By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Sanpha Sesay was asleep when he got the phone call, late on the night of July 18. As a reporter during the worst of Sierra Leone's civil war in the 1990s, Sesay had grown accustomed to tragic news at all hours—rebel advances into the capital city, massacred villages, mass amputations—but over the last decade in Dallas, his biggest news was the gossip he passed to other expatriates.
Tonight was something else entirely: an echo, a ghost, from his old life in Africa. "Sanpha, wake up," the voice on the phone said. "Bongo is dead. He killed his wife and he killed himself."
It was a brief call, and he made a few more that night. He didn't sleep, desperate to cobble together details to send back home. Years since his last paycheck as a reporter, he had a clear shot at the biggest story of his career: Lord Bongo Johnson—one of Sierra Leone's first comedy superstars, a satirical voice of dissent in the face of corruption, an escape from tough, everyday life in one of the world's poorest countries—had turned up dead in his suburban Dallas home, naked on the floor after hanging himself with his own pants.
His countrymen, and the far-flung Sierra Leone diaspora, knew him as Bongo, but in the local news the next day he was Godfrey Manly Spain, 52, who police suspected had beaten and strangled his common-law wife, 46-year-old Irene Claudia Haggerty. One local TV report said the "apparent murder-suicide on a quiet street" in Mesquite had been discovered by police after family members called to say they couldn't reach the couple. A neighbor called the family "pretty quiet"; another said she'd heard the couple fighting in recent weeks.
Sesay fired off his first story to a few Sierra Leonean online news sites, where the dead star's name carried the headlines: "Horror—Bongo Jonson is dead!" and "The Fatal Death of Lord Bongo Johnson and Spouse." After one turn in the news cycle, the Dallas press came and went, still captivated by another suburban murder-suicide one week earlier: that of Coppell Mayor Jayne Peters and her daughter Corinne. Sesay, however, kept after his sources—family members, friends, an old girlfriend and comedians from Bongo's troupe—searching for an answer to the question that troubled them all: What in Bongo's quiet American life could have turned one of Sierra Leone's most beloved clowns into a killer?
Some spoke of a man who'd fallen into a deep depression, tortured by a rootless life and panicked at the prospect of Haggerty leaving him, taking their children away. Sesay heard stories of a hot-tempered romantic drama that stretched back decades, from America to Sierra Leone—of emotions flaring inside his Mesquite home, hidden even from the small Sierra Leonean community in the Dallas suburbs that is, itself, easy to overlook from the outside. He heard about yelling, spousal abuse, drugs and eerie stories of premeditation in Bongo's final act. Haggerty's friends and family would offer little on the record, insisting (as they did for this story) that she was a private person.
For Bongo, though, such privacy was a reminder of all he'd left behind 20 years ago, when, amid rising violence in his native country and threats from rebel soldiers, he joined the rest of his troupe in leaving Sierra Leone for an uncertain future in America. Except for the heights of fame he reached early on, and his gruesome, tragic end, Bongo's story is a common one, familiar to millions of immigrants who give up everything—family, career, status—to start over with a new life in a foreign land.
Once he had it all—close family and friends, a girlfriend and a son. He made a good living doing what he loved, had the moral authority to talk tough to those in power, and fans so dedicated that preachers ended their Sunday sermons early to avoid the embarrassment of watching the church empty out when Bongo's radio show began. He needed a bodyguard just to walk down the street.
Then, abruptly, came the realization that in the United States no strangers recognized him, and his signature character, a sensation where he came from, meant nothing to those around him. Instead, there were years of washing dishes at Applebee's, answering phones in a cubicle farm, settling at last into a quiet suburb with two children, and all the while dealing with the creeping fear that he'd lose it all again.
Godfrey Manly Spain grew up in a small house in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, in the peaceful years before his country was riven by one of the most savage civil wars in modern history. The identity of the country, which won its independence from the British crown in 1961, three years before Bongo was born, was forged by slaves freed from Great Britain and North America, one foot still planted in Western culture as they struggled to establish a new African homeland. Descendants of those former slaves, called Creoles, are still concentrated in Freetown today. Bongo was one of them.