Is Author Alex Haley Losing His Rooters? in Kunta Kinte's Old Town, the Answer May Be Yes
After Alex Haley scored with Roots and its sequel, the Los Angeles-based writer found that success had a price. In 1977 he was accused of plagiarizing another book and wound up settling out of court for a reported $500,000. Now the author’s being rapped for his efforts at charity.
In 1980 Haley went to the tiny West African country of Gambia (pop. 600,000) to visit Juffure, the dusty village where in 1967 he met other descendants of Kunta Kinte, his great-great-great-great-grandfather. Methodist Haley offered to give the Muslim hamlet a mosque and wrote a check for $6,000, a fourth of the expected cost, to start the work. Yet last April a Baltimore Sun reporter found the mosque to be a cinder-block shell. He also quoted Bakaryding Taal, 78, the village headman, as saying that Haley “made a lot of promises, but has not done anything. My people are not angry, just disappointed.”
Haley, 60, protests that he hired a reputable contractor but “everything moves so slowly in Africa.” Partly, the locals are unhappy because Roots isn’t spurring U.S. tourism. What has risen has been appeals to Haley’s generosity. He laments: “I’ve gotten letters from Gambians wanting everything from a ticket to America to a college education. The more you do, the more is expected.”
Haley says he’s contributed “thousands,” including the tuition at a U.S. university of a woman who aspires to be Gambia’s second pharmacist. He even tried to build a vacation home in Banjul, the capital, though delays caused by red tape finally drove him to buy a place in Morocco.
“I’m not bitter,” Haley says of the criticism, “but I feel a bit wounded. I get a wonderful reception elsewhere in Africa.” The ex-Coast Guard chief petty officer is now working on a memoir of his days in Henning, Tenn. (pop. 638), where he spent his childhood (“I remember when our yard was my whole world”) and first heard of his African ancestors. What kind of reception can Haley expect there? The signs are good. His old home is already a designated historic site, and there is an “Alex Haley Rest Stop” on the highway just outside town.