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Gambia’s race to save its ‘Roots’ on Kunta Kinteh island

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As the rebel slave who defied his captors, Kunta Kinte, immortalised in print and on screen in “Roots”, put The Gambia on the map for historical tourism.

But the island where he and tens of thousands of west African slaves faced the horrors of being chained, branded and separated before leaving their homeland forever, is under threat from sea erosion and neglect.

Kinte’s descendants, along with heritage officials, warn that without urgent action, 550 years of history could be lost.

They are pressuring the new government to preserve the country’s historical memory for the next generation of Gambians and tourists.

The island’s namesake sprang to fame as the central character in American author Alex Haley’s “Roots: The Saga of an American Family”.

The late Haley claimed to be a descendant of Kinte but doubts have been cast over the authenticity of this claim.

Although “Roots” has been criticised for historical inaccuracies, it indisputably heightened awareness of the horrors of the slave trade when published in 1976.

The UN’s cultural agency awarded the island World Heritage status as a memorial to an “important, although painful, period of human history”, spanning the arrival of Portuguese traders in the mid-15th century through to its use as a holding cell for illegal slavers after Britain’s abolition of the trade in 1807.

The parched-looking trees and brick ruins that occupy the island once housed dozens of captured west Africans awaiting passage to the New World, but whole sections of the slaves’ quarters have already been reclaimed by the river’s salty waves and high winds.

For Hassoum Ceesay, a historian and official at The Gambia’s National Centre for Arts and Culture, it is time to seize the chance to reverse what he describes as two decades of neglect under former leader Yahya Jammeh, or risk losing the island.

“We are very hopeful that with this new government there will be more attention paid,” he told AFP in a book-lined room at his home near the capital, Banjul, referring to President Adama Barrow, who took office in February.

“There was a lot of pressure, particularly from the former president, to sort of sift the history of the island,” he said. “We resisted, and that resistance made the government reduce its attention and support.”

He said that Jammeh even added mandatory days in his home village, Kanilai, to a tour aimed at diaspora tourists as part of a “Roots” festival, even though it is unrelated to the site.

Tourism numbers were badly hit by the protracted political crisis caused by Jammeh’s refusal to quit after 22 years at the helm when he lost an election in December, another concern for heritage experts.

Unesco, which declared the island and its nearby villages a World Heritage site in 2003, describes it as “extremely vulnerable to erosion” and “needing protection”. It is dispatching a team this summer to assess the site’s condition.

Visitors need only glance at old maps to see by how much the former fort, which passed between Portuguese, Dutch, French and British hands, has already receded — to a sixth of its original size by some estimates.

“The island was reclaimed from the river, so as time went on, with global warming, erosion became more pronounced,” Ceesay said.

He wants the international community to undertake a total revamp of Kunta Kinteh island and related sites, which include a colonial warehouse and a Portuguese settlement.

Ceesay hopes the island can attract funding to ensure its future and wants to see investment in tour guide training, a resource centre, more focused educational tours and the development of the River Gambia for pleasure cruises.

In this small, poverty-stricken and largely rural nation, national heroes such as Kinte are few and far between and citizens feel that much is at stake.

Speaking at her family compound in the village of Juffureh close to the island, Mariama Fofana, believed to be an eighth-generation descendent of Kinte’s, said young Gambians see him as “a role model and someone who believes in the values they stand for.”

It was, she said, “a concern to everyone, (that) the island is getting eroded each and every day,” urging international donors to provide funding that the cash-strapped government may not be able to afford.

Everything from naval ships to beach bars are named after Kinte in The Gambia, and his story has seen a renaissance with a recent remake of the “Roots” mini-series, and a name check in US rapper Kendrick Lamar’s recent single “King Kunta”.

But the slave who refused to take the name given to him by his American owners, and whose foot was cut off after multiple escape attempts, according to Haley’s account, still inspires pride.

“We need to know about our history. That is the only way we can truly understand our potential,” said Lamin Jammeh, a 17-year-old secondary school student who was waiting to visit the island for the first time.

Learning about Kinte was a way to “learn and start moving forward,” he added.

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Grenade attack victims receive blood donations in Ethiopia.

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Solidarity is building up in Ethiopia two days after the grenade attack on a political rally by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Addis Ababa football fans gathered at the National Red Cross to donate blood to victims injured in the explosion.

‘‘My condolences to the families of the victims. We will not stop supporting them. May the souls of those who lost their lives rest in peace’‘, said St. George Football Club supporter, Waqajira Midekisa.



‘‘It is very sad that this has happened at a time when we are working for peace. We didn’t expect this to happen, but we are so happy to be available today to help our brothers and sisters by giving blood at this crucial time’‘, said Kidestemariam Tesafye, organizer of the blood donation exercise.

On Sunday, Ethiopia’s health Minister announced that 2 people have died following the attack.

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The explosion took place when the new Prime Minister had just finished his speech in front of tens of thousands of people gathered in Meskel Square, in the centre of the capital.

One person was killed and more than 150 injured during ensuing panic moments after the attack.

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Guatemala’s eruption: Gercia digs for lost relatives.

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The ‘official’ search for victims has ended in San Miguel Los Lotes , a town devastated when Guatemala’s deadly Fuego volcano erupted earlier this month.

But some determined locals aren’t giving up, like 48-year-old Eufemia Garcia Ixpata said she would continue to search for some 50 family members lost.



“I’m not going to give up until I have a part of my family and am able to give them a Christian burial. Even if it’s just a few little bones, even if it’s just a piece of cloth”, Garcia said.

Even now, at the crack of dawn, she leaves the shelter where she’s been living, to go out and dig for dozens of missing relatives.

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For Garcia , the search has at times been highly emotional. She found the remains of one of her children. And also found some remains of her mother – a 75-year-old who had decided she could NOT outrun the volcanic flow.

Whenever the alarms ring out warning of more volcanic activity Garcia puts her search through the rubble on hold— and instead visits the morgue or checks local hospitals. She only stops to eat when food is shoved in front of her by aid workers.

And Garcia is not alone in her anguish.

Scores of people remain missing, while hundreds of survivors remain in shelters, wondering what happened to their loved ones when volcanic ash rained down on their home.

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Over 900 migrants picked up off Coast of Libya.

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Libya’s coastguard picked up 490 migrants off the coast of Tripoli on Sunday in the third rescue operation of the day.

Rami Ghameed, the commander of the Ras Ajdir ship which picked up the migrants, said that throughout the day, a number of coastguard ships across the country’s waters picked up a little over nine hundred migrants from a total of six rubber dinghies.



‘‘There were a total of six rubber boats, two were rescued by (the Libyan coastguard’s) central sector, the Ras Ajdir ship rescued three of the boats, and the Sabratha (coastguard) ship rescued one boat. The Sabratha ship is on its way to Tripoli’s naval base.

The number of those rescued on the boats picked up by the central sector was around 361 people, and this ship, the Ras Ajdir, picked up around 490 people’‘, Ghameed said.

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Sunday’s rescue operations brought the total number of migrants trying to reach Europe, but taken back to Libya, to well over 1,000 since last week alone.

Libya’s western coast is the main departure point for migrants fleeing wars and poverty and trying to reach Europe.

The number of crossings has sharply dropped since July 2017 due to a more active coastguard presence with support from the European Union.

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