9 June 2006

Sierra Leone: Concord Times Speaks to Joseph Opala


Freetown — Sierra Leone's history with America over the years has been dated as far back to the days of slavery. Records have proven that lots of Sierra Leonean captive slaves were taken to the Americas.

Many historians have unearthed these facts. Most recent amongst them is American born Professor Joseph Opala, an Archeologist, who has been able to link the Gullah descendants of a captive slave girl from Sierra Leone. Opala is presently in the country working on a project to help preserve and develop Bounce Island, where a British slave Castle was situated. Concord Times' Ibrahim Seibure caught up with Prof. Opala to dilate on why he developed the passion to unearth the Sierra Leone/America relations and what should be done to improve on Sierra Leone's cultural heritage.

Read excerpts of the interview.

Why did you get yourself involved in this kind of adventure?

I began to do research on Bunce Island back in 1976. At that time former United States of America Ambassador to Sierra Leone, Michael Samuels directed me to Bunce Island. I was a young Peace Corp volunteer to Sierra Leone at that time. I had done a degree in archeology/anthropology. The then ambassador called me and told me to do something on Bunce Island. I had never heard of Bunce Island at that time. The ambassador then provided me with a boat to go to Bunce Island. That is how all of this began. As I began to research on the Island more and more I discovered that, that particular British Slave Castle sent many of its captives (African Slaves) to the North American colonies of South Carolina and Georgia. Those colonies were rice-growing colonies and the slaves' owners wanted Africans with rice growing skills. So here I began to see a direct link between Bunce Island, Sierra Leone and these small places in North America. So a lot of Sierra Leoneans were taken to North America. And then I began to look at the African - Americans who lived in coastal South Carolina and Georgia, who are today the Gullah people.

I found out that there are many similarities. The language of the Gullahs are similar to the Creoles, Mende, Temne, Limba and Via in their language. The rice diet is very similar. They have Okra soup, jollof rice, which they call red rice, plasas that they called green. There are lots of similarities in the culture. So after my research in 1976 I went back to US in 1979 and returned in 1980 and gave a lecture at the US Embassy in Freetown. I was very surprised to see explosive reactions. When I was doing the research I did not realize the yawning Sierra Leoneans have to locate lost families. Sierra Leoneans knew they have lost families during the slave trade but I don't think any one ever believed it. During the slave trade so many Sierra Leoneans were taken to one particular place in the Americas that even now you could see family, resemblances. So, I was overwhelmed by the popular reactions. That really started in 1985, I would have probably stayed in Sierra Leone may be for two years and return to the US but I stayed from 1985 to 1997 when the AFRC overthrew the government. During that period for about 12 years I became involved in a dialogue with the Sierra Leonean public. People kept putting questions to me. With these series of questions, Sierra Leoneans started directing me to research goals.

How did you develop this passion of tracing the history of Sierra Leone during the slave trade down to the United States that today links the Gullahs in South Carolina and Georgia to the Mendes in Southern Sierra Leone?

The passion really came from my interaction with the Sierra Leonean public. The first thing that happened is that after Sierra Leoneans started receiving my lectures they really wanted to see the Gullah people. You know that if you discover your lost families for over 20 years, you have this great yawning to see them and meet with them. So the first thing that happened in 1988 is that former president J.S Momoh called me to his office for me to arrange a meeting for him and the Gullah people. He was caught up with this kind of event like any other Sierra Leonean and told me that president Reagan has invited me to go to the US and that the president has asked him if there is anything that he wants and he told me his ambition is to see the Gullah people. So I made an arrangement for him and his entourage to go to an Island in South Carolina where the Gullah's live. I went along with him. There was huge excitement. They showed the president the rice dishes, mortars and pestles, fanners and baskets and told him stories in their language. Then Momoh invited the Gullah to come on a "home coming" and I began to involve the government on that. In 1989 we had a "Gullah home coming". Now you can see the excitement. The passion was really coming from the Sierra Leonean public. I was really involved in working with the committee to design series of events of what this family connection is all about. You asked how the passion really came about. The passion came about as it was a big surprise to me that after the first Gullah home coming, after all the public excitement, the secret thing I realized was that of Sierra Leoneans coming to me asking " what are you doing next"? And I asked them "what should I do next". You have been seeing results. And then so many people would say to me "those were Gullah community leaders, but do you know where their ancestors were from in Sierra Leone? And I said to them it is "likely" and the Sierra Leoneans said to me " find somebody or family in the Gullah community that you can prove came from Sierra Leone".

So they put a challenge to me. I didn't think it was possible first. Then that led to the "Moran family home coming". We found a family in coastal Georgia, (a Gullah family) that has preserved a Mende song for 200 years. We were able to get the recording of that song and took it the Mende country. We went from villages to village and people recognized the language, but not the song. And in one particular village we found a Mende family, which still knew that song. Then we now had the connection, the specific Gullah family. And that led to the "Moran Gullah home coming" in 1997.

Again I thought that was the end of it and then this passion came forward. Sierra Leoneans came to me and said "that was wonderful", another home coming", but still you don't know the identify of the person who took that song." "Can't you find the identify of the particular Sierra Leonean who was a slave and taken to the United States". I didn't think it was possible.

But again Sierra Leoneans' passion pushed me to look in places I might have not worked. That led to Priscillia's home coming in 2005. We had the identity of a particular little girl ten years old that was kidnapped to slavery in Sierra Leone in 1756 and we were able to trace her great, great, great grand daughter who came to Sierra Leone last year. It has been a kind of interactive passion. Sierra Leoneans have the passion and they pushed me to it.

As a historian involved in researching Sierra Leone history, what do you think should be done to improve Sierra Leone's cultural heritage?

I think there is a lot more research to do.

Already there is a group of archeologists selected by Christopher Decorse that recently came to Sierra Leone to look at Bunce Island. I can say that the Island is such a complicated site to investigate properly. It will take millions of US$ and could take 50 years.

That is just one site. What I am interested in now is the "Sierra Leone Gullah Connection" to help develop Sierra Leone' cultural, economic, and even political development. Let's look at the value of this. During the rebel war there were so many Gullah people in South Carolina and Georgia who believed that their ancestors came from Sierra Leone. They used to go to Washington to talk to their Senators and representatives. I was sometimes with them. While we sit in the office there were a number of American congressmen, and would say to them "this is where Sierra Leone is and where our ancestors came from and as American citizens we demand that the US government do something to help the country. "People are dying there and we want help for that country of our origin". Now this is what we call US "ethnic politics". In US, Irish Americans demand help for Ireland, Polish Americans demand help for Poland and the Jewish Americans absolutely insist on help for Israel. But until recently African nations don't have this. They don't have specific ethnic lobbies. This is something that affects Sierra Leone apart from any other African nation. I think in the years to come African Americans in coastal South Carolina and Georgia will be seeing themselves, as descendants of Sierra Leone and will be insisting that the US government gives assistance of various types to Sierra Leone. I think you will also see that at political and economic levels which I believe will be very easy for Sierra Leone to begin to organize an ongoing cultural tourism of Africa - America origin coming to Sierra Leone to the site in Freetown, Bunce Island and to find the route of Africa - American history. As that happens it will bring research, which means publications of books. Historical information will bring cultural development. So there are many facets to this link.

Apart from the Gullah connection that you have established do you have intensions to go beyond looking at Sierra Leone's ethnic diversity?

Well I am not sure. But I have done a lot of different types of research over the years in Sierra Leone. A lot of people may remember that I was one of the first people here to bring Amistard story back to Sierra Leone. In fact I was campaigning for Sengbeh Pieh to be placed on the currency as earlier as in 1986. The first class I had at Fourah Bay College, I came in front of the class and asked them "how many of you have heard about Sengbeh Pieh and the Amistard revolt? No hand was raised. The second year I asked again only one or two hands were raised and the third year. I was fortunate that the first year I got to FBC I had a brilliant student by the name of Charlie Hafner. We became partners on an enterprise to create awareness of Amistard and Sengbeh Pieh in Sierra Leone. Charlie wrote his play "Amistard Cata Cata" as a part of my course in Sierra Leone's culture at FBC and I began to go all around the country. For about five years we met for about once a month to discuss our joint efforts to promote Amistard in the country.

So that is one of my passions. Another passion of me had been a research on the Krio language, its origin and development. I have also done a lot of research in the Limba area. And my particular interest is the "Ronko" gown, which the chiefs and black smiths wear.

So I have done a lot of things over the years.

Now that you have linked the Gullahs and the Mendes, and have done so many research on Sierra Leone. Are you going to end it all here?

'A nor die yate oh! (I have not died yet) (laughs). I left this country in 1997 after AFRC overthrew and taught at James Madison University in Virginia. But I have to tell you, this is no exaggeration, everyday of my life in America I keep doing something with regards to Sierra Leone. The project I am working on now is that I want to create an exhibition on Bunce Island. It will come here but will also circulate to various places in US, Colleges and universities. That is the project I am working on now. I am also working on a book on Bunce Island. And of course I am constantly involved in trying to get Bunce Island preserved and developed and also trying to get fund in US to do that. Somebody asked that my Krio is good as everyone. And I said, the reason is that I speak Krio everyday in the US. At least everyday I get five calls on my mobile phone from Sierra Leoneans. I work with a lot of Sierra Leonean organizations in the US. For instance I left my city and went to another to join Sierra Leoneans celebrate the Independence anniversary. So I am always involved in Sierra Leonean activities. I will be in the post office, super market and there is a call and I will be speaking Krio and other Americans will be looking at me. "Hay what kind of crazy man is this?" Even though I am out of Sierra Leone but I am not out of Sierra Leone, physically not mentally.

What is the next programme for the Gullah people?

We don't have one. But if you really look at this "home coming" they are unpredictable. Who could have predicted that we would find a woman in America who had a Mende song? Who would have predicted that we would trace Pricilla's descendants by identifying somebody through a paper record over seven generations? So these things happen by accident.

They are completely unpredictable. At this point I don't anticipate that I will organize another Gullah homecoming. But I can tell you this. I meet African - Americans everyday who ask me " How can I come to Sierra Leone"? How can I bring a goods"? Some are generally African - American and some are Gullah people. Recently a Gullah performer whose name is Anita Prather contacted me. She sings in Gullah, performs drama and does all kinds of skits. She is a very great Gullah performer. She told me she wants to come to Sierra Leone with a film crew and do her Gullah performance and make a film out of it. So perhaps the initiative now as a historian is that I had the initiative over the past years but maybe the initiative is now shifted to the Gullah people themselves so even when I am not active there are other people who will keep the connection going.

What will you do in the future to push the Sierra Leone- Gullah Connection forward?

I'm working with a Sierra Leonean group based in the United States called the "Sierra Leone-Gullah Heritage Association." A man named Amadu Massally leads it.

The group is devoted to telling African-Americans about their historical and family links to Sierra Leone.

Massally's group hopes to bring African-Americans to Sierra Leone on a regular basis on historical heritage tours. They'll tour historic sites in Freetown and go to Bunce Island. I think you'll be hearing a lot about this group in the future

Are you married?

No. I am surprised you asked me.

But you have children.

No. But I have an adopted child here in Sierra Leone. Many people know him. Most times when I am not here he acts in my place. His name is Alpha Kanu.

He is a student in the cultural studies programme at F.B.C. I raised him as a young boy 'tae e don big' (till he came of age).

Thank you very much.

Thank you too

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