West African Nation Lays Claim To Whoopi

Rukmini Callimachi, AP, Feb. 7, 2007

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 here, the news reverberated through the halls of parliament.

It was, the country’s leaders decided, a chance to change the image of this West African 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 decided to write a letter on official stationery 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 delivery to 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.”

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“She will come. She’s Guinean. She’s our daughter. She’s ours,” said Minister of Tourism Francisco Conduto de Pina.

There are few nations that are poorer than Guinea-Bissau, a country of 1.3 million people 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 in chronically 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 six months.

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But in an e-mail to The Associated Press, the actress’ publicist, Brad Cafarelli, wrote that Goldberg never received the letter. In what might come as a surprise to fans who know her from the TV series “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” Cafarelli also said a trip overseas is out of the question because Goldberg does not fly.

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“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.

Gomes said he’s a fan of “The Color Purple,” the critically acclaimed film that secured Goldberg’s spot in Hollywood. But he admits few of his countrymen have seen the movie—or any others featuring the actress.

There are only two television 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 30 miles from Bissau in the country’s Papel region, whose people share her DNA.

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In the PBS special, the actress said 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?”

“She’s pretty,” said Faustino, before handing the picture back. “If she comes here, we will be very happy to see her.”

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