Sierra Leoneans and Gullahs have known about their family connection for more than 30 years, and people on both sides of the Atlantic are eager to learn more about it. This is what Fambul Tik (“Family Tree”), a Sierra Leonean cultural organization, will address when we lead a historic study tour of Sierra Leone in December 2019. Our visitors will include Gullah people, Gullah performers, historians, historic preservationists, and cultural activists. We call our tour:
“The Sierra Leone-Gullah Connection: The Next Step.”
The Gullah people (also called “Geechees”) are a unique group of African Americans who live in the coastal Low Country region of South Carolina and Georgia, where they have preserved more of their African cultural heritage than any other black community in the United States. The Gullahs are proud of their African heritage and, for their part, Sierra Leoneans have every reason to feel proud that an African American community closely related to them has preserved so much of its African cultural heritage, up to the present day. Rice is central to the Sierra Leone-Gullah Connection. Africans from what was once called the “Rice Coast,” the area stretching from what is now Senegal and Gambia in the north to Sierra Leone and Liberia in the south have been growing rice for hundreds of years. During the Atlantic slave trade period, many African rice farmers were taken to South Carolina and Georgia where American rice planters were eager to exploit their skills. These enslaved African farmers, later called “Gullahs,” became isolated on the rice plantations due to a combination of geographical and health-related factors, and were, thus, able to develop their unique African derived culture.
We are organizing another “Gullah Homecoming” to Sierra Leone, the 4th since 1989. This tour will break new ground. Visitors will see historical and cultural sites not seen on the earlier trips and meet with scholars who have uncovered new information. They will also travel with Gullah performers who will share their culture with their Sierra Leonean hosts
Scholars first called the world’s attention to the Sierra Leone-Gullah Connection in the 1980s, and since then Gullahs and Sierra Leoneans have come together on a number of high-profile occasions to celebrate their common heritage. Sierra Leone’s president visited a Gullah community in South Carolina in 1988, and Gullah community leaders made a return visit to Sierra Leone in 1989. These events were followed by two more “Homecomings” to Sierra Leone in 1997 and 2005. These events were based on extraordinary discoveries.
One centered on a Gullah family from coastal Georgia that has preserved a song in the Mende language of Sierra Leone for over 200 years. Another focused on a Gullah family from South Carolina that can trace its history back to Sierra Leone through 7 generations by means of an unbroken document trail. These previous Homecomings resulted in two award-winning documentary videos that were instrumental in spreading information on the Sierra Leone-Gullah Connection. The first, called “Family Across the Sea,” covered the first Gullah Homecoming to Sierra Leone in 1989. The second, called “The Language You Cry In,” chronicled the Gullah family that has preserved a song in Mende and their Homecoming in 1997. Both films have been purchased by hundreds of universities and broadcast by PBS. They have also been broadcast repeatedly in Sierra Leone. But Sierra Leoneans living in the US have also reached out to their 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. We’ve also attended the Gullah Festival in Beaufort, SC and the Rice Festival in Riceboro, GA. For our efforts, one South Carolina town awarded us the key to the city. Despite all this activity, though, almost 15 years have passed since the last Gullah Homecoming to Sierra Leone. Like the earlier Homecomings, our Next Step tour we will take visitors to places that illustrate the Sierra Leone-Gullah Connection. We will see traditional rice farms and observe agricultural methods used by the Gullahs’ African ancestors. We will also visit Bunce Island, the British slave castle that sent thousands of captives to South Carolina and Georgia. But our tour will do some things that were not done before. We will visit an ancient site, called Old Yagala, for instance, where Africans took refuge on a mountaintop where they could see slave raiders coming from many miles away.
And fight them off if they tried to breach their stronghold. We’ll see the ruins of the stone houses these brave defenders erected centuries ago. We will also visit the Temne village of Rogbonko, where people are still making coil baskets very similar to the Gullahs’ famous sweetgrass baskets, and with virtually the same techniques. In recent years, scholars have established that the Sierra Leone-Gullah Connection was a two-way process. African rice farmers were taken to South Carolina and Georgia, but some of their Gullah descendants returned to Sierra Leone. Many of these returnees were escaped slaves who joined the British Army during the American Revolutionary War on the promise of freedom. When the British lost the war, though, they took their black soldiers to Nova Scotia, Canada; but about 1,200 of them left for Sierra Leone, where they established Freetown, now the country’s capital city, in 1792. These former soldiers came from all 13 North American Colonies, but about 25% of them were Gullahs from South Carolina and Georgia. We will visit a number of historic sites in Freetown that reflect the history of these determined Gullah people who came home.
Scholars have uncovered a great deal of new information on the Sierra Leone-Gullah Connection in recent years in both the US and Sierra Leone. We will organize a symposium to give scholars from both countries the opportunity to share their new findings in a setting open to the general public. But the Gullah performers on our tour will also appear at an evening concert open to the public to demonstrate to Sierra Leoneans the Gullahs’ deep African roots in the arts. We will also arrange for the Gullah historical preservationists on our tour to meet with their counterparts in the Sierra Leone Government, in particular, the Ministry of Tourism and Cultural Affairs and the National Museum.
There is a good deal of opportunity now for collaboration on a to experience the Sierra Leone-Gullah Connection on a personal level. We are fortunate that at the time our tour takes place, the Moran family from coastal Georgia will be returning to Sierra Leone. The Morans are the Gullah family that has preserved a song in Mende for 200 years. Since their own homecoming in 1997, they have continued to nurture their connection to the Mende woman who helped preserve their song in a remote village in Sierra Leone, and to her community. They have refurbished a school, clinic, and church in that village, and remained in close contact with the people. We will take our visitors to the village while the Morans are there so they can meet the key players and observe for themselves what it means to few projects in both countries that will highlight the Gullahs’ connection to Sierra Leone.
Our study tour is, thus, designed to spread the most complete and up-to-date information on the Sierra Leone-Gullah Connection among both Gullahs and Sierra Leoneans. We are confident that this information will deepen the sense of kinship among these two peoples long divided by the nightmare of slavery. To that end, we will also invite young Sierra Leonean college students to accompany our Gullah visitors on all their travels, so the visitors will have the opportunity for informal discussions with local people and a chance to form lasting friendships. But we will also bring a film crew from the US to cover this tour and make a documentary video for broadcast in both countries so that many thousands of people not on this tour can learn from it. Finally, we will provide our visitors with an opportunity to renew family ties after two centuries of separation.
We believe that our “Next Step” tour – with all its fascinating activities – will also help give rise to African heritage tours to Sierra Leone on a regular basis in the near future. There are already a few such tours to Sierra Leone each year, but there is potential for many more. The benefit of African heritage tourism is that it will bring Sierra Leoneans and Gullahs into frequent contact, highlight their family connection, and keep that subject in the public eye for years to come. It will also encourage even more scholarly research on the Sierra Leone-Gullah Connection.