By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"In those days, we were the only government opposition," Edwin says. "When you do that, it's a crime. For us, we did it in comedy." While he and Nat-George relished the chance to stir up trouble, Edwin says Bongo just wasn't into politics. "We dragged him into it, and not very much." The troupe avoided calling out any politician by name, but told parables and referenced current events for "social-political commentary," Nat-George says. At the peak of official corruption, as Sierra Leone's education and health systems were falling apart, The Professionals played lavish parties and saw how the other half lived. "When you're with them, you see the riches we've got in our country, how they're manipulating them for themselves," he says.
Anger at the government sparked a rural rebellion, bankrolled by the Liberian president and war criminal Charles Taylor. In April 1992, with the country's institutions crumbling and the rebellion gaining strength, a handful of army officers forced President Momoh into exile, installing a 25-year-old army captain named Valentine Strasser to run the country.
"Within our plays somebody would complain about not having money, and the government folks would build a huge house," Nat-George says. "It's no wonder the military took over." Even after the successful coup, the military leaders faced a monumental challenge trying to correct the country's course—so, as Nat-George recalls, "It was a shock when the first thing they thought about...was to invite us [to perform]."
Nat-George says one of the military leaders told him, "'We need you to explain to the people in your shows why we did this.'" Soon enough, though, their shows took on a familiar tone lampooning the privileges claimed by those in power. When one of the top military leaders had traffic blocked off so he could visit a girlfriend, the rest of the country heard about it from The Professionals. In another skit, a plane caught in a steep descent swaps pilots halfway down, and keeps falling, taking all of its passengers—the people of Sierra Leone—down with it.
Nat-George says the troupe was summoned to the State House to explain themselves, but their celebrity saved them from being punished. Instead leaders decided to put the group's talents to use: "The government asked us if we could go up-country in the war zone to entertain the soldiers," Nat-George says. "We couldn't say no," Edwin remembers. "It was everything by force."
From the relative calm of Freetown, they traveled with government troops into the thick rainforest to the east, where the rebel armies of the Revolutionary United Front were using mass killings and amputations to create chaos. Into that lawless rainforest, conscripted into propaganda service, marched mild-mannered Bongo. "He was scared," Nat-George says. "Let me tell you something about Godfrey, that's why it's hard to believe he killed somebody. Godfrey could not handle guns around him. He'd keep close by me whenever we went on those trips."
"The rebels knew us by name, because we were on the radio," Nat-George adds. "They would be up on top of a tree and they'd be shouting, 'You wait till we take power, we'll come get you.'" Back in Freetown, Edwin says he'd been threatened by a lieutenant with the Sierra Leonean army too, that he was afraid to leave his house for days. Boxed in between two warring factions, "We were very much scared for our lives," Edwin says.
By September 1992, the rebel army was advancing swiftly toward Freetown. These were the early years of the RUF's decade-long civil war, one that only kept getting more intense, more grotesque. As many as 50,000 Sierra Leoneans were killed, but many more were mutilated by rebel armies filled with child soldiers that roamed the country spreading a reputation for torture and amputations. It was the beginning of a diaspora that scattered a third of the country's population into refugee camps and foreign cities.
That same September, a Freetown singing group was heading to the United States to perform for a gathering of slave descendants in North Carolina. Nat-George knew it was time to leave. "I saw that as an opportunity," Nat-George says. "We never discussed it. It was just an impromptu thing."
As Edwin recalls, it all happened very fast, over four or five days. "I didn't even make any arrangements for our kids," he says. Bongo's girlfriend had just given birth to a son, Godfrey Jr., and while Bongo was "broken up" to leave him behind, says Edwin, they were all in the same situation. Edwin had three children at the time; Nat-George left behind a five-year-old daughter he hasn't seen since. "We didn't intend to stay [in the U.S] for too long. We will be going back and forth," Nat-George recalls thinking. "We had big plans. They were dreams, actually."
On the plane across the Atlantic, the troupe cemented their plans for the future—performances for local Sierra Leonean groups, recordings they'd sell back home, completing a half-finished video they'd brought along. Looking back, Nat-George says they just weren't prepared for the life that came next, finding themselves on a vast new stage before an audience that couldn't hope to get a joke about tribal drama between the Mende and the Limba. "This is a different world. I looked at it in that light—our comedy is different from comedy over here."