*I don’t like to write an intro before the main article but my two pieces on Roots, Roots I and Roots II, are the kind that one finds really hard to translate emotions into words. I wish I could adequately express everything I felt while watching the miniseries but I have come to the realisation that for now, the emotions I felt are too powerful for words. I just hope what I have penned down will give you a measure of what I really need to say*
I grew up on stories of struggles. The struggle for Nigeria’s independence; the struggle for freedom for apartheid, the struggle for freedom of the black man from the white man. Names like Martin Luther King Jnr, Nelson Mandela, Muhammed Ali, Kwame Nkrumah and Kunta Kinte were very familiar names to me and I loved to read about the brave acts of men like these. Of these however, the man I held most in awe was Kunta Kinte. I never watched the original miniseries but I heard his stories and I wanted to be like him. I was fascinated by him: his life as a free man, his capture and his refusal to accept the fate that life suddenly meted out to him, perhaps best represented by his refusal to accept his slave name, Toby.
So when I first heard that a re-adaptation of the original Roots story was being made, I was eager to watch it. In the past few years, movies like Selma and 12 Years a Slave have painted a really uncomfortable picture of the black slavery and the civil rights action in America as well as drawing out from me multiple emotions, a large number of them dark, which I had never thought I possessed so I was a bit hesitant about whether I really needed to watch it. My curiosity – or morbidity – outweighed my hesitancy and so in no time I was staring at the first pictures of a young Kunta Kinte.
I had expected that scenes of brutality and violence – the whippings, brandings, and torture – would draw out the most emotions from me and they did but arguably the most enlightening scenes in the whole series, for me, were not those of the brutality, injustice and suffering the slaves were subjected to but the scenes and stories about Africa. I am as African as you can get – with roots from Ghana, Nigeria and Togo – so it really was a shock to realise I could not identify with the Africa that was depicted. That is not due to any errors on the parts of the film makers but on the fact that the Africa of Kunta Kinte’s time is very different from the Africa of now. Kunta’s Africa was an Africa of mud houses with thatched roofs, lush green velds that go on and on as far as the eyes can see and clean clear waters. It was an Africa of warriors and horses, of maturity rites and communal feeling, of respect, honor and duty to one’s heritage; an Africa of tradition. The Africa of today is very different, perhaps aptly described by our insistence that Africa is not one country but a congregation of numerous countries, people and languages. It is an Africa of skyscrapers and airplanes and of estates and slums. The only lush, green lands I know about are private premises and a large pool of water in my area is a sign of a flood. Young men are more likely to bond today over a game of FIFA than a maturity rite and traditions are slowly fading out into obscurity.
I have often times, from an early age, pondered about this, especially after reading literary works by authors like Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka whose books portrayed an Africa that seemed a little familiar but just out of reach like the smell of freshly baked bread wafting into your living room from an unknown source. Kunta’s Africa had me yearning for a culture and traditions I don’t recognise, it had me pondering whether life in today’s Africa really is better than life in Kunta’s Africa, whether the sacrifices of our ancestors who fought hard against slavery and colonialism is being properly honored by today’s Africa. Most importantly, it reaffirmed the importance of my search for my identity.