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Up the Gambia river to find the Roots

Hanna at the docks in Banjul, Gambia, on the lookout for her Roots!

There’s no doubt in my mind what has been the most soul-stirring part of our wonderful Song Safari to Gambia. Travelling up the Gambia river in search of my daughter Hanna’s slave roots…
Do I hear a few grumbles here? Hanna’s slave roots in Gambia?

Well, your scepticism is justified, Hanna slave-roots are not in Gambia, they are in Benin, but never have I been so close to them as the day when we took the boat up the Gambia river and visited Jufureh, Kunta Kinte’s roots, and greeted his family still living there.
Meeting Kunta Kinte's relatives

The memorial in Jufureh
Spotting Jufureh from the boat. 

Let’s take it from the beginning;
I have searched Johannas roots and found something astonishing; Johanna’s (this is easier in Swedish:) mormorsmormorsmorfarsmormorsmormorsmormor’s name was Koddo and she was a slave arriving in Cape Town on the 6th of May 1658 on the slaveship Hasselt. She came from Popo in what today is Benin. The 220 slaves on the ship were described as “goodlooking, strong and energetic” by the Commander of the Cape Jan van Riebeck. (If you want more on this see this blog-post.) 
On the way to Kunta Kinte Island
In some of the sources I have accessed it seemed like van Riebeck’s statement applied to Koddo personally, which made me suspect him to be the father of Koddo’s daughter Lijsbeth... The fact that white South Africans who proudly draw their heritage from the early Cape settlement also with few if any exceptions have roots among the slaves is a story that soon faded from the official tale. Now is the time to remember and celebrate.

Hanna on the boat to Kunta Kinte Island

All the others on the list of slaves from Hasselt were called by European names; Anna von Guinea, Maria von Guinea, Oude Hans von Guinea and so on. Koddo stands out as the only one with an African name. 
That makes me think about one of the strongest episodes of Alex Haley's book "Roots", where the author traces his own roots from the little Gambian village Jufure which still today looks a lot like it did in Kunta’s time. The old mighty Baobab trees defining its skyline were there already in the time of Kunta. The American slave-owner who bought Kunta wanted to stop him from using his real name and adopt his slave-name. He slashes the whip across Kuntas naked back and asks him what his name is: "Kunta Kinte", comes the answer. He lets the whip fly even more furiously over his blood-red back and asks again what his name is. Kunta Kinte still answers with his name. His rage then totally overpowers him, he flogs Kunta long and hard, turning his back to slices of red, raw meat, whips him even longer and harder, to the point that he gets afraid of losing his asset and then asks again for his name. With almost his last breath Kunta answers, defeated, broken in; "Toby". No more a man, an object, a slave.
But Koddo kept her name. She whispered her name even after that last whip was silent.
Her name Koddo, is that last gasp of breath from the African spirit that never died. It is the wind of freedom that could not be stopped. Now Hanna and I whisper it, as we kneel in front of representatives of Kunta’s family who still live in Jufureh, we speak it out loudly and proudly as we walk through Kunta’s village, we sing it as we connect with the grand tradition of Hanna’s African roots.
On the island of Kunta Kinte.
We will keep singing Koddo’s praises, as we honour the great African Matriarch of our family. And may we never as a Family of Man forget the stories of slavery, as that legacy still defines how the world looks and works today. Let the Spirit of Koddo and Kunta lead us to a new appreciation of our common roots, our togetherness on the path and our one goal.

Leaving Kunta Kinte Island


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