By Clinton Etheridge
I first went to Africa in 1970 when I was 23 when I became the first Black Peace Corps
Volunteer in Gambia, West Africa—a former British colony where I taught math.
My granddaughter Brianna went to Africa when she was only 4 years old, in July 2011 when I returned to Gambia with her and my three adult children and son-in-law on a family pilgrimage some 40 years after my Peace Corps service.
In Gambia in 1972, I met the late Alex Haley, the best-selling author of “Roots,” when he was on the last phase of tracing his African ancestor Kunta Kinteh to Juffure village.
In Gambia, Brianna met (and took a picture with) Mariama Fofana Kinteh, the oldest direct descendant of Kunta Kinteh and the matriarch of the family clan in Juffure.
I believe children have a capacity to engage with other children—and, with a child’s heart, Brianna hugged every baby and played with every child she encountered in Africa.
With Brianna in Gambia, I observed a child who was seeing and experiencing so many new and interesting people, places, and things—like the bemused Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” who tells her dog: “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.”
For example, Brianna had a chance to pet the tail of a real crocodile at Kachikally Crocodile Pool in Bakau, Gambia. The tour guide told us the crocodiles are tranquilized for the safety of the tourists. He said it was okay to touch the tail of the crocodile but not the mouth.)
Brianna and the family also met the Gambian Vice President – Her Excellency Dr. Isatou Njie-Saidy and the Gambian Minister of Tourism, Fatou Mass Jobe-Njie, at State House in the capital Banjul.
That evening, a two-minute news clip on Gambian TV showed Brianna and the family shaking hands with the vice president.
Brianna and the family also visited neighboring French-speaking Dakar, Senegal, the closest point on the African continent to the Americas. In Dakar harbor lay Goree Island and the infamous Slave House with its “Door of No Return”—the last foothold captured Africans had on the Motherland before embarking onto the Middle Passage and into slavery on an American plantation.
By going at age 4, Brianna was able to experience Africa with virtually no pre-conceptions. Most of us grow up with the “Dark Continent” image of Africa propagated by Tarzan movies and other crude stereotypes.
As Malcolm X said in a 1965 speech: “Having complete control over Africa, the colonial powers of Europe had projected the image of Africa negatively…jungle savages, cannibals, nothing civilized.”
But Brianna discovered, as I did some 40 years earlier, that the “darkest” thing about Africa is our ignorance of it.
Maybe Brianna will grow up loving the Motherland so much that she gets a Ph.D.in African studies and one day go back to Gambia to teach. If so, she has a head start.