For African villagers fame is a mixed blessing
One of the most potent influences on life style in general and homes and families in particular in these times is television. The case of ``Roots'' has become a kind of metaphor for this effect. Back in 1977, the TV dramatization of Alex Haley's book ``Roots'' drew 130 million Americans to their TV sets every night for a full week. An additional 30 million other people saw one of the 19 translations of the series. In his story, the black American author chronicled his family's passage from an ancestral home in West Africa to slavery to final freedom. The legend began with Haley's great-great-great-great-grandfather, Kunta Kinte of Juffure, one of the smallest villages in Africa's tiniest nation , The Gambia. In this article, the author looks at the changes TV has wrought for this tiny village.Skip to next paragraph
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A young boy in a yellow shirt grabbed my hand the moment I stepped from a boat onto the Albreda pier that leads to Juffure, a tiny West African village.
``My name is Doudou,'' he announced, as he shooed away other children reaching for my arm. ``I would like you to give me your pen and a sweet.''
This welcome contrasted greatly with that of the untouristed Juffure I visited back in 1977, just one week after ``Roots'' appeared on American television. The TV miniseries had not yet turned this village upside down.
But before long, Juffure would loom larger than life for many, becoming a national monument, an international curiosity, and a mecca for black Americans. For Juffure's 100 inhabitants, who watched their quiet peanut-cultivating community turn into West Africa's most overrated and overrun tourist attraction, the unsolicited fame has been a mixed blessing.
During my early 1977 visit to the village, I happened upon a boy named Pa Sarr, who carried none of the tourist tricks of Doudou. Pa Sarr was sitting in the shade of a huge silk cotton tree just beyond the pier. For hours I talked and walked with this gracious youngster, who asked for nothing, then ceremoniously gave me one of his hen's eggs when I left.
My encounter with Doudou was far different, and his simple request for pen and sweets brought to mind a worrisome story I'd heard about the children of Sri Lanka who abandoned their families when they found they could make more money waiting for tourists than working in their parents' fields.
This in mind, I truthfully explained to Doudou that I had no candy and that I needed my pen for my work. ``But I'd like very much to visit with you,'' I added.
Somewhat taken aback, Doudou paused, then very carefully, as if certain I'd misunderstood, he repeated his request. I explained again, and tried to ask him about Pa Sarr. But Doudou was undetourable. He told me he would accept money if I preferred to keep my pen, and for a full 15 minutes his solicitation prevailed. Finally, desperately, he groaned, ``If you will not at least give me your pen, I beg of you in the name of Allah to ask one of your friends to give me theirs.'' When I told him no once more,
he dropped my hand and said, ``I am very sorry, but since you will give me nothing, I must leave you.'' My hand was still damp from the warmth of his as I watched him slip his palm into that of one of my friends.
As much as Doudou probably dislikes being swept up in generalizations of Africa and its peoples as ``third world'' and ``primitive,'' I dislike being stereotyped as an American with nothing to give but my things. But what was I to expect in this tiny village of 100 inhabitants, which for nearly nine years has been inundated with Western tourists who ``must be very rich because they have cameras, new shoes, and enough money to travel''?