Professor Joseph Opala, director Bunce Island Preservation Project, recently received the Order of Rokel award from Sierra Leone’s President Ernest Bai Koroma. He received this award in recognition of his pioneering role in documenting the historical link between the Gullah people in the United States of America and Sierra Leone, and his outstanding contribution to preserving Bunce Island. The Order of Rokel award is the country’s equivalent of knighthood which was bestowed upon Opala on the 27th of April, Sierra Leone’s Independence Day.
Opala is an American historian and anthropologist leading a team in restoring the slave fort on Bunce Island just off the coast of Sierra Leone. He says that the Bunce fort, which was an active slave fort between 1670 and 1807, is the most important historic site in Africa for the United States. Opala estimates that between a quarter and a fifth of all of the men, women and children who sailed from Bunce Island in the 18th Century ended up in either what are today the American states of South Carolina or Georgia. "No other West African slave fort sent as many people directly to North America," he says.
Opala and his team want to stop the deterioration of the Bunce Island slave fort. They are working with a specialist engineering firm who is finding ways to support the structures that remain. After the fort itself is secure, the group will shift its focus to building the museum in Freetown, roughly 45 minutes from the island by boat. The Bunce Island project will be open to the public as a heritage tourism site in the next couple of years or so.
Sierra Leone’s President Koroma recognized Opala not only because of the work that he is doing with the Bunce Island Preservation Project, but also because of all the work he has done in Sierra Leone for more than 38 years. During his almost four decades of work in the country Opala once taught at Fourah Bay College where he secured Fulbright Fellowship funds for two Sierra Leonean scholars to visit the Gullah region in the US to do their own research. Feeling as much Sierra Leonean as American, Opala helped to establish the Campaign for Good Governance during the Rebel War. In the late nineties, he spoke about Sierra Leone’s grave situation at prestigious forums like the UN, The World Bank, the State Department and Harvard University.
Following is the citation read during the televised awards ceremony on Opala’s contributions:
Citation on Professor Joseph Opala
From President Ernest Bai Koroma of Sierra Leone
IN RECOGNITION OF HIS PIONEERING ROLE IN DOCUMENTING THE HISTORICAL LINK BETWEEN THE GULLAH PEOPLE IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA AND SIERRA LEONE, AND HIS OUTSTANDING CONTRIBUTION TO PRESERVING BUNCE ISLAND
THIS RECIPIENT’S GROUNDBREAKING ACADEMIC RESEARCH HAS ROLLED BACK TIME AND SHOWN HOW ASPECTS OF SIERRA LEONEAN CULTURE AND WAY OF LIFE OVER TWO-HUNDRED YEARS AGO STILL SURVIVE AND THRIVE IN THE COASTAL SOUTHEASTERN UNITED STATES;
PROFESSOR OPALA’S RESEARCH HAS SHOWN THAT MANY OF THE GULLAH PEOPLE OF COASTAL SOUTH CAROLINA AND GEORGIA ARE DESCENDANTS OF SLAVES TAKEN FROM SIERRA LEONE MORE THAN TWO CENTURIES AGO;
HIS DISCOVERY OF THIS “GULLAH CONNECTION” HAS LED TO A SERIES OF “HOMECOMINGS,” ONE OF WHICH ACTUALLY REUNITED A PARTICULAR FAMILY THAT WAS TORN APART BY THE TRANS-ATLANTIC SLAVE TRADE;
OPALA FIRST CAME TO SIERRA LEONE AS A PEACE CORPS VOLUNTEER IN 1974. TWO YEARS LATER HE BEGAN HIS STUDY OF BUNCE ISLAND , CUTTING BACK DECADES OF BUSH GROWTH AND VEGETATION AT THE FORMER BRITISH SLAVE CASTLE NEAR PEPEL;
HIS EFFORTS MADE HIM THE FIRST SCHOLAR TO RECOGNISE THE FUNCTIONS OF ALL MAJOR BUILDINGS ON THE ISLAND, INCLUDING THE MEN’S AND WOMEN’S SLAVE YARDS;
HE WAS ALSO THE FIRST TO UNEARTH IRREFUTABLE EVIDENCE THAT BUNCE ISLAND SENT MANY CAPTIVES TO THE NORTH AMERICAN COLONIES, ESPECIALLY SOUTH CAROLINA AND GEORGIA, WHERE PLANTATION OWNERS NEEDED THE ADVANCED SKILLS OF AFRICAN RICE FARMERS TO INCREASE THEIR YIELD. HE CONCLUDED THAT BUNCE ISLAND HAD A STRONGER LINK TO THE US THAN ANY OTHER SLAVE CASTLE IN WEST AFRICA;
PROFESSOR OPALA HAS ALSO SHOWN THAT THE AFRICAN-AMERICAN GULLAH PEOPLE OF THE SOUTHEASTERN UNITED STATES HAVE PRESERVED THE CUSTOMS AND TRADITIONS OF THEIR RICE-GROWING ANCESTORS FROM SIERRA LEONE. THEY SPEAK A LANGUAGE THAT CLOSELY MIRRORS SIERRA LEONE KRIO AND CONTAINS MANY WORDS FROM AFRICAN LANGUAGES INCLUDING MENDE, VAI, FULA AND TEMNE;
HE CAUSED A SENSATION IN FREETOWN WHEN HE ANNOUNCED HIS EARLY DISCOVERIES DURING A PUBLIC LECTURE AT THE US EMBASSY IN 1985, LETTING SIERRA LEONEANS KNOW THAT PART OF THEIR CULTURE HAS BEEN ALIVE IN THE USA FOR MORE THAN TWO CENTURIES – WHAT’S NOW KNOWN AS THE “GULLAH CONNECTION”;
IN 1988 HE ORGANISED A VISIT BY THEN PRESIDENT JOSEPH SAIDU MOMOH TO THE GULLAH COMMUNITY ON ST. HELENA ISLAND, SOUTH CAROLINA. THE PRESIDENT WAS THRILLED TO SEE THE RICE MORTARS AND FANNERS AND ADMIRED THE MANY SIMILARITIES IN LANGUAGE, CULTURE AND FOOD, ESPECIALLY THE RICE DISHES THAT REFLECT GENUINE SIERRA LEONEAN CUISINE
IN 2010, PROFESSOR OPALA ANNOUNCED THAT THE BUNCE ISLAND COALITION (US) – THE ORGANISATION HE LEADS IN THE USA – HAS SECURED A PLEDGE OF SEVERAL MILLION DOLLARS FROM WEALTHY DONORS TO STABILISE THE RUINS AT BUNCE ISLAND. THE PROJECT WILL TRANSFORM THE SITE INTO A MODERN HISTORIC PARK AND INCLUDES A MUSEUM ABOUT BUNCE ISLAND’S HISTORY TO BE BUILT SOMEWHERE ON FREETOWN’S NATURAL HARBOUR. THE IDEA IS FOR VISITORS TO WHET THEIR APPETITE AT THE MUSEUM BEFORE HEADING UPRIVER TO THE CASTLE ITSELF;
OPALA AND HIS TEAM STRUCTURED THE BUNCE ISLAND PROJECT TO ENSURE THAT SIERRA LEONEANS WILL TAKE CHARGE OF IT BY THE THIRD YEAR, AND THEN RECEIVE ADVANCED TRAINING ABROAD ON ALL THE SKILLS NEEDED TO RUN A MODERN HISTORICAL PARK;
DURING HIS FOUR DECADES’ WORK IN SIERRA LEONE HE HAS TAUGHT AT FOURAH BAY COLLEGE DURING WHICH HE SECURED FULBRIGHT FELLOWSHIP FUNDS FOR TWO SIERRA LEONEAN SCHOLARS TO VISIT THE GULLAH REGION AND DO RESEARCH OF THEIR OWN. HE ALSO HELPED THE FREETONG PLAYERS TO COMPOSE SONGS AND PLAYS TELLING THE GULLAH CONNECTION ALL OVER THE COUNTRY;
FEELING AS MUCH SIERRA LEONEAN AS AMERICAN, PROFESSOR OPALA PUT ASIDE HIS PUBLIC HISTORY WORK DURING THE REBEL WAR, AND IN 1995 HE JOINED ZAINAB BANGURA AND DR. JULIUS SPENCER TO ESTABLISH THE CAMPAIGN FOR GOOD GOVERNANCE; WHEN THE DETERIORATING SITUATION DURING THE AFRC INTERREGNUM FORCED HIM TO RETURN TO THE US IN 1997, HE SPOKE ABOUT SIERRA LEONE’S GRAVE SITUATION IN PRESTIGIOUS FORUMS LIKE THE UN, THE WORLD BANK, THE STATE DEPARTMENT AND HARVARD UNIVERSITY;
PROFESSOR OPALA ALSO USED THE GULLAH CONNECTION TO HELP HIS ADVOCACY. ONCE THEY BECAME AWARE OF WHAT WAS HAPPENING IN SIERRA LEONE, SOME INFLUENTIAL GULLAH PEOPLE MADE REPEATED TRIPS TO WASHINGTON TO DEMAND HELP FOR THEIR “ANCESTRAL HOME IN AFRICA.”