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Rooting around in the past: African heritage tourism gains strength

Stefan Simanowitz
By Stefan Simanowitz

Stefan Simanowitz is a journalist, writer and human rights campaigner. Visit Follow at @StefSimanowitz

Posted on Monday, 12 September 2011 10:35

“Watching Kunte Kinte’s story unfold had a profound impact on my developing sense of identity” says Ade Akinboyewa of the television serialisation of Arthur Haley’s 1976 best-selling novel Roots. As a young black boy growing up in the white suburbs of South London he had never really thought deeply about slavery and how it had shaped him. “For the first time something that had always been opaque and unspoken was suddenly made real.”

Akinboyewa’s experience might have been profound but it was certainly not unique. Indeed for diasporic black communities across the world, this historically-based fictionalised account of slavery felt like the first time that their story was being told. In America the book and television series sparked a political, social, and cultural debate the like of which had not been seen since the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It also heralded a new type of travel: “roots tourism”.

“Roots tourism”, a subset of the wider category of “heritage tourism”, has grown in popularity over the past decades as immigrant populations in America, Europe the Caribbean and Australia have sought to discover where they came from. Whilst those of European heritage are often able to piece together fragments of their family history through researching public records, the Back-to-Africa model of tracing ones roots only provides at best a “probable point of departure” rather than an exact “point of origin”. It is this lack of precision that has imbued the a number of African locations associated with the slave trade with particular significance.

Between 1513 and the end of the 19th century when the slave trade ended, some 24 million Africans were shipped to the Americas by English, Portuguese, French and Dutch traders. Between 10 and 20 percent died on the journey. The major slave trade followed a triangular route: Western Africa then via the notorious Middle Passage to the the Caribbean where slaves were sold and raw materials, notably cotton, bought, and finally back to Europe, where the American cotton was sold to textile manufacturers.

During a State visit to Ghana in 2009 President Barack Obama made a symbollically important visit with his family to Cape Coast Castle, a fortress used to confine slaves before they were shipped abroad. Although Obama himself has no slave heritage, his wife Michelle is a descendant of African slaves and the image of her gazing over the Atlantic was a powerful one. Since their visit, a phenomenon dubbed the Obama-effect has seen a sharp rise in trips by African-Americans to the Continent. Indeed, blacks of African ancestry form about 13% of the American population and in recent years tens of thousands have taken DNA tests in order to trace their ancestral background.

Esther Stanford-Xosei, Vice Chair of the Pan-African Reparation Coalition can trace her heritage back to Ghana via the Caribbean. She recently became the first member of her family to set foot on the Continent since her ancestors were forced onto slave ships. “It did feel emotional and I did feel a connection” she recalls. “I even did that stereotypical thing of kissing the soil.” However during her stay Stanford-Xosei had mixed feelings about being in Africa. “Rather than getting a warm welcome I felt I was treated like a foreigner” she says. She also does not feel entirely comfortable about the way in which Africa is sometimes marketed to people in the diaspora. “The taste and aesthetics of this marketing is too often done through a European lens” she argues.

There are a growing number of events aimed at attracting black people from the African disapora ‘back home’. Last May Gambia hosted the annual Roots International Festival which takes its name from the Alex Haley novel. Each year Ghana hosts the annual Panafest, focusing less on slavery and more on art and culture and in Nigeria, the Lagos Black Heritage Festival is a combination of history, art and entertainment. This year Tanzania hosted the fifth International African Diaspora Heritage Trail Conference under the theme “An African Homecoming: Exploring Origins of the Diaspora and Transforming Cultural Heritage Assets into Tourism Destinations”. The conference saw the launch of Tanzania’s new heritage trail, “The Ivory and Slave Route” which explores the Arab Slave Trade in East Africa.

Whilst most people think of the slave trade as a European invention it is predated by several centuries by the Arab slave trade during which more than 5 million East Africans were captured, enslaved and shipped to the Middle East, India, Asia and the West. As Hollywood actor Danny Glover, Honorary Chair of the ADHT Conference says: “By convening the ADHT Conference in Tanzania, we offer a rare glimpse into the Arab Slave Trade of Eastern Africa, a major part of the worldwide enslavement of Africans that many of us in the West are not familiar with.”

As well as offering important educational information about one of mankind’s most shameful episodes roots tourism can also boost African economies and ensure that important historical sites are preserved. Whilst tourism needs to be carefully managed to ensure that sites are not adversely damaged by overcrowding and excessive wear and tear the effect of heritage tourism is generally a beneficial one. Roots tourism, however, is not to everone’s taste. “Spending my holiday visiting dungeons? No thanks” jokes Ade Akinboyewa. Having spent years being called Kunte Kinte in the playgrounds of South London Akinboyewa’s attitude is understandable.

A Guide to Roots Tourism sites

Across the water from Dakar, Senegal’s bustling capital lies the Isle De Gorée. Now a UNESCO Historical Monument, this tiny island has become central in African Diaspora history as the embarkation point for slaves leaving the Senegambia destined for the plantations in the New World. Some buildings, once used as slave houses, have been turned into historic sites, most famously ‘La Maison des Enclaves’. From the outside these faded buildings covered in bougainvillea look benign but inside, the shackles and chains bear testament to the horrors that took place between by their ochre walls. Despite its spiritual and symbolic significance, Gorée was not a major slaving departure point. In reality most slaves were transported from larger centres such as St Louis. Fort St Louis, a faded colonial city, was the first French settlement in Africa dating from 1659 and situated on the Atlantic at the mouth of the River Senegal was in an ideal position to assemble slaves from deep within Africa’s interior.

The Gambia
The Gambia, formed part of the British Colony of Sebegambia, with headquarters in St. Louis at the mouth of the river Senegal. However in 1783, the greater part of the Senegambia region was handed to France. The Gambia is where Kunte Kinte, the slave in Roots, came from and the village of Jufureh, 30 kilometres inland on the river Gambia where you can meet the members of the Kinte clan, is a popular destination. There are several important slavery sites in the Gambia including Albreda, an island slave post which now houses a slave museum, James Island used to hold slaves before they were shipped to other West African ports for sale and whose dungeons remain intact.

Of over 50 forts and castles built by Europeans on the west coast of Africa, 32 are in Ghana. Some of the forts have been turned into guesthouses offering basic accommodation whilst others like Fort Amsterdam in Abanze have many original features, which gives you a good idea of what it was like during the slave trade. St George’s Castle in Elmina is a popular destination where visitors can see slave dungeons, punishment cells and an auctioning. The Cape Coast Castle was the headquarters for the British colonial administration for nearly 200 years and now a museum it houses objects from around the region including artifacts used during the slave trade. Salaga in northern Ghana was the site of a major slave market and visitors can see the grounds of the slave market; slave wells which were used to wash slaves and a huge cemetery where slaves who had died were laid to rest.

Porto-Novo is the capital of Benin and was established as a major slave-trading post by the Portuguese in the 17th century. Ruined castles can still be explored. UNESCO launced its Slave Route Project in Ouidah and houses a museum where slaves captured in Togo and Benin would spend their final night before embarking on their trans-Atlantic journey. The Route des Esclaves is a 2.5 mile road lined with fetishes and statues where the slaves would take their final walk down to beach and to the slave-ships.

There are lesser known slave trade sites including Gberefu Island, Badagry and Arochukwu as well as Guinea’s Atlantic Coast.

Tanzania contains a number of important historic sites from the Arab slave trade including the slave markets of Bagamoyo (translated as the Point of Despair) to the slave chambers of Mangapwane Beach as well as other sites in Dar es Salam and Zanzibar.

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