From Houston to Sydney 2013

West Africa



One of the downsides of Gambia’s relatively well developed infrastructure is, paradoxically, the increased difficulty in arranging visits to places that show everyday life in the country.  There are certain standard places to which tourists are taken that reflect Gambians’ perception of what foreign visitors wish to see – crocodile farms, monkey zoos, beaches, boats for deep sea sports fishing, and the like.  Getting into a typical Gambian village is almost impossible – unless the village is seen as being ‘special’ in some way.

Juffureh is such a village.

The tiny village of Juffureh has a population of just 1500 people, and is situated about 50 kilometres east-south-east of Banjul on the northern (opposite) side of the Gambia River.  It became world famous back in the 1970s with the publication of Alex Haley’s book “Roots” which describes the capture and subsequent transportation 200 years ago of Kunta Kinte, a man who Alex Haley believed was his ancestor.

There is some doubt whether or not Kunta Kinte was really Alex Haley’s ancestor, and there is further doubt that Kunta Kinte actually came from Juffureh.  Neither of these doubts, which are well documented, was mentioned during today’s visit; the story has obviously been beneficial both for Haley and Juffureh .  In recent years, quite an industry seems to have developed in Juffureh as a result of Haley’s book.  Apart from the number of visitors, however, Juffureh was indeed a fairly typical Gambian village, so it had a dichotomous appeal to me – being simultaneously typical and atypical.

I joined two other guests from the hotel and met our guide, Lamin, at 8:00 am this morning.  We drove through Serrekunda to the jetty in Banjul, a drive that took 50 minutes – much to Lamin’s concern as our ferry boat was due to leave at 9:00 am sharp.  He needn’t have worried; it finally departed at 9:45 am – which is 9:00 am African time.  Meanwhile, we spent our time waiting for departure by staring at several depressingly half-sunken boats beside the jetty. 

The trip upriver took two hours.  We shared the ferry with about 80 other passengers, and the trip was fairly unremarkable.  The Gambia River is between 8 and 15 kilometres wide in the section where we were travelling, so our views of the riverbanks were limited to distant thin lines of trees that mark the banks the whole way.  There was brief excitement when we saw some dolphins swimming beside the boat, but otherwise it was a trip to be endured rather than enjoyed apart from the very welcome breeze that blew through the ferry throughout the voyage.

At 11:45 am, we finally arrived at the long concrete pier at Albreda, Juffureh’s neighbouring village (of 1400 people) that separates Juffureh from the river.  Albreda was quite a pretty village, with several colourful fishing boats anchored in the river and an old French trading house that has been recently restored to such an extent that it looks like a brand new Disney re-creation.

A short walk of a few hundred metres brought us to the boundary between Albreda and Juffureh, marked by a huge tree that is used as the location for local circumcisions.  After receiving quite a detailed commentary about one distinctive branch that was shaped like an elephant’s head on one side and a monkey riding … well, a tree branch … on the other side, we walked into Juffureh.

In most ways, Juffureh was indeed unremarkable.  Like most Mandinka (aka Mandingo) villages, it comprised a collection of mud brick houses with thatched roofs clustered around a few dirt tracks among the baobab trees.  The main visual difference was the large number of groups of children standing in gates or beside fences, singing or chanting in the hope of getting a handout of some kind.

After walking past a small school where the children were lined up (for the duration of our visit – a couple of hours!) to clap hands and sing songs to encourage donations, we entered the compound of a small museum dedicated to the history of slavery in Gambia.  The interior display was clear, explanatory, small and simple, and in the outdoor section of the compound a miniature sailing ship had been assembled to which visitors were invited to look into an even tinier mock up of the slaves’ deck.  Despite the simplicity of the museum, I think all the visitors came away with a good understanding of the basic points of the Gambian slave trade.

Leaving the museum, we had to perform an important duty of etiquette.  Anyone visiting a Gambian village must pay respects to the village chief, who in turn accepts the responsibility for the visitor’s welfare while in the village.  Juffureh is a little unusual in having a female chief, an animated 75 years old lady who accepted the role of chief in 1994.

After paying our respects to the chief, we were then taken to another compound to be introduced to a couple of Kunta Kinte’s supposed descendants.  The most important of the descendants was the sister of the now-deceased Binde Kinte, someone whom to my shame I had never heard of, but who I gather was well known because of “Roots”.

And that was about it for our visit to Juffureh.  We walked back to the river past the singing children and through a small market selling wooden carvings, and re-boarded our ferry where a buffet lunch was served.  After a little while, the engines started and we sailed out to a small island about two kilometres from the riverbank, which was in many ways the most interesting part of the day.

Due to the shallowness of the river, it wasn’t possible for our ferry to pull up to the small jetty on the island.  We anchored a few hundred metres offshore and transferred to a small pirogue to get to the island.

The original name of the island was given by the Portuguese; St Andrew’s Island.  It was re-named James Island by the British when they occupied it in the mid-1600s, and it continued to be known as James Island until 2011 when Michael Jackson’s brother, Jermaine Jackson, suggested it be re-named Kunta Kinte Island.  The Gambian Government apparently liked the suggestion, and the name was changed officially on 6th February 2011.

The history of Juffureh might be open to question, but the history of the island is unambiguous.  Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the island was the site of Fort James, built in 1651 by the Latvians and used from 1661 by Britain as an important slave trading post. Fort James was Britain’s first imperial exploit in Africa.

Fort James is now in ruins, partly the result of an explosion in an ammunitions store room and partly the result of undercutting by fluvial erosion of the island by the waters of the Gambia River; the island is now said to be a quarter of its size when it was being used as a slave trading post.

After an all too short time on James Island – sorry, Kunta Kinte Island – it was time to take the pirogue back to the ferry, and then undertake the two hour voyage back to Banjul.  The return journey seemed to pass more quickly for me than the upstream trip, mainly because I enjoyed some fascinating conversations with several fellow passengers from various countries, notably Britain, Netherlands, Belgium and of course, Gambia.

Overall, it has been an enjoyable day, visiting some interesting places which, although a little over-touristic in parts, were genuinely compelling, informative and scenic.  I definitely feel better informed at the end of the day than I was at the beginning, which was my aim.


30 January 2014

Day 34 - Juffureh, Gambia