Marcus Garvey once said that “a people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots”. Martin Luther king said that “we are not makers of history. We are made by history”. But in periods where there is no leadership, society stands still. It is only when courageous, and skillful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better that progress occurs. Many will find the title very offensive, and rightly so. Unlike other countries, Sierra Leone is one of the few countries where our history is not revered, glorified and preserved for posterity. Sierra Leone as a nation and with successive governments has never valued our history as a country and people. Before you rush to form your opinion, take a minute and reflect on all the historical artifacts, buildings, symbols ,events and stories of our history that have been handed down to us from generations to generations going down the drains.
The slave trade is one of the most epoch defining moments in world history. Slavery and the slave trade remains one of the darkest pages of human history. Sierra Leone featured prominently from its inception right through to its abolition. For God’s sake, our capital city Freetown was christened in reminiscence of the abolition of slavery and slave trade. In 1946, 18 historical sites were proclaimed as “national monuments” under Sierra Leone’s 1946 monuments and Relics ordinance. How many of these are now traceable? We should regard our monuments as the grappling-irons that bind one generation to another. Whether we like it or not, these monuments will stick like fishbone in our nation’s throat; and they should be for the living and not the dead. But they can only obtain their full worth through their complete use. As a people, we should use our monuments and archaeological pieces as testimonies of our greatness and establish a dialogue between civilizations; to show the extent to which we are linked.
It is with a heavy heart that one will admit that our history has not been cherished by our powers that be. Our historical buildings have been left to rot. One of the reservoirs of a people’s history has always been found in museums the world over. Since the Whiteman left us with the only recognized museum in Freetown, no government has made any effort to improve, let alone build another. It is a disgrace that with such a rich history, the only museum we can boast of is what passes for a cottage in the Centre of Freetown. Even at that, you could tour the whole edifice in less than 10 minutes. Much of what is preserved in there was left by our colonial masters. As a nation, our leaders have never shown any regards for our history. And it is not like; it’s not worth preserving or cherishing. Our history may be littered with a lot of undesirable events; alongside laudable events like the Hut tax War, heroes like John Ezzidio, Sengbe Pieh, Kai Londo and madam Yoko, to name but a few. How many of our children know about these people?
Sierra Leone has always enjoyed the enviable accolade of having had the earliest University, south of Sahara and north of the Limpopo River in Africa. Fourah Bay College, which is/was affiliated to Durham University in the UK, was once known as the Citadel of learning. It was one of the earliest drinking holes used to quench the thirst for knowledge on the African continent. Today, and disgracefully at that, the original buildings lie in ruins within the grounds of the Queen Elizabeth 2 Quay; another ironically symbolic citadel of corruption in our country. Any other African country would have restored, preserved and maintained such a landmark. But our corrupt leaders seem to have better things to do. Their respect for history and posterity will forever remain a dark spot on the conscience of this once great nation. Come to think of it, the only historical edifice that has escaped their negligence is the Freetown Cotton Tree. If it had not been situated in the centre of the city, it would have fallen victim to timbergate long ago.
If you visit the coastline of the Atlantic Ocean in the city, you will notice a lot of the historical landmarks from Cutty Sarks, King Jimmy, Government Wharf, De Ruyter Stone, The Martello Tower, The bastions Thorton Fort, etc. have long vanished. I know that it is not a wise or brave idea to lie down on the tracks of history to wait for the train of the future to run over me, but it is important for all of us to appreciate where we come from and how that history has shaped us in ways that we might not understand. It is understandable that history is not everything, but it is a starting point. As a people, we should use our history as a clock to tell our political and cultural time of the day. We can use it as a compass to find ourselves on the map of human geography. As sad as it is to admit, we are trapped in our history, and our history is trapped in us. Ironically today, the only thing that is new to us is our history that we do not know; because there is no time in human history where ignorance was better than knowledge.
We know that it takes an endless amount of history to make even a little tradition. But today, our culture and traditions remain at crossroads and at the mercy of a world that is getting more connected through technology. Nevertheless, it should not be an excuse, and it is incumbent on all of us to stay true to our heritage, take pride in our cultural heritage; because that is what our brand is about. As a nation, as a people, we should remember that our heritage, our ideals, our code and standards are the things that we live by, and should teach our children. It is what defines us, and should be etched into our national DNA. Modernity does not require a disengagement from our heritage.
It is no surprise today that most of our cottage industries have evaporated from our backyards. Take for example the “gara” industry, the “country cloth” etc. have all succumbed to the devouring pestilence of so called modernism. Although many factors contribute to this regrettable decline, successive governments have also played their roles by their failure to promote, patronize and protect them. Our culture cannot exist in exclusivity, but as a nation, we could hold on to our brand.
There are many people who would think that our country is currently facing more important issues. We are swamped by destitution as we live by the proverbial river and still wash our hands with spittle. With the elections coming up, the value of our currency falling like autumn leaves, and with corruption becoming a by word for normalcy, some may regard this issue as out of context. It is understandable if people feel that way, but our leaders need to wake up to the fact that our future is built on our history.
In Sierra Leone today, we have a Ministry of Tourism which does not seem to recognize the value of our past to the industry. The industry’s idea of tourism can be summed up into the sandy beaches of Lumley, Goderich and Tokeh. Tourism goes beyond the sunset beaches. There are people who want to know about our history. We should not be ashamed to promote it; irrespective of how bad or undesirable it has been. Our leaders should endeavour to bequeath a rich heritage to posterity. But the abject and reckless treatment of our heritage by our leaders is nothing short of disgraceful. At this juncture, can anyone tell me what it is like to be a Sierra Leonean? Do we have a definable culture?
One would hope that with the kind of history lurking in the entrails of the Fourah Bay College building at the Quay, our government will endeavour to preserve it. Like many other relics, it is worth boasting about. We need libraries to preserve these. Sadly, if you wanted information on the history of Sierra Leone today, you would have to be Google friendly. Even that is largely written by outsiders. As we all know, we have a lot of historians with a wealth of knowledge about our history. But where’s the government’s drive to capture such abundance of knowledge? It is no wonder that historians like Christopher Fyfe, Joe D. Ali, and many more have relatively struggled to have their voices heard along the corridors of our history.
One historian Ishmail Rashid summed up the status quo “as with the history of most African countries, the bedrock of these narratives have been constructed by Europeans, mostly male, who wrote themselves into African lives and endeavours in a fraudulent way, (but ultimately a self –fulfilling prophesy) to suggest that their arrival in the “dark continent was what animated lives that were essentially static. The deep memories, practices and artifacts of the various peoples of Sierra Leone and other parts of Africa became the hunting ground for colonial anthropologists, while the chronicles of the last two centuries became the tale of civilizing and elevating a degraded portion of humanity”. Until the lions have their own historian, the hunter will always remain victorious.
Of course, we have a lot to deal with at present. But can we remember our history? We can maintain a culture of transformation and still stay true to our values. Never forget posterity when devising a policy.
Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter (M. L. King).