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Al Roker journeyed to Senegal to learn more about his family's roots and received a glimpse into the haunting past and a taste of the vibrant present and future of the West African nation.
On a trip sponsored by AncestryDNA, the TODAY anchor ventured 6,000 miles last month to the city of Dakar, which felt like coming back home.
"Maybe coming into it you're a little skeptical perhaps, but then you're here and you see the tradition and you see there's this connection between you and people for hundreds of years, and you're all in,'' he said.
Al began his tour of Senegal at Dakar's Goree island and its House of Slaves, a museum and memorial to the Atlantic slave trade.
The museum features the haunting Door of No Return, where captive men, women and children in chains had their last glimpse of Africa before they were packed on cargo ships and transported to America. Some of them jumped to their death, pulled under the water by the weight of their chains.
"I feel this very odd mix of rage, of depression, (and) joy, in a way, of knowing that even with all of this, my family and African-Americans as a people were able to rise above this,'' Al said. "It's a weird brew of emotions that I'm gonna still be dealing with probably weeks and months from now, trying to figure this out."
After learning about Senegal's past, Al got acquainted with its present thanks to his guide, local first-grade teacher Yusafa Sow.
They took a visit to the African Renaissance Monument, the tallest statue in Africa at 160 feet, which depicts a man, woman and child looking over the Atlantic Ocean.
"It shows that Africa is coming out of its ashes,'' Sow said.
Towering over the city at a height greater than the Statue of Liberty, it represents the sacrifice of the people of Senegal's past in order to help Africa rise.
Al and Sow then did some haggling at the local Soumbedioune fish market to get the ingredients to make Senegal's national dish, chebu jen, a mixture of rice and fish.
They also watched the fishermen bring in the day's catch, where it was cleaned and sold by local women like it has been for generations.
"I can't help but think about my dad, who loved to fish,'' Al said. "Maybe this is why."
The day ended with Al and the TODAY crew enjoying a festive dinner at Sow's home with his family.
"The Senegalese love a good time,'' Al said. "They like to laugh and they love to kind of trash talk, and that's kind of me and my family. There's this spiritual connection, I think, that I really feel akin to."
The journey ended a day later in a Serer village, where they called upon the local marabout, or shaman, to help Al look into his past.
Al made a symbolic offering of millet from the earth, cream from the cow and wine, as the marabout made invocations asking Al's ancestors to bestow good health on him and his family.
Local villagers also danced to celebrate Al's return home as he sought shade under a 900-year-old kapok tree, known as a tree of destiny where villagers come to ask their ancestors for good fortune.
"What was nice about this was the village elders told me that this is where I'm from, that my ancestors were here and were taken away, and that my ancestors are proud of me,'' Al said. "And that's worth the trip. I feel complete. I know where I am from."
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