The paradox of education is precisely this – that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.James Baldwin
My father’s classic autobiography Kossoh Town Boy (Robert Wellesley-Cole – Cambridge University Press, 1960), captured the Krio culture of his Freetown childhood in the early-20th century. This Krio ethos was part of our Nottingham, East Midlands, family home. It also functioned as a diasporan hub for family and friends, especially as Sierra Leone neared independence. Before I set off for school on Independence Day, April 27, 1961, my mother put an enormous green, white, and blue sash around my uniform and said: “Your country is now independent. Rejoice!”
I did not understand enough about Sierra Leone to rejoice over its independence. Still, our home had reverberated with enough high-energy conversations about black people’s cultures and politics for me to be curious about the Sierra Leone side of my heritage. In my gap year between secondary school and Oxford, where I read law, I spent 6 months in Freetown, living on Pownall street, Kossoh Town, next to the house where my late father grew up. I also took classes in sociology and African studies and assisted my lecturer Dr. Filomena Steady conduct her doctoral research by interviewing prominent Krio women.
In the 1980s, I returned to Freetown as a qualified barrister and set up a general law practice, specializing in conveyancing, wills, probate, commercial, and crime. I defended murderers in the High court. Then, Sierra Leone still had the death penalty for such capital crimes. A notable success was appearing in the Supreme Court in the leading negligence (road traffic) case of Wurie v Shomefun and Anor (Civ. App. No. 8/81 )1983 SLSC led by J. H. Smythe Q. C.
While in Freetown, I immersed myself in worthwhile and transformational voluntary work. As Secretary and later Coordinator of International Relations (CIR) of the Sierra Leone Association of University Women (SLAUW), I participated in income-generating scholarship drives. As CIR, I represented SLAUW at the International Federation of University Women Conferences abroad (IFUW). From 1989-1992, I was the first elected African and youngest IFUW Vice-President. I also served as treasurer of the Sierra Leone Bar Association and president of Zonta, the association of Sierra Leonean business and professional women. Working with such organizations inspired me and began my lifelong commitment to women’s rights. Geographically and emotionally, I had returned to Kossoh Town. It is part of my ancestral roots and psyche, but had it returned to me? I ask because even as I was involved in grassroots work, some mocked my attempts to speak Krio and othered me as shwɛn-shwɛn.*
I returned to England in 1990 to practice before going on the bench part-time in 1999. I became a full-time judge in 2002. My jurisdiction covers immigration and asylum and deportation, human rights, bail, and EU cases. I also hear appeals from Sri Lankan Tamils to Kurds from Turkey seeking refuge in Britain. Most appellants have lawyers and need interpreters who act as their cultural filters. But one of a judge’s most valuable assets in this area of law is to understand the cultural backgrounds of litigants, a principle that underlined the House of Lords ruling in the appeal of Beoku-Betts (a Sierra Leonean appellant), when it held that adjudicating must consider all members’ family life. Cultural awareness and agility are crucial in Immigration and Asylum law. Regular judicial college training ensures judges are up to date on popular culture, though one old boy, hearing that Lady Gaga was the most popular celebrity on social media, enquired, ‘And who is Lord Gaga?’
A bicultural background can be beneficial in sifting out fact from fiction. When litigant Taiwo came before me, I asked him for Kehinde. He’d already been deported, he responded! The presenting officer from the Home Office was shocked and thanked me for such useful information. Some West Africans pretended to be Sierra Leonean during the Sierra Leonean Civil war (1991-2002) because they could get status in the UK. I asked a few questions to ferret out the phonies—the same situation obtained with mainland Albanians during the Kosovan war. There was no identity dilemma personally nor judicially. As a second-generation immigrant in the courtroom, I had taken the Oath as one of her Majesty’s judges to uphold the law.
Research has shown that a bicultural or transnational background makes one more flexible and creative. I am a child of two worlds, unusual for our generation but increasingly common today. “If you’re born British, you’ve won the lottery in life. If you become a judge, you’ve won it twice,” says an anonymous author.
I would say – “Luck pas fine!”
I rest my case.
Patrice ( Pattie) Suzanne Wellesley- Cole, aka Sadia Ageh, is a human rights lawyer, former Tribunal Judge (retired, November 2017), and blogger. She is also known as the diasporan dancing/dame who’s finally learned to dance and is a non-political party girl.
* A derogatory noun or adjective used almost exclusively to describe the manner of speech and comportment of Krio persons perceived as wealthy and disdainful.