Book looks at unique past

Review by Tony Baughman
Staff writer, The Aiken Standard

 

 

 

The star of TV’s “Gullah Gullah Island” looked into the face of a 14-year -old boy in Ghana. There, beyond the strikingly similar features and bright hopeful eyes, Ronald Daise spied centuries of family and cultural heritage.
     This chance encounter three years ago and Daise's other adventures during his first trip to West Africa are recounted in “Gullah Branches: West African Roots,” a new book from Sandlapper Publishing of Orangeburg.                                                                                  Daise, a resident of St. Helena Island near Beaufort, and his wife Natalie hosted “Gullah Gullah Island” for four seasons on Nickelodeon’s “Nick Jr.” network. For years, the Daises have celebrated their Gullah/Geechee heritage in stories and songs of life in the Carolina sea islands.

But Daise had never traveled to Africa until 2004, when he spent five weeks in Ghana as part of a Fulbright/Hayes Fellowship sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education and Charleston Southern University. There, he and the other members of the fellowship team researched and created curriculum materials about the region.

“During that trip, I saw so many people who looked like my father’s people, people I grew up with
on St. Helena Island,” Daise recalled. “It was so uncanny. The landscape would be filled with dark faces. It was just a wonderful feeling that was a part of an awareness of this spiritual connection.”

Daise returned to Sierre Leone in 2005 as a part of a 20-member “Priscilla’s Homecoming” delegation, a ceremonial visit by Thomalind Martin Polite, a seventh generation descendant of a young girl abducted into slavery in 1756. As a scholar of Gullah/Geechee culture, Daise was there to help capture the culturally significant event for posterity- and instead found something intensely personal in the trip.

”After my trip to Sierre Leone, I did DNA testing and found out that my paternal lineage is from the Akan and Ewe peoples of Ghana. My maternal lineage is from the Temne people of Sierre Leone,” he said. “So, as my daughter said when I got my certificate, ‘Daddy, you had a family reunion each time you went to Africa, and you didn’t even know it.’ And each time I felt at home.”

”Gullah Branches,” his travelogue of those two visits to Africa, is a logical follow-up to his first book, Reminiscences of Sea Island Heritage, a chronicle of Gullah culture published in 1986. ”I began doing writings that   showed the cultural similarities in the  Gullah/Geechee cultures and those of those two West African countries,” Daise said. “I had presented for many years, and had read about for many years, these cultures but on these two trips, I saw firsthand the customs and traditions.” 

Each chapter of the new book is presented as a “stanza” in a song Daise wrote to the tune of the old spiritual, “I Don’t Mind.”  ”While I was in Africa, undergoing these experiences, I would hear a tune of an old spiritual that I grew up hearing on St. Helena Island. I would change the words and write about these experiences to the tune of these old spirituals,” he said.

Even the cover art is an intimate expression. It is a painting called “Mandala I,” by Ron’s wife Natalie, that hangs in the couple’s dining room on St. Helena Island.

Though most who know of Ronald and Natalie Daise met them through their TV show, in “Gullah Branches” Daise reveals a glimpse of Gullah/Geechee culture that is provocative, challenging and deeply moving. It is, he says, a perfect, more scholarly extension of their lighthearted adventures on “Gullah Gullah Island.”

 ”In our work throughout the years, there has been a sense of connection, a sense of realizing that each person has a purpose, each person is unique and special and to celebrate who you are, to celebrate your heritage,” he said. “This book showcases that thought.”

 

Ronald Daise, right, met 14-year-old Carolos Muta on a university trip to Ghana and was immediately struck by the physical resemblance.