Granted, it’s not a question that occupies a great deal of attention, but Travel Dynamics International likes to illuminate parts of the world that don’t get a lot of attention. Last April, we were in Freetown (and we will be again, next April). We frequently arrange to have our guests meet local government officials; on this voyage, we were privileged to meet the Deputy Chief of Mission for the US Embassy, Elizabeth Susie Pratt, who gave us this excellent summary of the current political and social issues of Sierra Leone, and that African country’s ties to the United States. The address is featured prominently on the American Embassy’s website.
Good morning ladies and gentlemen. I am pleased to be the first to welcome you to Sierra Leone. I have been the Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy to Sierra Leone for nearly two years now, so I welcome you as I am preparing for my own departure. My time here has been one of exciting changes both in the Embassy and in the country as a whole. Our Embassy moved from our longtime home to a new building up on top of Leicester Peak. Sierra Leone has transitioned from being a country only just emerged from war, with a peace still guarded by a robust UN force, to a reconstructing nation, with a rapidly reducing UN presence, and a democratic election and peaceful civilian to civilian transfer of authority complete.
I think it is important, however, to begin any discussion of U.S.-Sierra Leone relations with a discussion of the historical ties that connect the two countries. The first major contact between America and Sierra Leone was through the slave trade. Captives from this part of Africa were highly sought after for their superior rice-growing abilities. The rice from this part of the world was among the best, and rice was a prime industry in the Carolinas and Georgia. Many Sierra Leoneans found their way to the United States because plantation owners sought them out. Their expertise was invaluable in the southern economy.
Today, there is a population off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia called the Gullah people who trace their roots to the Mende tribe of Sierra Leone. The language they speak is almost identical to the tribal language still spoken here. Their foods, their songs, their dances, and their rituals are all indicative of the African roots many Americans never knew they had. An American scholar by the name of Joseph Opala about 10 years ago was able to connect through DNA testing a woman from that area of the United States to a particular village here in Sierra Leone. That woman’s ancestor, a Sierra Leonean captive named Priscilla, remained in the area of the Southern U.S., and her descendants settled there for generations. When Priscilla’s descendant finally visited the land of her ancestors, it was dubbed “Priscilla’s Homecoming,” and epitomized the strong relationship between our two countries.
On the ground, that connection is manifest at Bunce Island. A major hub of the British slave trade, Bunce Island was a stopping point for many captives on their way to the new world. In the past few months, a study commissioned by the United States Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation documented the archaeological significance of this site and made recommendations for preservation of this national treasure. The study is being used as the basis for a private sector effort to reconstruct the site, which is in the fundraising stage now.
In fact, Bunce Island plays an interesting role in the story of America’s birth. Henry Laurens, a wealthy South Carolina slave dealer and rice planter, was Bunce Island’s business agent in Charles Town before the American Revolutionary War. After the war began, Laurens became the President of the Continental Congress, and when the fighting finally ended, he was named one of the American Peace Commissioners who negotiated U.S. Independence under the Treaty of Paris. Amazingly, Richard Oswald, Bunce Island’s London-based owner, was appointed head of the British negotiating team in Paris. In other words, United States Independence was negotiated, in part, between Bunce Island’s British owner and his American business agent in South Carolina. The relationship between these two men reflects Bunce Island’s importance in the commerce that linked Britain, North America, and West Africa during the Colonial Period.
After the Revolution, some of the American slaves who had fought on the side of the British, known as the black loyalists, were resettled by the British in Nova Scotia, despite George Washington attempting to secure their return to their former owners as a part of the treaty. That group, when they finally returned to Africa, became the founders of Freetown, known thereafter as the ‘Nova Scotian settlers.’ The Sierra Leonean Krio people are direct descendants of this group of Black Americans, and therefore have an ancestry that combines ethnicities from across the continent.
In the coming years, especially after 1808, when the British abolished the slave trade, many freed slaves were brought here by British abolitionists. You can see that heritage among the Krio community, in their traditions and houses, which are reminiscent of the Caribbean.
Moving forward to modern times, the US and Sierra Leone have maintained a very strong relationship throughout the good times and the bad here. While the traditional major player in this country are the British, as the former colonists, the US has made a great impact in this country through development contributions, diplomatic outreach, and what we call public diplomacy.
Through our assistance programs, we promote local democracy and governance, agricultural development, responsible mining, food security and education, among others. We are also working with Sierra Leone to help them take advantage of more economic opportunities through the African Growth and Opportunity Act.
Our Department of Defense program works extremely close with the Sierra Leonean Armed Forces on HIV/AIDS prevention. The Departments of Justice and Labor also have projects here working to improve law enforcement and reduce child labor, respectively. I hope, too, that, together we can craft a way forward for Sierra Leone to qualify for Millennium Challenge Corporation involvement in the future.
Diplomatically, we have very positive relations with the government of Sierra Leone. We share many of the explicit goals of the new government. We are committed to working as partners with Sierra Leone to achieve a more democratic and prosperous environment. A government of national unity is crucial to addressing the difficult challenges facing Sierra Leone.
Sierra Leone has set a fine example for other countries, not just in the region, but throughout Africa and the world. The national elections were a concrete expression of the progress Sierra Leone has made in recent years. I would like to commend the National Elections Commission led by Dr. Christiana Thorpe, the Sierra Leone Police, and the people of Sierra Leone. The eagerness of Sierra Leone’s citizens to cast their vote, without fear of retribution, is the first step in rebuilding confidence in government
As a result of Sierra Leone’s successful elections, our mutual standards for democracy in Sierra Leone are high. Peaceful transition of power was a momentous step, but it was only the first step. We have high hopes for the next five years. In the coming years, we hope to see increased respect for the rule of law and civil authority, a more autonomous judiciary, and economic development, encouragement of business and strong anti-corruption measures.
We have been encouraged by the government’s declarations of “zero tolerance” for corruption. Corruption eats away at the fabric of government and society and robs future generations of a brighter and prosperous future. We actively support initiatives to combat corruption, promote government transparency and effectiveness, and to open the doors of opportunity to all Sierra Leoneans, no matter their age, gender or affiliation.
One of our principal responsibilities at the Embassy is to promote good relations on all levels between our governments and our peoples. Both our current Ambassador and our previous Ambassador had close personal connections to the Peace Corps. Ambassador Hull served as a volunteer here in Sierra Leone, while Ambassador Perry served in the Washington headquarters as Director of Public Affairs for all U.S. Government Action volunteer programs, including the Peace Corps, and traveled with her husband when he was a Peace Corps Country Director. Peace Corps volunteers in Sierra Leone would have vast potential to impact positively the areas in which they serve. Congress and the Peace Corps administration have agreed that the time is right for a return of volunteers to Sierra Leone. We hope to see them back as soon as funding becomes available.
As I look back on my two years in this country, I am excited to see how far it has come. I also look forward anxiously, because I know how far they still have to go. The US government has done a lot of great work to help Sierra Leone move past the post-conflict phase and into the reconstruction phase, and I hope that we are able to continue our efforts. Visits of groups like yours are key to keeping Sierra Leone front of mind in the US, and so I encourage you to enjoy your stay here, interact with Sierra Leoneans, who are warm and friendly, and go back to your homes and tell them how much potential there is here. Only with continued international support will Sierra Leone be able to reach that potential.