In January 2006, four of us Sierra Leoneans left the Washington, DC area on an invitation to go to Greenville, SC and see the "sneak preview" to African American Lives, a series of investigations into the ancestry of prominent African Americans based on their DNA makeup. This is work done by Skip Gates with a high profile. So we were able to justify the weekend trip.
The invitation was to the Sierra Leone Network, a group of activists, one in which this author was an active member. We watched the preview the evening we got there, by road. We were moved. That same night I asked two young African American men who worked at the hotel we stayed in if they were Gullahs and they looked at me as if I was weird.
"Where would I find Gullah people?" I asked. And they pointed somewhere saying they live on the coast. I knew about the Gullahs from an article I had read a couple of years earlier when in 2004 the story broke about Ambassador Andrew Young's DNA test results pointing to the Mende of Sierra Leone.
The next morning we found ourselves driving fours hours and change from Greenville to Hilton Head, SC. We got on the now-famous Gullah Tours operated by Dr. Emory Campbell and his siblings. He had to help us flag the bus down because we got there a bit late. His brother was giving the tour on that day. Two things happened to me on that day.
Having not being home to Sierra Leone for eons it seems standing by the ocean knowing that my country is over yonder - across the Atlantic - did something to me. Also, when I heard that the Gullah-Geechees had all (or most of) the land on Hilton Head Island until the bridge was built in the nineteen-seventies and that today, they own less than ten percent had an impact on me.
There was actually a third thing... I remember my feeling till this day when I first saw more than one person that looked like folks I left in Sierra Leone two decades earlier. For the next four weekends, I was visiting Hilton Head Island as they celebrated their annual Black History Month that spans the entire month of February.
I remember vividly at the third or fourth visit Emory saying to me: "Boy you don't get enough of this place, do you?" You don't have to be born Gullah-Geechee to have Gullah-Geechee in you, especially if you're from Sierra Leone... I said to myself.
Three months later, on April 2006, we had our first event as the Sierra Leone-Gullah Heritage Association at the legendary Howard University. By November we had taken over the Heritage Days program with our Sierra Leonean charm. We executed an awesome symposium on the Sierra Leone-Gullah Connection, a standing room only crowd at our first ever Transatlantic Red Rice Luncheon Cookoff between Sierra Leoneans and Gullahs.
And the next day we were chosen as winners of the annual Heritage Days Parade competition. They had never seen a masquerader on the streets of St. Helena Island before that. "Wi pul Odeh-ley!" For our efforts, one South Carolina town awarded us the key to the city. Beaufort, SC, a place where some describe as the heart of Gullah-Geechee culture!
Over the years, Sierra Leoneans living in the US have also reached out to and stayed in touch with our Gullah family in this country. Since 2006, Fambul Tik has taken Sierra Leonean groups to the famous Heritage Days festival at Penn Center on St. Helena Island, South Carolina. We also organized cultural events at that festival, including a lunch where Sierra Leoneans and Gullahs sampled each other’s traditional rice dishes.
But we have recently also started deepening our relationships with our kinfolk in Georgia. Last year we visited Riceboro, GA for the first time and experienced the Rice Festival. At Fambul Tik, on some adventures, we "follow the rice..."
As stated above, building on what we have with the Sierra Leone-Gullah Connection, in recent years we have been able to reconnect with our kinfolk in Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, and Carriacou! One by one, and page by page, we will tell these stories here.