Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is not the only foreign diplomat in town this week.
Alhaji Alpha Kanu, the minister of presidential affairs for Sierra Leone, and more than 20 other members of the presidential entourage made a public appearance in the Elm City on Tuesday morning, standing in for President Ernest Bai Koroma, at a ceremony at the Amistad Memorial in front of City Hall.
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The event — at which the president was originally scheduled to make an appearance — was part of an annual celebration of Sierra Leonean Sengbe Pieh, a slave who took control of the Amistad slave ship as it was headed for Cuba and brought it to New Haven instead. The ceremony highlighted the significance of the historic event, as well as the relationship between New Haven and the African country.
As late as Monday evening, Koroma was expected to be present to deliver the commemorative address. Instead, Kanu delivered the keynote message with the president’s apologies and then focused his speech on the new direction his country is taking.
“The history of the transatlantic slave trade began in Sierra Leone, but it did not stay that way,” Kanu said, emphasizing the nation’s progress since the slave trade era. “There is a reason why they began to call Sierra Leone the province of freedom.”
He cited the country’s progressive accomplishments, such as being the first black African nation to build a modern university.
The transition of the West African country into a modern nation was indeed a central theme of the morning’s exercises. The Elm City has been a part of that transition: New Haven and Freetown, the Sierra Leonean capital, are sister cities. Althea Norcott, president of the New Haven-Freetown Sister City Program, talked in her remarks about the role that the program has had in building connections between the cities since the partnership started 12 years ago. In addition to sending shipments of furniture to schools and paying for repairs to the roof of a Freetown convent, Norcott said, New Haven is currently working to build a library for young girls orphaned during Sierra Leone’s civil war, which lasted from 1991 to 2002.
“This is a time of hope and peace, praise God,” she said. “We need to keep hope alive in the continuation of new work.”
In his message on behalf of the president, Kanu urged New Haven residents to join him in the fight against “injustice.”
“I invite you to translate this heroic historical connection into a modern fight for freedom,” he said. “We must fight for the universal desire of all mankind to be free from oppression.”
William Pinkley, captain of the Amistad Freedom Schooner, who spoke before Kanu, said he has observed a dramatic change in the country.
Pinkley sailed the schooner — “Connecticut’s flagship and tall ship ambassador”— to Sierra Leone last year to honor Pieh’s leadership in the Amistad revolt of 1839.
While some in attendance appeared to be dismayed by the president’s absence at the ceremony, others found the morning’s message of hope refreshing.
“I think it was a very interesting history, one that most people don’t know a lot about,” said Elicia Sims, a New Haven resident in the audience. “The president probably just had something important to do, and it’s important for him to be where he is.”
Hawa Musa, a native of Sierra Leone who now lives in Bridgeport, emigrated to the United States when civil war broke out. She said she showed up to the event because she hoped to see Koroma speak.
Still, the minister’s message about the changing course of the country resonated with Musa.
“I was in Sierra Leone during the war,” she said. “After the war, I’ve never been there, but from what they tell me, they say that it is easier now,” she added before leaving to join the Sierra Leonean musical performance and dance underway after the ceremony.
The ceremony was followed later in the day by a graveside ceremony at the Grove Street Cemetery in honor of the Amistad captives who died on the ship and in New Haven.