By Clinton Etheridge
It was a chance encounter with history – and maybe destiny.
When Alex Haley and I crossed paths in Gambia in March 1972, little did I know that he would go on to produce “Roots,” the book and TV-miniseries that would take America and the world by storm.
At that time, Haley was in the last phase of a decade long search to trace his African ancestor, Kunta Kinteh, to Juffureh Village in Gambia.
In March 1972, I was in the last months of my Peace Corps service as a math teacher, with plans to return to the United States to enroll at Stanford Business School in September.
I had spent close to two years in Gambia, one of the smallest and poorest nations in Africa. Back then, Gambia had a population of about 500,000 and a land mass twice the size of Delaware but divided by the Gambia River. The capital and largest city Banjul, had a population of 30,000 people.
At that point, I knew Gambia intimately, having visited every major town to conduct math workshops as the Peace Corps math curriculum development coordinator.
Given my background, I was astonished when Alex Haley told me in the lobby of a local hotel that he and his entourage were in Gambia to, “go up river in search of my ancestor.” As a grizzled Peace Corps vet, I couldn’t tell Alex Haley the truth as I saw it: there was nothing to find up river.
But I was ignorant and arrogant. I first realized this four years later in 1976 when “Roots” shot to the top of the New York Times Best Seller list. Then in January 1977, when “Roots” was exploding on American TV, the full meaning sunk in of what Alex Haley was trying to tell me back in Gambia.
In many respects, Haley put Gambia on the map and made Juffureh Village a worldwide tourist attraction. Yet, he and I are both African-American tubaabs, the local Wolof word for “non-Africans” and commonly used for white men or Europeans.
But Haley and I are also both beloved by the Gambians—he in a big way and I in a smaller one—because we both came to Gambia, “three centuries removed” in the words of Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen, to give back and to serve.
This came through when in July 2011 the Gambian vice president welcomed me and my family to State House in the capital Banjul. The Gambians were not only honoring me, the first Black Peace Corps Volunteer in country, but also the return some 40 years later of three generations of Black Americans: me, my three children, and my granddaughter.
My original encounter with Alex Haley came full circle when in July 2011 in Juffureh Village, my granddaughter Brianna met Mariama Fofana Kinteh, the oldest direct descendant of Kunta Kinteh.
Was this destiny?