Thursday, February 08, 2007
Struggling African nation hopes Whoopi can helpBISSAU, Guinea-Bissau (AP) -- When the government of one of the world's poorest nations learned that Whoopi Goldberg had taken a DNA test showing her ancestors hail from there, the news necessitated a high-level meeting.
It was, the country's leaders decided, a chance to change the image of a nation plagued by coups since wresting independence from Portugal in 1973. If the world could only grasp that a Hollywood celebrity traced her roots to this forsaken corner of the globe, it could bring goodwill from afar -- even fame for Guinea-Bissau, they reasoned.
So they set out to write a letter on official stationary embossed with the country's star-shaped seal. It was hand-delivered to the U.S. Embassy, which passed it on to the State Department in Washington with instructions for onward delivery to the home of the Oscar-winning actress.
It begins, with some uncertainty on the star's name: "Your Excellency Hoppy Goldberg, it is with great euphoria that the government of Guinea-Bissau ... learned of your ancestral origins .... The news has awoken in each and every one of us a deep sense of fraternity .... We simply cannot remain indifferent to the news of your Guinean heritage."
The two pages peppered with elaborate expressions of praise and respect end with a simple request: Please come visit our country.
For a special for PBS, the American public broadcaster, that aired last year, prominent black Americans agreed to take a DNA test. Talk show host Oprah Winfrey discovered her roots in the rainforests of Liberia with the Kpelle tribe and Bishop T.D. Jakes in Nigeria's Ebo people. Goldberg found that her genetic makeup is overwhelmingly Papel and Bayote, two tribes indigenous to this country on Africa's western seaboard.
"She will come. She's Guinean. She's our daughter. She's ours," Minister of Tourism Francisco Conduto de Pina said.
A nation in need.
Few countries are poorer than Guinea-Bissau, a country of 1.3 million roughly the size of Maryland. In the capital, there are so few hospital beds that women in labor share mattresses in cramped maternity wards. Water is chronically in short supply, so much so that the fire department does not have enough pressure in its hoses to fight blazes.
Restaurants routinely run out of food. Civil servants go months without a paycheck. Entire neighborhoods in the capital have not had electricity for the past six months.
It's not hard to see how Goldberg's fame and her unexpected blood ties to Guinea could seem like an unparalleled opportunity.
But in an e-mail to The Associated Press, the actress' publicist, Brad Cafarelli, writes that Goldberg never received the letter. "Regardless," he says, "due to the fact that she hosts a live daily radio show from New York and does not fly, it would not be possible for her to travel to West Africa in the foreseeable future."
That message has not yet made it to Guinea-Bissau, however, where the politicians that conceived the letter simply think she's taking her time to reply.
"We're waiting for her with much anticipation," said Prime Minister Aristides Gomes, sitting in his leather-clad office, an oasis of comfort in the crumbling capital.
Little access to Goldberg.
Gomes says he's a fan of "The Color Purple," the critically acclaimed film which secured Goldberg's spot in Hollywood. But he admits few of his countrymen have seen the movie -- or any others for that matter featuring the 51-year-old actress.
There are only two TV channels in Guinea-Bissau and both broadcast in Portuguese. After the government learned of Goldberg's ancestry, national TV began showing her movies with Portuguese subtitles. "Sister Act" and "Sister Act II" were instant hits in the capital, but in much of the country's brush-covered interior, access to TV is rare.
Her movies never reached the grass-covered huts of Ome, a village 45 kilometers (28 miles) from Bissau located at the epicenter of the country's Papel region, whose people share her DNA.
"I have no idea who that is," said Tiro Ca, 50, carrying a baby on her back, who stopped to pore over a headshot of the actress brought to the village by the AP.
But as mothers carrying babies and young men in jeans gathered to muse over the photograph, a consensus emerged: "This woman must be Papel," said Iye Faustino, 28, his hands pointing to the actress' distinctive cheekbones, not unlike that of the women crowding around the grainy image. The shape of her mouth and her nose, he added, is similar to theirs.
In the PBS special, the actress expressed a degree of reticence upon learning of her exact origins: "Who would I see when I went back, if I was able to go back to the village? Would I recognize anybody? Would they look like my mom?"
Likely she would find people that look not too unlike her.
"She's pretty," said Faustino, before handing the picture back. "If she comes here, we will be very happy to see her."