few stories that I read and re translated this week. I have paraphrased them from the original Mandinka testimonies given by Brikama village elders more than twenty years ago.

Brikama is the oldest seat of government in the Kombo districts of Western Gambia. It was one of the largest cities in the Gambia before the British set up their colonial government in Bathurst (now Banjul). The traditional rulership of Brikama and it's surrounding area, which once stretched all the way to the coastal areas of Banjul and Sifoo, has always been passed down between members of the Bojang family, who have three compounds in Brikama - Summa Kunda, Mansaring Kunda, and Hawla Kunda. Some of these rulers were queens, which hearkens back to a time before Islam was such a dominant cultural force and women were allowed more privileges in Gambian society. As Brikama grew in the pre-colonial days, however, groups from within Brikama began to break off and go in search of their own lands, as overpopulation made finding food and resources more difficult. Here are two stories of the manner in which nearby settlements were founded and named.

The village of Kitii was founded by a prince of Brikama. Having come from the Bojang lineage, he had expected to become the king after his father. He was unaware that his step father, also a Bojang, was to be crowned instead. The very day that the rival was to be crowned, the prince went to the bush to tap palm trees for their wine. While he was working, his younger sister came to the tree and called out to him.

"Brother, why are you in this tree?"She asked. "Do you not hear the djundjun drums?"
He said, "No, I had not heard. What do they signify?"
"Your step father is being crowned right now, as we speak." She yelled to him.

Upon hearing this, he cried out in anger and lost his concentration. Wobbling at the top of a high palm tree, he lost his footing and fell to the ground, going into a coma. And that is the meaning of the word, "Kitii." In Mandinka, it means to fall unconscious, or to go into a coma. It is unclear whether the residents who settled there were lead by the prince once he recovered, or by someone else. Regardless, they saw fit to name their village after this incident.

The village of Sifoo also takes its name from the exploits of a prince of Brikama. This prince, who was not in line for the kingship, requested from the village elders that he be given land in the territory of Brikama to settle. They told him that it would be granted, and he would know where his settlement would be soon. Time passed, and he did not receive land. More time passed. Finally, in frustration, he chose a spot that appealed to him and told the elders he would build a compound there in which to stay while he waited for their decision. That temporary waiting spot came to be his permanent settlement. Thus the name, "Sifoo," which means in Mandinka, "Wait until..."

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Urban African Landscape

The Atlantic road by bike is a pain in the (insert body part). It has little to no shoulder as a result of erosion during the rainy season, and the ground to either side is a mix of foot-deep sand, gravel, and scrub brush. When you compound this with Gambian driving habits--no followed speed limit, cars skimming bikes and pedestrians by inches, loud honking at white people and women, among other delights--it completely obliterates the desire to bike this accursed stretch of road in any sane person. It is also forbidden for Peace Corps volunteers to ride alongside it. It is, however, the shortest, most straightforward route between my workplace in Fajara and my home, in Brusubi. The land on either side of it is an unknown maze of side streets twisting through tourists areas, trash dumps, and small hamlets.

Finding a decent bike path through this obscurity would save me a decent amount in daily cab fare. So, with this in mind, I set out on Saturday to find the best route possible. There is a small bottleneck where the Atlantic road meets Kairaba, the street I work on, so I had to ride a stretch on what shoulder I could find before I made the first left turn onto a side street. It was a nerve wracking experience, with cars zooming by at what had to but over 70 mph speeds, barely edging to the left to avoid me. After running this short gauntlet and ducking onto the side road, I ended up in an industrial park with the Kotu power plant to my left, spewing black fumes and a loud churning drone into the air. Outside the gates was a small, crumbling shop and restaurant, assumedly built there to cater to power plant workers. Two small children stared sullenly at me from inside the door as I passed, as hung laundry on a line flapped in the breeze nearby.

Continuing further from the main road, I ended up in a village built entirely around a massive trash dump. The houses were built mainly on hills surrounding a big pit in the earth, likely dug to make clay bricks for construction, filled with old tires, scrap metal, and debris. The road twisted and wound through compounds, with small dust devils springing up here and there, throwing up potato chip wrappers and empty water packets. In a dusty field set aside, a group of small boys were playing soccer with a tattered old ball and make-shift goals comprised of two stones placed a few feet apart. Passing the field and rounding the corner, I headed up a steep incline, shifting to low gear and pumping the pedals hard. When I reached the top, I saw a large, three-storey, white compound. There were two suvs parked in the driveway, and a number of satellite dishes hanging off the roof. I switched to a higher gear while passing the locked gates and the guard sitting in front of them.

I continued until I came to a paved, two-lane road and a sign that announced my arrival at Manjai Kunda. My wandering had brought me further away from the Atlantic road than I intended, as MK is a suburb of Serrekunda, the largest city in the Gambia, which is several kilometers from where I want to be. I turned right onto the paved road, once again getting skimmed and honked at by agressive taxi drivers. I passed a number of mid-range apartment complexes, tailor shops, and stores selling Chinese knockoffs of Adidas and Puma shoes and clothes until I reached a gravel and tar road I knew to be the main highway of Kotu.

I took another side road, which once again led me to the main Atlantic road, near Maroun's supermarket. I had never been to this store, but had heard it was pretty upmarket, so I decided to take a break and see what was inside. Walking in, I noticed that the clientele was almost entirely white. I passed a chubby mustachioed man and his wife speaking in some Scandinavian-sounding language, and continued to the deli counter. They had cured meats from Spain, German sausages, dozens of types of cheese, and vats of olives, any of which a hundred grams would cost enough to feed an average Gambian family for a couple of days. My curiosity thus satisfied, I passed by a couple of young europeans men picking up a thirty pack of Heineken, greeted the cashier, and walked out the door.

Outside I hung a left down a sandy back street to distance myself once again from the Atlantic road. I found myself surrounded by little bar/restaurants catering mostly to tourists. One, called Mango Table, had a large mural that was obviously of a bumster and and older woman. Truth in advertising, at least. Continuing into Kololi, another step closer to Brusubi, the landscape changed to small hotels and nicely manicured compounds overflowing with bouganvillea. The road also became increasingly sandy, and I started having to walk stretches until I found patches of more solid ground. After slogging away for a mile or so, I came back out onto the Atlantic road at the Senegambia junction. Here, once again, I was surrounded by toubabs, overly tatooed, underly clothed, just shining examples of the high class and culture of the western world. I had to bike on the main road for a quarter mile or so, and then I plunged back into the uncertain tangle of sidestreets.

The next town to work my through was Bijilo, which is comprised of massive tourist hotels to the right of the road on the coast, and a fairly traditional, if well-to-do, Gambian town on the left side of the road. I worked my way through the increasingly sandy streets, avoiding gangs of boys playing enthusiastic games of soccer with improvised equipment literally every hundred meters or so. Sometimes they stopped to smile and brazenly ask for money or my bike in what little English they knew. I was polite to those who didn't beg. I ignored those who did. As I kept taking turns, I started to doubt if I was on the right track. I stopped to ask directions from a man sitting brewing attaya outside his compound, and got the standard suprised/amused reaction at request being made in Mandinka. He put me on the right track, but his manner, so frequent among people I meet in Kombo, was a bit grating to me. In village I could just have a conversation with friends without them having to make constant comments or give me advice on my language. Here, a toubab speaking Mandinka is still very much a novelty, and it makes me feel like a sideshow sometimes.

Finally, after dragging my bike through another mile or so of sand, I arrived at the roundabout known to locals as "the turntable." My house was just another few hundred meters away, and on paved roads, no less. I started my trip at around 3 PM. I looked at my phone, and it said 5:45. Almost three hours, which in a taxi takes about 15 minutes. Gambians don't really see time as money. Not yet, anyway. I am an American--I do. The ten dalasis be damned, I am taking a taxi.