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Journey Yields Glimpse of Missing Past
A History Lesson

The Miami Herald
November 7, 2004

Photo by Sarah J. Glover
Chief Mohammaed alpha Silla, 67 (left), walks with Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts through Yoyema Village, which is a Mende Village in Sierra Leone, outside of Freetown.
We travel between the villages on narrow, but serviceable roads that cut across vast flatlands and fields of millet. Occasionally, we pass old Toyota vans, crammed with bodies, ferrying people between the villages. At ferry crossings and entering villages, you see welcome signs bearing a familiar red and white logo. Bon voyage from Coke. American enterprise at work.

By the side of the road, girls walk with produce and jugs balanced on their heads and boys drive donkey carts. Goats cross the road gingerly, scurrying out of the way at the sound of an approaching vehicle.

This is smart. Our driver, Nasser, has a lead foot. The landscape flies past.

When we pass through villages, people always turn to watch us going by. In the village of Karma, a boy named Rashid even runs alongside our vehicle, pointing us to the river, where the women are washing clothes and selling green pumpkins. He grins with the sheer joy of exertion. We give him a few CFA, the local currency, for his trouble.

It is near sunset that we find ourselves in Namaro, a Songhay village about 18 miles north of Boubon, where we are granted an audience with the chief, Amirou Namaro. He receives us sitting on his cot wearing an elaborate blue robe. Besides the cot, the room is furnished with a clock, a rug, a radio and a few chairs. Outside in the compound, his wives are tending to children and preparing the evening meal.

I ask what being chief entails. Through Kedidia, Namaro launches into a long recitation of his lineage, at least 14 generations of chiefs. Given that I can only recount two generations with any confidence, I am impressed and tell him so. Namaro laughs and says something to Kedidia.

"He says they have to know it," she translates. "They know their lineage all the way to the Askia."

That would be Askia Mohammed, who took the throne of the Songhay nation in 1493. In his 19-year reign, he built one of the largest, wealthiest and most fearsome empires of that day. "Before the white people came to Africa," says Namaro, "the Songhay used to be stronger, used to have more power in this region. They'd go to other lands and fight and make war. That was their job, to make war and win… . And then the white people came and they destroyed all the traditions, the structure and the power for them."