Big Read: ROOTS - Kunta Kinteh at 30
Monday, June 09, 2008
(1976: the Year of Soweto's youth and the beginning of the end for Apartheid)
A personal appreciation
by Dida Halake, Daily Observer, 2006,
"Dwell on the past and you lose an eye;
forget the past and you lose both eyes"
This book, with the blessings of Allah, is responsible for the lives of Hassan Kah-Halake, Jainaba Jallow-Halake and little Hassan Jallow-Halake, my three beautiful Gambian children. Similarly, it is also responsible for "HassanKunda" compound in Kotu, "Al-Hassan Library" at Kotu Senior School and "Al-Hassan Madrassa" in Mandinari. It is also responsible presently, in 2008, for the work that I do as the MD and editor-in-chief of the Daily Observer in The Gambia. Yes indeed, just a book bought off the shelf in a Scottish University bookshop in 1977, and then taught in my London school in 1992, brought me to The Gambia for the first time in 1993 . and the rest, as they say, is history.
Like many of us Africans, I have had a spiritual meeting with Alex Haley, although I never met him in person while he was alive. The 1950s, 1960s and 1970s can fairly be described as decades of Black Renaissance and people like Haley shown a torch in the path that many of us tried to follow most willingly.
As a school-boy Librarian in Nairobi in 1975, I ordered and read Alex Haley's mind-blowing Autobiography of Malcolm X - which, with the writings of Frantz Fanon and Steve Biko, firmly established the route my intellectual development, and community education career, has taken during the past 30 years. My first reading of ROOTS the book was in 1977, but my first real experience of the story was in 1978 when British TV dramatized it. It was from ROOTS that I learnt the importance of the above Russian proverb above as it applies across African societies - listen to Haley the Griot:
"A famous Moro was to visit their village . five of his students were with him, each carrying bundles that Kunta knew would contain treasured Arabic books . first he read from the Koran, then from unheard of books such as Taureta La Musa, the Zabora Dawidi and the Lingeeli la Isa . . . The past seemed with the present, the present with the future; the dead with the living and those yet to be born; he himself with his family, his mates, his village, his tribe, his Africa; the world of animals and growing things - they all lived with Allah. Kunta felt very small, yet very large. Perhaps, he thought, this is what it means to be a man". ROOTS p.104/105
"Perhaps he thought, this is what it means to be a man" - or, perhaps, this is what it means to be rooted in the continuum of a human society.
The tragedy of much of Africa and the Black Diaspora today is that the specifically European practice of slavery and colonialism shattered so violently that continuum; that "oneness" with one's past, with one's present, with one's society, with one's God; ultimately that sense of being at one with one's SELF. Reading at the same time a history of my own Ethiopian-Kenyan Oromo people entitled GADA: three approaches to the study of an African society by Dr. Asmarom Legesse, I became very aware of the need for us Africans to understand and appreciate our past histories, cultures and traditions as we face a new future in a Global Village dominated by MacDonalds, CNN, Will Smith and Hip-Hop.
The other day I sneaked-up on my two and a half year old daughter Jainaba with a video camera as she sat in the Bantaba imitating her grandfather's prayer recitation: "Allahu Akbar!" she shouted at the top of her voice . just as her ancestors have done in this part of Africa for a thousand years . then she distributed the Zakat! Whenever I get the urge to bring Jainaba to the UK, I watch that short video clip on my computer and get re-assured that my determination to have her growing up in The Gambia is absolutely correct.
Kunta's response to the biblical stories told by his teachers in this western corner of Africa is no different to that which we grew up with in the Horn of Africa. Our connections to the world of the prophets is such that I called my father "Abba" - not in the biblical religious sense but because it is the only word for father amongst my Oromo people. Reading GADA excited me in the same way that Alex Haley was moved when he met a Gambian diplomat at the UN while researching ROOTS and discovered that the word "bolong" meant "river".
Suddenly he linked his slave ancestors and their stories about "bolong" to a specific place in the world, suddenly he found his "roots". Of course, I was born into my people and lived amongst them for 7 years, but refugeenisation and subsequent European miss-education meant that I was alienated from my own history and cultural background by the time I became an adult. In the pages of GADA the name Dida seemed to be the most common amongst the historical individuals mentioned and even an area called "Dida Galgallu Desert" was on one of the maps in the book. Wow! It blew my mind just as the word "bolong" below Alex Haley's mind when he spoke to a Gambian diplomat at the UN in New York.
I was a student in Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1978 sharing a Pan-Africanist flat with two other African students, one an Igbo from Port Harcourt and the other an "Americo-Liberian" from Monrovia. The Igbo areas happened to be one of the main slave exporting centres of Nigeria and Liberia happened to be one of the two places in West Africa where freed-slaves were returned - hence the "Americo-Liberian" identity.
At our College we were quite political and very involved in radicalizing other African students to support the African struggles for freedom both in the then Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and in the then racist Apartheid South Africa. I was thrust to the forefront of all of these as the African Students' Representative on the Student's Union Executive (an old Scottish newspaper cutting remains to remind me that we fought for basic things like housing too).
The Rhodesian student ("Zimbabwe!" he would shout to anyone who called his country after the hated Englishman) was an amazing character. He was the only one from amongst our group who enjoyed beer (thanks to British civilization, the African countries they settled such as Kenya, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Uganda are the most violent, most alcoholic and consequently Aids-ridden ones in Africa today - rather odd that BBC's Focus on Africa never mentions this fact of British civilization!).
My Zimbabwean friend's reaction to the dramatization of ROOTS on British TV remains vivid in my mind to this day. Whenever ROOTS came on TV, he became deadly silent and totally glued to the TV set and remained so until the programme ended. At the end, he was so emotionally charged that any discussion of what we had just seen seemed impossible.
In African countries like The Gambia, which thanks to the hated mosquito remained un-grabbed by Europeans and survived the worst of European colonialism, people will find it difficult to understand why Mugabe and Mandela would rather die than compromise with the settlers and their governments in Europe - in ROOTS they had to cut off Kunta Kinte's foot before he would agree to be called by the slave-master's given name of "Toby".
But what Kunta Kinte and his kind were fighting so hard to safeguard, our cultural heritage and African identity, many of his descendants seem too embarrassed to claim nowadays. One of the things we lose very quickly, whether it is our young people at home or adults living in Europe and America, is the self-respect and dignity that we learnt early at our mothers feet whether growing up in the Kenyan highlands or the Fulani heartlands of Guinea's Futa Jallon:
". displaying the dignity and self-command that his mother had taught him were the proudest traits of the Mandinka tribe" ROOTS, p. 21
Because we wish to imitate Will Smith and Eddie Murphy who shout and scream like lunatics in the "Prince of Bel Air" and "Police Academy", we forget the dignity and respect of our cultures and behave in the same manner infront of our elders. But it is not my intention to blame young people for going astray. Another Russian proverb says that "A fish rots from the head down". If young people go astray, it is because of the lack of proper guidance from their elders.
Ten years ago, while I was running Mandela Supplementary School in Notting Hill for 100 African and Caribbean students, a local school head-teacher sent a student to ask if she could borrow my set of ROOTS videos to use in her school. I wrote her a note asking "In what context do you intend to use the videos?" I know it sounded very unreasonable of me, but I remembered my Zimbabwean friend's reaction all those years ago when in ROOTS he simply saw "the evil that white people were doing to black people".
That is not what ROOTS is about, but it is quite easy for people, and especially young people, to see it that way when seen out of context. As a teacher, I have always tried to ensure that my pupils do not adopt a "victim mentality", especially in relation to racism. I have equally had long arguments with the main Black newspaper in London, The Voice, which always seems to put horrific things happening to Blacks in Britain on the front-page. I am aware of deaths and violence against Blacks (think of dead Stephen Lawrence and Gambian Sey amongst countless others) but I don't want to see headlines week after week showing the racism Black Londoners are suffering because this reinforces a victim mentality.
The millions of Africans and Diaspora Blacks struggling in the West to maintain their families back home in Africa and the Caribbean are, to me, success stories. When I see an African sweeping Victoria Station in London, I am aware that his salary is likely to be feeding and educating a dozen members of his family back home in Africa.
He is a success story, not a failure because he is doing menial work. ROOTS the book and ROOTS the movie must be seen in this light: as a success story of a whole nation, the African-American people; a success story of survival and achievement against overwhelming odds, because that is exactly what the author set out to write (Kunta Kinte's heroic struggle against slavery and de-humanization paved the way for Condy Rice to become Secretary of State and for Baraka Obama to vie for US Presidency - as surely as night follows day, even if Ms Rice may not wish to acknowledge it!).
ROOTS the movie is very misleading for us Africans - because the movie was made for a Western mainly-white audience. Whereas the first one hundred and forty-nine (149) pages of the book is entirely about Kunta's life IN Africa, the movie jumps into the conflict between black and white within TWO minutes or so of the start. That is good drama for white folk, but it totally undermines the message of the first one hundred and forty-nine pages of the book - which is, I repeat, all about Africa, Africans and African culture.
The first one hundred and forty-nine pages of Alex Haley's ROOTS is a historical testament to African tradition and culture. To this end the book opens with a most powerful sentence:
"Early in the spring of 1750, in the village of Juffure, four days upriver from the coast of The Gambia, West Africa, a man-child was born to Omoro and Binta Kinte".
Leaving aside the fact that we can do the journey to Juffure in a couple of hours today, this first sentence describes the most important event in all human-life; and from the beginning of the book sets out to describe a highly organized and civilized human-society; a society that is "at one with itself". On the eighth day after the birth of the man-child, the villagers gathered at the home of the new parents to welcome a new person into their midst and named him Kunta, after his Mauritanian grandfather. The father Omoro was most proud of his son, and invited everyone in the village to the naming ceremony and at the important moment whispered the name "Kunta" into the boy's ears for:
". Omoro's people believed that each human being should be the first to know who he was".
Wow! All of us who have named our own children know first hand the pride and the joy that Alex Haley is describing here. As such, these first parts of ROOTS become a social commentary and a historical document for us. Besides which, inspite of the rigours of life and the struggle for everyday survival, it should remind us to value the life of each individual in our society.
Those who criticize Africans for being "out of the office" to attend numerous naming ceremonies and funerals fail to appreciate the love and respect Africans afford their kin-folk, young and old. Maybe we have our priorities the right way round. In England the young are so busy accumulating wealth that they have no time for their elders.
They send their "pensioners" to one-foot-in-the-grave hotels, euphemistically called "Old People's Homes"! By way of contrast, I can affirm that my 85-year-old neighbour in Mandinari has a habit of walking around with a machete cutting branches off his mango and orange trees. Haley gives us minute descriptions of life based around the village gardens:
"The size of each woman's plot was decided each year by Juffure's Council of Elders".
When my mother-in-law came to live in Mandinari from Basse, the Alkalo gave her a plot on which to build a house for her family and a garden to farm. This is what Dr. Nyerere of Tanzania termed Ujamaa (African Socialism) and it ran through all African societies. The tragedy of today's Africa where millions of Aids orphans live in rubbish tips like animals shows how far some parts of Africa, such as Kenya, have lost a culture where:
". fatherless boys got special privileges under the forefathers laws. Such a boy could start following closely behind any man, and the man would never object to sharing whatever he had" ROOTS p.62
As a society we would do well to remember and cherish our African culture of sharing the little that Allah has blessed us with. If I remember correctly, it was Gambia's own Father Cleary who said many years ago that "we have enough for everyone's need, but we don't have enough for everyone's greed".
Chapter 3 of ROOTS describes the failure of the rainy season, the hunger and the people's prayer to Allah. Failure of the rains leads to hunger and starvation to which the young and the old are normally the first to succumb. As a child, I recall a newly born sister passing away in the middle of the night and the sadness of this infant's departure was captured in the sad but gently dignified sobs of the women.
Even as a five-year old, I lay quietly in the darkness of the African village suppressing my emotions; just as I did forty years later when the father of a dead Gambian infant sat in dignified silence next to Imam Fatty and myself on the ferry to Barra - with the small bundle neatly wrapped in a blanket laid at our feet. The tragedy of infant mortality is something that is unfamiliar to those of us living in Fajara, Kotu and European cities but still remains common in villages across our continent.
It is with tremendous gratitude that I appreciate President Jammeh's utter commitment to the mushrooming health centres across The Gambia - and the simple but life-saving efforts at enabling all mothers of young children to obtain impregnated mosquito nets (just imagine the number of children's lives saved by this simple act).
When the villagers' prayers are answered, and the heavy rains impregnate the land, the result is green lushness and abundance; happiness, singing and joy throughout the land:
". the village rang again with the yelling and laughing of children after the long hungry season".
The season of plenty brought joy and happiness all around and everyone was at peace.
Education of the young was taken very seriously and began very early in life, first at the feet of mothers and grandmothers through practical lessons and stories, then from older siblings who passed on what they had learnt from their fathers, and finally from the village elders, warriors and griots who were depositories of the tribes knowledge, history and wisdom:
"When a Griot dies", wrote Alex Haley, "it is as if a library has burned to the ground"
A bit of an overstatement since no Griot, by definition, ever died without passing on their knowledge to the next generation; but the point is made of the importance of the griots and elders as keepers of the society's wisdom, history and culture. The Arafang, teacher, was strict and expected the young men in his charge to take their education very seriously:
". the Arafang warned them that as long as they attended his classes anyone who made so much as a sound, unless asked to speak, would get more of the rod .he brandished it fiercely at them" ROOTS p.30 .
The adults took the task of educating their youngsters very seriously. Of course, we are becoming a book and internet society and more and more of social history and culture is now preserved and passed on in these new forms (ROOTS itself is now a historical document for African people, both at home and in the Diaspora). Again, I must express my delight at the strides The Gambia has made in the education sector during the last decade.
To Alex Haley we must say a big "Thank You". He paid a heavy price in his own personal life to give us ROOTS. We, on our part, should strive to cherish our history and keep what we can of our African cultures, accepting change as part of human existence and evolution.
"When deeply rooted, one is prepared for every opening; or as Aimé Césaire expresses it, porous to all the breathings of the world".
I would end, therefore, by recommending to the Department of State for Education that the first 149 pages of ROOTS should be adopted for school study as part of the history curriculum, bearing in mind the Russian proverbs warnings about forgetting our past.