Established in 1963 – just two years after independence, the Sierra Leone National Dance Troupe, became an iconic emblem showcasing the country’s diverse and rich cultural heritage to citizens and the outside world. Performers, dancers, musicians and others of entertaining crafts were drafted into what would become a formidable group of talented country men and women who, despite ominous challenges, have managed to ensure the survival of the Dance Troupe for more than half a century. Founded by John Joseph Akar, the National Dance Troupe has endured and survived through generational obstacles because the groups had imbibed the culture of passing on skills and talents to its offspring.
The 70s and 80s represented the golden days of the Dance Troupe when it was open to opportunities that saw the group taking part in international cultural festivals to return home with laurels. At their Aberdeen home in Freetown, the derelict and almost dissipating apartment blocks housing members of the Troupe and their families is enough to tell a story of despair, hopelessness and stagnation. In 2018, there was a glare of hope when Sierra Leone’s government decided to relocate the Dance Troupe at Mile 6 outside Freetown.
A Lebanese business magnate, known as Fawaz had reportedly built them accommodation, but according to the group’s Welfare Officer, Ahmed Wurie, the Mile 6 location has not only proven to be too far removed from the capital’s touristic areas, but it also does not provide comfortable dwellings. “There is not even basic furniture like beds to sleep in and chairs to relax on… and this is unacceptable because we are also contributing our time and energy to national development. We deserve every care and respect accorded to people of other professions,” said Wurie.
It is not clear whether Fawaz had built the Mile 6 housing units for the Dance Troupe out of philanthropy or as a means to gain easy access to the prime land that had sheltered the Dance Troupe for almost 60 years at Aberdeen. What remains clear is that the said relocation has still not taken place. There was also information that the proposed new cultural village was occupied by a local construction company – the Gento Group, which was contracted to construct homes for victims of the August 14, 2019, mudslide. It is still not clear whether the Gento Group still occupies the new Dance Troupe homes. The Gento group cannot be reached for comments.
With a 72 man contingent, only 26 of the group’s members are on the government payroll. “The rest are volunteers. We need them because they are very active and talented members of the group…they survive from handouts they receive during performances at public functions. It has been very tough,” said the Welfare Manager.
It was also difficult to imagine that the National Dance Troupe has no reliable means of transportation. Considering their large number, this affects their punctuality at functions and puts a strain on the meagre resources they get from the generosity of those who ‘hire’ them, including government institutions. They buy their costumes and instruments and their grounds for rehearsals are dangerous and not suitable for their performances.
The Ministry of Tourism and Culture has the mandate to direct, guide and coordinate the activities of the National Dance Troupe. But the Ministry itself is not always highly prioritized by the government. As a result, the future of the Sierra Leone National Dance Troupe remains uncertain. While no official of the Ministry was available to talk to Sierraeye, the country’s cultural policy seeks to “establish national identity, strengthen cultural understanding and inculcate consciousness and appreciation of the arts among citizens” It also seeks to “incorporate the essential elements of the culture into the national development framework with a view to contributing to the alleviation of poverty and to stimulate and foster creativity in all aspects of the national life.(Cultural Policy in Sierra Leone 1978 – Arthur Abraham).
The government established the National Dance Troupe and the Hotels and Tourists Board to oversee all cultural activities. During the period, both entities received around 0.4% of the annual budget. Between the period 1974 to 1977, staff emolument averaged between Le7,000 to Le70, 000 ($1 to $10). While the Ministry of Tourism budget may have risen to around 6% of the total national budget in recent times, each Dance Trope member on payroll gets a paltry Le640,00 ($64) a month – barely enough to meet their domestic needs.
While the Hotels and Tourists Board has metamorphosed into the National Tourist Board with a broader mandate and powers granted to it by an act of Parliament in 1990, there is no legislation that redefines the role of the National Dance Troupe and it remains comatose.