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He grew up on the north end of Waterloo Street, in a middle-class neighborhood near the city center. His younger sister, Henrietta Coker, also known as Baby Love, recalls how he'd often attract a crowd of kids from the neighborhood to hang around him at their house, cracking jokes and dreaming up new nicknames for them. Joseph Edwin, who'd go on to found the comedy troupe that made Bongo famous, was eight years older than Bongo, and remembers him as a timid boy who'd ride his bike through the streets with his brother, but otherwise rarely left his mother's side. "He was like a mommy's pet," Edwin says. "He was a funny guy since childhood, but when he was coming up, you would never know that he would become a comedian." Coker says her brother was easily upset when small things went wrong. "He was somebody very feminine. He was just a man-boy."
He grew to a lanky six-foot-three, and carried his easy-going, quick-witted demeanor through childhood and into a job at the government printing press where his stepfather worked. In his spare time, he acted with a local group called the Chigura Theater. Donald Nat-George, another member of the troupe who played in community theater back then, says there was no established path for an acting career in Freetown. "It wasn't professional at all, really. All the actors were amateurs," he recalls. Edwin approached Nat-George first, and then Bongo and two others, about forming a comedy troupe, the first of its kind in Sierra Leone. "We all had the same goal, so we quit our jobs," Nat-George says. The five called themselves The Professionals.Watch: The Scenes of Lord Bongo and the Professionals at the Peak of Their Fame in Sierra Leone
They'd find a busy bar full of drinkers, muscle their way into the middle of the crowd and begin an improvised bit, with no drum roll or introduction, playing for tips. "When we just started things were very hard," Edwin remembers. Bongo was "very ambitious," he says, but easygoing through their early struggles. From the beginning, Nat-George says the group helped give Bongo's life the sort of focus and direction it had been missing. "Being part of The Professionals was a big change for him," he says.
As a traveling singer and conga drummer, Edwin had earlier picked up the nuances of the cocktail of cultures in Sierra Leone, both tribal and Western, and when he founded The Professionals, he says he mined that experience for comedy. Each of the characters they created played off of cultural stereotypes; Lord Bongo was a stodgy Creole elder, whose aspirations to the refined pleasantries of the colonial British undermined his attempts to function in a tribal society. Nat-George took the role of Dandogo, Bongo's nephew or son, a dunce with a limp and a twisted face—"you look like somebody who's suffered from a stroke," he explains—who always found a way to say the wrong thing at the wrong time. "Now people mimic Bongo in Sierra Leone," Nat-George says. "[But] there will never be another Dandogo."
In one old photograph from their routine, Dandogo stands slumped to one side, barefoot with his pants rolled up to his knees; Bongo, wearing a green button-down shirt and a pink bucket hat, is smoking a big white pipe and has his fighting dukes up, grabbing the shorter, chubbier Dandogo by the shirt. Their faces are painted with white mustaches and beards.
After four months of doing their act in bars, The Professionals made good on their name. At a Freetown bar called Sonny Mark, they performed in front of the director of the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service, the country's only radio station. The man liked The Professionals' act and suggested they come to his office the next day.
Their salaries from the government-run station weren't much, but the advertisers on their show paid them as well, giving them an income Nat-George says was "better than a member of parliament." In a land where radio was king, their twice-a-week show was the biggest thing on the country's only radio station.
"[Bongo] came at the right time, when the economy was so bad around the country," Sesay recalls. Along with Dandogo, he says Bongo was the most popular among the group; his befuddled rich-guy act became a phenomenon around the country. To this day, Sesay says, it's a regular joke in Sierra Leone to knock on a door and announce your presence by declaring, grandly, that Lord Bongo has arrived.
They gave live performances at schools and rich folks' parties, performing for visiting dignitaries like Colin Powell and Sierra Leone's president, Joseph Momoh.
Momoh had taken power in 1985, promising a change from the authoritarian rule of his predecessor, Siaka Stevens. Both were members of the All People's Congress, which was, at the time, the only party in the country. Profits from the lucrative diamond trade that had once filled the national coffers were instead funneled to high-ranking officials in the Momoh government. This corruption led to a coup attempt in 1987, which Momoh put down by executing six of the plotters, including his vice president.