Tale of two bridges – a recipe for national cohesion in Sierra Leone

Rev. G. Kargbo: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 23 July 2019:

At the entrance to the Juba Community from Lumley in Freetown, there are two bridges that connect the Western Urban and Western Rural Districts.  These are the Sengbeh Pieh Memorial Bridge and the Wallace-Johnson Bridge, with the former leading to the Juba Community from the Lumley end and the latter leading to the Lumley Community from the Juba end.

In essence, it is a four-lane bridge with two lanes to the Juba Community from Lumley,  and two lanes from the Juba Community to Lumley, but they are named differently as they were built during different eras in the political history of the Nation and commissioned by two different political leaders.

As it stands, we are not focusing attention on the two eras or the two political leaders for now, but we are going to examine other pertinent issues as we attempt to make sense of what seems to be a very controversial subject for many as some have questioned the need for the two names for what seems in their estimation to be one instead of two bridges.

However, we leave that issue for some other time and examine the situation for what it is and reflect on what we are faced with as we consider the tale of the two bridges with reference to the two Sierra Leoneans whose names are used to name the bridges.

It is easy to take for granted the juxtaposition of the two names without reflecting on the historical importance of these two remarkable figures, but there is the need to reflect on their historical importance and see what lessons we can learn from their legacies.

Also, as we juxtapose those two names in naming our bridges, we wish to examine the symbolic representation of these names even as we reflect on our experience with slavery and our colonial history in respect of the principle of divide and rule that gave us a colony and a protectorate as we further examine the dynamics of political relations that obtained between the Colony and the Protectorate even in our quest for independence with room for reflection in respect of our post-independence and modern governance landscape.

In the juxtaposition of those names, we also intend to examine the potential for national unity and cohesion as we look for what can unite us and continue to bridge the divide in our beloved motherland, Sierra Leone.

Let us now start our journey from the famous Sengbe Pieh Memorial Bridge and Wallace-Johnson Bridge in the West End of the City of Freetown and take a tour around Sierra Leone and where possible outside Sierra Leone as we examine for our edification the lives of these illustrious sons of the soil.

As we make our way in and out of those bridges and regardless of what the experiences might be in terms of our ride and/or our walk, we must remember that both Sengbe Pieh and Wallace-Johnson are deserving of our worthy emulation as they left legacies worthy of emulation.

It is no wonder that we have attempted to immortalize them through our national currencies (the Five Thousand Leones Note and the Two Thousand Leones Note) and having their names on our bridges.

On the right side of the bridge, we see Sengbe Pieh and on the left side of the bridge, we see Wallace-Johnson. Their vibrancy of character is reflected in their activism whether as a farmer, a freedom fighter, journalist, a trade unionist, a youth activist, or a women’s activist, they excelled beyond our imagination considering the period during which they displayed such feat of character.

In their earthly existence, they both confronted unfair treatments and injustices at the cost of even risking their lives and livelihoods without thinking twice. In essence, they fought for the common good without thinking about their personal wellbeing or welfare.

They very much lived lives of selfless service and dedication to the needs of others and not minding whether they became sacrificial lambs. Their efforts in living their lives for others should not be taken for granted, but rather their good examples should be emulated by the general citizenry.

Sengbe Pieh (ca. 1813 – 1879), known as Joseph Cinque in the United States of America (USA), assumed celebrity status for his role in the Amistad Revolution. Note that I am not referring to it as a “revolt”, but as a revolution.

Even as a slave from Sierra Leone, where he was captured as a Farmer, his bravery was evident in his attempt to overturn his captivity with the effort paying off with the support of the “Amistad Committee” in the USA where his freedom and that of his fellow captives were realized in the courts of law in the context of the fight against slavery in the USA.

Such level of bravery is expressive of the resilience of the average Sierra Leonean and this is also evident in the show of courage and exuberance for all to emulate.

Isaac Theophilus Akuna Wallace-Johnson (1894 – 1965) was an icon not just in Sierra Leone, but also in the sub-region with significant influence in the fields of journalism, trade unionism, youth activism, women’s empowerment and national unity and cohesion, thus serving as a trailblazer in those remarkable fields with present practitioners desiring to master these fields by learning from his legacy.

He was fearless in the issues he dealt with to the extent that he was feared by the British who tried several times to imprison him, but failed woefully until they employed emergency powers to keep him behind bars and then exiled him to Sherbro Island where he spent most of his time teaching the locals to read and write.

This is quite an interesting element in the life of Wallace-Johnson as his work was not just restricted to the Colony, but also extended to the Protectorate. It should be noted that he was one of those that attended the Independence talks at Lancaster House in the United Kingdom. In essence, he served his nation very well and his legacy cannot be forgotten in a hurry.

These two names – Sengbe Pieh and Wallace-Johnson, have a strategic place in the history of Sierra Leone, with the former representing our experience in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and even symbolic of our Protectorate experience with the latter representing our link with Colonialism and a symbolic representation of the Colony in our colonial past.

From a symbolic perspective, those names were exploited by those who enslaved and colonized us as they made it look like we are different being “Krios” or “Kuntris”, thus the concept of divide and rule that saw a different administration for the colony that resulted and the protectorate that emerged in 1808 and 1896, respectively.

Except for constitutional reforms that made some changes to the situation especially from the political front, most of the time there was massive rift between the colony and the protectorate with the initial attempts at forming political parties assuming regional and tribal dimensions, a situation that has affected us adversely till today.

However, all should be reminded that before we were taken into slavery, there was homogeneity in terms of all being locals despite the differences in the languages that we speak. It should be noted that all who came back especially to what became known as Sierra Leone were first locals before they became the Krios of the Colony that came into existence under the machination of the British, who deliberately created the atmosphere of division between the Colony and the Protectorate for obvious reasons.

Nevertheless, we should strive to change the situation and the atmosphere created, now that we are at the helm of affairs especially for the last fifty-eight years of independence from British rule, with no more excuses for not keeping our beloved nation united and cohesive.

In view of the desire for a change in the situation in our beloved motherland, Sierra Leone, we can now examine the juxtaposing of Sengbe Pieh and Wallace-Johnson on those two bridges in Freetown from the perspective of bringing together our divergences in the context of our need for convergence between the old and the new, the colony and the protectorate, the elites and the common man, thus unifying the entire nation, the Land that we love, our Sierra Leone.

Every effort at uniting the Country should be grabbed and treated as a matter of urgency with the realization that both Sengbe Pieh and Wallace-Johnson in their legacies fought for our common humanity and human dignity on the conviction that every human being deserves to be treated with utmost respect with slavery and colonialism as reflecting the height of abhorrence for such common humanity and human dignity.

Sengbe Pieh and Wallace-Johnson are dead and gone, but the spirit of their legacies live on and juxtaposing their names, that is, putting them side-by-side on those bridges should remind all of us about their spirited fight against slavery and colonialism and not allow their efforts to go to waste.

In the great lives of these illustrious sons of the soil, we should remind ourselves and each other about the resilience and strong conviction of the Sierra Leonean, coupled with that unwavering determination to make the best use of available opportunities to turn things around in the best interest of others and for the common good.

At this critical juncture in the history of our nation, we must endeavour to change the narrative around national unity and cohesion and leave a befitting legacy for posterity. It is, therefore, incumbent on us all to take a stand for national unity and cohesion as we honour the lives and legacies of Sengbe Pieh and Wallace-Johnson as we leave footprints on the sands of time.

In this regard, side-by-side, we can match to the highest height for national unity and cohesion in Sierra Leone. From the example of the Sengbe Pieh Memorial Bridge and the Wallace-Johnson Bridge, we can create a point of convergence for the young and old, women and men, APC and SLPP, the different political parties, the elites and the common man, the various regions and ethnic affiliations and the like for a more united and cohesive Sierra Leone.

Somebody should be ready to bend over backwards and go the extra mile to make it happen in our time as we follow in the footsteps of Sengbe Pieh and Wallace-Johnson.

Imagine for a moment, Sengbe Pieh alongside Wallace-Johnson, the vision for a brighter and better Sierra Leone in the context of national unity and cohesion: A Sierra Leone meant for all as we move into the future, putting aside our differences and focusing attention on our commonalities as Sierra Leoneans that can make things happen in the best interest of all.

We can do better than we are doing now as we consider the spirit of national unity and cohesion in putting side-by-side Sengbe Pieh and Wallace-Johnson, as the very essence of our coming together as a nation regardless of the multi-ethnic and regional variations.

In other words, if we can put Sengbe Pieh and Wallace-Johnson side-by-side to name our bridges, it means we can put aside our differences and work together to build a better and brighter Sierra Leone on the solid foundation of national unity and cohesion.

Together, we can live side-by-side! Together, we can live in harmony! Together, we can make it happen! Sierra Leone for All, now and always.

3 Comments

  1. Rev Kargbo, this is well written! Thank you for the enlightenment. You deserve a place at the national reconciliation table. Good job.

  2. Well done Reverend Gibrilla Kargbo. This piece is academic as well as excellent. These are the kind of discourse we need to share as a nation. Thank you. The land that we love our Sierra Leone.

    • Very well stated, Rev. Kargbo. Hope your aspirational vision for national unity among Sierra Leoneans will be realized in the lifetime of the present generation. However, if the country’s recent history and ongoing partisan and ethnic cleavages are any indication, one may be constrained to observe that genuine national unity may well take some hell of a time in coming to the country.

      To make it an actionable possibility, the leaders of rival political parties, regions and tribes in the country will have to commit (in deeds and utterances) to elevating the overall interest of the country, over and above their own parochial considerations. Hopefully by so doing, they can see a commonality of purpose in creating a polity that is characterized not by greed, selfishness, injustice, barefoot poverty, negative ethnicity and winner-takes-all electoral dispensation, but one in which the these anti-progressive societal variables are the exception rather than the norm.

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