Kunta Kinte is born in the spring of 1750 to Omoro and Binta Kinte. He is their first child. He grows up in a Mandinka village, Juffure, in The Gambia, where people’s primary occupation is farming (groundnuts, couscous and cotton for the men, rice for the women). His village is strongly Muslim. Kunta’s father Omoro takes seven days to select his son’s name, as is the custom, and chooses to name him after Omoro’s father and Kunta’s grandfather, Kairaba Kunta Kinte, whose family was long ago from Mali, and who came to Juffure from Mauretania and saved the village from a famine.
As Kunta grows up, Haley describes all the rituals of the village, their religious beliefs, taboos, lifestyles, and petty gossip. They survive by the cycle of the rains, which bring fertility to the land but also famine and illness when they do not come. The village largely lives harvest to harvest, engaged most of the time in difficult farming work but taking time to relax at the annual harvest festival. Men are the heads of families and their wives are subservient to them. Men live in their own huts from the third kafo (age 11-15) onward, and women live in huts with their children. Men marry around age 30 and girls around age 14. Men pay a dowry in goats and cows to a girl’s family when they marry her.
The young people of the village are divided into kafo groups, which contain all the children in five-year increments. Kafo groups move through life stages together: playing naked and carefree as children while helping to farm a little; going to school, herding goats, and policing behavior in the second kafo; and going through manhood rituals and becoming the village guards in the third kafo.
Kunta begins to develop a special relationship with his second brother Lamin when his mother becomes pregnant again. He answers Lamin’s questions about the world and lets him join Kunta and his friends in their chores. Many questions have difficult answers, like when Lamin asks Kunta what a slave is. Slavery has been on the minds of everyone in the village, because “toubob” – white people – have been in The Gambia stealing people for slaves with the help of black African accomplices. Kunta and Lamin learn that slavery means different things in different cultures. In The Gambia, people are taken as slaves in village raids, to pay off debts, or because they are criminals. Only criminals are beaten by their masters, and slavery is not usually a source of shame. Nyo Boto, an old and respected elderly woman in the village, was in fact a slave.
Soon after Kunta has begun taking more responsibility for Lamin, his father invites him to go on a journey to a village several days away, where Omoro’s half-brothers Janneh and Saloum have started a new village that will be named after the Kinte family. Usually boys as young as Kunta, in the second kafo, would not go on a journey like this with their fathers. Kunta is excited and flattered. The journey is difficult for him and he struggles to keep up, but earns the respect of his father and gets to meet his extended family. When Kunta returns his friends are jealous and do not ask him about the trip, but they soon make up. Distracted by Kunta telling them about his trip, they do not see when a panther eats one of Kunta’s father’s goats when the boys are on duty. Kunta charges at the panther and it runs away. He is afraid his father will be very angry about the dead goat, but Omoro is only happy his son was not hurt and instructs him to never run at a dangerous animal, for he too learned his lesson as a boy.
When Kunta ends the second kafo, he and his kafo-mates are tested in history and Islam and then ushered into the third stage of their lives: manhood training. They are taken from their huts with a great hullaballoo and brought to the jujuo, a training center where they will stay for four months until they have learned to be men. The boys are frightened, especially since they know they will be circumcised. For the four months at the jujuo they learn to hunt, survive in the wilderness, speak a special man’s language, hear the full history of their people, and everything else that entails becoming a man in Mandinka culture. The boys return as men, and Kunta sees that he has a new brother, Madi, in additions to the growing Lamin and his third brother Suwadu.
Kunta feels a growing restlessness. Lamin and Suwadu have grown closer, and Binta annoys Kunta by treating him like a child. After meetings some travelers his age going on a several-day’s trip to find gold, Kunta decides to take Lamin along with him and also go hunt for gold. Just like his first trip with Omoro, Kunta leads Lamin on his first trip. Lamin struggles but he and Kunta grow closer. They return home with gold for Binta, and people in the village seem to respect Kunta more. After he feels that Binta has acknowledged him as a man, he once again resumes a close relationship with her, allowing her to mother him and in turn helping her out around the house and with his brothers.
Kunta starts sitting in on council meetings and learns about how issues in the village are negotiated and resolved. He sees issues between masters and slaves being hacked out, debts being resolved, marriages being discussed, and young men arranging to have permitted sexual relationships, called teriya friendships, with older widows. One disturbing case involves a girl in the village who was kidnapped by a toubob and returned pregnant. When the child was mix-raced the village had to decide what to do with her. The issue is left unresolved.
That night Kunta goes on guard duty and mulls over many issues in his mind concerning marriage. He considers entering into a teriya friendship with a woman, Jinna M’Baki, who has been making her willingness known. Though Kunta thinks such a relationship could be pleasant, he has much more ambitious designs for the decade and a half until he will marry: he wants to go on a long journey like his uncles Janneh and Saloum have. He has already planned a trip to Mali with the help of the arafang (teacher), and thinks that after that he might even journey to Mecca. He plans to take Lamin along on the journey to Mali. He is bursting with excitement. As dawn breaks, Kunta decides to go into the forest to chop woods for a drum he has been planning on making. Lost in his thoughts about the past and future, he does not hear the slave catchers, both black and white, approaching. They set upon him and, weaponless, he tries to fight back but is overcome. They kill his loyal dog and he is finally clubbed over the head and becomes unconscious. He has been captured as a slave at the age of seventeen.
The first nearly 200 pages of Roots have a very different setting and tone than the rest of the book. They are devoted to Kunta Kinte’s childhood in The Gambia. Times can be rough – a famine is described in all its devastating detail – and strict rules guide every step of his life. Africa is not a paradise free from worry; yet it is the ideal to which Kunta will desperately look back to throughout the rest of his enslaved life.
Setting a long stretch of the beginning of the novel in Africa is an effective storytelling technique. It makes the transition to the horrors of the slave ship even more effective. When Kunta misses his family, the reader knows them well and knows what impact his capture will have on the village. By setting him up as not just a slave, but as a member of his village with hopes and dreams for his life, the violent jarring capture becomes more than just a page in a history book.
The theme of oral traditions is very prevalent in this section of the book. Kunta grows up hearing stories that teach lessons, and hearing about his family and village’s long history. This effectively shows how oral traditions are a part of Kunta’s identity and makes his inclusion of them in his life in America make sense. They show how culture is transmitted.
Haley enhanced the natural setting of Kunta’s childhood by filling the section with nature imagery and language. Haley describes the perfumes of the land, the sounds of birds, and the different climate during the rainy and dry season. America is familiar to the reader, and Africa is not, so by enhancing Kunta’s sensory descriptions of his environment, Haley makes his childhood more relatable for the reader.
The manhood theme is also a big part of Kunta’s shifthood, since Haley will set up a comparison between Kunta’s childhood to manhood journey in The Gambia and then having to re-learn how to survive in America, a very different manhood journey. The idea of being a man permeates Kunta’s early life. He thinks about passing things on to new generations, tries to impress his father and have Lamin look up to him, and begins to reject his mother’s care when he feels he is too old. What it means to be a man and how to prove oneself appears repeatedly as a theme in Kunta’s life in The Gambia.