For African villagers fame is a mixed blessing

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.''

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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''?

Since the televising of ``Roots,'' some 20,000 foreigners a year have visited the once-obscure nation of Gambia, which points like a slim finger into the western side of Senegal. More than a third of them ventured to the hot backwater village of Juffure -- plying up the sleepy Gambia River, which stretches the length of the country, or trekking over dusty red roads to get there. Displaying, spending, or sharing their relative wealth, these outsiders unwittingly heightened the sense of relative pov erty among locals and spawned a profitable begging business. Competition for the attention and ``gifts'' of foreigners encumbered the daily work of this farming community and gradually ate away at village cohesion. Rivalry became so intense that villagers finally voted to ban individual begging and appointed a man to be in charge of what they call the ``black box'' -- a general collection container whose proceeds are distributed or spent according to the dictates of the village council. The box has curbed b eggary, but it hasn't halted it.

Tourists have been particularly fascinated by the elderly Binta Kinte, who is a direct descendant of Kunta Kinte and the wife of the griot (oral historian) whose tale linked the lives of those two men. Binta's family has built a large grass shade in the courtyard of its compound to accommodate visitors. New arrivals come there and wait for Binta to emerge from her mud house. Out she steps, a bent and skinny queen, holding forth a gourd bowl with the word ``cash'' written in its belly. Although the man with the black box instructs tourists not to give to Binta, the old woman continues to carry her calabash and successfully corners visitors for handouts. Like Doudou and others who solicit on the sly, she is greatly disgruntled when people decline to give.

Such events can be disconcerting to romantic visitors expecting outback African villages to be pristine oases uncluttered with consumer values. Alex Haley himself was greatly dismayed when he returned to Juffure in 1981 after a three-year absence. He came to offer funding for building a new mosque in the village. Speaking for the community, Bakaryding Taal, who is the village alcala, or headman, responded that yes, they would be happy to have the mosque -- and actually they would like even more. After all, they had had a poor peanut harvest that year and certainly Mr. Haley, as a son of Juffure and a man greatly blessed by Allah, would not wish his African family to be in need. It was as if the American had offered his shirt and the Africans had said yes, then asked for a new suit to go with it. (Ironically, they never even got the shirt. The builder who was contracted to construct the mosque laid the foundation, then disappeared, reportedly absconding with the balance of Haley's gift.)

As I walked through that village and more children approached me, I began to wonder if the increased asking among these people was more than an indication of inflated greed on their part. Was it not also a reflection of a glaring gap between their meager material possessions and the vast ones in my corner of the world? Were they asking more vigorously only because, in the face of much wealth, it seems logical for them to ask? In many places in Africa there is a deep-seated tradition of sharing, of mutua l reliance among people, particularly within the extended family. Despite vast changes on this continent, it remains a place where the idea of ``we'' supersedes the notion of ``I.'' Sharing is such an integral part of the social system that takers rarely offer a thank you and givers rarely expect one. Most Juffure villagers were stunned to the point of anger when Binta began hoarding her personal gains. To the upwardly mobile African, the social obligation to share can be terribly frustrating, for if one h as a lucrative job, it is not at all unusual to be surrounded by family and friends who firmly believe, ``What's yours is mine.'' It is nearly impossible to surge ahead economically if you have a whole entourage of dependents hanging onto your coattails. But the traditional goal is to move along together, however slowly.

There are definite collective gains that have been made in Juffure over the past decade. Demba Taal, relative of the alcala, spoke to me of the positive growth that has come for his people through increased contact with the world beyond their riverbanks. This seasoned gentleman, dressed in a long brown gown, joined me as I sauntered through the village. ``Do you want to visit my house?'' he asked. When I hesitated for a moment, he laughed and commented, ``Come, come. There is time. There is always time. ''

So we walked along the narrow, dusty paths between the grass and corrugated metal fences that mark the compounds of various families. Soon he stopped to lift the latch of a metal gate in one of the fences. On the other side was a small dirt courtyard and Demba's modest mud home. He led me into the tidy, 12-by-12-foot dwelling furnished with an aluminium chair, a double bed, and a bureau topped with many photographs of his wife and other family members. Overhead a few pieces of clothing hung like flags from twisted wooden rafters. Demba offered me the chair, and standing there he began to talk about the changes he had seen in Juffure.

``Before the tourists came, we had no water pump, no clean water, no electricity, no metal roofs and doors, no decent road to connect us with the rest of our country. Now we have these things, and also a special box for our donations. A village council of eight people, all elected by us, decides the use, and the chief keeps the book from the bank. The money is used for what we need to make our Muslim society -- for developing our school, for getting seeds for our agriculture. These are important gains f or us. On the negative side, we have more arguing and people are often dissatisfied. But our possibilities in life are greater now, so overall the changes are good.''

Talking with Demba, I learned that Pa Sarr, the youngster who had shown me such a fine day eight years ago, was now downriver finishing his last year of high school in the capital city of Banjul. His world, like that of everyone else in Juffure, was now larger. And therefore his choices were also wider. I found myself hoping that he would choose well, that he would not give up the best of his people's ways to adopt indiscriminately the values of another people's culture.

For there are things in Pa and Doudou's world to be held onto, protected -- most of all the powerful sense of we. Despite individual limits, a collective logic and beauty are inherent in the conviction that we are meant to share what we have.

This was brought home to me in a video clip about the drought that has been burning its way across Africa. One section showed three little children in a refugee camp eating porridge out of one bowl with two spoons. The two spoons rotated between those three little hands as naturally as the moon moves around the earth. The scene made me realize that the most stunning thing about the drought may not be that so many lives have been lost, but that so many people have survived on so little, because of the ri gorous principle of sharing. In this regard, Africa may well be first-world.

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