Born in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in 1971, Adama Delphine Fawundu is the only first-generation American of her siblings. Her brother and sister were born in Freetown, Sierra Leone and lived there until 1975, when Fawundu and her mother returned to bring them to the United States.
As Fawundu remembers, “My first trip to Freetown was when I was about four years old. I went with my mom. Strangely enough, I remember a few details about Freetown but not ever meeting my siblings for the first time. It seems like they were always there. I do remember my mom and aunts laughing gently about attempt to speak Krio, ‘Samwell (my pronounciation of Samuel) Mama dey call you!’ They thought that it was so funny how I was picking up on the language. My mom said that I was eager to play with the other kids and just blend in.
“My mom loves to tell the story of how she left me at the house in Freetown, to go take care of some business and when she got back she found me sitting on the floor outside of the house with some of the neighbors. I decided to take off my socks and shoes just like the other four year olds and eat Okra soup and fufu with my hands. She was shocked because this wasn't something that I was use to in Brooklyn. From her stories she tells me I was amazed and had so many questions. ‘Do people carry loads on their heads to protect them from the sun?’
“As excited as I was to be in Africa as a child, the vivid memories slowly faded to curtains that separated one room from the next along with echoed dialogues in Krio sprinkled with laughter. I remember just this summer waking up in a pastel colored room at my friend’s house in Bamako, Mali to the voices of women laughing and conversing in Bambara. Minutes later, an echoed voice of a baby girl complained to her mom, the mom tried to reason but the baby just was not satisfied. Although I didn't understand the language I understood this snippet of life and it brought back a feeling of warm memories that I can't quite put my finger on. “
Fawundu did not return to Sierra Leone until 1992. After graduating college, the family decided to take a trip during the Christmas holidays. She remembers that it was raining lightly, and everyone was talking about it. They said it was significant, unusual, and they believed that it was a sign of things to come. That night, there was a coup attempt, and for the rest of my time in Sierra Leone, we were on curfew. We had to be in our homes before dark, around 8pm. The streets were patrolled, but there was no violence. There was just the presence of the military, which struck me as odd. It was real, but at the same time, it was so peaceful, that the soldiers seemed out of the ordinary when mixed in with the Muslims praying on the street and the Christian evangelists shouting in prayer. There was so much natural beauty, but it was overshadowed by a war that not yet begun. I didn’t know how extreme war could be until I saw photographs later.”
Between 1991 and 2001, an estimated 50,000 people were killed in Sierra Leone’s civil war. Hundreds of thousands of people were forced from their homes, including Fawundu’s paternal grandmother, who had disappeared for a month during this time. As Fawundu recalls, “She had been living with her two daughters at this time, very close to the center of the fighting. They literally had to walk as far away as they could and this is when my aunts lost contact with my grandmother. They found her, and she was fine, but she passed away a year later from the pain, heartache, and burden of living through the war. It was devastating. The first—and last—time I saw her as an adult was in 1992. I am named for her: Adama.”
Fawundu did not return to Sierra Leone until the fighting had ended, but by then she had already felt that call of Mother Africa. In 1995, she spent three months in South Africa, in the earliest years of the post-Apartheid regime as a study abroad student and burgeoning photographer. She continued to travel through West Africa visiting Ghana, Senegal, Mali and Nigeria. In 2008, she brought two of her sons, then aged 10 and 7. She remembers how her youngest son Kofi purposely took off his shoes and socks to run around outside and play with his friend Sam. Her mom was alarmed and asked, “Where are your shoes?"
Kofi responded, “There are no bottles on the floor it's clean!" Fawundu left him to be free and play. She notes, “This little guy is afraid of dogs in Brooklyn. But he spent hours running around teasing the neighborhood dog in Freetown. I don't want my children to have the tainted view of Africa that somehow seeped into my psyche through the subtle messages in school and via the mass media.
“I grew up with hip hop and as hip hop embraced Africa, it confirmed the gut feeling that I always knew. It made me proud to say I am from Sierra Leone. However, it was really when I visited Sierra Leone in 1992 that I fell in love all over again. The voices of families conversing which echoed through the window, the sound of roosters at 6am, the smell of cassava leaves stewed in Palm oil, the face of an elder that you must honor with respect, the beautiful mountains and surreal scenery and the Sun that doesn't quite shine on me in Brooklyn the way that it does in Freetown. All of these things fill me with imagined memories of my mom's childhood and they make me smile. Once again I am home.
Photographs by Adama Delphine Fawundu
Text by Miss Rosen