By Joseph Opala and Gary Schulze
Titled originally “A Message From America To Our Fellow Sierra Leoneans” in the Cocorioko, The Voice Of The People” where it was first published, (February 8, 2018), this piece is about and beyond Sierra Leone and even Africa, right into President Donald Trump’s complicated self-understanding. Joseph Opala in Harrisonburg in Virginia is an historian and human rights activist who lectured at Sierra Leone’s Fourah Bay College from 1986 to 1992 and at James Madison University in Virginia from 1999 to 2010 before co-founding Sierra Leone’s Campaign for Good Governance. Gary Schulze in New York, New York is a retired transportation security executive in the New York City Government. He is an editor of the Journal of Sierra Leone Studies and served as a UN Election Observer during Sierra Leone’s 1996 General Elections – Intervention
President Trump’s insulting remarks about Africans who immigrate to the United States prompted us to share our experiences on that subject. We bring an unusual perspective to the topic. We are both native-born Americans – from Oklahoma and New York respectively — but we served in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone in the 1960s and 1970s, and both of us have maintained a close relationship with that country ever since.
The Sierra Leone Government has presented each of us with Sierra Leone citizenship and national awards in recognition of our service. We have done groundbreaking research on Sierra Leone’s history. One of us identified the “Gullah Connection” to Sierra Leone, while the other discovered the only existing photograph of Bai Bureh. We have also contributed to national development, as one of us helped establish the Campaign for Good Governance, Sierra Leone’s most successful human rights NGO, and the other served as an elections monitor during the historic general election in 1996.
We both hold Sierra Leone in high regard. That country has gone through some terrible experiences since Independence in 1961, including the hugely destructive “rebel war” and the deadly Ebola epidemic, but we believe it has inner strengths that will ultimately lead to a bright future.
We have moved freely in Sierra Leone immigrant circles in the US for over 40 years, and witnessed the progress of African immigrants up-close in a way that few Americans have. Although Sierra Leoneans come from one of Africa’s poorest and most war-torn nations, we have seen that those fortunate enough to come here behave like every other immigrant group in American history. They are thankful for the opportunities they find here, and they work hard to take advantage of them. They regard their US passports and green cards as priceless possessions.
Many arrive with college degrees since Sierra Leone boasts the oldest university in Sub-Saharan Africa, and using that platform, they earn higher degrees here in the United States. One young man working on his MA in Public Health recently told one of us that, “You can accomplish anything you want in this country if you work hard enough. You just have to manage your time correctly.” He was explaining how he gets by while working three jobs, taking classes, and doing the required reading and research at the same time. When asked when he sleeps, he just shrugged his shoulders. We should add that many children of these educated Sierra Leonean immigrants have become doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc.
But working class immigrants also do well. We know one man who came to the US thirty years ago with almost no formal education. He took a factory job when he first came, and so impressed his bosses with his work ethic over the years that they promoted him again and again until he became a foreman. He proudly showed us the large suburban home he built for his family and the four cars and a boat parked in the driveway. His English was still a bit rough, if understandable, but his children were all in college studying to be professionals. He and his family were living the American Dream.
Like previous waves of immigrants, many Sierra Leoneans specialized in a particular line of work in the early days of their residence in America. One thinks of the Irish serving as policemen or the Italians working as street vendors. In the case of Sierra Leoneans many did hospice work and their loving care for elderly and dying people became legendary in the Washington, DC area in the 1990s. Few knew that they were drawing on the profound respect for elders ingrained in their African culture.
We can say in all truthfulness that we have never met a Sierra Leonean immigrant to the US who failed to find his economic footing. Like previous waves of immigrants, Sierra Leoneans are intoxicated with the opportunities they find here. But there is also an element of shame. Anyone who doesn’t work hard would have to face the ridicule of other Sierra Leonean immigrants. There is so much economic opportunity here that anyone who fails to take advantage of it would be regarded as a fool.
Like earlier immigrants, Sierra Leoneans also feel strongly patriotic about their adopted land. Social events in the Sierra Leone community always begin with the singing of the national anthems of both Sierra Leone and the United States. Many Sierra Leoneans serve in the armed forces. One petite young woman just 18 years old eagerly joined the Marines soon after arriving in the US. When asked if basic training at the famously tough Parris Island Marine base in South Carolina was challenging for her, she laughed, and pointed out that it wasn’t difficult at all compared to growing up in a rural village in Africa where, from her earliest childhood, she had to work hard on her family’s farm.
Sierra Leoneans also gladly embrace our national myths. One of us went to a Thanksgiving dinner organized by several families that attend the same church and was surprised to see two separate tables — one set with traditional African foods for the adults, and the other with American Thanksgiving fare for the children. When their preacher stood up to lead the prayer before dinner, he spoke to the children, reminding them of the first Thanksgiving, emphasizing the blessings of America, and telling them that hard work and faith in God allow us to overcome even the most daunting challenges.
When we reflect on President Trump’s obscene remarks about African countries, we are struck by his ignorance of a profoundly important fact: the United States owes its greatness in large measure to the millions of deeply distressed people who came here fleeing poverty, war, and oppression. New immigrants gaining refuge here from terrible situations typically never lose their gratitude for what this country gave them, and they convey that gratitude to their children. Immigrants from “shit hole” situations have renewed this country generation after generation with new love for America. So, an immigration policy focused primarily on “merit-based” criteria, or high levels of education, as Trump would have it, is contrary to the American spirit. The US should not close its borders completely to victims of political and religious persecution and extreme poverty from other countries.
In recent days, many have said that President Trump’s reference to “shit hole” countries in Africa reflects a racist point of view. That is obviously true. Based on our experience, though, we believe that Trump exhibits a particular type of racism. He assumes that black people cannot respond to this country’s welcoming arms in the same way that white immigrants do. He doesn’t think they can embrace our nation’s values and opportunities, work hard, abide by our laws, pay taxes, vote with pride, and love this country and pass that love to their children. The American Founding Fathers believed that they were creating a way of life that would eventually uplift the whole human race. Trump’s obscenities do not just reflect racial prejudice, then, they also reflect a lack of faith in the American Dream, itself.
Speaking to our fellow Sierra Leoneans, we can only apologize for the deeply insulting words spoken by the president of our native country. His words are particularly disturbing as Sierra Leone is one of the most pro-American nations in the world, and during the many years we lived and worked there, we never heard a single hateful word about the US. Sierra Leoneans have always admired America’s democratic system, rule of law, and free speech, and aspired to be like America in those respects.
But Sierra Leoneans’ admiration for the US sometimes goes too far. The US is far from perfect, of course, and even great nations have their testing times. Americans have elected a man with racist and authoritarian instincts who encourages the most brutal elements in our society, including Nazis and the KKK, and who bullies every institution of government and civil society that stands in his way. We believe that our best citizens and our strong institutions will eventually prevail. But in the meantime, America needs her friends to stand by her. We assure Sierra Leoneans that the US will eventually become, once again, a country that newly emerging nations can look to as a positive role model.