Baltimore woman helps branches of 'Roots' family

September 04, 1995|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,Sun Staff Writer

Don't talk to Rosetta Gainey about the latest movie. Don't mention that Oriole guy who has some kind of streak going. Don't even think about making small talk about the weather.

Rosetta Gainey is obsessed. Admittedly. And the object of this Baltimore woman's obsession is a continent away. For years, Rosetta Gainey's energy and finances have been focused on a poor African country and an 85-year-old woman whose name is Kinteh. Yes, that Kinteh. As in "Kunta," of "Roots" fame.

"It's gotten to a point where people see me coming and say, 'Uh-oh. Here comes Rosetta talking about Kinteh,' " says Ms. Gainey. But this week, the payoff will finally come: Ms. Gainey is traveling to Gambia to accompany three Kunta Kinteh descendants and others back here for a five-month stay.

The world has nearly forgotten "Roots," the novel by the late Alex Haley that became a TV miniseries in 1976. That, says Ms. Gainey, is the problem.

"They have nothing! Nothing!" she says of Kunta Kinteh's descendants, her brown eyes flashing. "It's a sad commentary that this village and family that was brought to world-wide renown should live like this."

She first visited the little village of Juffure in 1982 and met with Binta Kinteh, the 85-year-old matriarch of the Kinteh clan. She returned a dozen more times.

"The 13 years I've been going there, I've only seen Binta Kinteh in two dresses," she says.

The people are in need of a proper sewage system, and the 300 or so children have a one-room schoolhouse to attend, she says. "Their primary needs are for health and education," Ms. Gainey says.

Alex Haley's son, Bill, says his father had supplied money for construction of a mosque -- as promised. The mosque has yet to be built.

"We do hear a lot of talk about 'What have you done for the family?' " Mr. Haley says in a telephone interview from his office in St. Louis.

"We tend to do things for the country, such as raise money for books for the Gambian library. We promote the country; tourism is a thriving industry. Juffure is primarily a farming community. The kind of assistance they require tends to be from the government level. Gambia is a poor country," he says. "But it is also a proud country."

Two paths crossed

Ms. Gainey's Gambian odyssey began 20 years ago as a student at the University of California at Berkeley. In a public health class, she befriended a woman from Gambia. Coincidentally, in another class, a professor had given an assignment to read an excerpt of "Roots." In 1982, Ms. Gainey visited her former college classmate in Africa. She has been going back ever since.

"I feel that Africa is the most diversified continent in the world," she says, explaining why she's drawn there again and again. "It is as diversified as the strands on your head."

It was post-"Roots" when she first traveled to Juffure, and the village had gained some fame. Tour groups were giving people the option of traveling there to meet the village elders and visit the Kinteh house. They were asked to donate money to both the village and the Kinteh descendants. However, many people don't give money because they have already paid a fee to the tour groups, Ms. Gainey says.

"People didn't know that none of this money went to the village or to Binta Kinteh and her family. And the villagers didn't know that the people had already paid a fee."

Upon her return, Ms. Gainey began working the telephones, burning up the lines between here and Gambia. She sent her own money, as well as books and medicine.

"People always ask why the Gambian government doesn't do something," she says. "But they are a poor country, and Juffure is just one poor village among many."

So, after more than three years and one false start, the Kinteh descendants are scheduled to arrive in the United States Sept. 19. Ms. Gainey has scheduled a number of fund-raisers and receptions on their behalf, including a "black-tie/African attire" reception at the Brass Elephant restaurant Sept. 28.

Ms. Gainey's convictions have come at a price. Sometimes the Kintehs (the name was changed to Kinte in "Roots") have no money to buy the rice they need as a diet staple, let alone money for plane tickets. Ms. Gainey is footing the bill for all the airplane tickets except one, which the airline is providing free.

The former program analyst in the health-care field declines to give her age. She recently accepted early retirement and supplements her small annuity checks by arranging tour groups to Africa.

Some sponsors pitch in

A few organizations have stepped forward to sponsor some of the Kinteh events. And Mrs. Gainey has begun a nonprofit organization, African Diaspora Concerns Foundation Inc., to funnel donations to Juffure and the nearby village of Albreda.

Doris Ligon, founder and director of the Maryland Museum of African Art, and her husband are among the contributors. "I was impressed by her connection with people there and her sincerity," says Mrs. Ligon, who first met Ms. Gainey in 1988. "And the reality is that she will dig into her own pocket to help."

But there haven't been too many people like the Ligons, Ms. Gainey says. "I have received less than $900," she says. It has cost her thousands of her own dollars to bring off this fete.

Last week, Ms. Gainey was so caught up in all the planning and hoopla, she couldn't even begin to picture life after the Kintehs' visit. She's nearly broke and doesn't have a steady job.

Whatever happens, she will continue working on their behalf.

"It needs to be done," she says.

For information on the Kinteh visit, call (410) 323-4878.

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