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‘They Are We’ — highlighting Cuba’s African links
July 20, 2016, 4:29 pm

Some of the structural inequalities visible in Africa today can be traced back to the legacy of slave trade that flourished during colonial rule of the continent.  An unforeseen consequence of this tragic human exploitation is the widespread African heritage present today among many communities in the Caribbean and in the Americas.

One inspiring illustration of this trans-Atlantic connection is the film ‘They Are We’, which though it premiered in 2013 in Cuba, is only now making its way to wider audiences around the world. The film dramatically depicts the emotions as an Afro-Cuban community rediscovers and reconnects with their African relatives.

The film, which originated as a research project by soon turned into dialogue and collaboration between community members and filmmakers in Cuba and Sierra Leone. The name of the movie came from the reaction of one old Sierra Leonean man, who while watching a video of the Afro-Cuban community performing a traditional dance, excitedly remarked, “They are we.”

Inspired by witnessing a lively song and dance performance by members of the Gangá-Longobá community in Perico in central Cuba celebrating their ancient heritage, Australian anthropologist Emma Christopher, eventually traced the origins of the song and language to Mokpangumba, a tiny village in Sierra Leone. Despite the songs being sung in the Banta language, which is nearing extinction in many countries of its origin in West Africa, it is completely incredible that they have kept these songs and dances alive for all these centuries, said Ms. Christopher.

The anthropologist then arranged for four members of the Perico community to fly to Mokpangumba from where their ancestors were once seized by slave traders and sold to plantation owners in Cuba. It was remarkable to watch the people of Mokpangumba gather to welcome their Caribbean relatives as long-lost family members, said the University of Sydney professor.

Though the 77-minute running time of ‘They Are We’ cannot be expected to capture the estimated 170 years that elapsed before the film's far-flung subjects finally found each other, it nevertheless effectively portrays the resilience of tradition even in the face of historical violence, while also depicting a colorful and vibrant slice of Afro-Cuban culture.

However, more than being an entertaining film, or subject material of only academic interest, the film reveals glimpses of the past and how relevant they are to gaining an understanding of the present. Films like ‘They Are We’ shows us how the past still molds present day thinking and why coming to terms with historical grievances and accumulated injustices are important to building a new and brighter future.

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