Editor’s Note: Last week we posted the story of Afro-Cubans traveling to Sierra Leone to trace their roots. The trip was documented by Dr. Emma Christopher for her documentary “They Are We”. Below is Dr. Christopher’s and the traveler’s accounts of the trip.
Alfredo Duquesne and the rest of the Gangá-Longobá cross the Taia River, reversing their ancestor’s journey into slavery
Crossing the Taia River, deep in the interior of Sierra Leone, Alfredo Duquesne suddenly became agitated. He had never left his native Cuba before, and now he was half the world away, in a tiny dugout canoe crossing the swift-moving river. It was not the danger that was unsettling him. The sufferings of his ancestors at this place were taking their toll. ‘I felt their cries,’ he explained later, ‘and I could imagine the desperation and anguish showing on their faces.’ Alfredo’s sorrow soon turned to delight. His journey was, at least in part, vanquishing the sufferings of his ancestors who had once crossed this same river in chains. Incredibly, he was reversing their journey and returning home. I had spent two years searching throughout part of West Africa for evidence of the origins of Alfredo and his extended family group, who are known in Cuba as the Gangá-Longobá.
They have kept alive their ancestral heritage, protecting its uniqueness from the much more common Afro-Cuban practices such as Santería and Palo Monte. Intrigued to find out whether their roots could be traced, I recorded their songs and dances and then asked several thousand people across Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea if they recognized anything. Eventually, all roads led to Mokpangumba, a tiny, remote village in of Sierra Leone. The first time I ever visited Mokpangumba, the people’s reaction to my recordings of the Gangá-Longobá was so astonishing that it took me two years to fully process, and then explore and interrogate, their certainty. ‘They are we!’ they cried upon hearing and then joining in jubilantly with the Cuban songs. Their claim to kinship with the Cubans was quick and irrevocable: In their minds, the Cubans they were watching had to be the descendants of one of the people stolen from their village, as how else would they have so much of the same cultural heritage? ‘Nobody else practices this culture,’ said Solomon Musa, a local schoolteacher, ‘they must be our people’, before adding, ‘we are full of joy!’
Even after I satisfied my doubts and doubters that the ties could be confirmed, I still had much to learn about the meaning of the story to people here. While ‘roots’ stories are almost always viewed through the eyes of people in the diaspora, the importance of this reunion to the people of Mokpangumba is considerable. Here, like in much of Africa, family and social ties are life. People are thought to exist in relation to their extended families and communities. Nothing much of a person exists in isolation. This is in part why the uprooting and alienation of the transatlantic slave trade was so shattering. Such belonging, in the worldview of Mokpangumba, is timeless: It includes the ancestors and the ones not yet born as much as those alive today. It also defies geography.
The Cubans, and the rest of their lost people spread throughout the diaspora—those who have not yet found their way home—have always and will always belong here. The length of time they and their ancestors have been gone, and the fact that they have lost sight of their connections, well that is simply irrelevant. So as Alfredo, the other members of the Gangá-Longobá and I started the walk from the far bank of the Taia River to Mokpangumba, the sound of beating drums got louder and louder. The entire village had turned out to welcome their people home. In this astonishingly poor part of the world, they had collected money to pay for food to hail their return. They had turned down an offer to bring tents, determined that they would make their best rooms available to their returning brothers and sister. All that mattered was that they would be together. How else could they suitably honor the remarkable ancestor who, despite being taken into slavery and shipped across the Atlantic, had kept the village’s culture alive? For Alfredo and the other members of his group it was a magical moment. ‘I felt that I had arrived to a sacred place,’ said Alfredo, speaking of the strong energy that he felt when he touched the earth of his ancestral homeland. ‘I always thought that there was one heaven…but for me, Mokpangumba was another heaven, because it was my home.’ For the Sierra Leoneans too it provoked emotions beyond words.
Perhaps Joe Allie, a Mokpangumba man who is well into his eighties and blind, best displayed the significance when he surprised everybody by dancing for the first time in decades. Or perhaps it was best summed up by Solomon Musa, the man who originally said ‘they are we’, and who circled his arms around in fun, opening his hands into starbursts to simulate a firework display, something he has seen on television when the biggest celebrations occur in far off countries. Ultimately, what the people of Mokpangumba have taught me and their Cuban visitors—beyond that African roots can, occasionally, still be traced using only culture—is that African longing for their lost people can be as acute as the diaspora’s hopes of connection. In Mokpangumba, with no electricity, no road, and so much suffering for so long, the reunion simply meant this: So many have been lost. Four had, after centuries of hope, returned at last.
Dr Emma Christopher is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Sydney, Australia. She has written two books about the transatlantic slave trade and is also involved in today’s fight against slavery. They Are We, the story of the Afro-Cuban and Sierra Leonean reunion, is her first movie