Professor John Oldfield
Professor of Slavery and Emancipation
Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull
The Wilberforce Institute is involved in a number of collaborative research projects, among them ‘The Anti-Slavery Knowledge Network’ (AKN), led by the universities of Hull, Liverpool and Nottingham. As its name implies, AKN is about knowledge and knowledge sharing, in this case in sub-Saharan Africa. The aim of the project, funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council, is to show how the arts and humanities can help to build resilience in communities vulnerable to human trafficking, forced labour and child exploitation through strategic, heritage-led interventions: such things as community radio, music, storytelling, performance and film.
In the initial phases of AKN, we set up a number of pilot projects, including a series of projects in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where researchers at the Wilberforce Institute already had close contacts, among them Lansana Mansaray (‘Barmmy Boy’), a talented young filmographer who runs a cooperative called ‘We Own TV’. Eager to get these projects started, in February 2018 I visited Freetown, taking this opportunity to introduce our work to the British Council, DfID and government ministers. I also made contact with local NGOs, community groups, heritage clubs and members of the Sierra Leone Historic Monuments Commission, some of these groups later becoming our partners.
One of the people that Barmmy introduced me to while I was in Freetown was Brima Sheriff, a filmmaker, activist and former Human Rights Commissioner. Brilliantly talented, Brima Sheriff began his career with Amnesty International, eventually becoming Director of the Sierra Leone Section. It was this work that drew him to the attention of the Sierra Leone government, which in 2012 made him one of its Human Rights Commissioners. An outspoken critic of human rights abuses in Sierra Leone, Brima subsequently fell foul of the ruling party, which in 2017 rather unceremoniously removed him from office. When I interviewed him in 2018, all of this was still very much on his mind and provided the backdrop to a conversation that ranged widely over local politics, human rights and the future prospects of Sierra Leone.
By the end of our interview, we had over an hour’s worth of material. Barmmy later edited this down into a series of shorter films, two of which can be accessed via the links below. In the first of these, Brima speaks eloquently about the relationship between the arts and humanities and what we might call social development, drawing on his extensive experience as a filmmaker. The second video deals with the subject of contemporary slavery in Sierra Leone, a problem that Brima sees as being rooted in his country’s social structure (especially family life and the role of women) and its peculiar demography. Shot in his own home and against the noise of the busy street outside, these are intimate films in which Brima speaks frankly about some of the challenges facing Sierra Leone in the twenty-first century.
This work was undertaken with the support of the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Further information about ‘The Anti-Slavery Knowledge Network’ and the projects we are supporting in Africa can be found at: https://www.liverpool.ac.uk//poliitcs/research/research-projects/akn/
I would also like to thank ‘Barmmy Boy’ for all his hard work on this project, not only in setting up my interview with Brima Sheriff but also in editing the material and producing these short videos. As it turned out, this was the first interview that Brima had given since stepping down as Human Rights Commissioner, and for that I am immensely grateful. Brima Sheriff is a compelling figure: impassioned, eloquent and forthright. We hope that these videos will bring his unique voice to wider audiences and help to raise awareness about slavery and human trafficking, modern-day scourges that continue to have a devastating impact on communities across Africa and beyond.
The two films made during the project can be viewed here:
Fighting Injustice: The Role of the Arts and Humanities in Sierra Leone