If you’ve been longing to take your first trip to Africa, or to make a return trip, you can do so in a spectacular way at the start of the New Year with a visit to the Republic of The Gambia for that country’s tenth annual International Roots Festival. The Gambia, that tiny West African country known as “the smiling coast of Africa,” will definitely be smiling during this festival, which has been gaining momentum each year.
Set to take place from Feb. 4 through 11, Roots 2011 offers an excellent opportunity to heal — or to begin to heal — the wounds of slavery and, by extension, further promote peace and a better understanding of diversity throughout the world. This is a good time for people of African descent to experience the continent of Africa, confront the physical past and glimpse the horizon of a brighter future. Indeed, it is a time when the African Diaspora can go to their ancestral home to rediscover and reaffirm their African heritage and unite with their ancestral family.
“For over four hundred years, our people have been separated by the results of the African Holocaust (trans-Atlantic Slave Trade), and the legacy of colonization has kept us at odds with our true history, identity, cultural traditions while preventing unity and growth amongst African people and the African continent,” The Ministry of Tourism and Culture says in an official statement. “The Roots Homecoming Festival commemorates the enforced enslavement and transportation of millions of Africans to the Americas, The Caribbean Islands and Britain. Let your resolution be ‘I am homecoming to Africa next year.’ ”
During the five days of festivities, visitors get to immerse themselves in the country’s exciting music concerts, cultural jamborees, carnival fun, parades, craft markets and authentic African cuisine. There’s even an opportunity to witness traditional rituals, such as the “fatampaf” (rites of passage) ceremony in the home village of Gambian President Alhaji Dr. Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh. “The International Roots Festival affords us the golden opportunity to share with our brothers and sisters from the Diaspora the richness and the unity in diversity of The Gambia’s cultural heritage,” President Jammeh says in a message on the festival’s Web site. “Above all, the festival provides for further strengthening of the bonds of kinship and unity that bind us together as Africans, as well as providing the unique platform to discuss our common problems and share our experiences as a people.”
The smallest country on Africa’s mainland, The Gambia is bounded on the north, east and south by Senegal, with 50 miles of coastline on the Atlantic Ocean. Less than 30 miles wide at its widest point, this long, narrow country that appears to be swallowed by Senegal mirrors the meandering Gambia River in shape, hence its nickname “the Tongue of West Africa.” The country may be small, but it is definitely one with the most diverse influences on the continent. Gambians are known for their traditional vibrant music and dance forms. The rich cultural heritage of the country makes for an excellent tourism experience.
Festival participants will get to visit Juffureh, the ancestral home of Alex Haley, African-American author of Roots, the classic book in which Haley traces his origins back to Gambia. The book was turned into a popular television mini-series. There will also be tours to other places of historical and cultural significance, including Fort James Island in the Gambia River, where you can still see the remains of a fort where Africans were held captive before they were forcibly put on slave ships to embark on their journey to the Western Hemisphere. James Island and other historic sites located along the Gambia River collectively mark the first African-European trade route leading inland into Africa, as well as the beginning and conclusion of the West African slave trade.
The Gambia shares historical roots with many other West African nations in terms of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, conducted first by the Portuguese and later by the British, from the 15th through 17th centuries. Deep and navigable, the Gambia River made the area one of the most profitable sites for the slave trade. Research shows that at the height of the trade in the 17th century some 5,000 to 6,000 slaves were transported from The Gambia each year. Although the British abolished slavery in 1833, the practice continued until after the turn of the 20th century. Of the more-than 20 million people estimated to have been captured and transported out of Africa during the three centuries of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, as many as three million may have been taken from The Gambia and the surrounding region.
An agriculturally rich country, The Gambia’s economy is dominated by farming, fishing and tourism. Since gaining independence from Britain in 1965, The Gambia has been a relatively stable country. It is an excellent place to experience the diversities of African culture and traditions. Many visitors are drawn by the luxurious resorts along the country’s Atlantic coast. However, if you’re looking for a vacation that includes eco-tourism, bird-watching and a safari, you can certainly find it in The Gambia.
So why not plan to visit for the 2011 International Roots Festival as a winter-escape vacation? Everyone with roots in Africa and all who are interested in learning about Africa and its Diaspora are invited to attend and take part in the festivities. For more information about The Gambia and the 2011 International Roots Festival, including day-to-day details of the celebrations, visit www.rootsgambia.gm.