Study Abroad Opportunity: Retracing the Steps of the Gullah Geechee People in Sierra Leone


Christina Charles

The Gullah Geechee Heritage Center

Dr. Maxine Bryant, the Gullah Geechee Heritage Center Director, has been working on the organization of an educational journey from Savannah to Sierra Leone, where Gullah Geechee’s roots can be traced back.

Initially aimed for Dec. 2022, deferred to March 2023 and now hoping to launch in Nov. 2023 over Thanksgiving Break, Dr. Bryant describes the Savannah Sierra Leone Sankofa Journey as a “homegoing tour” for people whose lineages are rooted in the Gullah Geechee people.“As a black person in the United States, going to Africa is a type of going home,” Dr. Bryant said.

On her experience visiting the continent three previous times in Egypt, Ghana and South Africa, “It’s a type of connection that is deep on so many levels. Personal, historical, ancestral—all of those levels,” Dr. Bryant said.

The trip would begin where we stand right now—in Savannah—and work backward through the narrative of the historical migration.

Through the journey, Dr. Bryant intends to emphasize the importance of visiting Lazaretto sites. These were the places where enslaved people were quarantined and inspected before being put on ships or taken into the Savannah ports to be sold. In Sierra Leone, that place is on Bunce Island. In Savannah, it is on Tybee Island.
The retracing of the steps that led to Tybee and into Savannah–all the way back towards Sierra Leone as a point of origin–invokes the image of the Sankofa bird for which the journey is named. The Sankofa bird’s body faces ahead while its head looks back behind itself.

“The past is the guide to plan for the future,” Dr. Bryant on the mythic bird’s symbolism. The bird holds an egg in its mouth as it looks back behind it, representing the knowledge that must be traced back to and taken from a person or people’s origin point so one may go forward and nurture future endeavors.

Dr. Bryant emphasized the use of Thanksgiving Break as a meaningful time to experience the journey, as it explores the roots of many people’s family trees (at Georgia Southern, in Savannah and all over the country). What’s more, the trip is not limited to Georgia Southern students, opening the journey up to the potential of experiencing the ancestral journey with one’s immediate family.

For students without ancestral connections to the Gullah Geechee people and who find they cannot resonate with the sensation of a home-going, Dr. Bryant emphasizes the importance of “knowing accurate history”.

“History related to black people has been watered down and tampered with almost to the point of not being true,” Dr. Bryant said. “Being able to experience Africa can open the eyes of someone who doesn’t have a connection to the Gullah Geechee culture.” In this way, the tour takes on two forms simultaneously: a home-going or an eye-opening venture, depending on one’s vantage point.

The journey is intended to take place during a school break to avoid conflicts with classes, as the trip is not connected to a class or to credits, but instead intended as a means of purely personal experience and enrichment. The price is virtually all-inclusive, and as it is not a class or a credit, there is no additional tuition fee, placing it in the general range of four thousand dollars to attend.

The Gullah Geechee Heritage Center is located in Armstrong Center. If you’re interested in this trip, mark your calendar for Nov. 2023, and if you have any questions, reach out to Dr. Bryant. Keep your eyes open for the official release of a date.