We left Freetown before the crack of dawn and I made sure not to get relegated to the back seat, i politely asked the reporter who had decked himself shotgun to move to the back and he obliged. I made sure to wear one of my very long africana dresses so that i could wrap it around my feet as i did my best to get into the fetal position using a lappa as my pillow. We were in a convoy of two SUVs headed for what i thought to be a brief stop in Bo and then on to Sulima on the South Eastern coast next to the Liberian border. I chose sleep over the green scenery on the Bo-Freetown highway and though i woke up intermittently at checkpoints and pit stops at Mile 91 and Moyamba Junction it was only long enough to remove the kink in my neck to curl back up to sleep.
After what seemed like forever but really was only 3 hours we stopped behind the SUV carrying our esteemed guests, we had reached Baima a town on the outskirts of Bo Town. Our guests were Fred Jordan and Nanette Cutliff two African Americans who had traveled to Sierra Leone from San Francisco, California to speak at The African Network's yearly private sector entrepreneurship and investors conference. Coincidentally both Fred and Nanette had several years earlier taken DNA tests to unveil their African ancestral origins and as fate would have it their DNA had not only brought them to Sierra Leone but more specifically to the mende ethnic group in the South & East of the country.
I stumbled out of the car worried how my now sleepy face would look on camera. The other half of our two man production crew MP Conteh was already out of the car and half way through his fag. I put on some lipgloss, hoping that would be enough and walked over to Fred and Nanette who looked as tired as i did but clearly anticipating the ceremony of which they would soon partake. School children, women and men of Baima chiefdom stood in the entrance community and sang to the drums, shegura and other traditional instruments whose names i do not know. They sang: "home again, home again, when shall i see my home? when shall i see my native land? i shall never forget my home".
Fred and Nanette waved and shook hands and I walked behind them while MP Conteh ran in front of us to get a shot of us entering the village, the welcome party closed in behind us and we walked up the hill to the community center. The villagers were already seated along with the regent chief at the high table that was later introduced to us with his proper name and title. The chief spoke in Mende and while someone else translated for us in a melange of englishkrio.
The Regent chief recognized the other lesser and greater chiefs present, the teachers, the elders, the women, the councilor and every person of note that was present and yet still at the end of it all apologized for not being able to recognize everyone because of time. He announced that we were gathered together because our brother and our sister have finally returned home. He spoke briefly about slavery and said that though our people were driven away they had now returned. A member of our entourage Sallia was asked to introduce Fred & Nanette to the people as he Sallia was also a son of the very chiefdom of Gbaima. Sallia went further into the history of slavery and said that before the time of his great great great great great great father that the ancestors of Fred & Nanette had been taken into slavery and generations later Fred & Nanette had used DNA to trace their heritage to Sierra Leone and that now they were back home.
After the introduction, Fred got up and spoke heartily about a journey he had made with his son many years earlier visiting African countries from Senegal to Kenya looking for people who resembled him, a lifelong quest to know where he was from. He explained that his mother had bore 13 children and that he was 1 of 1200 in his family of brothers and sisters, nieces, nephews, cousins, grand children and great grandchildren and by taking the DNA test he had answered the question of African ancestry for all 1200 of his family. Fred pulled out a copy of Steven Spielberg's The Amistad and explained the story of a mende man by the name of Sengbeh Pieh who had triumphed against slavery and beat the US Supreme court to gain his freedom and return back to Sierra Leone. Fred proudly exclaimed that the mende people of Sierra Leone were therefore stronger in his eyes than any other African people. He spoke of the importance of his journey to Sierra Leone and called it a milestone in his life.
As he sat down i thought how disconnected indeed we were from our history of slavery...It is almost that we convinced ourselves here on the continent that slavery happened to THEM that THEY were sold into slavery and therefore it is not our shared history but rather a history of some far far away people in a far away land.
A mende Gorboi debul (masquerade) heavily clothed in rafia came out of nowhere in the crowd and zoomed up to where i was seated and my heart jumped out of its heartcase...i didnt know what was going on. I started to whimper until i was instructed to touch it. I didn’t realize women could touch them so the little girl in me who had been scared of debuls couldn’t touch the Gorboi. It went over to the Regent cheif guided by it's handler and the Chief touched it. He went to Fred and Nanette and others at the high table and they touched it. Finally it came back to me and the krio pekin in me reached out and touched it...i didn’t die...wheww that was close. It danced for a good 15 minutes shaking its rafia reminding me of those dragons from the Chinese New Year Performances. It was beautiful and my camera could not catch it in motion, every attempt was a blur of rafia. Finally the Gorboi debul got money and it was appeased and retreated out of the community center.
After the Gorboi debul had exited the Regent Chief announced that the Songai Chief ruling family was now going to adopt Fred and Nanette as one of their own. A bottle of Schweppes and a cup of water was produced, and one of the other chiefs poured libation on the floor and began to incant the ancestors and the spirits while mixing the liquor with water and earth. While the incantations were being chanted Mr. Fawundu who is Crim and Mende by tribe but born again Christian in religion afraid of participating in a heathen traditional practice began to repeat In the name of jesus, i cover u in the blood of jesus. I couldn’t help but laugh. The chief took the concoction of water, earth, liquor, and blessings and rubbed his forefinger on the heads of Nanette and Fred, the Chief pronounced that hence forth Nanette would be known as Gilo Songai while Fred would be known as Mundalo Songai. The rebirthed children of the Mende tribe were then handed gifts of country cloth from the community as the hall broke into song and dance. We walked out of the hall and joined the rest of the traditional dancers, drummers and well wishers as we headed to the several acres of land that had been set aside by the community to be given to Gilo and Mundalo as an incentive to return to their ancestral home and contribute to its development.
Gilo and Mundalo overjoyed and grateful rejoined our waiting convoy as we headed to Bo Town, Sierra Leone's second largest city. Starving, we headed to the Lebanese owned and operated SABs Restuarant. We spent the next hour or so in high spirits eating and laughing, all of us happy and satisfied with the days events. After Lunch we jumped in our now dust covered cars for the 4 hour journey back to Freetown to join the frenzy of people gathering at Taia Resort for the next day's investment conference.
After we came back from the adoption ceremony of Fred & Nanette, now uncle Mundalo and aunty Gilo, we spent the next two days participating in TAN conference events including the investment conference and the post conference cocktail at Country Lodge. Uncle Mundalo spoke about the importance of building economic ties between africa and african americans, connecting the dots of our common history to unleash africa's potential. As the president of the San Francisco Black Chamber of Commerce, Fred Mundalo presented a plaque to His Excellency Ernest Bai inducting him into the Black Chamber of Commerce. Uncle Mundalo's speech was preceded by a presentation by actor Jeffrey Wright who has spent the past several years working on a sustainable mining project that seeks to add as much value to its stake holders as to the communities in which they mine. His mining company Taia LLC work (no relation to Taia Resort) in partnership with the Taia Peace Foundation the charity arm of Taia LLC. Just this month the Taia Peace Foundation gave Sierra Leone Road and Transport Authority 1.4bn leones ($350,000) raised earlier this year from a benefit in New York city attended by former US president Bill Clinton, Jessica Alba, Ben Stiller, three representatives of Penguia Chiefdom in Pujehun, Sierra Leone and other important folk. The night was brought to a close by Creole Jazz vocalist Gwyn Jay Allen performing songs from his album "I Love Loius: a Creole tribute to Loius Armstrong". It was a wonderful collection of a diverse group of people connecting all the dots of the African network. The festivities went well into the late of night but i excused myself in preparation for our trip to the slave castle ruins on Bunce Island.
The folks over at Visit Sierra Leone had organized several trips to Bunce Island in previous years but I had been unable to make the trip. To complete Fred and Nanette's narrative experience back to Sierra Leone we had to visit Bunce Island, a slave castle that could have once been the place of no return for Fred and Nanette's ancestors. According to anthropologist and historian Joseph Opala, more slaves went directly to the Carolina & Georgia Rice Plantations from Sierra Leone than from any other slave castles on the African coast including Goree & Elmina.
We chattered two speed boats from the Pelican Water Taxi courtesy of Visit Sierra Leone that provided us with a tour guide for the trip. The view heading to the island was spectacular and the sea breeze was good too. It was a one hour journey to the island with a short pit stop on one of the surrounding islands to pick up Mr. Brima, an elderly temne pa, the self appointed custodian, tour guide, and keeper of the visitor's log of uninhabited Bunce Island.
We got off the speed boat and i was overwhelmed by the silence; no people, no beep beep, no disturbing smells, no nothing, nothing. It was serene and i loved it. When we began the tour i was immediately struck by the difference between Goree and Elmina and Bunce which seemed like it belonged in a category all of its on. What we saw were the ruins of a castle on an island that is poorly cared for and over run by trees and shrubs and grass. Pa Brima who struggled to speak krio tried to reconstruct the story of slavery in Sierra Leone and the history of the castle that had passed through Dutch, Portuguese, and British slavers. He spoke of a temne man by the name of Adams who served as servant/care taker/slaver under all three European slave eras and he would eventually show us the broken and efaced tombstone of Adams as locals now struggle to claim ownership of the island that has now been declared a national heritage site as well as a UNESCO world heritage site. A week after i visited Bunce I met a direct descendant of the slaver Adams and jokingly suggested that his family pay reparations.
As Fred and Nanette walked through the Island they were most touched by the explanation of the treatment of slaves at Bunce Island. According to Pa Brima and our VSL tour guide, female and male slaves at Bunce Island were kept for up to 4days without food and then forced to run around the castle up to six times. Anyone who could not complete the obstacle course was whipped merciless and set aside as a weakling unfit for the sale. Those who made it up to the 4th through 6th round would be separated and branded for sale. We saw the canons left over from several attacks on the castle over decades of scrambling for Africa's human resources. We walked over to what would have been the door of no return and i entered into a cave that would have held the slaves for the last time before they left for death or the new world. the cave was pitch black, and the wings and screeches of what felt like hundreds of bats frightened me and i jumped out of the cave. We concluded our tour by signing Pa Brima's guest book as he remembered to tell us that Colin Powell had made the journey to Bunce Island some years before. In his autobiography My American Journey Colin Powell's expresses his feelings after visiting Bunce Island, he writes “I am an American…but today, I am something more. I am an African too. I feel my roots here in this continent”
Before we left the island i asked Fred Mundalo Songai Jordan two questions: What do you think we can do to bring more African Americans to Sierra Leone and will you come back? "I will be back sooner than you think. But most importantly i hope to spread the word and tell others of the hospitality that i have been shown here in Sierra Leone and the beauty of its people and the country. I intend to go on a campaign to convince the San Francisco Black Chamber of Commerce to have their annual conference here in when Sierra Leone turns 50 in the year 2011. But as to what will bring African Americans to Sierra Leone, it is simple. African Americans need to know that they are welcome with open arms, that they will be safe and that there are people here who can facilitate their visit. African Americans are a proud people who are not only proud of being black but they are also very proud of being African and i believe that they will come."
Fred signs the guest book and we take a photograph together a memory I will always cherish. I believe that as many more African Americans use DNA to trace their ancestry we will find that many more are willing to make the journey Salone and even go so far as to making substantial contributions to the country's national development. We just need to do our part to make sure that when our DNA brothers and sisters come home they actually have facilities and facilitators to make the trip a worthwhile experience.
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