Have you ever wondered about the different origins options we are asked to pick from, in the course of entering information on an application for a job, for medical reasons, or even for school? I encountered this recently on school paperwork I was filling out for my son. The question that caused me to pause was: What is the student’s race? Choices included: ‘American Indian or Alaska Native‘, ‘Asian’, ‘Black or African American (A person having origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa)’, plus a couple of others. For a moment more than at any point in the past, I pondered on the meaning… a person having ORIGINS in any of the black racial groups of AFRICA. “What does this mean to the larger African American community?” I wondered. Of what significance are one’s origins? How connected do most ‘blacks’ feel to their origins?
You are about to meet a young African American who did the direct opposite of distancing himself from his ancestral roots. He packed up his bags and relocated to the west African nation of Sierra Leone in 2013. It was not in search of big money. Not for a better education. Not for superior healthcare…or any of the other reasons that drive migration.
It was to work in the community as a volunteer grassroots organizer.
Ajamu Bandele was born in Pennsylvania and now lives in Freetown. Upon arrival in Sierra Leone, he was adopted by the Mansaray family of Bonoya, Karina and named Foday (a Mandingo name). The 37 year old is fondly called Big JC, (also a stage name) by local kids in Freetown. JC meaning ‘Just Come’ in Krio alluding to his foreign origins and Big due to his height of 6’6″.
Mr Mansaray is an activist and community advocate of many dimensions, some of which you will discover as our conversation unfolds. He is founder of The Black Star Action Network International (BSANI), a Pan African community based organization that orchestrates campaigns and events ranging from sports/entertainment and human/civil rights matters to health and literacy.
If power belongs to the people, then it is our community workers who help them recognize that they have it. In some areas, such work may be more daunting than in others. However, it is also here, that we meet some of the most dedicated and passionate foot soldiers.
DUNIA Magazine: Why Sierra Leone?
Foday Mansaray: My relationship and connection to this particular African country, culture, and people is deep and predates my own birth because of the undeniable fact that I am a Gullah/Geechee (African American), first and foremost.
Growing up in a modern northern migrated Gullah/Geechee family household headed by my late mother included regular visits to her hometown in South Carolina, the oral transfer of our rich family history and legacy, in-house exposure to “Geechee” talk and cuisine, and the continued intergenerational transfer of the traditional African based worldview and value system.
In my early 20’s I became more interested in the study of Gullah/Geechee culture and heritage through which I first learned of the special relationship between my people in America and our brothers and sisters in Sierra Leone … that Freetown was founded in 1792 by former African American slaves that were granted freedom and promised land as a reward for their loyalty to the British during the American Revolution.
My genuine love for Africa and African people, combined with my legitimate work with Sierra Leonean organizers and activists over the last 9 years, are the primary reasons why I chose Sierra Leone to return and organize here at the grassroots level.
During our pre-interview communications, you talked quite a bit about your mother and her impact on your life. Can you share some of this with us?
Foday Mansaray: My late mother Catherine W. Dennis-Holmes was a classic southern belle born in Orangeburg, South Carolina on July 17, 1945. My earliest memories of my mother are of a hardworking, strong willed, highly respected preacher that organized and held weekly Sunday church services in the living room of our house. Mama worked long day and night shifts, commuted two hours daily, and sold merchandise in the ghetto as a licensed street vendor to make ends meet.
By the time that I was in the fourth grade my mother would “backslide” and fall into a deep and devastating crack cocaine addiction that lasted a decade, before recovery. Besides the return to her religious foundation as an honorary elder of the church, it was through her commitment to repairing the damage done to self, family, and community via volunteer organizing that most inspired me to follow in her footsteps.
The last time that I saw my mother was the day before I departed for Africa. She had suffered from chronic heart and diabetes complications. However, knowing me and the level of my commitment to the struggle of Africa and African people she was proud of the direction of my life and released me in tears with her blessing. I lost my mama on August 14, 2014 from a massive heart attack.
You’ve been involved in grassroots community work for many years, how did your experiences in the United States prepare you for the work you’re doing in Sierra Leone?
Foday Mansaray: My work as a community organizer in the United States prepared me for my work in Africa in many ways but I must admit that there is absolutely no way that my experience in America could have completely prepared me for grassroots organizing in Africa.
Most of the organizing that I did in the US was more formal and sophisticated in terms of methodology and structure as opposed to the more informal and autonomous form of organizing to get communal goals accomplished in the context of contemporary African society.
Sierra Leone in particular is the eighth poorest country in the world with the highest infant and maternal mortality rate on earth. Only 30% of the population is literate while the youth majority remains without adequate educational facilities and employment opportunities. The average person here wishes to one day make it to America or Europe at least to have a better chance at life.
My American experience and training gave me the exposure and confidence to effectively reach out, aid, and work with similar segments of the Sierra Leonean population
As an African American, one would imagine huge differences in culture and society make-up between the U.S. and Sierra Leone; what came naturally when you relocated to the motherland, and what aspects of living did you have trouble adjusting to?
Foday Mansaray: I would say that as an African America I felt more culturally at home in Africa than most Africans in America for sure.
Though I never learned to talk Geechee as my family calls the lightning speed creole language that my mother was able to speak, having much exposure to the tongue growing enabled me to decrypt the Krio language of Sierra Leone.
When I got to Sierra Leone I realized that the same type of system is in place here where most people are either Muslim or Christian but still honor, respect, and practice the traditional spirituality of their ancestors.
The real culture shock for me was mainly due to coming from American development to African underdevelopment. I mean every aspect of daily life involving cultural norms and values are drastically different than what I am used to in America. From cooking on coal pots, to bathing in buckets. Electricity is a luxury and there is no running water. Transportation is horrible and roads are even worse. Women work extremely hard and children hustle any kind of merchandise they can lay their hands on – cold drinks, boiled eggs, bread, clothes, etc -in the streets every day. I’ll say it has been humbling and liberating to observe and participate in the daily grassroots struggle for more and better in Sierra Leone in particular and Africa in general.
I have met many innovative people in Africa. Truth is that as a Black man in America I have always felt unwanted and out of place in my country but in Sierra Leone the people embraced me as family and welcomed me back home like a long lost relative.
At the end of the day I am where I would rather be and doing the work that I love with my life.
The world was stunned by the recent Ebola outbreak. How were you affected?
Foday Mansaray: It was a horrifying experience that was never anticipated. I am one of the millions of uninfected but impacted survivors of the 2014-2015 West African Ebola Outbreak and Lockdown that ravaged the Mano River Union countries of Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea-Conakry.
Alone, struggling and critically ill from a combination of malaria, yellow fever, and typhoid, which I am still slowly recovering from, I left Freetown on the eve of the first national lockdown for Conakry to improve my ability to survive and to communicate with family, friends, and colleagues… After six months in Guinea I decided to return back to Freetown.
Ebola isolated and limited the movement of all as the government fought hard to combat this epidemic against tremendous odds. Prices of fuel and food spiked as a nationwide curfew was enforced. Communities were quarantined and many lives were lost to the Ebola virus. Like most people here, I lost people that I knew including two sisters in my informal surrogate family, one being a nurse that was working directly with Ebola victims and lived in the house where I currently reside.
In July 2014 even before Ebola became widely known, we launched “BSANI: Ebola Dae Gben Gben (Ebola Is Real) Campaign”. It was an emergency response to educate communities through the sensitization of the people that had never heard of the word Ebola let alone understood the danger of the unprecedented first outbreak of this deadly virus. BSANI determined that it was imperative to conduct as much grassroots community outreach as possible pending the foreseeable lock down period that followed.
Since November 7, 2015 Ebola has ceased for now and we hope that it is gone forever, our focus has been on rebuilding our organization. My wife Kenya who is also the Chairwoman of BSANI has joined me here on the ground and together with our colleagues we are mapping out our rebuilding strategy and comprehensive plan of action.
You are also an artist, what inspires your songs and what message do you relay through your music?
Foday Mansaray: My love for Hip Hop music and culture has always been a part of me coming of age in urban America throughout the 80’s and 90’s and played such a central role in my initial understanding of people and society.
I did not plan to pursue a professional career as a recording/performing rap artists in Africa. In fact, I didn’t even know that Sierra Leoneans were such Hip Hop lovers to be honest.
After a while of socializing with the people I discovered that it was easiest to communicate with the youth in general and Hip Hop lovers in particular.
At the gym that I joined, and BSANI partnered with to develop for local youth called the Hip Hop Power House as we worked out, the speakers would be blasting Hip Hop and we would be rapping along or freestyling on instrumentals until one day we came up with a hook and concept for a song entitled “No Money” in May 2013 only 2 months after my arrival in Africa.
The song got the attention of one of the top radio broadcasters in Sierra Leone, namely DJ Zico who was then working at African Young Voices Radio (AYV).
He loved the song so much that he invited Shak D Unstoppable and Skartel (with whom I collaborated on the song) and myself to an interview in my first public appearance as Big JC in Africa. Sparking a brotherhood with DJ Zico that led to him playing the song daily for a period of 6 months free of charge.
So after ten years I found myself back on the mic but this time in Africa and using my talents to communicate a message of unity, peace, and freedom to the ghetto youth.
I am actively working with a host of prolific and prominent Sierra Leonean and American artists to produce and promote a new generation of African Hip Hop.
Also Listen to Ain’t Sleep Anymore by Big JC