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City of Banjul
Thursday, November 26, 2020

Eulogy to Ebou Manga, the man who pointed Alex Harley to Roots

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By Mam Sait Ceesay

Ebou Manag was dead: the man who pointed Alex Haley down the path to Roots had all his connections spoken and he had left the scene.
The body rested in a fine reused mahogany coffin covered with a black cloth with Arabic inscriptions. All arrangements for the funeral had been so well attended to that had the deceased known he would have doubtlessly approved.

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His two sons Bolly Manga had flown much earlier from Sweden while Malick Manga from the United States to ensure a fitting burial for their father in his birth place,.
At two o’clock on Tuesday afternoon, the friends were to assemble to pay their last tribute of respect to one who had no further need of friends and respect. The surviving members of the family came severally every few minutes to see their loss and wept above the shroud. This did them no good; it did no good to Uncle Ebou Manga; but in the presence of death reason and philosophy are silent.

As the hour of two approached, the family and friends began to arrive at Masjid Abubakarr Siddiq along the Independence Drive in Banjul and after offering such consolation to the stricken relatives as the proprieties of the occasion required, solemnly gather themselves about the Mosque with an augmented consciousness of their importance in the scheme funereal. Then the Imams and elders came, and in that overshadowing presence the lesser sunlight they went into lamentations. Mournfully and low the elders began their eulogy of the dead, and their doleful voices, mingled with the sniveling which it was its purpose to stimulate and sustain rose and fell, seemed to come and go, like the sound of a sullen sea. The bright day grew brighter as they spoke.

When the Imam had finished his eulogy followed by Zuhr prayer, the funeral van moved away slowly to the burial ground at Old Jeshwang where Uncle Ebou Manga may rest in perfect peace.
Ebou Manga, from the Gambia by way of Connecticut, was a political science student who was active in the local chapter of CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, when he was introduced to a decorated Coast Guard veteran-turned-journalist named Alex Haley in 1966. Haley had recently published his first book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, when he arrived in Upstate New York to speak at Utica College and, eventually, to come to the Hill in 1968 as writer-in-residence.

Haley also had begun work on a daunting new project — tracing his lineage through generations of slavery, which tore families from one another and from their names, rendering standard genealogical sleuthing impossible. Haley had nevertheless made a beginning: a collection of African words, names and stories handed down from his grandmother and other women during his Tennessee childhood. A renowned anthropologist had pointed to the Gambia and the Mandingo language as a possible source for some of the words, such as kamby bolongo and a slave ancestor named Kin-tay. But there Haley faced a seemingly locked door.

Ebou Manga opened it. While the story of their first meeting has taken several forms, Manga recalled in an interview last year with Cassandra Harris-Lockwood K’74 that Haley made contact with him in 1966 through Virgil Crisafulli, an economics professor at Utica College who knew Manga through CORE. They met for dinner, and Haley repeated the African words to Manga. “The way he was saying the words sounded funny,” Manga told Harris-Lockwood. He said, ‘You have to excuse my Tennessee accent, but that is the way it was handed down to me.” But, soon convinced that the writer was onto something, Manga agreed to travel to the Gambia with Haley and introduce him to his father and other men who were griots, or oral historians.

Their emotional meeting was the first step in an upriver odyssey that led a year later to the village of Kunta Kinte and the genesis of the book Roots. Published in 1976 — and followed by a television miniseries that drew 130 million viewers — Roots won a special Pulitzer Prize and spent five months at the top of the New York Times Best Seller list. Haley, who wrote the first draft of Roots while on the Hill, returned in 1977 to give the Commencement address and receive an honorary doctorate — accompanied by Ebou Manga.

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