It is now a matter of historical record that on the evening of February 12, 2005 at the PAFF Canada Lee Awards, Actor Isaiah Washington discovered through African Ancestry’s DNA testing that he is 100 percent connected to Africa. The actor, producer, philanthropist, father and world citizen shares a common ancestry with the Mende and Temne people of Sierra Leone on the maternal side, and on the paternal side with the Mbundu people of Angola.
Feeling reborn, and backed by scientific proof, it all came together and made sense that Washington had always felt this intense connection with Africa that was, till then, inexplicable: “Africa had been inside of me all along,” he writes in his memoir A MAN FROM ANOTHER LAND: How Finding My Roots Changed My Life. “She was inside my DNA. She was beckoning me and guiding me my entire life through my dreams.”
Not known for running away from challenges big or small, on-screen or off-screen, actor Isaiah Washington made no qualms about answering the call to reconnect with the land of his ancestors in May of 2006. A la Hollywood – cameras turned on him and pressures that come with – Isaiah was stepping into an environment that was best familiar to him only via a recurring dream and a fearlessness of new frontiers.
Sierra Leone would indeed welcome their son with open arms, one whose ancestors had been sold into slavery, the elders still unable to look him in the eye and provide a reasonable response to his emotional outburst when he brought up the subject of why his forefathers had been sent away and abandoned at the mercy of slave masters, “Before I am inducted as … chief … my great-great-great-great-great grandmother says that she forgives you.” The answer would be that it had happened due to “extenuating circumstances”… It was hardly consoling enough, but on this maiden visit to Sierra Leone, Washington would be crowned a bona fide traditional leader, Chief Gondobay Manga II.
As far as popular folklore goes, the coronation was not by happenstance. It fulfilled a prophecy about a man from another land who returns to Sierra Leone to help rebuild this diamond-rich nation trapped in the cycle of poverty.
A new chapter in the life of this great son of Africa’s was now unfolding. Washington would soon find out that very few were particularly interested in helping rebuild a small, very poor African nation the size of South Carolina. Undeterred by career troubles, funding challenges, cold shoulders, and faced with inner demons encouraging him to quit, Washington would refuse to throw in the towel.
In February 2007, grounds would be broken for the new Foday Golia Memorial School in Njala Kendema, Sierra Leone. The school would open its doors to the first 150 students on November 15, 2007. Isaiah Washington’s The Gondobay Manga Foundation was indeed fulfilling its mission of making a difference.
Almost five years since the doors of that school were opened, DUNIA was honored to have a conversation with Chief Gondobay Manga II last August 2012 to revisit the path traveled, that which remains to be traveled and so much more.
Dunia Magazine: How have things changed in Sierra Leone since you first visited in 2006 and how have you changed as a person since then?
Isaiah Washington: Sierra Leone is still evolving. Personally, my life has changed because I made history in many ways. I feel more responsible especially because I was made Chief, to help the people there.
Do Sierra Leoneans and other Africans actually treat you like a chief?
Isaiah Washington: Yes, especially in the village; they do not know who Isaiah Washington the actor is, they know me as Chief Manga. Not so here, where I am known as the actor.
What projects are you working on in Sierra Leone [and other parts of the world]? And how can readers help?
Isaiah Washington: I work with Melissa T. Faux (Sierra Leonean-American in Atlanta) and Yolanda Butler (African-American in Chicago), both are The Gondobay Manga Foundation volunteers.
I am also working on a documentary called Africans vs African Americans produced by Peres Owino, who is very talented and creative. It shows the differences between both groups and will foster understanding. I am excited about this documentary to be released 2013. We are expecting a powerful response. I am looking forward to the controversy and dialogue.
Most diseases like cancer grow in dark places. It is time to shine the light into what’s going on in Africa. Whenever I travel to Sierra Leone, I have cameras following me. Most people have no idea just how different Africans are … in all 50 something countries, values, customs, traditions are different. Even in Cameroon, there are different villages, people speak different languages. Just because everyone has dark skin, they are not all the same. There’s need for continuing education.
I preach tolerance and being open minded … and challenging the closed off mindset. By understanding ourselves and our identity is a good start. I am Pan-African just like my heroes Kwame Nkrumah, Malcolm X and Reverend Leon H. Sullivan.
For the first time in history on April 26, 2010, I became the first African American to receive full citizenship from an African country solely based on DNA and my ancestral link to the Mende and Temne peoples. I don’t go “Wow, the work is done!” No, there’s more work to be done.
Africa is a large continent with over a billion people. If you educate all these people, half will become competitors and the other half can move out of poverty and help create a middle class. I am very interested in Africans becoming competitive like China. We need to give a voice to the people who built the pyramids.
Should African Americans be interested in Africa?
Isaiah Washington: Some African Americans don’t want to wake up from the slumber they were put in some 400 years ago. Some of them don’t want to be called Africans, but black. What’s black? Do they know that there’s no country called black? African Americans should be interested in having a better understanding of Africa and its people; and in finding some answers. Then we can all begin to have a dialogue and then a relationship. That’s why I enjoy what I am doing.
Regarding what you are doing … has racism played a part in it, you think?
Isaiah Washington: Things were stolen and hidden from us because of one word: competition. Not racism. This was done because Africans are fierce competitors. If you don’t believe it, watch Michael Jordan, Gabby Douglas, Lebron James, Kobe Bryant. “We still have to control you! You can take the trophies home, but we will control you with what’s called endorsements…” by corporations that don’t employ our people like Nike. Like Amy Winehouse said, “What kind of fuckery is this?”
I don’t believe in racism anymore. The word race stands for Royal African Company of England. The only race that exists is the one that says, “Ready, set, go!” Why is competition so important that people have to go around a track in circles to win? Who’s the fastest, the strongest or the smartest? Racism doesn’t bother me, because now I know the source: it is competition! No one helps their competitor win. You can’t expect compassion from a system that does not see you as a human being. You have to know your true identity.
People of African origins are generally very humble, compassionate and our ability to be tolerant has been used against us.
My mantra is “The worst threat from men of hell
May not be their actions cruel
Far worse that we may learn their way
And behave more fiercely than they.” by Chinua Achebe
Revolution is not the key, evolution is. I don’t believe in revolutions, because people get killed in them. But if you evolve, there’s no turning back. If people wear plates on their lips today, don’t laugh at them, that’s the way they are, because DNA has memory and it’s beautiful.
As an African American working with Africans and people of different cultures, what has been most challenging for you?
Isaiah Washington: My greatest challenge has been language barrier. It’s always frustrating.
You recently did a movie in Nollywood with top actresses like Genevieve Nnaji and Stephanie Okereke, what was the experience like?
Isaiah Washington: I found the actors to be extremely professional and talented. I was very impressed and I can’t wait to do it again.
What does success mean to you personally? What are some success principles you implement in your life daily?
Isaiah Washington: Success means being able to achieve lifelong goals in a minimum of ten years and having the vision to create them. People want to do things too fast. They have to be patient. Being patient does not mean you are lazy, it means you are doing something. See where you are in the first 5 years, make adjustments and change your approach if you have to. In 2016, I’ll see what I’ve accomplished in Sierra Leone and what kind of impact I’ve made since my first visit in 2006.
It is important to be extremely organized and be cognizant of time management – this is key … so as not to waste time.
‘tis the season…What are your thoughts on President Barack Obama?
Isaiah Washington: I am not going to talk about him until 2017. I am more interested in the former President Obama. Everyone is more powerful as a former president. What he’ll do and stand for. They are trying to discredit him now and have threatened to assassinate him.
When you separate yourself from the bs, then you can see clearly. I don’t watch TV. I remove myself from all the bullshit that they try to feed me. I think for myself, that’s what MLK wanted for me, to be a critical thinker.
George W. Bush has done more to eradicate malaria out of Africa than anybody else. He has done more for Africa while he was in the White House than any other American president to date. He organized the First White House Summit on Malaria on December 2006. I was the Master of Ceremonies.
What words of advice would you have for the younger generation as far as following their dreams, and life in general?
Isaiah Washington: To be realistic about their goals… Being realistic about your goals can be very difficult, but set them, dream and pray. If you are a spiritual person, prayer is powerful to utilize because it’s tough out there. I try to be the best example in what I do. My advice is to try as hard as possible and have faith. It’s not easy on any level. Even rich people are working hard to hold on to their wealth. Don’t cut corners or cheat. Resist the temptation of taking short cuts.
So I would say, my best advice is work hard and pray (if you’re a spiritual person).
Any closing thought(s)…
Isaiah Washington: In closing, I wish everyone success, wealth, self-knowledge and health. If you’re not healthy, you can’t be wealthy … of what value are cars and homes if you’re not healthy? Your best asset is your health.
TRAILER: Blue Caprice starring Actor Isaiah Washington
PHOTOS of Isaiah Washington
Actor Isaiah Washington plays role of Jaha in The 100. Photo by Cate Cameron/The CW