I went along with my colleague at Cotton Tree News, Kevin Lamdo, to produce his program entitled “My Visit,” where he highlights the everyday life of different groups of people in Sierra Leone. The show has featured everyone from Paramount Chiefs to scrap metal collectors.
This week, the program went to the Aberdeen Cultural Village, the official centre for arts in Sierra Leone. Despite being located inside the city, it lives up to the title of “Village.” Generations of families live here, growing small crops and raising livestock. Chickens squawk running in between bathing children while pots of rice simmer on open fires.
This is the home of Sierra Leone’s National Dance Troupe, who tell me they are happy to be making a living doing what they love, even though their salaries barely allow them to make ends meet.
I visited the village in the morning and for hours they practiced singing, dancing, acrobatics and playing drums – traditional Sierra Leonean music from around the country. But, they tell me, they often can’t afford to maintain their costumes and repair their instruments.
For a time, the troupe performed everywhere from Canadato China. In 1963, the National Danced Troupe was founded by John Joseph Akar, a Sierra Leonean entertainer and repeat guest on the Merv Griffin Show. Under Akar’s leadership, the troupe was invited to the United States to perform at the New York World Fair, at the Negro Arts festival in Dakar, Senegal and went on a four-month tour of Europe.
Today, little seems to be invested in promoting the culture of a country that is best known around the world in popular culture primarily for blood diamonds and civil war.
The Troupe still entertains at foreign diplomatic events and, performs for state functions – including last year’s 50th Anniversary celebrations of the country’s independence. But this kind prestige didn’t last. Several corrupt governments and an 11-year civil war left little room in the government budget for the Ministry of Tourism and Culture,
Lansana Kelfala has been a musician with the dance troupe since 1963, and for a while, he says he felt the pride of traveling the world representing his newly-independent country.
“We used to travel, perform and get paid all the time. Now we can go two or three years without going anywhere,” said Kelfala. “We want the government to give us more help and we want the people to support us so we don’t starve.”