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Cotton Tree is Dead: Unknown-May 2023: In..Memoriam

9 June 2023 at 15:41 | 891 views

Cotton Tree is Dead: Unknown-May 2023: In Memoriam
By Patrick S. Bernard, Ph.D.

I

In the beginning was the tree, and the tree became a home, and from the tree roads converged, diverged or branched into other roads (crossroads), which spread to form a settlement, a city, a country—in that order. In that simple sense, the beginning of Freetown (and, for some, modern Sierra Leone) was the tree—Cotton Tree, to be precise.

To Freetonians and Sierra Leoneans, this tree of origins is simply “Cotton Tree”, (no need for the definite article “the” before it) because, just like any person or superior being, it has its unique individuality or personality. A beloved “family” member or the source of that family, the “mother” of the city, Cotton Tree is seen by the people—its “children” as will be evident later—as “human”, if not superhuman. So, using “the” would depersonalize Tree. Similarly, writing about Cotton Tree, though dead, entirely in the past tense would be considered disrespectful and dismissive (of its legacy, for instance), as if, in death, it is already detached and distant, which it never was/is/will be, from the city and the nation’s sensibilities. It is not past; it is/will be perennially present and, for Sierra Leoneans, continue to “live” in their memory and consciousness—forever.

It is not exactly known when Cotton Tree was seeded or born, because just like about most things in bountiful nature it sprung with no aid of human cultivation or possibly with no humans around when it began its life. It then started to grow, and grow, and grow, and grow…. That was way, way before humans first inhabited its surroundings. Even after the first humans congregated (according to recorded history) around it for freedom, rest, succor, prayers and a home (more on this below), it continued to grow and expand, grow and expand… apparently unstoppable, always regenerating and replenishing, standing tall and determined, with an audacious aura of immortality and indestructibility. It was everlasting.

Well, almost. Because Cotton Tree is dead, or has passed on to join the ancestors, testifying that, at least in its physical form, it was not without end after all. You see, to Freetonians Cotton Tree is not just a physical tree. It is more: mythical, symbolic, spiritual, etc., tied to time, history and memory, and their transcendence and cyclicality. Perceived as such, Cotton Tree connects material and spiritual realms, elevating it to epochal significance, worthy of and indeed requiring veneration. One term that has been applied to characterize Cotton Tree since its passing is “iconic”, which is quite appropriate and undeniable, because the massive tree is indeed so. However, it is also totemic—Freetown’s, and by extension Sierra Leone’s, totem.

But Cotton Tree is no more. It died on May 24, 2023, (on the eve of May 25, another symbolic day; more on this later), after it was hit and felled by a rainstorm—not the first by any means, but this one being the coup de grâce. In its centuries (some say it’s about or over 400 years old) of existence, Cotton Tree drank, for its sustenance and continuity, the rain water that fed and nourished it. It is, therefore, a paradox (or the basic logic of nature) that it was a rainstorm that felled and killed it, affirming this aphorism: in my beginning is my end, and in my end is my beginning. As the adage goes, nothing lasts forever, so even age-old Cotton Tree cannot, and did not, live forever.

Obviously, no one knows when Cotton Tree started its history, though humans have recorded when it entered theirs or when they tried to construct their history around it. What can be said for a fact is that it is an ancient—almost timeless and deathless—tree that, before its recent demise, traveled and came into our world (and history, memory and consciousness) as a gift or an inheritance out of fathomless, deep time.

The sad news of Cotton Tree’s death was immediate, spreading, like its primordial roots or elongated branches, nationally and internationally. It was such a momentous, mournful event that, in addition to grieving national headlines, global coverage was aplenty, with the BBC, the Guardian; Al Jazeera; Yahoo News; Reuters; Africa News; the Irish Times; AP News; ABC News (Australia); Voice of Nigeria; Fiji Times; and VOA, among others, announcing (or reproducing) it. In addition, since its passing, conversations among Sierra Leoneans, both at home and in the Diaspora, have centered on this massive loss. The grief-stricken chats have focused on, among many aspects of Tree’s features and dominance in the city’s landscape and history, speculating about the deeper meaning, or delphic proportions or signs, of the death of this immense national monument. For the majority, this death is not ordinary. There must be some coded pronouncements behind it.

An aerial view of Cotton Tree (1992), with a near-panoramic view of a part of the western section of Freetown. From the collection of the author.

Yes, even in their doleful exchanges, there is the inevitable, if not helpless, and unwilling acceptance and realization that it is indeed true that Cotton Tree—ancestral, powerful, enormous, esoteric and seemingly omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent and god-like in its presence, “holiness” and majesty—is truly dead, in a physical sense. In general, Sierra Leoneans perceive death with fortitude and resignation, accepting its finality. And this attitude is palpable in their conversations bereaving this sorrowful event. But there is more to how Sierra Leoneans, in their sometimes direct but also circuitous discussions, have reacted and are still reacting to Cotton Tree’s passing: To them, yes, it is a finality, which they understand to be life’s course and nature’s rhythm, but it is one death they don’t want to accept or are in a state of denial about. For instance, the moment Cotton Tree died, they were already giving suggestions that it must be replaced (by: another cotton tree; some other yet-to-be-identified monument; etc.)—demonstrating that when it comes to Cotton Tree, Sierra Leoneans are not willing or ready to let go.

Cotton Tree is from the species known as Bombax ceiba, or silk-cotton tree or kapok. The Freetown Cotton Tree variant is from the Ceiba pentandra family. Cotton trees are deciduous trees, meaning they shed their leaves for a part every year and remain bare until they grow new leaves in the other. In Sierra Leone, these changes occur in the two dominant seasons: the rainy season and the dry season. Cotton Tree grows new leaves with vitality and luster during the former and desolately sheds them during the latter.

Whatever the season, each of Cotton Tree’s parts—leaves; crown (or canopy); branches; trunk; bark; and roots—have obvious natural functions (trees need these to survive and thrive) but cultural and symbolic, if not hidden and enigmatic, meanings for Sierra Leoneans, especially Freetonians.

In the rainy season, Cotton Tree is lush with verdant leaves—picturesque and buoyant—which dress Tree in a brilliant green hue that is densely beautiful, creating a flourishing and teeming oasis of greenery in the brick-and-mortar-and-steel buildings that rudely intrude into its surroundings. When in full bloom (and before bats overpopulated it—more on that anon) the leaves form a spectacular, majestic crown/canopy, which, like a vast green umbrella, provides shade and protection over the heads of the people—and metaphorically the city and the country. This exuberant, resplendent foliage contains and covers secrets—deeply hidden from, and not to be seen by, ordinary human eyes. Those multitudinous leaves, like merciful and reassuring ancient eyes, are (seemingly) prophetic and all-seeing, peeping into the limitless depths of the city’s (and nation’s) ancestry and history/future, struggles and comforts, failures and achievements, vulnerabilities and steadfastness, while at the same time displaying sympathy and solidarity with the people, its abused children.

Those leaves also uncover because in the dry season (and the harmattan season), Cotton Tree sloughs them off, revealing its bare, barren, unadorned but stalwart frame. Bleak and stark, its thick and magnificent leaves-less branches protrude like warriors’ spears or assegais, sharp and pointed, exuding a dignified austereness and loneliness. Its conical thorns (“chook-chook” to Sierra Leoneans), like large nails or bulging, piercing needles, become more prominent during this season, revealing Tree’s terrifying and menacing appearance, if not demeanor. Rendered so naked and seemingly vulnerable, Cotton Tree nonetheless appears unrelenting and unyielding, forbidding and fearsome, even ferocious—almost rebellious. Its outcropping branches, like cascading fortifications, stretch with indestructible abandon, creating lines of territorial defense that seem to be saying to all: “I may be naked, but I am unconquerable, unbreachable, impenetrable.”

It is also during the dry season that Cotton Tree’s trunk, sinewy and stout, terraced and grooved with crevices that look like both a womb and a tomb, simultaneously birthing and burying the city’s history and its deeply-held secrets, becomes visible. The fissures, mouth-like with cleft lips, appear to speak a secretive language that echoes ancestral and cryptic messages. At its base, the trunk merges with Tree’s roots, at least the exposed, surface roots, that rise near or above the ground. That’s just the visible roots Tree generously affords human eyes to see. Imagine the unsurfaced, unseen ones that anchor and stabilize Cotton Tree! It is said that the roots, or root system, of most trees generally spread out as far as the crown of the tree does. Look at that expansive crown of Tree, and imagine its roots!

They are large, those roots—brawny and rugged—and preciously, if not motherly, curl around Cotton Tree, simultaneously burrowing deeply into the earth and rising from it, taking coded messages to the sky (up) and then to earth (down), perhaps suggesting or representing, or both, for those humans who first encountered it and later inhabited its surroundings that its presence engenders the possibilities to imagine a higher being, eternity, spirituality, mystery. A sacred Tree—or a representation of the sacred, however construed? A shrine? An oracle? Or all of these? Symbolic of rootedness, and nature, both in its munificence, fertility, plenitude, and malevolence? With Tree, you always or only look up, perhaps its children that the sky is anything but the limit. For a time, this orientation was what its original inhabitants, the city, and the nation associated with Tree. Not anymore, apparently.

In all, Cotton Tree, whether in the rainy season or in the dry season, is a marvel of nature—a truly magnificent and fascinating tree. Whatever the season, though, it provides home to humans and animals—varieties of birds, vultures especially, bats, etc. It is huge and dominates its immediate landscape and extended one—because to many, Cotton Tree is a “spirit” or houses one, and, therefore, everywhere. Its supremacy is not only immanent in its immense and imposing height. Until its demise, Cotton Tree was the tallest and highest (assumed to be 70-meters/230 feet tall), largest and biggest, living thing in the city. Moreover, for a long time, it was the tallest structure, natural or man-made, in the city, minus those imposing mountains on Mountain Aureol or Leicester Peak or the hills at Wilberforce and its environs. Its predominance, perhaps symbolized by those roots, is also because of its transcendence and resilience (that is, until its death).

But, ultimately, it is the human history that people constructed around Cotton Tree that transformed it into genealogical significance, especially the Creoles/Krios whose history is, and will be, forever associated with and rooted in it. Their ancestors, who first encountered Cotton Tree were freed slaves, who arrived first from England in 1787, and second from the United States via Nova Scotia, Canada, in 1792, (having fought for the British during the American Revolutionary War, 1775-1783). The latter, known as the “Nova Scotians”, after landing on the coast and climbing “Freedom Steps” (about 300m from Tree), “apparently rested and prayed underneath the shade of the tree”, a site they later called Freetown. For these first settlers, Tree was “home” in the sense of where they made a place to live when they arrived. But it was also a previous home—Africa—to which they desired/wanted to return to from the dehumanization of slavery.

Also to arrive were Jamaican Maroons, who had rebelled against slavery in Jamaica. Consequently, the British deported some to Sierra Leone in 1800, also via Nova Scotia.

These initial settlers were later joined by the “Recaptives” or “Liberated Africans”—so named because they were recaptured or liberated from slave ships following Britain’s passage of the 1807 Abolition Act, which outlawed the Slave Trade. Slaves re-captured from those ships were brought to Freetown and “unshackled under” Cotton Tree and given a life of freedom and liberty—and a new home.

These narratives have connected this human need for home, freedom, liberty, self-determination and dignity to Cotton Tree, whose surroundings they also named the Province of Freedom. Over the years, many more emigrated to the city for opportunities and autonomy, all encountering or passing under Tree. In that sense, Cotton Tree is Sierra Leone’s Ellis Island—that spot in the U.S. where, for close to 70 years beginning in 1892, millions of white immigrants from Europe had to pass through to become American citizens.

This recorded history has focused on this liberatory aspect. Rightly so. However, there is another history to Cotton Tree, that it may have been a spot where slaves were bought and sold; or a place where those running from slave traders hid. Moreover, Cotton Tree’s environs were not a blank space when these settlements started—indigenous people had lived there first.

Thus, for many the centuries-old tree has been the symbol (first) for the Province of Freedom and the City of Freetown, and (second) as Sierra Leone’s (both as a colony and then as an independent nation) capital city. However, it is the transformation of Cotton Tree’s location (or how it transformed itself) into a junction—a point where two or more things (in this case roads/streets, humans, cultures, etc.) are joined—that added to its emblematic significance for the city, and later the nation.

Beginning as a mere shade where freed slaves rested and initially made a home when they arrived from enslavement, Tree’s location eventually became the central junction, the fork, in the emerging settlement and city—and ultimately the country. This location, though symbolic, is also real because it facilitated and still facilitates meetings; arrivals; departures; passages; transitions; and communication, for example, between the living and the dead; the past, the present and the future; slavery and freedom; etc. In fact, it may have been the spot of the initial encounter between the first Settlers and the indigenous people (although not incipiently peaceful and welcoming). Through the years, that meeting (of Settlers, Recaptives, and the aboriginals) forged “a free and unique society”, resulting in a city and a nation, and in the process birthing what could only be called “Cotton Tree’s Children.”

Ultimately, this junction became a crossroads, making Cotton Tree—and by extension Freetown—the center of intersections; transitions; interaction; etc. In Sierra Leone Krio, a crossroads is called “fo road”—a place where four (fo) roads meet, start or end. Apart from its symbolism, geographically it is from Cotton Tree streets/roads start and lead to the ocean (south, Walpole Street), to the hillsides (north, State Avenue and OAU Avenue), to the east (Siaka Stevens Street) and to the west (Siaka Stevens Street and Pademba Road) of the city.

There are crossroads myths and folklore in almost every culture especially in African cosmography, and Sierra Leone is not an exception. In that cosmogeny, a crossroads may represent the “human life cycle of life and death”, a spot where the strange and the magical, the material and the spiritual, reside or meet, or where communication between spirits and humans, ancestors and the living, occur. Therefore, it is a site for sacrifice, offerings, ritualistic purification, etc. (However, in the years leading to its passing, some Sierra Leoneans perceived Tree, Freetown’s foundational crossroads, as inherently evil because it ensconced “witches” which were “holding back” the progress of the nation.)

Additionally, a crossroads is the place to take or make a choice or a turn—into new directions; new purposes; new promises; new endeavors; new visions; etc. and their possibilities for reorientation, renewal and rebirth, or their opposite. Cotton Tree’s crossroads offered and still offers Sierra Leone the choices or turns towards progress, or retrogression. Guess the road that nation has taken?

Cotton Tree’s crossroads eventually became a roundabout, a circle, where the “fo” roads run in a round path, showing that the roads are interrelated, interconnected and interdependent—making this perhaps the most iconic symbolic manifestation Tree means to the city, the nation and its children. Cotton Tree is the elemental and ancestral circle that embraces all in Sierra Leone. This is the ideal it holds for its children, and one they must aspire to. Have they?

In African cultural, spiritual and ritual practices, the circle is fundamental to understanding the “human life cycle of death”, or the “unfailing continuity of life”—a circle has no beginning and no end. It, therefore, symbolizes the “continuity of nature, its unchanging cycle of seasons and the successions of day and night.” Additionally, the circle embodies, and is the source of, community, the origin of the individual and the family. Moreover, the circle represents return (a turn to return). For the first Settlers, Tree and it yet-to-be-made circle represented the return home—to Africa. They were coming back to the home from where they had been stolen. Thus, the cartographic meaning of the circle, of Tree as the center, derived spiritual, if not religious, symbolism as well. The Maroons built their church in 1822, one of the first in the city, close to Tree.

As noted previously, to the early Settlers Cotton Tree became “home” and its association with community and ancestry. Since a home has families, it is not farfetched to configure how Cotton Tree’s roots and branches—making both a crossroads and a roundabout—are metaphorical and philosophical suggestions of the extended family. Metaphorically, no genealogy of Freetown can exist without Cotton Tree (it is [in] the city’s DNA), with its roots and branches affirming that its children descend/are descended from an extended family, linked by community, kinship and a sense of belonging and inclusion. And here resides the philosophical relevance of Tree’s crossroads and roundabout, which is captured in that famous African aphorism, “It takes a village to raise a child”, a saying that communicates this central tenet at the heart of the extended family: Each is connected to the larger whole or wider family, thus ensuring protection and stability, community and continuity. Cotton Tree is Freetown’s elemental “village” that raised/raise its “children”—city, nation and all—as an extended family. Supposedly. (There were resistances to inclusivity at various point in the city’s history, though.)

Therefore, Cotton Tree espouses the basic credos of “Ubuntu”, the African philosophy that places emphasis on “being human through other people”, “I am because we are, or “you are because we are.” Ubuntu speaks of the ethics of “respect for others, helpfulness, community, sharing, caring, trust, and unselfishness.” These allow for survival, solidarity and continuity. Ubuntu’s symbolic values also teach that persistence and perseverance; reciprocity and give-and-take; forge and connect; peace and stability are fundamental to becoming human through other humans. Remember, though, that these are philosophical ideals to be transformed into reality by those who practice them. Have Sierra Leoneans been faithful to Cotton Tree’s Ubuntu?

Tree demonstrated Ubuntu’s magnanimity at the timing of its death—at night, when its environs, always heavily populated with people and vehicles during the day, were mostly empty. Had Tree been felled during the middle or any time of the day, we don’t want to imagine the deaths and destruction that it would have caused.

As a symbol—for city and nation—Cotton Tree was/is everywhere, on: postage stamps; currency/bank notes; theater names; popular songs; newspaper and magazine titles; publishing press; radio stations; etc. In the literary imagination, Sierra Leonean writers, novelists and poets for instance, have utilized Cotton Tree to make commentaries about the city and/or the country. The writer William R.E. Clarke titled his text The Morning Star of Africa; or, Tales The Cotton Tree could tell of Freetown, Sierra Leone (1960). The novelist/poet, Syl Cheney-Coker, uses Tree as a focal point in his novel, The Last Harmattan of Alusine Dunbar (1990), which tells the “magical” history of Freetown and Sierra Leone. The contemporary poet, Oumar Farouk Sesay, wrote a poem about Cotton Tree. Even an American, Eugene Harkins, wrote a novel, titled Where Witch Birds Fly (2006), which recounts the history of exploitation and pillaging, national and global, of the country’s resources that ultimately led to the devastation brought by the Civil War. The “Witch Birds” in the title are actually, the novel discloses, the bats that roost atop Tree and other trees.

II

However, for some Freetonians the symbolism of this primeval landmark goes even deeper. To them, Cotton Tree is clairvoyant, meaning it possesses the capabilities of perceiving or predicting events or things in the future of the city and nation. In Short, Tree has second sight; it is a seer, a soothsayer—or as it will be put in Krio: “E dae lookin’ gron.”

For those who saw divinatory powers in Cotton Tree, nothing more confirmed that conviction than what happened on June 21, 1975, when another tropical rainstorm hit Freetown—believed to be one of the largest and most destructive to ever touch that city. Coming with extraordinarily ferocious winds, the deluge, almost biblical in its torrential downpour, caused extensive damages in the city, destroying or demolishing thousands of private homes and buildings (including at Fourah Bay College), directly causing the death of one person.

But for many what stood out among the myriad damages was that the storm felled a huge, perhaps the largest at the time, branch of Cotton Tree. (Up to its death, the spot on the trunk where the branch was amputated was always very visible. Nothing ever grew there again.) There had been many storms in the history of the city before, but, according to those who could remember them as far back as possible, not one did what the 1975 deluge did: plucked the largest limb of Tree. How could this happen if it was not prophetic or ominous?

And things started happening to support their thinking.

John Akar died on June 23, 1975—just two days after the storm. Akar was one of the prominent Sierra Leoneans to emerge from the generation that gained Sierra Leone its independence in 1961. He composed the music of the country’s national anthem; he was a transformative Director of the country’s national broadcaster, the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service; he founded and directed the Sierra Leone National Dance Troupe, which he led to international fame and recognition. He was a diplomat, who served as Sierra Leone’s ambassador to the United States starting in 1969, but resigned from the position when Siaka Stevens, Prime Minister at the time, turned Sierra Leone into a republic on April 19, 1971, and became president.

Akar’s resignation contended that making the country a republic was just the beginning of what Stevens, whom he called “a megalomaniac” in his resignation letter, planned to do, which was to eventually change the country into a one-party state, silence all opposition and become a ruthless dictator. (Akar was right as we will see shortly.) Stevens banned Akar from ever entering Sierra Leone, and he died in exile in Jamaica. Stevens was vindictive and extremely vengeful and he never forgave Akar. He vehemently refused to allow his corpse to be transported to Sierra Leone for burial. It was only after the intervention of, among others, S.I. Koroma (Steven’s Vice-President) and Dr. June Holst-Roness (a prominent medical doctor and later Mayor of Freetown) that Stevens relented. But he ordered that no member of his government (many of whom were Akar’s close friends and contemporaries) attend his funeral rites in his home town, Rotifunk.

But there was more tragedy that followed the June 21 rainstorm and its portents. Close to a month, on July 19, 1975, to be precise, after it landed, Dr. Mohamed Sorie Forna and 14 others—including Ibrahim Bash Taqi; Brigadier David Lansana; Paramount Chief Bai Makarie N’Silk—were executed after being convicted of attempting a coup to topple President Stevens. Their trial, said to be the longest treason trial in the country’s history, had started in 1974. Many suggested that it was immediately after Forna and others lost their appeal, and that the verdict to execute them became irreversible, that the June 21 torrent occurred. In fact, some further opined that the thunderstorm came after Forna and others were driven finally in a Black Maria from Law Courts Buildings to Pademba Road Prisons, where they were brutally executed. Throughout the trial, Cotton Tree (towering over Law Court Buildings) had stood in somber and aggrieved silence, “seeing” and “witnessing” this grave injustice that led to the killing of some of its brightest and most patriotic children of that generation, if not ever. Cotton Tree could not, many silently agreed, help but “cry” for “Mama Salone”, which it expressed in that avalanche.

After the execution, the bodies of Forna and others were displayed, left to hang on the high concrete walls of the prisons building at Pademba Road, to a traumatized city and public and its shocked citizens. The entire trial itself was seen as a charade, the coup a ploy used by Stevens to get rid of his political opponents, and the execution a direct message to all would-be challengers of or opponents to Stevens. That this was the case is evident because Dr. Forna, who was Finance Minister, had resigned from Stevens’s government for reasons he articulated in his resignation letter, written/dated September 12, 1970. That missive is published in the book Sierra Leone: The Land, Its People and History (2014) by Bankole Kamara Taylor. A version is reproduced here.

All Sierra Leoneans with sobbing hearts that have seen and are painfully seeing the incorrigible declining trajectory of that once hopeful country should read and process this prescient letter. It is heart-wrenching. In it, and among other things, Forna protested against rampant corruption and Stevens’ dictatorial tendencies that, he prophesied, “can only spell disaster for this country.” Like Akar, Forna alluded to Stevens’ “megalomaniac syndrome.” For his part Taqi, who was Information Minister in the government, had been dismissed by Stevens in May 1970 for criticizing corruption within the party. Now out of the government, they formed a new political party that was favored to challenge, if not unseat, Stevens. Stevens did not let that happen—hence the contrived coup.

For many, the June 21 thunderstorm Tree predicted the blighted, cursed future—what Forna called “disaster”—that awaited the country. After that deluge and the events that followed, the country started a downward spiral, with the death of freedom and liberty; accountability and transparency; abundance and plenty; legitimate opposition and criticism, regard and respect of human life, dignity and worth. In their place emerged silence and fear; darkness and death; hunger and starvation; oppression and suffering; unmitigated corruption and the willful plundering and dislocation of the nation’s once brilliant and hopeful future.

Manifestations of Stevens’ dictatorial tendencies soon emerged, leading led to nation-wide students riots in 1977. After brutally quelling the protests, Stevens made the country a one-party state in 1978, something Akar and Forna had predicted in their respective resignation letters. From then on, nothing has been right about that country that is in a chronic state of paralysis.

Cotton Tree’s prophetic message struck again in 1979 when one of its smaller arms snatched, with no thunderstorm whatsoever this time, falling on that road/street of the crossroads leading to the Bank of Sierra Leone, the nation’s central bank. This was about October or November 1979. Soon after, in December 1979, Sam Bangura, that bank’s governor, died (actually was murdered according to many Sierra Leoneans) in mysterious circumstances after he had refused to sign on Stevens’ plan to host the OAU (Organization of African Unity, now the African Union, AU) conference, which he did in 1980. Bangura fiercely opposed the scheme on the sane financial and patriotic grounds that it would be an extremely expensive undertaking with detrimental consequences for the country’s economic health and future, further believing that it was financially reckless and demonstrated indiscipline and unaccountability. Bent on achieving his goal, Stevens bulldozed the only person standing in his way—Bangura.

Once again, for those who believed that Cotton Tree was the presager saw in that yanked branch a sign of a looming destruction. And, again, that seemed to come to pass. With Bangura murdered and out of the way, Stevens spent, unchecked, over $200 million dollars to host the conference—a tremendously huge amount that eventually sent the country spiraling into economic woes and self-destruction. Adjusted for inflation, that sum is equivalent in 2023 to a purchasing power of over $736 million, an increase of about $536 million in over 43 years. In terms of Leones, that is about or over 15 trillion in (New) Leones.
After the OAU, the country’s economy worsened: Expenditures for the conference created a huge debt, shortage of foreign exchange, deterioration in the standard of living, etc. In short, hosting the OAU launched Sierra Leone into the path of economic decline and dislocation from which it has never recovered. And Bangura—and Cotton Tree—predicted all this.

Back to those limbs. Did Cotton Tree foreshadow its own demise? Possibly. It is worthy to remember that there was another storm a week before the fatal one that finally killed it. That previous cloudburst had cleaved, once again, one of the ancient boughs of Cotton Tree. Those who always believed amputated sprouts of Tree are ominous were waiting to see what will happen. They did not for long because days later Cotton Tree was dead. Not a limb this time. The entire Cotton Tree, minus the trunk and roots, was gone! Those remaining parts are not rising/looking upward, but descending/gazing downward. As noted earlier, Tree had taught its children to always look upward. So, what could this be prophesying?

Apart from its severed limbs that prophesied, there were other ways, some believed, Tree sent oracular messages to its children. This it did through emissaries, like those animals—vultures, bats, etc.—that it housed.

First were the vultures, which had always been a presence at Cotton Tree, particularly visible during the dry season when Tree sheds its leaves. However, their population started to increase exponentially, according to some astute observers, with the coming of Stevens to power, especially around the time he converted the country into a republic. It was reported that once Stevens got total control of power, the vultures started a ritual: They would take off all of a sudden from Tree in the middle of the day, head towards State House and circle it multiple times, before perching on the building’s roof. After a while, they did the reverse and returned to Tree. They performed this ritual until the day Stevens finally left office. Vultures (“yuba” in Krio) are scavengers and feed on dead things. Like many cultures, vultures are not the favorite animals of Sierra Leoneans. So, imagine what they—Sierra Leoneans and Freetonians—thought, and still think, of why the vulture population increased at Tree under Stevens.

The second animals were bats. Again, no one knew when the bats came to Tree. They, too, had always been present on it, but hardly visible until Stevens arrived when, like the vultures, their population also increased exponentially. The bats also started their own ritual once Stevens occupied the seat of power: At dusk, they would leave Tree and head to State House, circle it while fluttering and squealing, as if they were in lamentation. However, unlike the vultures the bats performed this ritual when Stevens had gone home for the day, and was not at State House. As is common in many, if not all, human cultures (with Sierra Leone no exception), bats are “associated with darkness, death, witchcraft and malevolence”, are thought to be evil creatures or spirits, and ultimately symbolize decay and destruction. It is for this reason that many see bats as foreboding creatures. So, once again, imagine what Freetonians/Sierra Leoneans thought, and still think, of why the bat population increased at Tree under Stevens.

Stevens left office and died later, but the population of these animals kept multiplying on Tree irrespective of who was leader of the country. Is this Cotton Tree’s constant sign to Sierra Leoneans that their leaders are harbingers of these animals, or that they are, in fact, vultures and bats in disguise?

Here is this other moment in the country’s history that Cotton Tree (may have) foretold. When in 1991 ex-army corporal Foday Sankoh and his Revolutionary United Front (RUF) took up arms against the government of President Saidu Momoh, he (Momoh) called a national rally at State House. The purpose: To tell Sankoh (and Charles Taylor) that Sierra Leoneans didn’t want a rebel war in their country, and would put up a brave fight to prevent it. Sierra Leoneans turned up, in their thousands, with many attending because they feared the unprecedented destruction Sankoh’s invasion could visit on the nation and intended to send him a message about their disapproval.

Just as Momoh was reaching the crux in his speech then appeared the bats from Tree. They headed to State House in their thousands, howling and whimpering, mournfully, creating overhead a dark cloud which looked like those gloomy and ominous rainclouds Freetown is known for during the rainy season. This happened in the middle of the day (who knows, the crowd could have spooked the bats); under Stevens Tree’s bats always performed this ritual at dusk. So, those who believed in Tree’s foresightedness once again saw coded messages in this unusual occurrence and anticipated that it was foreboding. Momoh was overthrown a year later, and, even before that, the rebel war had already started in the country and eventually became the Civil War, perhaps one of the bloodiest and most brutal in human history.

Obviously, there are those who saw/see in this clairvoyance Sierra Leoneans’ tendency for superstition, or their inclination to always find excuses for their helplessness or fecklessness to take control of their destiny. Other countries in the region experienced similar political violence and economic decline without recourse to seeing signs from an object. But these nations did not have Cotton Tree….

When Stevens hosted the OAU in 1980, he gave Cotton Tree a central role. In fact, it was the coming of the OAU to Freetown that started the modern beautification of Tree. The initial raised, circular concrete wall with iron balustrade on it was done for the conference. Also, one of the streets leading to the north of the city, to Tower Hill, was renamed “OAU Drive.”

Cotton Tree died on May 24, 2023, the eve of May 25, 2023, the 60th anniversary of the founding of the AU (OAU). May 25 is celebrated as Africa Day; Tree died on the vigil of that auspicious Day. From a continental perspective, Tree had witnessed the birth of that organization—with its promises of: freedom, equality, and the reaffirmation of dignity for African peoples; etc.

But what Cotton Tree saw in Sierra Leone especially (if not the entire continent generally) after the organization’s formation—and Sierra Leone’s later hosting of it—was poor leadership; corruption; poverty; war and genocide; underdevelopment; retrogression; etc. Tree, which once viewed the promises and optimism of a new country and an organization reinforcing it continentally, now saw the emergence of a blighted nation, choked with greed and corruption, with its leaders suffocating the aspirations of the people, while also subjugating, exploiting and dehumanizing them.

As Sierra Leoneans begin the search for a new monument to replace Tree, it is to be noted that it already bequeathed them an everlasting one: the crossroads, the roundabout. What would they make of it? Are the remaining colossal trunk and roots that are still rooted there another of Tree’s cryptic message?

For many, Cotton Tree was ageless. But given that it is now dead, can this mystery be now solved? There is a way Tree’s age could be estimated or calculated, through dendrochronology, or “the study of data collected from tree ring growth. Counting tree rings is one of the ways to determine tree age.”

However, deciphering Tree’s age will never unravel its mystery and sylvan sapience. Indeed, this sage taught and will continue to teach Sierra Leoneans the fundamental wisdom that resilience, faith and hope, backed by action and resolve, can survive any oppressive and suffocating environment—be it human or natural, or both.

In the beginning was the tree. But the tree was more than a tree. Cotton Tree is dead, but it still lives.

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