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Cuba/Sierra Leone: Reclaiming Slave-Trade History

AfricaFocus Bulletin
July 6, 2016 (160706)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

As recognition grows that the legacy of slavery and the slave trade is still embedded in the structural inequalities of today's world, scholars are finding new ways to make the lost connections visible. One dramatic and inspiring illustration, featured in this issue of AfricaFocus Bulletin, is the film "They Are We," showing the rediscovery and re-connection in person with their African relatives of an Afro-Cuban community which still celebrates their heritage with dances and songs in a language almost forgotten by current generations even in its villages of origin in Sierra Leone. The film, first released in Cuba in 2013, features the story of this rediscovery, in the voices and faces of the communities who collaborated in the making of the film.

The film originated in the research in Cuba and West Africa of the Australian anthropologist Emma Christopher. But it turned into dialogue and collaboration of both members of the communities and filmmakers in Cuba and Sierra Leone.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains several short reviews, from New York, Chicago, Havana, and from the website for the film, as well as links to an educator's guide for use of the film in classrooms. The full video is available to rent for streaming on Amazon for $2.99 (go to

Thanks to AfricaFocus reader Daphne Muse for calling my attention to this film through her Facebook post.

And, by coincidence, just as I was deciding to put this on AfricaFocus, as a break from the normal focus on analysis of current events and issues, I also was reminded of two related sets of stories. I think AfricaFocus readers will agree that such glimpses of the past are not just of academic interest, but also of relevance in understanding how that past still molds today's world, and how remembering and reconnecting must be part of building new futures that begin to repair the accumulated and continuing injustices.

First, the Washington Post published a feature article on Albert Jose "Doc" Jones, who has long been a pioneer in maritime research on the wrecks of slave ships, including the São José, a Portuguese ship that went down near Cape Town after leaving Mozambique in 1794. The Post article can be found at The artifacts from the 1794 wreck, in which over 200 of the 500 slaves on board drowned, will be on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, as part of a cooperative project of the Smithsonian Institution, Iziko Museums of Cape Town, and other partners in the U.S. and Africa (see the press release from the Smithsonian Institution at And a short video on the São José, from Iziko Museums, is available at

The same morning, Ezikiel Pajibo, another AfricaFocus reader (in Liberia), posted a Facebook link to an article from South Africa History Online ( about Liberia's "Kroomen" sailors who worked along the West African and Southern Africa coasts as contract workers for the British Navy as the slave trade was ending in the 19th century and into the 20th century( These sailors were among the channels for the contacts of the Garvey movement in the Americas with South Africa and Namibia (as explored in publications by scholars such as Gregory Pirio and Robert Vinson).

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++

They Are We

For a teaser video see

To rent ($2.99) or purchase the streaming video on Amazon, go to

An educators' guide for the film, with background on the slave trade to Latin America and class activities suggestions, is available at A DVD for classroom use can also be ordered from

This Documentary Uncovers an Afro-Cuban Community Singing in an Almost Extinct African Language - Direct URL:

Feb. 18, 2016

Manuel Betancourt

They Are We tells a story that, were it not told by a University professor in the middle of a documentary, you'd swear couldn't possibly be true. Emma Christopher, who's written extensively on the Atlantic slave trade and teaches at the University of Sydney, found herself connecting a remote chiefdom in Sierra Leone with a small Afro-Cuban community in Perico whose traditional song and dances suggest a direct lineage to that Western African group. The film's title is a direct quote from a Sierra Leonean upon watching videos of the Cuban dancers: "They are we!" he exclaimed, seeing something in the annual San Lazaro ceremony that looked all too familiar.

That's right, a lively celebration by the proud members of the Gangá-Longobá in central Cuba eventually led Christopher to find the African village from whence the songs came from generations ago. Moreover, she arranged for these Afro-Cuban people to fly to the place where their ancestor was torn from her family, sold to slavery, and taken to the Caribbean island all those years ago.

As Christopher told an audience here in New York, "It's completely incredible that they've kept these songs and dances alive for all these centuries!" The songs were being sung in a very particular kind of language--the Banta tongue--which is nearing extinction in Western Africa. Armed with this amazing story, Christopher moved to Cuba for two years and ended up getting a Fellowship from the Australian Research Council that helped her fund the finished film. In it, we see four Cubans from Perico make the journey to Sierra Leone where they are met with open arms by a community that was all too happy to get to know these long-lost family members. They Are We is a moving story that celebrates this colorful and vibrant slice of Afro-Cuban culture, and which shows the resilience of tradition even in the face of historical violence.

Christopher was on hand after the film's screening at the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Dance on Camera series for a Q&A where she talked about the long-gestating project, and explained more about the cultural similarities between these two geographically distinct communities.

Find some highlights from the Q&A below.

On How They Are We Came Together

"The film's title is a direct quote from a Sierra Leonean watching videos of the Cuban dancers: "They are we!" he exclaimed, seeing something in the annual San Lazaro ceremony that looked all too familiar."

It was really my incredible pleasure to be part of that. It was an amazing privilege. I never planned to make this film. I was working on a totally separate project. I originally filmed the Cubans out of interest, them being the only group still in Cuba that celebrated being Ganga which I know, as a historian, means they were from Sierra Leone/Liberia. They did not know this at this point. I wanted to show it to my students in Australia who don't know much about Afro-Cuban cultures. And then, as you saw in the film, when I was working in Liberia on the original project, these people in a cafe saw it, and they were like "You have to show it to the whole town." And what I initially thought I was doing, what I was originally interested in, was studying people's reactions to it. So I started showing it across West Africa in order to get people's reactions. Because I was intrigued by the way they responded. Because even then I had no idea that we'd eventually be quite certain that an answer was possible.

On Choosing Who Got to Make the Trip to Africa

[Who you see in the film is] a small part of the group. In some way I turned it over to them. It's kind of interesting: this had always been a women's society, and it's pretty clear that it also was in Cuba until Florinda--Cuco's grandmother--died. Florinda had three daughters. It had always passed from mother to daughter up until that points. But she had three daughters, two of whom predeceased her, and one of whom had medical problems. She was not able to pass it to her. But she passed it to her granddaughter, Piyuya who you saw in the film. But what happened was, in Cuba, after Florinda died, a Santero --and Santería is a much more male-dominated religion--said, well it should stay in the family and it should be passed to Cuco, Florinda's grandson. So Cuco thinks of himself as the leader and that's fine. Except everyone else thinks of Piyuya as the leader because she's a woman and she inherited it from the former leader. Piyuya was sadly, too old to come; she's passed away since then. She was 85 in the film. She was not strong enough for the journey.

But Cuco really wanted to come and he wanted to bring his grandson. And I very much wanted to bring Alfredo because he was someone who had been carving African art. He was also known as really teaching children about the pride in their African roots. And then I said that they were not bringing four guys, because that's a different dynamic, and so, of course, it was Elvira who's the successor. What was interesting was that when we got to Africa was that the Africans presumed that Elvira is the leader. And so Cuco would say that he's been waiting for his grandmother to appear to him in a dream for 30- odd years to tell him the secrets, but in Africa, unfortunately, he realized that this wasn't going to happen. Because it's a woman's secrets. And this was a bit of a surprise to him.

On the Surprising Cultural Resilience of Songs And Dances

The [Cubans] did not have that much of a sense of what it meant. Certainly not in terms of the dances. The songs have slightly different meanings to them but what was kind of intriguing is that they more or less sing them in the same order as the Sierra Leoneans. It's not in the film, but there's actually a recording by Lydia Cabrera, the well-known Cuban-American anthropologist. She recorded the Gangá-Longobá in the 1950s. But when Cabrera came to the U.S. from Cuba after the revolution, she brought those recordings with her and then kind of forgot that they existed. And I'd taken those back to Cuba and Sierra Leone and they are very much more identifiable to the Sierra Leoneans.

In fact, this one, which I found when I was editing this when I was checking the subtitles for it, there's a lot of evidence that up until 1980 Florinda knew exactly what those songs meant. Because she still says words in the Cabrera recordings that indicate that she had much more clear meaning and what's interesting and that up until her death, she was known in the Perico region as a herbal healer. So even though today they'd forgotten that some of the songs are herbal remedies, there's quite a lot of evidence that she knew. There are clear differences in meaning, but underneath that, there's more commonality than I ever would have anticipated.

'They Are We' review: Documentary unites Cubans, Africans

"They Are We" records the reunion of Afro-Cubans and Sierra Leone villagers.

Chicago Tribune, June 24, 2015

"They Are We" proves that you can go home again.

It takes a while to set up its centerpiece, a joyous transcontinental reunion of Afro-Cubans and Sierra Leone villagers. But the 77-minute running time of "They Are We," making its U.S. theatrical premiere this weekend at Facets with filmmaker Emma Christopher in attendance, is nothing compared to the estimated 170 years that passed before the film's far-flung subjects found each other again.

Christopher's story is an academic and musicological detective story. Several years ago the University of Sydney professor traveled to Perico, Cuba, where she filmed the Ganga-Longoba community. The Ganga's traditional chants, she discovered, originated in the isolated Sierra Leone village of Mokpangumba, ravaged by civil war in the 1990s. Christopher describes herself as a slave trade historian; her research indicates the Mokpangumba people were sold into slavery in the mid-1800s, to Cuban traders.

For a half-hour or so, "They Are We" shuttles back and forth from Cuba to Sierra Leone as the two communities, who first come to know of each other's existence through viewing Christopher's footage, prepare for the Afro-Cubans' life-altering trip across the ocean. Christopher allows her camera subjects to reiterate their anticipation once too often. (When one woman says, "I want the moment we will meet to arrive," you know what she means.) Then the film grows into itself, and lovingly chronicles the celebratory meeting of these very different but ancestrally connected groups.

The Ganga are given African names; woodcarver Alfredo Duquesne, for example, becomes "Uncle Sinava." In one scene he learns the art of scaling a palm tree from his new brothers. The Mokpangumba boys in turn learn baseball. "It's been more than 20 years since we last saw this man dancing," one villager remarks, admiring an elder's response to the presence of his distant relatives, home at last.

Parts of "They Are We" feel like a first draft. But once the party starts, all is well.

"They Are We" Premieres in Cuba

Yusimi Rodriguez

Havana Times, December 13, 2013

On December 3, after months of waiting and intense anticipation, the premiere of Emma Christopher's documentary They Are We took place in the Havana residence of the British Ambassador.

Havana Times readers have been able to follow the story narrated by the documentary through previous articles on the work of Christopher and photographer Sergio Leyva and my interview with Alfredo Duquesne and Elvira Fumero, the film's Cuban protagonists.

More recently, they also read of Reunion, a photo exhibition with pieces by Sergio Leyva and sculptures by Alfredo Duquesne held in Havana's Casa de Africa.

Seeing the film, I got a sense of the distance that separates a story one hears or reads from a story one sees with one's own eyes. I could try to describe the way in which Elvira takes part in the daily chores of the women in the African village, her humbleness and sincere desire to learn from them, but my description would invariably fall short of capturing the reality of it. One has to see her, hear the way in which she says she must return to the village because she didn't get to carry a pitcher on her head.

Seeing a story that is both familiar and new to one is a strange feeling. I had heard Leyva's description of how the people of Mukpangumba, Sierre Leone had welcomed the Cubans from the town of Perico, Matanzas when they arrived at the village. I had even seen photos of the encounter. Nothing, however, compares to the emotions I felt on seeing it unfold on the screen.

I hadn't had a chance to meet Humberto Casanova, a direct descendant of Florinda Diago, and her grandson Yandrys Izquierdo. They were unable to attend the premiere because they were busy working in the Ganga Longoba African folklore group.

I had seen their faces in Sergio Leyva's photographs, but I had yet to know of their experiences during the trip. This may explain why one of the parts of the film I enjoyed the most was when Yandrys taught village children to play baseball and the four Cubans staged a traditional Ganga Longoba performance for the locals.

To our Western eyes, Mukpanguma may look like a precarious place. A different filmmaker may perhaps have concentrated on the absence of drinking water and electricity. Throughout my life, I have seen Africa as a decimated and pillaged continent torn by civil wars.

Cubans' relationship to Africa has been that of the do-gooders who deploy international aid in the form of soldiers, doctors and engineers to the continent. Africa is all that, true, but it is also a land of rich and varied cultures, of people who have been able to overcome all manner of tragedies. Sergio Leyva and Alfredo Duquesne described the inhabitants of Mukangumba as super-people.

The thing I appreciate the most about Christopher's work, evident to me since our first conversation, is her intention of showing a face of Africa different than the one divulged by the media, of telling a hopeful and happy story. "Happy Africa," were her words when she spoke with our editor Circles Robinson and I following the film's premiere, "happy news Africa."

The Are We will be screened at the San Diego Black Film Festival in January and the Sierra Leone Film Festival. The director was unable to submit it in time for screening at the 35th Havana Film Festival – perhaps we will be treated to it at next year's festival.

Beyond the recognition it may or may not achieve, the film has staged beautiful moments (all of them captured by the camera), of which I have only offered a foretaste.

During our conversation with Emma Christopher, we learned that, when she traveled to the African village with her editor Joana Montero in order to synchronize the subtitles, she sang a number of songs she had learned by heart, having had to hear them repeatedly during editing.

A villager travelling with them gave her a startled look, surprised at seeing a young white woman singing local songs. In the end, as they did with the Cubans from Perico, the people of Mukpangumba gave her an African name – "Lumbeh", meaning "she who stays with us."

I would have paid to see the faces of villagers while watching the documentary. Christopher tells us many had never seen a television before, that they don't even have mirrors in the village, and that it was very strange for them to see themselves on a screen.

The film not only captures beautiful moments, it also prompts questions, such as: when will the history of Africa begin to be taught at Cuban schools, not from the perspective of Cuban internationalism, but that of the diversity of cultures that exist on this continent, the civilizations of those who were brought to the Americas as slaves?

We could ask ourselves the same question about our own continent: when will Cuban schools begin to teach the history of the Americas, which as important as that of Greece, Rome and Egypt?

Though They Are We will not be shown at this year's Havana Film Festival, I don't believe Cubans should wait a whole year to see it. Its duration (an hour and ten minutes) makes it apt for a television screening. There are more than enough channels and spaces on Cuban television where it could be shown for audiences around the country.

Director's Note


Making They Are We was a rollercoaster of a journey. It is a film that I never intended to make; did not even believe was possible. When I was invited to film the annual ceremony of Cuba's Gangá- Longobá people, I did so simply from interest in their rituals. Cultures meld and adapt to fit new realities, that is their nature, and enslaved people and their descendants have had more reason than most to use their cultures as means of not only survival and endurance but also transformation and regeneration. They had to make anew from the tiny fragments that had not been stolen. So I was fascinated by a set of songs and dances specific to one Afro-Cuban community, quite different to the more familiar and far larger Santería and Palo societies.

Even when I began to screen the subsequent film footage of the Gangá-Longobá across the Liberian and Sierra Leonean hinterland--the part of Africa from which people termed Gangá originated--I had little idea what would happen. What fascinated me initially were West African people's responses to the Cuban performance. Their wonder, pride and joy were evident.

Yet screening the Cuban ceremonies in West Africa eventually led to a village that 'claimed' the Gangá-Longobá in the most beautiful, profound way. Its people simply and spontaneously joined in with the Cuban songs, something nobody else had done. Fascinatingly, with very little formal education, they also understood right away the significance. They were watching, they told me, the descendants of somebody stolen from their village. As one man said, 'they are we'. It was a day that will forever remain with me.

There were years more of work: tracing the details of this claimed connection to the best of my ability, dealing with bureaucracy, and agonizing over the danger of privileging this very rare link over other (equally valid) kinds of African American-African connection. But the agonizing was mine not theirs, not on either side of the Atlantic.

They waited far more patiently than I. They were sure of what they knew, that these were their long lost kin. And when word finally arrived that the Gangá-Longobá would now be free to travel to Sierra Leone, they danced in spontaneous celebration while I danced with far less skill around the kitchen of my rented apartment in Havana. The Cubans and Sierra Leoneans told me that obviously, after all their dedications and quiet pleas, the ancestors had pulled the right strings.

I became a filmmaker as well as a more traditional historian writing books because I wanted people to be able to speak for themselves-- albeit through my lens--and for viewers to see their expressions and sentiments, to glimpse the realities of their lives. It has been my extraordinary privilege to work on this film, to call so many of the people it revolves around my friends. I hope you and your students enjoy meeting them through the screen.

Dr. Emma Christopher
Director, Producer and Researcher of They Are We Anti-Slavery Australia, University of Technology Sydney.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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