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Stevens meets with Bunce Island Coalition members

 - Friday 13 August 2010.

Sierra Leone’s Ambassador Bockari K. Stevens, Monday 9th August 2010 met with members of the Bunce Island Coalition (USA), accompanied by a group of professional restoration engineers.

A statement from the embassy says the meeting centered on implementing the project for the preservation of the Bunce Island slave castle and how to transform that important historic site into a well interpreted historical park that will be a source of education for both Sierra Leoneans and visitors from abroad. The meeting was held in the conference room of the Sierra Leone Embassy in Washington DC.

Ambassador Stevens welcomed members of the Bunce Island Coalition and the team of restoration engineers who will be leaving shortly for Sierra Leone and informed them about his excitement over seeing the realization of this project which, he said, will boost the tourist potential of Sierra Leone.

"The government of Sierra Leone through the Ministry of Tourism has approved this project because of the expected impact it will have not only on our tourism experience but also on our bilateral relations," Stevens said.

Because of their expertise in rice cultivation, many of the slaves from Bunce Island found themselves destined for the rice fields of Carolina.

Stevens further disclosed plans underway on Sierra Leone’s 50th independence anniversary celebrations, to organize a weekend trip for Sierra Leoneans in the USA to the Gullah community in Charleston, South Carolina.

Present at the meeting were former United States Ambassador to Sierra Leone AmbassadorThomas N. Hull (Chairman Bunce Island Coalition (USA)) and Professor Joe Opala (the brains behind the project), Others were Messrs Melbourne Garber and Amadu Massally. Mr. Gary Chatelain, a Professor of Arts & Design at the James Mason University briefed the meeting about the work he is doing on reproducing a life size computer model of the Bunce Island slave castle.

The Bunce Isalnd Coalituion (USA) has obtained pledges from donors in the USA and UK to the initial tune of five million dollars in the first instance for the restoration work. Bunce Island is one of over 40 large commercial slaving forts built on the West Coast of Africa during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Joseph Opala

According to a Wikipedia entry, Joseph A. Opala (photo) is an American historian who documented the "Gullah Connection," the historical link between the Gullah people in South Carolina and Georgia, and the West African nation of Sierra Leone. He has also done extensive research on the Bunce Island slave castle in Sierra Leone.

Opala’s research resulted in three historic African-American homecomings to Sierra Leone: the Gullah Homecoming (1989), the Moran Family Homecoming (1997), and Priscilla’s Homecoming (2005). Opala helped produce documentary films that cover these events and the many historical, cultural and language connections between Sierra Leone and the Gullahs. These homecomings are chronicled in Family Across the Sea (1991), The Language You Cry In (1998), and Priscilla’s Homecoming (in production).

Opala was born in 1950 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma and is of Polish descent. He studied anthropology as an undergraduate and graduate student, before turning his attention to historical research.

His interest in Sierra Leone began after college when he served in the U.S. Peace Corps from 1974 to 1977. He worked as an agriculture advisor with rice farmers in a rural area of Sierra Leone, and later joined the staff of the Sierra Leone National Museum in Freetown, the country’s capital city. After returning home from Africa, he served as an historical consultant to the Seminole Freedmen community in Oklahoma in 1980. He returned to Sierra Leone in 1985, and stayed there until 1997 when he left during the country’s civil war.

Opala lived in Sierra Leone for a total of 17 years, doing extensive research on the Atlantic slave trade. During that time, he carried out several high-profile public history projects to publicize the family links he discovered between Sierra Leone and the Gullahs. In 1988 he organized a visit by Sierra Leone’s President Joseph Saidu Momoh to a Gullah community in South Carolina. Later, he organized three "Gullah homecomings" to Sierra Leone that were all officially recognized by the country’s government, and all of which received a great deal of international publicity. He worked with filmmakers to document these events. The documentary "Family Across the Sea" (1990) — based on the first Gullah homecoming — won several awards and was broadcast on PBS stations throughout the U.S.

Opala lectured at Sierra Leone’s Fourah Bay College from 1985 to 1992, teaching in the Institute of African Studies and the Department of Linguistics and African Languages. He was also active in the pro-democracy movement in Sierra Leone. He was a co-founder of the Campaign for Good Governance, Sierra Leone’s largest pro-democracy and human rights NGO.

In 2004 Opala was a fellow at the Gilder Lehrner Center at Yale University. In 2005 he was a fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Germany. He now teaches history at James Madison University in Virginia.