I expected to be an outsider in Freetown. Despite the same skin color, I'd have little in common with the average Sierra Leonean. We were worlds, and literally, an ocean apart. I tried to put all issues of ethnicity out of my mind. Besides, this trip wasn't about "connecting with my roots," as people say. It was purely professional.
"We're too different," I thought as I packed my bags. "I'm still going to be seen as some rich American. I'm not black like them. I'm not African." Besides, Africa is a huge continent; I was headed to one small country.
Sierra Leone is perhaps best known for its brutal 11-year civil war, finally ending in 2002 after claiming the lives of more than 50,000. The book and movie Blood Diamond, as well as Kanye West's Grammy-winning song "Diamonds from Sierra Leone" are generally how Americans have come to know this tiny, tropical West African nation, slightly smaller than South Carolina and wedged between Guinea and Liberia.
But there's much more that links it with the United States and black Americans. The British first took slaves from Sierra Leone to North America in 1625. Some of the first slaves brought to the colony of South Carolina were from here, as their ability to grow rice commanded a higher price on the slave market. The Gullahs—a group of black Americans living on islands off South Carolina's coast and bordering parts of Georgia—speak a language that has roots in Sierra Leone's Krio, Mende and Temne languages.
In 1787, the British sent 400 freed slaves from the United States, United Kingdom and Nova Scotia to settle in Sierra Leone. Other freed slaves made their way to the country, and by 1792 Sierra Leone was under British rule. Sierra Leone gained independence in 1961. Saiaka Stevens took office in 1968 as prime minister, and in 1978, he banned all political parties except his All People's Congress. Tensions ran high, and by 1991, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) began razing villages in the east near the Liberian border. They soon gained control of the diamond mines. Former Liberian President Charles Taylor wanted a piece, so he began supporting the RUF with guns in exchange for access to the diamond mines. Taylor is currently on trial at The Hague facing 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sierra Leone for his support of the RUF, charges he denies.
Four months into an indefinite stay here, I've become accustomed to the roosters, poor roads and people carrying items on their heads. The pollution as a result of burning trash and no vehicle emissions regulations make Freetown an asthmatic's worse nightmare. The heat, power outages and the slow Internet speeds are frustrating. Sierra Leone is a third-world country by just about all standards—it's the third poorest country in the world—but there are pockets of modernity, usually restaurants catering to the flock of expatriates working for non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
Yet there is a simplicity to life here that is hard to explain. The scene of lush, green mountains rolling down to the sea are beautiful. From atop many hills, one can see an expanse of palm, coconut and other tropical trees dotted with homes and buildings all the way to the ocean. The white foam from the waves hitting the shore makes a rainbow of blue, white and green, coincidentally the colors of Sierra Leone's flag.
And most importantly, people here are good-natured and kind-hearted. If you're lost, someone will walk you to the right address. If you can't catch a taxi, someone will try to get one for you. Everywhere you go, people are willing to help. And it's not just helping foreigners in hopes of a small tip. It's the sense of community. A sense of a black community, something I suspect we once had in the United States, but lost along the way.
Given all the warnings on Sierra Leone's State Department's Web site, I expected to move to a place with civil war tensions still simmering and unstable security. Yet, Freetown is one of the safest cities I've lived in. (Sorry, Detroit.) With a regional population of 2 million, the city is bustling with motorbikes, poda-poda (shared taxis) and Toyota Land Cruisers filled with people focused on rebuilding a nation ravaged physically, financially and mentally by the war. Freetown is finding its way again.
Much of that has to do with current President Ernest Bai Koroma. The All People's Congress party swept into office in 2007 promising change, growth and a steady stream of business investment, in nearly every sector from banking to agriculture to mining. Bauxite, the main component of aluminum, is one of Sierra Leone's top natural resources, along with iron ore and diamonds. Exports of cocoa beans are increasing because the shade trees have not been sprayed with pesticides for more than 10 years, giving Sierra Leone a niche in organic cocoa.
There are swarms of white Americans, Europeans and thriving, yet insular pockets of Lebanese, Indian and Chinese people here. I have yet to meet another black person here who doesn't have familial ties to Sierra Leone. Friends tell me they do exist. I'm often mistaken for a Sierra Leonean, which explains why I have the same conversation when I meet local residents.
"Are you Sierra Leonean?" they ask.
"No. I'm American."
"Are your parents from Sierra Leone?"
"Ah, you look Sierra Leonean. So then what brings you to Sierra Leone?"
When my partner landed a job with a New York-based NGO here, I decided to follow, taking a much-needed break from U.S. newsrooms. Following an abbreviated version of why I'm here and adding that I like the country very much, I generally receive a big smile.
"You're our American sister, welcome."
I didn't expect to hear those words, and I surely didn't expect to be moved by them. On one particular occasion, I was overwhelmed when a woman in the Ministry of Information said, "Well, you're home now. You're back in the Motherland. This is your home." She seemed to believe it more than I did. Home has always been Flushing, N.Y., so I expected my "American-ness" to be a barrier between myself and the locals here.
But I quickly realized the true barrier between me and "them" is slavery. One day our driver, following a lengthy explanation of which villages "upcountry" his family was from, going back several generations and tracing a path from neighboring Guinea, asked me where my father was from.
"Virginia," I said.
"No. I mean, where are your father's people from?"
He really wanted an answer that wasn't tied to some U.S. state. Under normal circumstances, a fair question. But nothing about blacks in America can be considered "under normal circumstances."
"Well … I really don't know where in Africa we're from … you know, because of slavery," I said, unsure how this was going to pan out. "Most blacks in America don't know where in Africa they're truly from."
"Ah, slavery," he said.
Silence fell over the SUV. I sat there a bit confused. I felt slightly ashamed that I didn't know where "my father's people were from." Should I feel ashamed? Angry? Conflicted?
My life is exponentially better than this driver's, and that's because my ancestors were forced to endure hell in chains. But he can pinpoint the exact village and tribe of his ancestors. I can't.
"You need to find out where you're from. You could be Sierra Leonean," said a chatty taxi driver about a month later. After explaining to him that I could take a DNA test and find out where my ancestors are from, he enthusiastically explained that it was something I should do.
"It's very important to know where you're from," he said.
People stare at me here. I think it's my Western clothes, or how awkward I look trying to navigate rocky roads and shared taxis. Or maybe, somewhere deep in their subconscious, they're searching for their American sister.
Kimberly S. Johnson is a freelance journalist living in Sierra Leone. She has previously held positions at the Associated Press, the Denver Post and Boston Globe.