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Cuba/Sierra Leone: Reclaiming Slave-Trade History
July 6, 2016 (160706)
(Reposted from sources cited below)
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
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 http://tinyurl.com/zhvbqcw).
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 http://tinyurl.com/zefpceh. 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 http://tinyurl.com/q6jbgqp). 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 (http://www.sahistory.org.za) 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(
http://tinyurl.com/hns8s65). 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 https://vimeo.com/ondemand/theyarewe
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
http://icarusfilms.com/guide/taw.pdf. A DVD for classroom use can
also be ordered from http://icarusfilms.com/new2015/taw.html
This Documentary Uncovers an Afro-Cuban Community Singing in an
Almost Extinct African Language
http://remezcla.com/ - Direct URL: http://tinyurl.com/zrlyhjc
Feb. 18, 2016
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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