On September 29th, 1767 a 16 year old African male who had been kidnapped in the village of Juffure, Gambia, West Africa arrived in Annapolis, Maryland, USA. He was one of 98 Africans who had spent 86 days of a brutal trans Atlantic voyage in the filthy hold of a ship, the Lord Ligonier. When the ship left the Gambia on July 5th there were 140 captured Africans in its hold. When it arrived in Annapolis Maryland 86 days later 42 Africans had died from the horror of that journey. Further misery awaited those captive Africans on arrival in America when they were separated and sold. On October 1st 1767 an advertisement in the Maryland Gazette advised white Marylanders that there would be a sale of the captured Africans on the following Wednesday, October 7th.
On September 29th 1967, two hundred years later a 46 year old African American male stood at the site where the Lord Ligonier had docked in 1767 and wept. He was the great-great-great-great-grandson of the 16 year old who had been captured in Juffure, Gambia and landed in Annapolis on September 19th 1767. Alex Haley described that moment in September 29th 1967 as the most emotional moment of his life. He had been on a quest for several years to discover his family’s African “roots.” As one of the more fortunate African families in the Diaspora, Haley’s extended family contained griots who relayed the knowledge, the stories of the family’s history to seven successive generations over a few hundred years. From Kunta Kinte (the 16 year kidnapped in Juffure, Gambia) to Alex Haley, some seven generations in America remembered words and phrases that helped in the search that eventually led to the publication of the ground breaking “Roots: The Saga of an American Family” that was published in 1976.
With the publication of “Roots: The Saga of an American Family,” Alex Haley brought the world’s attention to the fact that Africans in the Diaspora specifically African Americans have a direct connection with the African continent. The name Kunta Kinte became known in every household that possessed television during the eight day period 23-30 of January 1977 when Haley’s book was converted to the television miniseries “Roots.” Americans of all stripes watched the painful “conversion” of the African Kunta Kinte to “Toby” and his family’s morphing into Americans. A veritable who’s who of African American actors brought the fascinating story of one African man’s sojourn in America to life. Life in Africa, the lives the Africans led during their enslavement in America was brought into the homes of all Americans via television for eight days in January 1977. Many Africans in the Diaspora felt the urge to trace their ancestry back to Africa. Not many were as fortunate as Haley, my aunt’s husband born in Guyana, tried tracing his African ancestry but since the only information he had was his last name (McLeod) which is not an African name his search ended in Barbados, he was happy to find some relatives.
Most Americans had never heard of the Gambia before Alex Haley’s book was published and made into a successful television miniseries. Since the success of Haley’s book and the subsequent miniseries Juffure became a tourist attraction for African Americans and other Africans in the Diaspora. Haley’s book was translated into 37 languages and 6 million copies were sold in the hard cover version with millions more sold in paperback. Africans and non-Africans worldwide have read Haley’s book which has led to the popularity of the Roots Homecoming Festival in the Gambia. In 1996, the International Roots Homecoming Festival was instituted and Africans from the Diaspora travel to the Gambia for this summer celebration.
Today, in the 21st century, the Republic of the Gambia which gained its independence from Britain on February 18th, 1965 is a developing country recovering from years of colonization. The Gambia is one of the smallest countries in Africa, roughly 4,000 square miles with a population of approximately one and a half (1.5) million making it the fourth most densely populated country on the African continent. Most of the labour force of the Gambia (75%) work in the agricultural field as farmers. Manufacturing, which accounts for approximately 5.5% of the labour force is primarily agriculturally based. Tourism may be booming (employing 5% of the labour force) but does not do much for the farmers who are the mainstay of the country’s economy. The farmers live in villages in rural areas where many of them struggle to make a living with outdated and inadequate farming equipment. Many of the farmers are women who have to walk distances to fetch water because of lack of wells to provide clean drinking water in their villages.
A group of University of Toronto students in collaboration with farmers in the Gambia have founded an organization to assist the farmers in the Gambia. Two of the students were born in the Gambia, but unlike Alex Haley’s celebrated ancestor Kunta Kinte they did not arrive in North America in the hold of a ship, they came by airplane. Lamin Jarju who holds a B. A and Bakary Gibba who has a B. A an M. A. and is a Senior PhD candidate at the University of Toronto are passionate about the work they are doing to assist the farmers of The Gambia. This dedicated group of volunteers which includes Trinidadian born Paula Budhall Jarju also a University of Toronto graduate (B. A, M. A) are seeking the assistance of Canadians in their quest to help the farmers in villages similar to the village in which Alex Haley’s ancestor was born. The Penyem Jamorai Relief Organization is dedicated to bettering the lot of the people who live in the Gambia, one village at a time. I interviewed the members on CKLN 88.1 FM and was impressed with their enthusiasm and dedication to this project. On their web site www.pjro.net the group describes their organization.
“The Penyem Jamorai Relief Organization is a non-profit relief organization with headquarters in Toronto Canada, that aims to help the rural farmers of Africa with food, medicine, and clothing to individuals, children and families who lack these essentials due to famine, and poverty. PJRO is dedicated to providing food to the agrarian people and creating sustainable development. A key goal is to help needy families move past needing help and into becoming self-sufficient members of their community, through long-term, self-help development programs. PRJO is a Canadian non-governmental organization (NGO) with the desire to helping the poor rural agrarian communities in the Gambia West Africa to attain sustainable livelihoods. Working, in partnership with the rural villagers to attain self-reliance in food production and clean drinking water.”
The members of the organization in Toronto can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, 416.406.1045 or Penyem Jamorai Relief Organization, 10 Boultbee Avenue, Unit 1010, Toronto, Ontario, M4J 1A6
Written in September 2007