How Cuban Villagers Learned They Descended From Sierra Leone Slaves

The amazing story of the traditional songs and dances, passed down over hundreds of years, that have tied a small Caribbean ethnic group to a remote African tribe
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Barmmy Boy Mansaray, a Sierra Leonean cameraman for the documentary They Are We. (Sergio Leyva Sieglie)

Chief Mabadu Pokawa can hardly believe it. His voice wavering somewhere between astonishment and hope, he asks whether I recorded the songs and dances he is watching on the screen of my laptop in his tiny, isolated chiefdom in Sierra Leone.

There's a reason for his disbelief. When the people onscreen aren't singing in a language they have otherwise long ago forgotten, they speak the rapid, pared Spanish of Cuba. Clearly they are not from Pokawa's chiefdom, where few speak the English of the educated and no one speaks Spanish.

Yet, for all that, the people from Perico, Cuba are from here. They are Pokawa's people, their ancestors exiled centuries ago as slaves.

On my first visit the people looked at my screen in utter astonishment, said "they are we," and then joined in with the songs.

Chief Pokawa's village of Mokpangumba is relentlessly poor, damned by geography as well as history. Cut off from the nearest roads by the twists and turns of the Taia River, they have no water other than the river's brownish flow and no toilet facilities at all. Electricity is beyond their aspirations. Pokawa, like most of the men, is a subsistence farmer, growing rice, yams and plantains to supplement fish from the river.

Now Pokawa and his people are ready to celebrate the return of those believed long lost. The villagers are busy preparing. Huts are being vacated for the visitors and empty rice bags are being stuffed with leaves to make mattresses. They have dug a rudimentary pit toilet and collected battered spoons for eating, aware that the visitors are accustomed to such luxuries. Insisting that they themselves contribute to the celebration for the Cubans' arrival, the village elders have given half of the fish needed for a feast for 800 people. A collection of grubby bills of tiny value has been taken to pay for half of the palm oil and peppers necessary.

They were adamant about going all out. People who sing the village's songs--melodies and rhythms that tie them to this inaccessible chiefdom -- are considered family. "Our grandparents who told us the stories about our people going as slaves, we know now that they didn't lie," says Joe Allie, an elder of the village and Pokawa's uncle.

"These must be our people," says Solomon Musa, a young man who works as a teacher in the village, "when we saw the people who practice the same things we used to do, we were so happy, we are full of joy."

There is a pervasive idea that Africans are generally unmoved by the fate of the descendants of slaves throughout the Americas. That belief is born largely of the tragedy that the vast majority of Africa's diaspora have little left of the specific languages, cultures, or beliefs that would tie them to a particular place of origin. The utter callousness of slavery, the endless destruction of families, and the sheer weight of the decades since have all attenuated much that originally crossed the ocean with their forebears. In the absence of those ties, some African-Americans have gone to central sites of commemoration, such as Gorée Island or Cape Coast Castle, looking for all that has been lost. Those who hoped for an individual connection to the motherland have sometimes reported these places rather disappointing. They are tourist sites, after all. What's more, dark skin is here the norm, so it does little by itself to symbolize kinship or affinity if not bolstered by shared language, culture or experience.

Pokawa and his people have, by contrast, found some of their lost kin in the Americas. This tiny group of people in Cuba -- a country they had scarcely heard of--singing and dancing their songs, was a gift from God. Or, more accurately, from God and Allah, both of whom are worshipped here side by side. Cut off from the media and from almost all Western education, to them the people taken as slaves into the transatlantic slave trade are still called by their ancient names, invoked as the lost. There was Gboyangi. Bomboai. There was the young girl just about to be married.

They live on in the village elders' collective memory, but the idea that any had survived, lived long enough to have families in their new countries, and then had taught their children the songs and dances of this chiefdom -- that was unimaginable. The fact that none had returned could only mean, they assumed, that none had survived. That there are untold numbers of people of African origin in the Americas who would dearly love to know the exact origins of their ancestors was utterly unknown. "Those poor children," said Pokawa when I tried to explain why none had visited before.

Even the Afro-Cubans who kept alive the songs and dances of this specific chiefdom had lost all knowledge of where they originated. Only by a long and arduous search, and with a great amount of luck, did my thousands of informants lead me here, where on my first visit the people looked at my screen in utter astonishment, said "they are we," and then joined in with the songs.

The official teaser for the film They Are We

But I, with my academic skepticism, doubted it could be true. I returned to Cuba and the archives and records, searching for written evidence of how this might have happened. The entire, exact story will likely never be recovered, but one determined woman and her descendants preserved a whole swath of songs and dances closely enough to be clearly identified.

Reincorporating people who have been gone for so long, but are somehow inescapably your kin, can only happen through openhearted acceptance.

What we do know is that there was a girl later called Josefa, stolen away from her homeland in the 1830s, who survived far longer than the seven years typical in Cuba's ingenios (sugar mills) in the mid-19th century. In fact, she lived into old age, long enough to experience freedom, and to teach her great-granddaughter Florinda her African heritage. Florinda in turn taught her grandson, whom she raised from infancy. He is Humberto Casanova, now himself a great-grandfather. It is Casanova and three of his friends for whom Pokawa and his people are waiting.

The effort to keep the songs and dances alive is especially remarkable because from the early 1960s until the late 1980s, their performances were proscribed in Cuba. Fidel Castro restricted Afro-Cuban cultural activities and religions just as he barred Catholicism and all other faiths. It was only in more recent times that they have been allowed to celebrate them openly, and few groups have managed to resurrect their songs, dances, and rituals. Somehow Humberto Casanova and his trusty assistant Magdalena (Piyuya) Mora managed this singular feat. (At 85, Piyuya is too frail to make the journey to Sierra Leone, so she will be represented by her nephew, woodcarver Alfredo Duquesne.)

It has taken two years to get permission for the visit, and ultimately it has only been possible because of the relaxing of travel laws in Cuba. In those two years I returned to Sierra Leone several times to fill them in on the progress, not blind to the irony that, 180 years on, the Africans are too poor to have birth certificates that would enable them to apply for passports, while the Cuban descendants of the slaves were not free to travel as they wished. The people of the chiefdom never gave up hope. They had waited 170 years for them to come back, after all, what were a few more months?

What this visit means to Pokawa and his people is almost impossible to grasp fully. People here are defined by their familial relationships, with little of the person existing beyond the family unit. How to reincorporate people gone for so long, who now speak a different language but are somehow inescapably your kin, is an issue that can only be dealt with through openhearted acceptance. Just to know that they are alive, that your culture flourished somewhere else, is wondrous. Pokawa has extended the invitation for them to stay as long as they can, which for this trip is only a week.

So as the drums of celebration are readied, so too is the "devil," the costumed dancer wearing head-to-foot raffia with wooden panels on his back, who represents all of the ancestors. Because the ancestors are, at last, dancing with joy.

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Emma Christopher is a research fellow with the Australian Research Council.

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