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Unchained melodies

Ancient African-American culture is passed along through story and song on Sapelo Island


"Long long time ago, we were not yet born," Charlie Haffner sang. "It was 250 years ago. White planters in America were making rice plantation, all over rice plantation. But the white man cannot cultivate rice. They were businessmen. They were out for cash. Bang-a-la, dee-de bang-a-la.

"What did the white man do? He went to Sierra Leone and captured Sierra Leonians who knew how to plant rice. And now we are slaves off to America; they took them to Georgia. It goes on and on like that. We tell stories in poems and music and drama."

Haffner, founder and director of the Freetong Players, one of Sierra Leone's most famous dramatic groups, had missed the ferry to Sapelo Island. Just less than an hour's journey south of Savannah, a small boat delivers visitors from the coast of Georgia to a very different world.

Sapelo Island is home to an ethnic African-American culture that has endured nearly unchanged for over 200 years. The history of the community is rich: Settled in the early 1800s by plantation owners, the African traditions and language were preserved on the island due to its remoteness. By 1810, nearly 24,000 slaves worked the land; 14,000 of these originated in Angola, the Congo and Sierra Leone. Hog's Hammock, the last surviving village on Sapelo, is a Geechee community that, as legend has it, is descended from a single slave.

The island began as the venture of a white slave owner. Thomas Spaulding, a Revolutionary War-era landowner, noted that the island's swampy land was suited to rice cultivation. He built a plantation and put 400 slaves to work.

"When the white people turned to rice cultivation in the mid-18th century, they looked to the people of the West Coast of Africa, the Rice Coast," Haffner once again sang his story with a lilting reggae rhythm. "The type of climate here, the environment is the same as Sierra Leone, with sub-tropical swampland. The people along Africa's West Coast eat rice there everyday; they have the skill, tradition and know-how to grow rice."

Spaulding was well equipped to harvest rice, but he wasn't prepared for the swarms of malarial mosquitoes that thrived in the swampy coastal lands. While the white landowners fell to malaria, the slaves seemed to be resistant. Before long, the white population abandoned the swamps, leaving the slaves behind.

"They gave the slaves independence because of the mosquito. That is why we respect the mosquito," jokes Haffner. "Left on their own, the slaves were able to maintain their culture, their language, even their names."

The pidgin language of Gullah developed, deriving in part from Krio, spoken in Sierra Leone. The Gullah dialect evolved when the English language mingled with a number of West African tribal tongues. The result was a patois that was incorporated into the mythology and personality of the South by writers such as Joel Chandler Harris. Harris' Brer Rabbit tales derived directly from African folktales and the Gullah or Geechee speech patterns. "Slaves brought these stories," explained Haffner, a native of Sierra Leone. "And this is why we are here, to study the cultural connection between the Sea Islands and our people."

Haffner, working on an anthropological study, has traveled numerous times to Sapelo to understand the connections between the Gullah, the peoples of West Africa and the Sapelo inhabitants. This trip, he travels with two companions, one musician and one playwright, both from Sierra Leone. Explaining the difference between Geechee and Gullah, Haffner says, "The words are like a synonym to us. We in Africa prefer to say Gullah, because we have the Gola tribe in Eastern Sierra Leone."

While Charlie Haffner is establishing links from his Sierra Leonian heritage to Sapelo, Cornelia Bailey, a native of Sapelo, is preserving the legacy of the islanders. In her book, God, Dr. Buzzard and the Bolito Man, Bailey traces her family lineage back to Bilalli, one of the first African slaves to inhabit the island in 1803.

Bailey, who owns and operates a bed and breakfast on the island, tirelessly works to bring the story of her family to a greater audience. "You can think of the Africans as victims," she writes, "and in a sense they were, but they were also great survivors. We need to be proud of our ancestors from slavery days." Despite her efforts, Bailey feels helpless as she sees the old ways slipping away. The elders are dying and the young are forced to leave the island to go to school and find jobs.

"They go to school in Meridian and Brunswick," Haffner says, "but after some time they want to be in the cities. Savannah and Charleston, these cities are pulling the people out of here. It is like any culture. We cannot stop that, but we can preserve and that I think can suffice. Because we are in the field, we are artists, studying anthropology, music, we preserve what we can, otherwise the culture will die."

While once there were five communities on Sapelo Island, only Hog's Hammock remains, and even there the population has dwindled to about 70 people. Still, with crusaders like Charlie Haffner working on an international scale, and Cornelia Bailey raising awareness on a grassroots level, the rare and extraordinary cultural heritage of Sapelo is struggling to survive.

Visitors to Sapelo may explore the historical ruins that range from the 2,500-year-old shell ring altar built by indigenous Americans on the north end of the island to the 200-year-old Chocolate plantation. The island has been designated a Nature Reserve managed by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Wildlife Resources Division, and is teeming with flora and fauna, as well as miles of unspoiled beaches, offering outdoor activities such as fishing, kayaking, hiking and camping. With cultural mysteries and natural preserves, Sapelo Island is a hidden treasure unlike any other.

The island is only accessible by ferry ($2 round-trip) from the Sapelo Island Visitor's Center off of Highway 17. Departure times are 6 a.m., noon and 4:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri. and 8 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. Sat.; Sunday times vary. 912-437-3224. For more information on Ms. Bailey's bed and breakfast, call 912-485-2206.


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