By Isaiah Washington
By the time this article is written, edited and read, 300 hundred children will have become infected with malaria and hundreds more will have died in my newfound homeland of Sierra Leone. Sierra Leone has one of the worst Infant Mortality Rates in the world (Sierra Leone’s U5MR is 284th in the world — 160.3 deaths/1000 live births — in other words, 28of all children die before they turn 5 years old, second to Angola). In October 2005 I found out that I shared ancestry with the Mende Temne Peoples of Sierra Leone on my Maternal side and with the Mbundu People of Angola on my Paternal side. I researched Sierra Leone for 8 intense months, reading one horror story after another about Sierra Leone after its Independence from British Rule in 1961. But the thing that interested me the most, was Sengbe Pieh, or “Joseph Cinque” — the Mende leader that lead the revolt on the slave ship, Le Amistad. I said, “Wow! This guy is one of my ancestors! What now?” My answer? I decided to go see the country and Sengbe Pieh’s people, my people, for myself. Mind you, I had no idea how this trip was going to even begin to come together, but I prayed and planned on having everything and everyone that I needed to make the journey. Many phone calls and several bizarre “coincidences” later, I had a full a budget, Visas, Camera Crew, a Corporate Council on Africa Sierra Leonean Representative, a Architect, a Special Agent, a Plastic Surgeon and a NAACP Human Rights Attorney getting on a plane with me headed for Sierra Leone in May 2006!
What I experienced there has changed and affirmed my life forever. While in Sierra Leone I not only saw the “faces” of my family members back in Houston, Texas, but I found myself publicly pledging that I would help raise awareness of the plight of Salone (slang for Sierra Leone), provide positive and timely improvements and build a much needed school in the Bagbwe Chiefdom village of Njala Kendema. “What the hell did I just do?” Again, I had no idea how I was going to do all of this, I just “knew” that it would get done. In this “knowing” The Gondobay Manga Foundation was founded in September 2006, received NGO status in June 2007, received 501(c)3 status in August 2007 and we finished building the Chief Foday Golia Memorial school for 150 children that opened November 15, 2007. This ironically, is the very same day of the Inauguration of the new democratically elected President Ernest Bai Koroma. Anyone who knows anything about starting non-profits, know that all of this takes much, much longer to achieve. Yet, it has all happened at lightening speed for us.
I now firmly believe that DNA has Memory and that we are who we were. It was explained to me that the Mende name Gondobay Manga has not been used since the original Chief Gondobay Manga of Ngalu (the Ngalu village is where I was inducted) died in battle protecting his village in the late 18th Century. He was a fierce Warrior, respected by his Chiefdom and feared by his enemies. I am a Warrior too. So, I thought it befitting to name the foundation after him. I am now Chief Gondobay Manga II. A man with renewed purpose and passion. A man with a history in Sierra Leone that I can embrace as my own. Ironically, after being inspired by the legacy of W.E.B. Dubois and his Pan-African dreams of dual citizenship. I am proud to say that the H.E. President Ernest Bai Koroma has agreed that he will give me and any African-American full citizenship if they can prove that their “origins” through DNA are Sierra Leonean. Needless to say, this will be historic, because this will, I hope, finally legitimize the term African-American. This will supersede Ghana’s Dual Citizenship Act of 2000, because that legislature was merely based on the “color of our skin” and not DNA.
In my final effort to “drive home” my theory of DNA has Memory and We Are Who We Were, I remembered having dreams of what I now know as various African “villages,” pre-Alex Haley’s Roots. Not wanting to talk about my recurring dreams, I often pretended that I never had them. The dreams were recurring or as I called them silently, “reruns.” They were of beautiful African women and children all running through heavily wooded areas. Sometimes working or playing. Growing up in Independence Heights (Studewood) in northeast Houston,Texas in the 1970s, I have to say, that it was common to take “shortcuts” through heavily wooded and undeveloped areas to get from one neighborhood to the next. Sometimes I took the “beaten paths” or many times I “created my own path or trail” and for some reason I never ended up late or lost. I always arrived before my friends (who remained on the same old trails) and they never could understand why I couldn’t just stay on the “beaten path.” I must admit that it was a little frightening to be creating a new path at times, but I always “knew” I had to do it. And I always “knew” that it would work out. Seeing the people and the familiar terrain in Sierra Leone, I instinctively “knew” that this was my home. Why? Well, I had seen it all before in my dreams as a child, a teenager and a young adult. So, when I return to Sierra Leone this May I will bring as many of those individuals who want to see what I have seen. Bring as many of those individuals who share the Mende ancestry. Bring as many of those individuals who want to help. Bring as many of those individuals who have had similar dreams of Africa. Bring as many of those individuals who want to see their ancestor’s homeland.
Lately I thought I was continuing W.E.B. DuBois’s dream, only to discover in my research that Edward Wilmot Blyden (3 August 1832 – 7 February 1912) was an Americo-Liberian educator, writer, diplomat and politician in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Blyden was teaching classics at Liberia College (1862-1871) when W.E.B. DuBois was being born on February 23, 1868! No disrespect to my man W.E.B. DuBois, but in this quest of discovery, I have discovered that Blyden is clearly the “Father of Pan-Africanism.” Blyden strongly believed that “African-Americans who were suffering in America from discrimination had to play a major role in the development of Africa by leaving America and returning to the African continent.” He was very “critical” of those African-Americans who did not want to associate themselves with Africa. Hmmm…sounds a lot like me. I too was born on August 3rd. A stretch you say? Maybe. Maybe not. I do believe that DNA has Memory and We Are Who We Were.