Sister Cities: The Connection between Charleston and Freetown, Sierra Leone
Dressed in a brightly colored, patterned dress and wearing stylishly large, black rimmed glasses, 51 year-old Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr flashes the most fantastic smile. The mayor of Freetown, Seirra Leone in West Africa has travelled more than 4,000 miles to visit Charleston and South Carolina's Sea Islands. She must be exhausted. Yet she glows with warmth and enthusiasm.
"We're family," she tells an audience gathered inside the Frissell Community House at the Penn Center on Saint Helena Island. "We should be a bit closer than we have been to date."
Freetown and the Lowcountry are separated by the Atlantic Ocean. But they are closely connected through the transatlantic slave trade which transported enslaved Africans, mostly to the Americas, from the 16th to 19th centuries.
The wharf along the Cooper River in Charleston is where nearly half of enslaved Africans were brought to this country. It's also the site of the new International African American Museum about to be built. Museum CEO Michael Boulware Moore can trace his ancestor's first steps there, as well as their last from Africa at Bunce Island.
"To actually stand on the stone jetty where they were marched down to get on to the ships, it was powerful." says Moore. "I was overcome with emotion."
Mayor Aki-Sawyer was with Moore at that moment. He has been trying to build a relationship with Sierra Leone as the museum explores the deep connections between the two communities. Moore invited Aki-Sawyerr back to Charleston where she experienced her own personal voyage.
"It was recognizing and realizing with a new sort of profoundness really, that Gadsden's Wharf is probably, possibly where my ancestors first landed."
Freetown was founded by freed slaves who fought with the British during the Revolutionary War. Originally the fled to Nova Scotia and that's where Aki-Sawyerr's ancestors are from.
Charleston and Freetown have since signed on to become International Sister Cities, hoping to share history, culture and ideas for economic development, especially tourism. Aki-Sawyerr says the two communities face common struggles as well, such as flooding, rising house prices and insufficient infrastructure.
Like twins separated at birth, Moore and Aki-Sawyerr revel in discovering their cities similarities.
"I'm there and I'm eating greens, rice and beans," says Moore. "It felt like home."
"Something like red rice which is a popular staple in Charleston is Jollof rice in Freetown," Aki-Sawyer says. "It's very, very popular."
Plantation owners often sought slaves (and were willing to pay a high price for) from what they called the, "Rice Coast" which included Sierra Leone. They were more than labor. They had the knowledge and skills to cultivate rice, a crop that made Charleston a very wealthy city.
Back on Saint Helena at the Penn Center, the first school in the south for freed slaves, many in the audience are Gullah Geechee: descendents of slaves who worked in the rice fields. Once freed, the former slaves remained isolated on the Sea Islands as plantation owners packed up and fled the swampy marsh lands. There they were able to preserve their culture, cuisine and language.
Men, young and old, drum a beat that pulses through the soul. Children perform a play celebrating extraordinary ancestors who looked like them, including Harriet Tubman and Robert Smalls.
But it's one singer who nearly brings the mayor of Freetown to tears. The song is called, "Something inside So Strong". Aki-Sawyerr says it's about breaking free. It's the second time that day she's heard it sung.
"It resonates so much with this trip," she says.
"It resonates with these conversations about the resilience of people who travelled many miles in very horrific conditions across the Atlantic to start a new life that they didn't choose to start."
People who were stripped of their freedom, families and humanity, yet didn't lose themselves: now transcend an ocean to reconnect and find renewed strength in their ancestry.