In 1933 African American linguist Lorenzo Turner and musicologist Lydia Parish visited Harris Neck and recorded 53-year-old Amelia Dawley singing a song that had been taught to her by her mother. The song, in a language unknown to Mrs. Dawley, had been passed down in her family from mother to daughter as far back as anyone in Harris Neck could remember.
In 1997 Amelia’s daughter, Mary Moran, and other members of the Moran family were invited to Sierra Leone, West Africa, where they were welcomed in Freetown by Sierra Leone’s President and then flown by helicopter to the country’s interior. There, in the small village of Senehun Ngola, Mary and Bendu Jabati met and sang this song together for the first time. Years earlier, Bendu’s grandmother had told her that this song, which had been passed down in her village from mother to daughter for centuries, would one day reunite her to long-lost relatives.
Through a series of amazing and perhaps miraculous events – and lots of hard work – beginning in the late 1980s, anthropologist Joseph Opala first rediscovered this song and then, with the help of musicologist Cynthia Schmidt and others, traced the song from Senehun Ngola to Harris Neck.
In addition to finding out where in Africa her ancestors were abducted into slavery, Mary Moran discovered the meaning of the Mende song. A processional hymn for the final farewell to the spirit, it was sung in Senehun Ngola by women as they prepared the body of a loved one for burial.
The Language You Cry In is the award winning film that traces the connections between the Moran family and the people of Harris Neck with those of Senehun Ngola. It can be ordered by calling (912) 832-4549.
Here is the text of the song as it is sung in its original Mende and its English translation.
(The 1933 recording of Amelia Dawley and a recent recording of Mary Moran are available here and can be heard upon entering the page.)