Wednesday 24 October 2007

My Kunta Kinte to my roots

30 years after Roots

Yesterday evening I caught the tail end of a programme that at least had enough subject matter covered for me to get a good idea of what was going on.

Chicken George was being interviewed about the epic television series that first showed 30 years ago – Alex Haley’s Roots: The Saga of an American Family.

I remember when I watched the episodes in Nigeria in the late 70’s, it is doubtful any of us watching understood to any extent the story unfolding before our eyes about an untouched Africa, a discovered Africa, a pillaged Africa, the snatched Africans and the Africa adrift of its roots.

Now, there are all sorts of controversy about Alex Haley’s Roots, but I would not rake over those matters, rather I would say that somewhere between fiction and faction, it was a true story but not necessarily one particular experience.

Whilst those who were snatched or traded as slaves with the culpability of their people may not be able to trace their exact roots back to Africa because they were forced to adopt the names of their slave masters, the story of Kunta Kinte in retaining his name at all costs provided the tenuous and probably contrived link through which Alex Haley was able to trace his lineage back to his supposed ancestors in Gambia.

Traditional names matter

This is one area where Africans need to be very conscious, names do matter and the quality of names given almost always helps in tracing lineage especially in Africa where very little is written down, but the repositories of memory in our elders tell us where our journeys began and these hopefully help us chart our courses forward.

For instance, my parents have formal English (Christian) names as their first names and then Yoruba names, however, I know that my mother has another name that does not appear on any papers – All I had to do was mention that name and automatically the elders in my village knew who I was, when I was born, the affirmative words recited as an indication of who I am (Oríkì) and many more things not too obvious to the unskilled.

Oríkì is definitely more than just praise-singing, of what I can remember of mine or one of my siblings, it talks of character, ability, power & wealth, it puts you on a high pedestal to survey your entire, if we lived by the contents of the Oríkì, we cannot but be overcomers.

[My grandmother also had a Judeo-Christian name and it is my view that the preachers of those times termed our names heretical so offered new names that they could pronounce – I was however, baptised in 1975 with my Yoruba name which was given me by my paternal grandfather who happened to be a Muslim.]

For as long as there are elders in my village and hopefully traditions, folklore, history and events are passed down, my mother’s special name is my Kunta Kinte - the road back to my roots.

The way back home

In the case of Alex Haley’s Roots, what he did was not so much to expose the abominable man’s inhumanity to man done with hypocritical Christian piety, but to show his fellow Africa-Americans and the Diaspora borne of slavery that there is a way home, a way to their roots, roots that we in Africa are jettisoning for a modernity that has no bearing on who we really are than consumers of alien customs and trend victims.

It leaves one utterly speechless that Dr. Watson of the “white genetically smarter than black” fame was instrumental in discovering DNA, and this is now part of an activity called The African-American DNA Roots Project where DNA is the Kunta Kinte calling card that links African Americans to particular West African tribes.

Quincy Jones, Chris Tucker, Oprah Winfrey and T.D. Jakes amongst others have had their roots traced back to Africa; the videos below show those episodes of African-American Lives. I remember the BBC showcased a number of genealogical shows called Who Do You Think You Are?, everyone who went through that experience came out with a greater sense of self, belonging, confidence and esteem.

A person with a history, a heritage and understanding of their ancestry and where they have come from will never be patronised, belittled or left despised in depression – this is the lesson of Roots, to those in centuries old Diaspora and contemporary Africa – our Roots are what will make us people of achievement ready to take on the world and its challenges.

Dr. Watson’s discovery might yet be the saving grace of Africa as we offer incontrovertible proof that as men we are equal to anyone anywhere and any challenge wherever. It starts with a name for identity and then blood for where you are from.

Links to Youtube videos of African-American Lives courtesy of Youtube user Peppa800 appear below, I have been unable to ensure the properly embedded videos appear on this page.

African-American Lives 1 of 6

African-American Lives 2 of 6

African-American Lives 3 of 6

African-American Lives 4 of 6

African-American Lives 5 of 6

African-American Lives 6 of 6

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