We will protect and preserve Bunce Island forever’ Host communities pledge

Hawa Mastor Kamara, 35, a resident of Tasso Island could not hold back her tears as she listened to the horrific story of the slave trade on Bunce Island. A lively and warm personality under normal circumstance was reduced to a despondent and melancholic individual ever since her name was listed as one of 10 community leaders to participate in a training programme on the protection of Bunce Island and the benefits of heritage preservation. As she entered the locally produced boat to the island, she anticipated what lie ahead of the 30 minute boat ride to that small place. Like Hawa, all the other participants knew that their day would be spoilt by the visit to the island but they had no option.
Sierra Leone’s Monuments and Relics Commission and UK based heritage conservation advocate, International National Trusts Organisation (INTO) had invited them to a 3 day training of trainers’ workshop on the role of community members in the preservation and protection of Bunce Island and the benefits of heritage preservation. Although the event was held at Pepel, Hawa was pleased to be ferried from Tasso every morning. So do other participants who stayed in neighbouring communities like Oku town, Sangbulima and Rotumba villages. The idea of inviting participants from all 5 communities was well thought out, partly due to their proximity to Bunce but more importantly their collaborative effort could go a long way in conserving the Island. The event could not have been organized at a more opportune time. Abu Bakarr Bangura, a participant remarked that the date for the training (August 30-September 1, 2016) would always be regarded as special days in his life since they were days that he did not only stepped his feet on Bunce Island but also received his first certificate in life.

With tears filled eyes and grimaced faces, the youths learnt the harsh realities of life on Bunce Island between 1670 and 1808. Like a shepherd leading a flock, the Chairperson of the Monuments and Relics Commission (MRC), Madam Isatu Smith led the participants through the ruins of the slave trade. This small island, off the coast of Freetown was where over 50,000 men, women and children first witnessed the barbaric nature of slavery. If anything, it was a microcosm of the tribulations that they would be subjected to for the rest of their lives. The deafening silence on the Island could be heard in the neighbourhood.

Over 200 years after the abolition of slavery, the remains of the slave trade are still visible on this 1600 by 350 feet fort in the Sierra Leone River. Osman Bangura, a teacher at Rotumba village couldn’t conceal his feelings about the tragedy that befell Sierra Leoneans in those days. He lamented thus “This could have been our mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and children. I can’t understand how a human being would be reduced to the status of a pet. Honestly, they were even relegated below the status of animals. May the souls of all those who perished during slavery rest in perfect peace.”

Training 40 participants on the historical significance of Bunce Island, need for its preservation, potential for tourism and benefits to host communities within 3 days seemed insurmountable but was conveniently handled by Fritong Players International. The Lead Facilitator, Charlie Haffner, himself a Commissioner of the Monuments and Relics Commission utilized the community theatre approach to learning such that at the end of the programme all participants were fully capacitated to transfer the knowledge gained to their peers.

Those who were talented in singing sang songs in their local Themne dialect. The imams and pastors preached sermons on the topic, the town crier made announcements about the importance of Bunce Island, the social clubs discussed the issue on radio and others dramatized how the island is to be preserved whilst the teachers taught lessons on the slave trade with particular reference to Bunce Island.

In the presence of the Section Chief of Kamasondo section, Chief Bai Adam Kabba and other stakeholders, each of the groups displayed their newly acquired knowledge about Bunce Island whilst simultaneously expressing an undying commitment to protect and preserve the former slave fort. The role-playing session was phenomenal. First came the Town Crier, in his jarring voice he admonished people to safeguard the Island and protect it against abuse. As he swayed his way through anxious onlookers, he bellowed a caution more caustic than the previous. “No one is permitted to take away anything from Bunce Island. Anyone who organizes a social gathering/outing on that Island will face the full consequences of the law.” Then came the imams, their long white gowns, Holy Quoran and misbaha were enough to convince anyone that they were observing the Eid-ul-fitr prayers. Their sermon will deter even an atheist from causing havoc on the ruins of Bunce Island. So too was the Pastor’s message.

The 3 day event left Hawa Mastor Kamara with a determination to use everything humanly possible to protect the Island and teach everyone about its history and the need to preserve it for future generation. She had this to say, “Prior to the workshop, I never knew that that Island was so important. I will stop at nothing to make sure that no one steals anything there. I will report any strange happenings I observe to the police. Our people have suffered so we should enjoy whatever benefit there is.”

Every other participant resolved that they would protect and preserve Bunce Island for the promotion of heritage tourism. They pledged that the knowledge gained would be imparted to other members of society if not for anything but to curtail the misuse and rampant theft at the Island.

The Monuments and Relics Commission and the International National Trusts Organisation (INTO) are implanting a short project to educate particularly youths around Bunce Island neighbouring communities about the value of cultural heritage, its preservation and the potential of cultural heritage tourism in the country that will immediately benefit them directly.