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.
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.