DNA Tests Bringing AfricanAmericans to Sierra Leone (Freetown- GBo) Part 1

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(image credit: J. Opala)

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 feotal 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 travelled 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 councillor 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, neices, 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 wimper until i was instructed to touch it. I didnt realise women could touch them so the little girl in me who had been scared of debuls couldnt 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 didnt 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 pariticipating in a heathen traditional practice began to repeat In the name of jesus, i cover u in the blood of jesus. I couldnt 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 two rebithed 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   forthe next day’s investment conference.

to be continued…