The co-counselling workshop in the Gambia is over. Eighteen participants have made their dusty ways to their various homes. They are pleased, they want to participate further and use the tool for their activism. They kept their focus over a packed, intense programme. They were funny, lively, committed, co-operative, friendly, intelligent. Now just five of us are left: the Kenyan leader, myself and two others from the UK who came to support the workshop, and the Gambian organiser – the young man I have been teaching co-counselling over Skype. who will be leading future activities. We are on our way to James Island, renamed Kunta Kinteh Island, where captured people were incarcerated prior to the middle passage over the Atlantic.
Has this anything to do with climate change? You bet it has.
We walk past the dying mangroves, which have bits of plastic debris caught in their roots. We crowd into a rocking fishing boat to make the crossing. By Government decree each of these tourist boats has a security guard on it, a young man dressed as a soldier. It seems unnecessary – what dangerous behaviour can they be expecting? But given the extent of youth unemployment here, maybe this isn’t a bad thing. He’s a smooth faced young man from the nearby village, who introduces himself as Lamin. Our guide is also from the village, a long-time activist who knows his history.
As we get off at the jetty I feel a tremendous weight assail me. I find it hard to listen to the guide’s detailed description of the uses this island had been put to by my people, the British. I’m the only white person present, but that isn’t what is bothering me. It’s not guilt, it’s grief and loss, and they seem present in the air itself. The leafless baobab trees are like monuments. The ruins of the grey fort are one of the saddest things I have ever seen, not because they are ruined, but because I can imagine what they must have looked like when they were full of bustle. One underground room was used to shut in ‘troublemakers’; windowless, tiny, no room to lie down, a hatch for food. Designed to defeat and destroy.
As a middle-class person I’m upset to see the labels: ‘Governor’s room’ and the offices. I think of the people, good people like me, who administered this crime, who justified it to themselves and others. My class. Most of us are currently involved in keeping quiet about the climate change emergency and promoting ‘business as usual’. And we are doing this because we think it’s the right thing to do. It’s our job in all periods of history to make oppressive systems work well and profitably, and to try to minimise dissent and damage, whatever our personal worries.
I’ve had enough. I go and sit on a stone near the jetty and have an unobtrusive cry. The heaviness starts to lift; I begin to see the waves and hear the birds again. There’s a hand on my shoulder. It’s Lamin, concerned about me. ‘Don’t worry’, he says, ‘It’s only history.’
No Lamin, it’s not history. This happened yesterday. The poverty of the Gambia is not an accident. It can’t be attributed to the dictator Jammeh or his predecessor. It’s rooted in colonialism, in the British policy of ruling through the Chiefs (which led to an erosion of the traditional rights of women and the current lack of land for women’s farming), and the British destruction of local agriculture in favour of the cash crop, groundnuts. The Gambia had resources that were wanted – people. Once slavery was abolished, the country was of little importance. Maybe the river would be important strategically, in keeping back the French? The port of Bathurst, now Banjul, could be useful to hang on to. But not important enough to invest in any infrastructure. This is not India.
Here’s the sequence of events, as I see it.
- The slave trade furnished the wealth that got capitalism going. It demoralised and defeated local people and undermined their civilisation.
- Colonialism, in the service of European capitalism, weakened traditional cultures and effective subsistence farming. It divided people in order to rule them, imposing meaningless boundaries between people who speak the same languages (e.g. between Senegal and the Gambia).
- Capitalism works by putting profit above people’s needs. It always goes for growth whatever that does to the environment. This has resulted in dangerous global warming.
- Global warming is destroying people’s livelihoods in the Gambia. Crops shrivel because of unseasonable heat. The rains are unreliable. There is no place to turn.
It’s not only history. It’s now.
Kunta Kinteh was a slave whose story was told by Alex Haley in his novel Roots, and immortalised in film and a TV series. No matter whether this story is historically accurate or fictionalised: it stands for something undoubtedly real. The annual Roots festival has brought many African Americans to make the same pilgrimage as us.