Have you ever wondered about the different origins options we are asked to pick from, in the course of entering information on an application for a job, for medical reasons, or even for school? I encountered this recently on school paperwork I was filling out for my son. The question that caused me to pause was: What is the student’s race? Choices included: ‘American Indian or Alaska Native‘, ‘Asian’, ‘Black or African American (A person having origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa)’, plus a couple of others. For a moment more than at any point in the past, I pondered on the meaning… a person having ORIGINS in any of the black racial groups of AFRICA. “What does this mean to the larger African American community?” I wondered. Of what significance are one’s origins? How connected do most ‘blacks’ feel to their origins?
You are about to meet a young African American who did the direct opposite of distancing himself from his ancestral roots. He packed up his bags and relocated to the west African nation of Sierra Leone in 2013. It was not in search of big money. Not for a better education. Not for superior healthcare…or any of the other reasons that drive migration.
It was to work in the community as a volunteer grassroots organizer.
Ajamu Bandele was born in Pennsylvania and now lives in Freetown. Upon arrival in Sierra Leone, he was adopted by the Mansaray family of Bonoya, Karina and named Foday (a Mandingo name). The 37 year old is fondly called Big JC, (also a stage name) by local kids in Freetown. JC meaning ‘Just Come’ in Krio alluding to his foreign origins and Big due to his height of 6’6″.
Mr Mansaray is an activist and community advocate of many dimensions, some of which you will discover as our conversation unfolds. He is founder of The Black Star Action Network International (BSANI), a Pan African community based organization that orchestrates campaigns and events ranging from sports/entertainment and human/civil rights matters to health and literacy.
If power belongs to the people, then it is our community workers who help them recognize that they have it. In some areas, such work may be more daunting than in others. However, it is also here, that we meet some of the most dedicated and passionate foot soldiers.
I would say that as an African America I felt more culturally at home in Africa than most Africans in America for sure.
Though I never learned to talk Geechee as my family calls the lightning speed creole language that my mother was able to speak, having much exposure to the tongue growing enabled me to decrypt the Krio language of Sierra Leone.
When I got to Sierra Leone I realized that the same type of system is in place here where most people are either Muslim or Christian but still honor, respect, and practice the traditional spirituality of their ancestors.
The real culture shock for me was mainly due to coming from American development to African underdevelopment. I mean every aspect of daily life involving cultural norms and values are drastically different than what I am used to in America. From cooking on coal pots, to bathing in buckets. Electricity is a luxury and there is no running water. Transportation is horrible and roads are even worse. Women work extremely hard and children hustle any kind of merchandise they can lay their hands on – cold drinks, boiled eggs, bread, clothes, etc -in the streets every day. I’ll say it has been humbling and liberating to observe and participate in the daily grassroots struggle for more and better in Sierra Leone in particular and Africa in general.
I have met many innovative people in Africa. Truth is that as a Black man in America I have always felt unwanted and out of place in my country but in Sierra Leone the people embraced me as family and welcomed me back home like a long lost relative.
At the end of the day I am where I would rather be and doing the work that I love with my life.
.My relationship and connection to this particular African country, culture, and people is deep and predates my own birth because of the undeniable fact that I am a Gullah/Geechee (African American), first and foremost.
Growing up in a modern northern migrated Gullah/Geechee family household headed by my late mother included regular visits to her hometown in South Carolina, the oral transfer of our rich family history and legacy, in-house exposure to “Geechee” talk and cuisine, and the continued intergenerational transfer of the traditional African based worldview and value system.
In my early 20’s I became more interested in the study of Gullah/Geechee culture and heritage through which I first learned of the special relationship between my people in America and our brothers and sisters in Sierra Leone … that Freetown was founded in 1792 by former African American slaves that were granted freedom and promised land as a reward for their loyalty to the British during the American Revolution.
My genuine love for Africa and African people, combined with my legitimate work with Sierra Leonean organizers and activists over the last 9 years, are the primary reasons why I chose Sierra Leone to return and organize here at the grassroots level.
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