He was 10 years old, Henry Louis Gates Jr. recalled, when his interest in Africa suddenly spiked like an electric power surge.

It may have been jump-started by history: That year, 1960, 19 of the African countries became independent, he said.

"For some reason unknown to everyone in the family, I started to memorize the names of every country, capital and president," recalled Gates. "I became interested that year, out of the blue."

There had been inklings of this interest before. He had always been interested in the Stanley and Livingston saga, he said, and there was that nifty '50s TV series that kids just loved, "Ramar of the Jungle."

But as a child, growing up in Piedmont, W.Va., Gates found little outlet for his interest. "There wasn't much to be done, except geography," he said. "The only history we were taught was, these people were savages, barbarians, who were rescued by Europeans."

Gates has taken his interest in Africa a long way. He nurtured that interest as an undergraduate at Yale, has seen it bear fruit during his tenure as the W.E.B. DuBois professor of the humanities at Harvard University, and has shared his enthusiasm on national television.

He does that again this week when he serves as narrator, travel guide, interviewer and adventurer in a six-part PBS series, "Wonders of the African World," airing Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday from 9 to 11 p.m.

This series follows another Gates TV excursion to Africa, a "Great Railway Journeys" segment in which he got to introduce his daughters to their African roots.

"Their reaction," he laughed, "was, my roots are in Cambridge, Mass., thank you very much, and get those drums out of my face."

That production led to this one, also a PBS-BBC project. When asked what sort of television series he would like to do, he thought of one of TV's landmarks.

"I had this fantasy," said Gates. "I remembered Ken Clark and his `Civilization' series." He wanted to bring that approach to Africa.

Gates's approach was academic: He contacted a number of scholars soliciting their ideas for the seven wonders of the African world. With the series confined to six hours, he refined the list.

"I wanted to combine history with a journey," he said. "I didn't want a lot of talking heads." He does, however, find a number of locals along the way to discuss history and heritage.

This trek and series is the most recent adventure that has allowed him to indulge and enrich his interest in the African continent and culture.

When Gates enrolled at Yale in 1966, he soon applied for a Mellon Foundation program that included travel to and time spent in a third-world country. He applied, was accepted and was off to Tanzania for a six-month stay that included time spent in the capital, Dar es Salaam, without running water or electricity and with the distinct feeling he'd landed in the middle of nowhere.

But Gates seems to have a strong sense of adventure. He and a friend decided to hitchhike the equator. "We saw the continent on the ground," he recalled. "We sailed down the Congo. So I was hooked."

Throughout this series, Gates shares his enthusiasm for Africa -- its geography, culture and history. Here is an hour-by-hour rundown on the program, for which there is also a companion book:

In Monday's first hour, Gates heads for the Sudanese desert in search of the ancient land of Nubia, a name taking on added cachet among young African-Americans.

In the second segment, Gates explores the East African coast where the origins of Swahili culture are to be found.

In Tuesday's first hour, Gates's exploration becomes personal and painful as he examines Africans' involvement in the slave trade of their own people.

Tuesday's part two becomes a pilgrimage as Gates examines the Christian heritage of Ethiopia.

Wednesday finds Gates stopping in Mali on his way to Timbuktu. In Mali, he explores a gold mine, an industry that helped fuel the country's wealth in medieval times.

And in Timbuktu he is brought to tears as he examines centuries-old manuscripts. (Upon his return, he secured a grant for a Timbuktu project to preserve and translate the literary treasurers.)

In the final hour, Gates examines the roots and aftermath of apartheid in South Africa.

Then it's off to Great Zimbabwe, the second largest stone structure in Africa after the pyramids and the landmark for which the country is named.