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Sierra Leoneans in Diaspora celebrate Black Loyalists, founding of Freetown

 - Wednesday 7 March 2012.

By Dennis Kabatto, PV Correspondent, New York.

Organizers of Sierra Leone Black Loyalists celebrations are elated over the massive turnout of Sierra Leoneans who thronged Busboys & Poets Café in Washington, DC for what they called a first of its kind commemoration of Sierra Leonean and African American history in recent memory.

Sierra Leoneans of all ages and walks of life (students, parents with young children, young and middle-aged professionals, artists, writers, scholars and notables came to celebrate the founding of Freetown and its Founders, the Black Loyalists.

Dr. Fuambai Sia Ahmadu (pictured, above), Executive Director, of MSLDC Inc. and the event primary sponsor said “we received lots of feedback from audience members that the mix of cultural performance - traditional dance, poetry and music videos - as well as the teachings from our two historians, Kevin Lowther and Professor Nemata Blyden was educational, emotional and very inspiring.”

Dr. Ahmadu declared the event as successful in "highlighting the importance of Krio history, culture, and language to our national identity as Sierra Leoneans and awakening us to our powerful interconnections with African-Americans, notably among peoples such as the Gullah of South Carolina. “

“Most members of the audience who came Sunday knew very little, if anything, about the black loyalists and were fascinated to learn about this critical aspect of the history of Sierra Leone, “ said Dr. Ahmadu.

Other highlights were dramatic performances by Natasha Beckley, Miss Sierra Leone 2011, poetry readings by Akindele Decker from the Sierra Leone Gullah Association and David Vandy, from Voice of America. The event also featured video screenings of Freddy Shabaka’s song, the Black Loyalist and his latest release, Heal Our Nation.

Shabaka also participated via telephone on a discussion of Sierra Leone’s Black Loyalists on African New Dawn Radio show which airs every Sunday from 8 – 9 pm on Rutgers University’s WRSU, 88.7 FM in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

After Sunday’s celebration, Shabaka shared some of his sentiments on the Founders of Freetown including his observations on developing events in Sierra Leone in an interview conducted via email.

Dennis Kabatto: For starters, talk about the significance of the tribute to Sierra Leone’s ‘Black Loyalists’ event that you helped organize and attended Sunday at Bus Boys and Poets in Washington, DC

Freddy Shabaka: The Black Loyalists were the founders of Freetown and many people are not aware of what they had to go through to make this journey possible. They were refugees from the American revolutionary war who were slaves that fought for the British based on promises of freedom, land and sustenance after the war. The British did not live up to their promises and they suffered greatly in a place called Nova Scotia in Canada. These freed slaves appointed one of their own, Thomas Peters, as their leader. Peters travelled to London to meet with British authorities. It is important to keep in mind that the slave trade was still going on so this was a very risky journey. It was while he was in London that he met with abolitionists like Granville Sharp. He told them that he had heard of their attempt to create a settlement in Africa and that he wanted to take his people to Sierra Leone which they felt was their Zion. This was the first back to Africa movement long before Marcus Garvey and the black starliner. When Thomas Peters went back to Nova Scotia with Clarkson, they used the churches to spread the message of the plan to return to Africa. This started an exodus-like movement as blacks travelled for miles to hear this message. Many blacks were recruited for the trip and on January 15th 1792, Thomas Peters and 1,196 blacks sailed in a convoy of 16 ships for a place they called Freetown.

This story appears to have fallen between the cracks of black history and this event on Sunday was an attempt to create awareness and pay tribute to such an important slice of our history. I helped with the event but the event was actually organized by Dr. Fuambai Ahmadu who runs the Miss Sierra Leone USA pageant and mentors young Sierra Leone women. She is an amazing woman and a Sierra Leonan gem.

DK: How was the attendance?

FS: The attendance was amazing. We were just expecting a few people but the place was packed with standing room only. It was a lovely family event.

DK: Celebrating Sierra Leone ‘Black Loyalists’ from America highlights or bring to the fore the connection or relationship if you will, of Sierra Leoneans and African Americans that is normally ignored or swept under the rug. Share your opinion on the lack of awareness or bonding between Sierra Leoneans and African Americans.

FS: The strong connections between Sierra Leoneans and African Americans tend to be ignored but there are several strong historical connections between both peoples with the Black Loyalists being just one of them. When I was going to school in Freetown they taught us a little about the Nova Scotians but we didn’t really know much about Nova Scotia so it became a dead end. If we had understood that these were African American slaves who fought hard and suffered greatly with their struggles resulting in the creation of Freetown then we would have seen this part of our history very differently as we were already familiar with the African American story not realizing that it was also part of our own story.

As a teenager I grew up listening to Bob Marley singing about Exodus, and Burning Spear singing about Marcus Garvey, and we didn’t realize that we had our own Exodus from the American Revolutionary War, and our own Marcus Garvey in the form of Thomas Peters. I believe that it is important to acknowledge these ties because it is our reality. We are all the same people in many ways and an understanding of what connects us rather than just what separates us is a good place to start.

People need to understand that the slaves who were in bondage in America faced difficult choices. Fighting for the American patriots or the British was a personal one. They all wanted their freedom so they made decisions as to the best way to secure this freedom. This means that some families and friends went separate ways with some becoming Black loyalists and the other half remaining in America. This is a real bond that we have with African Americans. The blood flows through our veins regardless of whether we acknowledge it or not.

DK: Apart from a high concentration of Sierra Leonean professionals in the Diaspora- Washington DC and the surrounding Maryland and Virginia - commonly known as the DMV Zone, is also home to a huge number of Salone artists and youths. What was the vibes like in terms of artistic and musical performances?

FS: The event was not really a musical concert so there weren’t any live musical performances. It was a discussion of the Black Loyalist story, some poetry readings and the screening of my Black Loyalist music video and my Heal Our Nation music video. It also was a family event with older folks, children and many young adults.

DK: You were also scheduled to perform, how was your performance?

FS:I didn’t perform at the event. Actually we’ll be having another event soon that will include a Shabaka performance and I also plan on doing a major concert in the DMV this year. I did say a few words to the audience about how I developed interest in the Black Loyalists and my personal connections to the story.

DK: Since 1783, approximately 229 years after the ‘Black Loyalists’ arrived in Freetown, capital of Sierra Leone, the country and its people have experienced a great transformation from colonial rule to being self governed. Give us your impression of the progress of present day Sierra Leone or the lack thereof.

FS: Sierra Leone is still a young country and we are trying to find our way. From the time of the Black Loyalists to 1961 we were pretty much being ruled by the British. So we’ve only had about 50 years of technical independence. I use the word technical because true independence is a state of mind. Until we develop an independent mindset we can’t really claim true independence. I am very hopeful however, that things will continue to get better in the coming years. There has already been progress in recent years and I think we’re on the right track. It is very important that we don’t get discouraged because once you lose hope then you’ve lost the Will to create a new reality.

DK: Come November, Sierra Leone will conduct its next presidential and parliamentary elections, what are your views on the political posturing by both the ruling All People’s Congress (APC) and the opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP)? Which side are you on?

FS: I am not a card carrying member of any political party. I try to stay away from direct political involvement but my concern is that a lot of our political leaders and aspirants don’t appear to seek the office to create lasting and positive change. We can have different ideas as to what the country needs to move ahead and there is nothing wrong with that. Debate and discussion is always good. That is what politics is about but when people enter politics as a way to take from the people and don’t live up to their responsibilities it creates a very sad situation. We are all Sierra Leoneans and the development of our country lifts all of us. Sierra Leone is a small country. If we look at our families closely we will always find connections with each other, be it blood connections or other relationships. I have a song on my Black Loyalist CD called “Who is the enemy” and as Sierra Leoneans it can be a difficult question to answer because we are not governed by “alien” people. The people who corrupt our society are our brothers, sisters, friends, relatives, friends of friends etc, regardless of party affiliation. This makes it difficult for people to acknowledge those that are corrupting our society so we tend to point fingers to the other side. Look, we’re all in this together regardless of political party. We will either rise up together or fall together. So let us view the upcoming elections as a battle of ideas and not a battle of the machete and the gun.

DK: And finally, in his 2010 feature music article on Sierra Leonean artist Innocent for the Los Angeles Times, Scott Kraft raves: "In Sierra Leone, pop music is a beat that drives politics." And we also know that music has always played a crucial role in delivering political education to the masses as well as to mobilize respective political party supporters. Do you plan to record a song for the upcoming elections in Sierra Leone?

FS: No I don’t intend to record a song specifically for the elections. I think music can be effective if it delivers a political message but when a musician aligns with a political party it can be dangerous because music is very powerful and can both help and hurt society. We as artists must be mindful of that. In a society as fragile as ours we have to be very careful as to how we use our power as musicians. We have just come out of a decade long war and our souls are still tender.

Members of the audience.