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IDRISS ELBA'S Year of Return

By Fayia Sellu

The last time Sierra Leone made world news, managed a few moments of global attention, was for declaring rape a national emergency. Rewind to other preceding events capturing the global spotlight, and you can easily fill in the blanks with catastrophe: Mudslide, Ebola, Civil War. This is the dark canvas, rather, the thicket of lenses with which the outside world views our country. Insert Idris Elba. We can now debate that he was arguably the best holiday gift to a nation desperate to project itself as ready for business, tourism especially, and attract every beam of light it could to cast out its vitiating frame.

Idris Elba is a British citizen of Sierra Leonean and Ghanaian parentage. He is mighty proud of the former, his father’s native land and crows about his heritage to anyone listen-ing. On either side of the Pond, he has excelled as an actor and is one of the few of our species with a truly global face and presence — a global brand. There’s no gainsaying the relevance of naming Elba a Tourism Brand Ambassador and presented a diplomatic passport by President Bio during his long-overdue first visit to the fatherland with spouse Sabrina Dhowre in December. Marathon and exuberant were the events to welcome the couple and entourage from State Lodge to Sherbro Island. It took all of his 47 years anticipating this trip. A trip his parents could not afford him as a kid.

Meanwhile, Elba, while the nation was engulfed in the throes of a civil war and its aftermath, kept his grind on either side of the “pond” pushing up the ladder as an actor of global repute. Always effusively thankful for his opportunities; the climb to success was not handed on a silver platter. Before he became Russell “Stringer” Bell in “Wire” or appeared in “American Gangster” or “Luther” on BBC or played the legendary Nelson Mandela in “Long Walk to Freedom;” or still, hey, before he was People’s Magazine’s sexiest man alive for 2018, Idris paid his dues, every penny of hard work.

First off, we should not be under the illusion, Elba is no billionaire or Bill Gates (even he can’t) who will wave a magic wand to fix the malaise of chronic youth unemployment, the opioid/drug crisis manifest in the rampant abuse of drugs like Tramadol and “Pampers Water.” What he exemplifies though, is high wattage of star power, an inspiration and beacon of hope for Sierra Leoneans, young and old. So exhilarated, about being “so welcome” he spoke to the BBC expressing eagerness; “To plug straight into the energy Sierra Leone is rising with right now. Just like a son of the soil coming back to fertilize it. Not just me, the Diaspora.” Heavens, the country could use that right now!

It could have been the mother’s native Ghana. It is easier there. Ghana is miles ahead in the architecture and infrastruc-ture for foreign investment and tourism. Probably why the Bio government held the first foreign investor conference there. In particular, the area of Roots Tourism, Ghana has managed to make an industrious irony of Elmina Castle’s Door of No Return, as thousands of Africans in the Diaspora have “returned” to the site of the slave fortress where many Africans were transported from to the Americas. Since gaining independence, aided by Found-ing Father Kwame Nkrumah’s PanAfricanist vision, Ghana has been a preferred destination for Diaspora Africans, especially African Americans, from Malcolm X, to Maya Angelou to W.E.B Dubois. Over the decades, via cultural exchanges, academic research, development work and cultural productions like Panafest, there has been a constant flow that has benefited either side of the Atlantic. Forever pushing to make Ghana more tourist-friendly, the current Minister of Tourism, Culture and Creative Arts, Catherine Afeku, mentioned the need for a “team effort” in doing the honour of appointing Boris Kodjoe, an Austrian actor of Ghanaian and German parent-age, Tourist Brand Ambassador. The result? 2019 was declared the Year of the Return in Ghana. Kodjoe hosted the Full Circle festival in Ghana and brought Black Hollywood with him. The likes of Steve Harvey and Anthony Anderson came through. In an interview on YouTube, an African American entrepreneur who has been to Ghana severally proffered that the Year of Return should be extended to a decade as people need a more sustained contact with the continent. I can’t agree more. Whether it is Ghana or Sierra Leone or anywhere else in Africa, the idea of “return” should not be an event. Instead, it must be envisaged as a long arc of progression that will carve out permanent canals for a flow and engagement with the mother continent.

For Ambassadors Elba and Kodjoe, it may be less challenging to make the reconnection with the native homeland given the fact they are only a generation removed from their African roots. It is way more difficult to get slave-descended Africans in the Diaspora to reconnect to their roots, understandably. The psycho-logical, emotional toll of such a venture might be steep. But so also are the therapeutic and otherwise benefits. “Returns” harbour vast potential for such an investment. The Econo-mist recently carried a cover story on the “New Scramble for Africa.” It is not only blandishment, Africa’s best assets--its people--are outside of the continent. A condition that started since the onset of the irreparable and devastating acts of selling and buying Africans for shipment as chattel for a middle passage to the Americas. Slaves from the Rice Coast which covered current Sierra Leone were in high demand for transferring rice planting technology to the Americas (the slave fort on Bunce Island is a living testimonial). From the insular and varicose Gullah/Geechee running from South Carolina to Florida to the tens of thousands who migrated to the Northern United States out of the merciless claws of Jim Crow laws, Sierra Leone bloodlines run deep in America and stretch way into the Caribbean.

The conditions of peoples of African descent have necessitated, (re)constituted, an underlying PanAfricanist solidarity, from the imaginary to the material. From the emergence of cultural forms like Reggae and Hip Hop as global artefacts to the popularization of struggles against Apartheid in South Africa and former Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). Such movements engendered the narratives that pulled African Americans, from Oprah Winfrey to Barack Obama to South Africa. Just like Jamaicans, Caribbean's settled in Shashamane in Ethiopia, the “promised land.” History, and luckily now Science (DNA), specifically bears the actuality that most slave-descended Africans in the Diaspora are from West Africa. Beyond the imaginary or solidarity, it is clear that it is not only a mutual spill-over civil war that binds Liberia and Sierra Leone. The very concept of what would become the nation-state Sierra Leone was Province of Freedom, built on the idea of “Return(s).” “Return” of freed slaves (including the ‘Black Poor’ and Maroons), “Recaptives” (slaves from ships intercepted by the British Navy after Abolition Proclamation), and lest one forgets, “Returns” on the investments of the British in the Sierra Leone Company. Idris Elba told the BBC that he is “return-ing” to Sierra Leone as an entertainer and businessman. “The US or Britain cannot house my ambition for growth. I cannot build a Disney World there, but I can do that here,” he noted. Indeed! Africa and its Diaspora must rise like the phoenix from the ashes of history, from being drained of its best for over 400 years, continually.

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