“…it was a scripted metanarrative for privileged diasporic tourists seeking to reconcile their American identity with their African ancestry.”
In the summer of 2010, I accompanied colleagues from Florida International University to conduct research throughout Senegambia. I had just concluded my first year in Graduate School at the University of South Carolina and believed visiting West Africa was a necessary addition to my training in the African diaspora. Along with the other graduate students, I was encouraged to develop a research paper on some facet of the tourism industry in Senegal and the Gambia.
Training for degrees in Anthropology and Sociology, the other advanced students chose to explore relationships between diasporic peoples and the dimensions of power manifested in their interactions. As I had a growing interest in the intersections between history, memory, and memorialization, I decided to engage the question of heritage tourism in Senegambia by interviewing African American tourists who journeyed to slave sites in both countries. I hoped to understand if, and when, they gained a sense of closure for their identities as people of African descent living outside of Africa. What, if anything, did this “return” provide? The responses varied, and a short essay does not do justice to the research I accumulated. But in this piece, I divulge my own experiences as a researcher visiting historic slave sites and provide some nuance to the realities of heritage tourism beyond its denotation as a “return” to a mythical homeland.
As I write this op-ed, I remain conscious that my perception of tourism, in any context, is slightly skewed toward the negative. I have consumed literature that castigates “Third World” tourism by those from developed countries as a form of neo-colonialism, asserting, rather persuasively, that Americans and Europeans who travel to countries like Jamaica, Cuba, and Senegal exploit native populations by procuring objects at lower prices. The racialized power differentiations are especially prominent when discussing the booming industry of “sex tourism,” in which white European and Euro-American tourists travel to predominantly black and brown countries for sexual adventures/conquests. Though heritage tourists hold far less malicious reasons for travel, mostly viewing themselves as pilgrims reconnecting with a lost (or stolen) heritage, the systemic economic structures favoring the tourist make the host communities vulnerable to exploitation.
At its core, heritage tourism embodies economic differentials that immediately separate the tourist from the indigenous population. The tourist is treated as an economically powerful consumer who hopes to sample the offerings of the host. In turn, scholars note the uncomfortable reality that heritage is often “sold” to the consumer. In other words, narratives are formulated to satisfy the tourist. I remember during our tour of the Maison des Esclaves at Goree Island, Senegal, the guide concluded his remarks by claiming that African Americans dominated sports because only the “strongest” were sent across the Atlantic. In reality, most were prisoners of war caught between tribal conflicts spurred by Europeans’ voracious appetites for slaves, but few of my fellow tourists questioned the guide’s claim. I concluded it was a scripted metanarrative for privileged diasporic tourists seeking to reconcile their American identity with their African ancestry.
Slave sites in the Gambia commemorating the slave trade are arguably even more blatant in restructuring such memories. The Gambia’s Ministry of Tourism has reframed many historical sites in an attempt to attract African American tourists. Knowing that novelist Alex Haley spotlighted Juffureh Village as his ancestral homeland in his 1976 bestseller Roots, claiming it was the location where his ancestor Kunta Kinte was captured and shipped across the Atlantic, the Gambian government anticipates that financially powerful black Americans will “return” to the Gambia with tourist dollars to spur the economy. As more African Americans entered the American middle class in the 1990s, heritage tourism to West Africa increased. Historian Donald Wright witnessed this transition firsthand, asserting that prior to the 1980s his “Gambian informants did not recall much about the slave trade” when he collected his research, but by the twenty-first century “the story of the Gambia-River slave trade in the minds of most Gambians is the story told in Roots.”
In other words, Haley’s story has not only molded the memories of the diaspora but also reformulated those of the indigenous community. Due to this restructured narrative, one could argue the pilgrim’s search for “authenticity” is tarnished.
I would simply encourage heritage tourists to access the literature analyzing the functions of heritage tourism in the developing world and recognize that certain privileges come with a passport from developed countries in “the West.”
I received a similar history when I visited Juffureh. Upon our arrival, the residents provided a history of the island in pamphlet form. It featured photocopies of the first few pages of Roots and a photograph of Lavar Burton portraying a young Kunta Kinte in the Roots television miniseries. Though I understood the reasons behind this representation, I was troubled by it. Not only did it seem like the village lost its history by seeking American tourist dollars, but this sole reliance upon tourism has not lifted Juffureh from poverty, and it certainly was not helping the residents gain any capital. In fact, one of my final recollections of Juffureh was an argument between a group member and a community member that we were not spending enough money, given that the residents depend on tourist dollars to fund their schools and feed the community. I initially believed that visiting the land of Roots might provide a lasting imprint of triumph and positivity before my journey concluded, but it seemed like the villagers were bamboozled by empty promises of a lucrative tourism economy.
The economic factors of tourism seem to most divide the guests from the hosts. African Americans expect to be welcomed “home” as lost relatives returning to the Motherland, but native populations do not always fulfill this expectation. At times, they are even viewed as “white” by the host communities since they have resided in a white-majority country for multiple generations and can afford the expenses of transatlantic travel. Due to this perceived financial capital, Black Americans are sometimes not viewed any differently from Europeans and Euro-Americans who vacation in Africa. One of my respondents noticed there were some Gambians who “unfortunately, for economic reasons…do see the opportunity to get some money out of you,” but suggested he understood the motivation, “no matter what race you are you still have to eat.” Another respondent, however, was far less reserved: “They think Americans got bank. I said ‘you all watch too much TV.’” Some were even called “toubab,” a term used by Wolof speakers to designate a “white” foreigner.
I do not mean to convey an overtly cynical message, but simply to convey a cautionary tale about the uncomfortable imbalance of power between the tourist and the indigenous community. Everyone should visit West Africa and invest in its infrastructure. Seven years later, I retain many fond memories of the people I met throughout Senegal and the Gambia. I long to return. Journeying to a slave site and reckoning with its ghosts can initiate an intense spiritual renewal. It is an unparalleled experience. I would simply encourage heritage tourists to access the literature analyzing the functions of heritage tourism in the developing world and recognize that certain privileges come with a passport from developed countries in “the West.” Not only will it provide important moments of self-reflection for the traveler, but it will also help them gauge the best way to truly invest in the local communities they visit.