Even if Alex Haley did get his local history wrong, don't count on the Gambian government to embarrass him.

The government has made an official decision to stand by Haley and "Roots" within the limits of what reliable sources refer to as "known truths" - and that means having nothing to do with efforts to question the best-selling book's authenticity.

The decision was prompted by a cold-blooded reading that Gambia should do its best to reap its own dividends from "Roots" by promoting black American mass tourism and trying to stir greater American interest in this former British colony.

The attempts to try to cash in on "Roots" are perhaps best reflected in the changes taking place in Juffure, the Gambia riverside village from which Kunta Kinte is said to have hailed. It was near here that Haley said his ancestor was captured by British slavers in 1767, then transported to Annapolis and sold into bondage in the American South.

Juffure's largely illiterate Mandingo tribesmen cannot read English - only the younger children have gone to school - but if they did they would agree with a recent front-page headline in the Gambia News Bulletin.

"Haley Visits the Village He Put on the Map," it proclaimed after the author, his two brothers, Warner Bro. representatives, television crews and a gaggle of American reporters swept through the village, spruced up with new raffia fences between family compounds for the "homecoming."

Outwardly, Juffure still resembles any of a thousand other sleepy poor farming villages in this West African nation of half a million people where smuggling and growing peanuts have long been the main sources of income.

The men gather on raised platforms under leafy trees to talk over village affairs. Tin roofs alternate with thatch over the mud houses, cattle graze on the sparse savannah vegetation, and the entire area is dusty in the present dry season and doubtless muddy when it rains. Without electricity, life follows the rising and the setting of the sun.

Even before "Roots," Juffure had acquired a dispensary - but no permanently assigned paramedical personnel - and a schoolhouse.

Now, the public workers department is building a road to Juffure that should facilitate tourist traffic from Banjul, Gambia's capital, and along the 200-mile paved highway to Dakar, the capital of neighboring Senegal. Dakar's airport can handle jumbo jets - Bangul Bangul cannot - and is linked to New York by nonstop flights.

The government is also repairing the rotting planks of the wharf and the jetty at Albreda, Juffure's twin village and until 25 years ago a major trading post for mainly French export-import firms.

It is hoped that the repaired wharf will encourage tourists to travel to Albreda by boat from Banjul, 18 miles to the southwest across the wide Gambia River bay.

Shipwrights in Albreda, are rushing to complete a wooden boat, along the lines of those used by Portuguese slave-trade's, to transport tourists to James Island.It was there that Kunta Kinte and many other slaves were imprisoned before the slave ships took them to America in their holds.

Witness is borne to the long European involvement in Juffure and Albreda by the now-abandoned brick buildings, where the traders once lived. Some lie in ruins; others, especially those grouped around a muzzle-loading 1820s cannon, are still intact.

Now that both villages seem determined to emerge from a long period of lethargy, the inhabitants accept their sudden change of fortune with Moslem fatality, tinged with just a hint of creeping money-grubbing.

"From the most faraway times we have been good Moslems," explained Keba Madi Kinte, at 44 the leader of the Kinte family here.

"And since our earliest ancestors, we have prayed for the best for our village. So we are not surprised if something good happens. It's because our prayers have been answered."

The smell of money is everywhere. The villagers are not above asking for cash. A nine-year-old boy asked a visitor to find him a job overseas.

The next village toward Banjul seems to have gotten the message, too. Children waved wildly at two foreigners driving back to the capital, yelling "Money, money, money!"

Many of the families are too poor to pay school fees for their children - which means many girls do not go beyond primary school, if indeed they are lucky enough to get even a few years' schooling.

Around the corner, however, particularly if the tourist trade from America really starts booming, Juffure could discover the joys of its first flush toilet, McDonalds and Coca-cola.

With a per-capita income of only $145, Gambians look longingly toward any helping hand, so the government's readiness to try to cash in on "Roots" is understandable.

Even Pa Cheyassin Ousman Secka, 33, an American-trained lawyer who is the closest thing to a radical politician in this nation of easy-going and democratic people, is basically on the government's side in trying to beef up "I'm not frightened by a flood of black American tourists," he said in an interview, adding that he did not think it would be bad if black Americans could be made to feel a primary loyalty to Africa.

"Roots" could encourage Americans to visit Gambia, and hopefully that could lead to cooperation in the fields of education, training, agriculture, etc.," he said.

But like other, less-radical Gambians, he voiced doubt about the economic viability of tourism and its allegedly demoralizing effect on Gambian youth. Foreign residents, too, note an upsurge in violence, with foreign tourists appearing to be the principal target.

Yet, for most of a decade, Gambia has provided what the locals call sun and sex for Northern European tourists - Swedes and Danes made up 75 per cent of the total of the 25,000 tourists who came here last year.

Alieu Jagne, the Ministry of Tourism's Permanent Secretary, said that even taking into account profits repatriated by the largely Scandinavian owned package tour hotels. Gambia still made $3 million in foreign exchange from tourism last year.

Tourism has also created 2,100 new jobs over the past five years.

Jagne said two American travel agencies - Henderson Travel of Atlanta and the K. L. R. International of New York - have promised to provide package tours of from 35 to 40 Americans once a week or more from the end of June through the end of August.

That is the off season - the weather is hot and humid - and most tourist hotels shut down.

Potential tourist boom or not, there is a fierce determination - especially among the people of Juffure - not to be drawn into foreign arguments about the authenticity of the village as Kunta Kinte's home.

Several men greeted two foreign visitors with ill-concealed suspicion when asked about the late Kebba Kanga Fofana, the controversial griot or oral historian whose tale convinced Haley that Juffure was his "Roots."

Mamady Tall, the deputy alcali or village chief, explained that a ruined two-story structure was a warehouse where slaves had been kept before being taken to the shore a few hundred yards away to board boats for James Island.

"Here is where Kunta Kinte was caught," he exclaimed within a stone's throw of the ruin. Few would have been so churlish as to point out to so convinced a man that he was undermining Haley's case and lending credence to those who have questioned the factual validity of "Roots."

For, after all, what would Kunta Kinte have been doing gathering wood so close to the dreaded slavers' warehouse?

Most Gambians are ready to overlook errors in the film version of "Roots," such Kunta Kinte's Mandingo circumcision rites to choreography apparently based on dances from the Yorubas, who live 1,500 miles away in Nigeria.

Other discrepancies the Banjul elite seized on when shown the film - ranging from non-Gambian music to the bra marks left on light-skinned actresses during the bare-breasted dance sequences - were not noticed by the villagers of Juffure.

For them, the biggest thrill was seeing a television set for the first time when a generator was brought to the village to show the Gambia-based segments.