Photo courtesy Mansa Foday Ajamu.
"We Lek We Salone:” The Black Americans Finding Home in Sierra Leone
Several Black Americans are paving the way for members of the diaspora to find their way back to their ancestral home of Sierra Leone.
It is December 2022, and dozens of African-Americans in green, white and blue attire sit under a tent on the grounds of the Sierra Leonean Presidential Palace complex waiting to receive their Sierra Leonean passports. One of the attendees repeatedly says, “I am home,” while signing a document. The mood captures the spirit of Collins Pratt’s classic feel-good song “We Lek We Salone” – there is a love for the country and its beauty permeating the atmosphere.
The scenes are captured in a video, posted by Black American entrepreneur Dynast Amir, on his YouTube Channel, “Search for Uhuru,” where President Julius Maada Bio confers citizenship on the group after a DNA test they each took shows they have roots here. In 2021, Sierra Leone became the first African nation to formally give people citizenship if they are able to prove they have ancestral ties to the country. To date, it is the only African country that offers this.
In the video, Maada Bio describes the moment as the “climax of a historic journey after months and years of searching for your ancestral roots.” He then says in Sierra Leonean Creole or Krio, “Una Kushe”, or “You all are welcome.” The occasion also marked the climax of a year-long celebration of the 230th anniversary of the nation’s capital, Freetown, which was established by some natives, abolitionists and former slaves to settle enslaved peoples from England, Nova Scotia, the U.S., and later Jamaica.
The attendees are here because of Amir’s tourism heritage company, Danfo, which organises trips to Sierra Leone, Benin, Senegal, Nigeria and Tanzania. The former salesman from Texas began his travel business in 2011 when a friend recommended he holiday in Tanzania. “At the time, I saw a nightclub in Santa Monica called Zanzibar, so that was confirmation. When I made it in the country, it hit me that ‘I’m here’ in Africa. It was very rewarding,” he tells OkayAfrica.
Leaving the airport, he remembers facing questions that were to set him off on a new journey. “Phone sellers and taxi people come up to me and start speaking in Swahili,” he says. “I tell them I don’t understand. They ask me if I am Ghanaian or South African and then ask about my ethnicity. I keep telling them I’m Black American, and they’re like ‘No, where are you from?’ At the time, I didn’t know because we were disconnected from that due to the slave trade. So that led to “In Search of Uhuru” because, after that, I wanted to learn more. Uhuru means freedom in Swahili; I wanted my freedom by finding my African roots.”
Amir was inspired to take a DNA test after actor Isaiah Washington traced his maternal lineage to the Mende of Sierra Leone in 2005. Washington is reported to be the first Black American to have obtained African citizenship through DNA testing.
Thanks to the popularity of DNA testing, hundreds of thousands of Black people in the diaspora have filled some gaps in the knowledge of their past, by discovering their links to African ethnic groups or present-day nation-states, after slavery severed those ties. Dr Gina Paige is the co-founder of African Ancestry, a Black-owned DNA company that pioneered this DNA testing technology when it launched in 2003, and has traced the maternal and paternal roots of notable figures, like civil rights activists Jesse Jackson, Dr Martin Luther King III, pan-African scholar Julius Garvey, historian Henry Louis Gates Jr., actress Regina King, and the late actors Chadwick Boseman and Michael K. Williams, to Sierra Leone.
Paige says longstanding mistrust of scientific institutions in the Black community has made her work challenging. “Today Black Americans are still contending with the [historical] misuse of our genetic information, but African Ancestry did not know that we would reconnect Africa and the diaspora [so] uniquely,” she says.
While African Ancestry says it did not play a role in lobbying the Sierra Leonean government for its clients to have a pathway to citizenship, Paige explains it’s become a significant part of the company’s family reunion tours. “There are growing sentiments Black people don’t feel safe or valued in the U.S.,” she says, “so to get citizenship somewhere else and be accepted where people want you home – it’s that basic human kindness that they can experience and also help the growth of the country.” She adds that often, when someone gets their test results, one of the first things they say is they want “to go home and put their feet on the land.”
She continues: “You see the impact of them standing on Bunce Island [a decaying former slave port on Bunce Island, where thousands of people were trafficked to the U.S. and Caribbean islands like Jamaica, with the understanding of where their ancestor was most likely taken from. It’s another place of reverence, and we make sure we underscore how one should be in that space.”
And then there is getting a ‘native’ name from their ancestral communities, which Paige says is “an act of resistance.” One example is when traveler Shazel Muhammad-Neain was given a name whose meaning is similar to the nickname her family calls her, and as the Mende chief described what the name meant, everyone in the travel group was astounded.
These trips also provide opportunities to go beyond preconceived notions and expectations about the country. Locals are very receptive and excited when her travel groups visit as they get first-hand insight into the experiences and histories of Black people outside the continent. “It’s not just one-sided; it’s presenting an opportunity to the people in the places to learn about us. There's been 400 years of misinformation and negative stereotypes minimised by our work on both sides.”
Sierra Leone’s ‘Path of Return’
These trips recall Sierra Leone’s larger historical role in the ‘Back to Africa’ movement which includes the repatriation of former enslaved Africans in, and from, 1787, as well as the struggle for freedom in the 19th-century Amistad case. Closer to modern times, the 2014 documentary, They Are We explores how centuries-old songs reunited an Afro-Cuban community and the Banta people of Sierra Leone.
Local historian Francis Momoh is passionate about Sierra Leone’s links to the larger diaspora. Last year, he hosted a U.S. Congressional delegation on Bunce Island. “Sierra Leone’s role in the making of Africa and the wider Atlantic World has always been prominent,” he tells OkayAfrica. “People only know Sierra Leone, via the lens of the Hollywood movie Blood Diamond, and a civil war that ended in 2002. If the rich cultures and history of our beloved country are taken seriously, we can start redirecting our effort to a destination that benefits us, nationally and internationally.”
Ghana’s 2019 ‘Year of Return’ initiative, which commemorated 400 years since the first recorded landing of enslaved Africans in Jamestown, Virginia, is an example of what that could look like. Critics like Shamirah Ibrahim argue these well-intentioned initiatives come with their own set of challenges that include the unintended economic impact on native Ghanaians. But Momoh doesn’t foresee any negative outcome. “Sierra Leone prioritises the cultural and emotive reasons, but all other benefits, including economic growth, will follow accordingly,” he says.
The Gullah Connection
Black Americans like Mansa Foday Ajamu Mansaray and his wife Kenya Malinke have been heavily involved in lobbying for those in the diaspora to become citizens since they made Sierra Leone their home in 2013. They’re from the Gullah Geechee, a community that preserved their African linguistic and cultural heritage despite slavery. Their ties with Sierra Leone run deep, as former president Joseph Saidu Momoh would learn on a visit to South Carolina in 1988. Thousands of enslaved Sierra Leoneans were trafficked to South Carolina and Georgia because of their knowledge of rice farming. The visit and subsequent Gullah Geechee homecoming to Sierra Leone was portrayed in the PBS documentary, Family Across the Sea.
“The African diaspora’s strongest connection to Sierra Leone is the Gullah Geechee people and Freetown is the capital, the birthplace of pan-Africanism on the continent,” Mansaray tells OkayAfrica. “It’s the first place where repatriated people returned for the purpose of freedom. That’s why I knew I had to come here as a Pan-African. This was a place I felt was my home.”
Mansaray, who was raised between Pennsylvania and South Carolina, says his mother kept alive knowledge of the family’s Mandinka heritage. “It’s not something I am discovering from a DNA test,” he says. His adopted name Mansa, a title reserved for emperors of the ancient Malian empire, corroborates his role as a paramount chief for the Gullah Geechee community in Sierra Leone, and as an advisor to Black Americans in the diaspora who want to settle there. While there are no official figures on how many have done this, Mansaray says at least 400 people have made the move so far.
The husband-and-wife team have built the cultural heritage-based project, the Gullah Nation of North America in Louisiana, South Carolina and Sierra Leone, which Mansa says is to “unify and empower Gullah Geechee people with the knowledge of our true culture.” Under the Gullah Leone project, they have advocated for DNA testers and Gullah Geechee people who may not be linked by blood to Sierra Leone to settle, travel or do business in Sierra Leone.
Mansaray says he and his wife don’t shy away from talking about how challenging decades-long economic stagnation and political instability, stemming from colonialism, are hindering Sierra Leone. “There are substandard, structural issues in the country, but having grown up in the hood, and experiencing the rural South, adapting wasn’t too difficult for me,” he says. “Sierra Leone could do a lot better. More young people and women need to be trained in leadership. They have the biggest incentives and the most to gain.” Malinke adds that some may find it difficult to gain employment because most jobs are in street trading, “so you might have to create opportunities for yourself and others to benefit from.”
For Black Americans like Mansaray, it can be hard to be away from home and everything they’ve ever known, living in Freetown. “It has a rich cultural diversity which is hard to keep up with,” he says. “I have always been embraced warmly, especially when [the locals] understand I am their brother and that our people were taken during slavery. They know we have a shared history and destiny in terms of what happened to us all.”