The Lantern Parade is the name given to a festival of floats that in Freetown, Sierra Leone marked Eid-ul-Fitri, the end of the Muslim month of Ramadan. It is said to have been introduced to Freetown by Daddy Maggay from Banjul in the 1930s and at first only small hand-held lanterns seem to have been used. It evolved into a torchlight procession through the city of large motorized carnival floats carrying elaborately designed structures in tissue paper, wood and wire. During the 1970s and 1980s fierce competition developed between different lantern groups, such as the different Odelay societies, to win the prize for building the best ‘lantern’.
From 1991 – 2001 Sierra Leone plunged into civil war and two-thirds of their population were displaced. A peace accord was signed in 1996 and there was no fighting through the early part of 1997. Approximately 75,000 people fled to Freetown from the countryside. Though conditions were crowded, the energy in Freetown was one of hope.
During this brief period of peace, my husband and I were invited by the American Embassy to perform music in Freetown. When we heard the first Lantern Parade was to take place since the war began, we were so excited! It was to occur on our last night in Sierra Leone and we were due to fly out the next morning. The American Ambassador and our Program Officer with his wife were to be with us for this historic event!
If you go to YouTube there are videos of the Lantern Parade in recent years and you can get a pretty good idea of the atmosphere during the parade. Compared to what we are used to at parades in this country, it’s pretty chaotic.
Around 8 pm that evening ,we went to the Law Court Building and sat on the steps to get a good seat. The Public Affairs Officer, (the PAO), and his wife were with us, but the Ambassador was strangely absent. We figured out later, he’d been told by the Marines to stay home.
The enormous influx of refugees packed the streets so tightly it made the passage of floats difficult. After much waiting, around 9:30 pm the first lantern float came through. As it passed, hundreds of people flooded onto the street despite the best attempt of the police to keep them on the curb. They wanted to parade, dance and celebrate along side of the float. This clogged the streets and prevented the progress of the next float, which was not even in sight.
Around 10:30 pm, the second float came down the street and once again hundreds more people joined the float as it made it’s way down the street. It was evident the police commanded zero respect and the crowd would do as they pleased.
Around midnight, we realized, “Uh oh, we are not able to leave”. Crossing the street to the Embassy and wading through thousands of people with a crowd mentality did not look at all appealing or safe. It was doubtful we could cross the street and stay together. Once separated, there would be no way to find the missing person or persons. All of a sudden, flooding our memories, we recalled our instructions in our Welcome Kit: “Avoid Crowds. If you see a large gathering of people, turn and go the other way.” Oops!
Well, there we were, stuck, in a crowd of ten thousand people who were out of control and beginning to be frustrated with the long wait in between floats. The PAO and Billy began brainstorming on how to get to the American Embassy.
On the steps of the Law Court Building, above where we were sitting, Billy noticed there were Sierra Leonian military guards with automatic weapons, there were to protect the building should anyone attempt to enter. The PAO convinced them to help us cross the street to the diagonal corner where the American Embassy stood, the distance of half a city block.
The plan was to “attach” ourselves to the next float and cross the street and to make it look like we were dancing and celebrating with the crowd. We formed a line with one Sierra Leonian guard complete with his weapon in front, the PAO behind him holding onto the guard’s belt, then his wife, me, my husband and finally one more guard with his weapon. The instruction was to hold tightly to the person in front so as not be separated.
As we waded into the crowd, the only caucasian people in a sea of black Africans, we stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb and no one was fooled that we were parading, despite our smiles and holding onto each other like we were dancing. They knew we were being evacuated. Something about armed guards on either end of our “train” must have given us away.
There were jeers and name calling as we waded through the crowd. We were pressed in on all sides and it was difficult to hold onto the person in front. My husband felt many hands go through his pockets. We shouted encouragement to each other, “don’t let go, hold on!” It was very intense.
As we reached the curb where the embassy guards were protecting the embassy, our accompanying guards left us and returned to their post. The embassy guards, always professional, polite and nonplussed, snapped to attention upon seeing the PAO, saluted and greeted him with “Good morning, sir!” I am sure they wondered what the heck we were doing there! And of course, so did we.