ST. HELENA ISLAND - When Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling learned that a group of soccer players maimed in Sierra Leone's recent civil war was planning to visit here, he did more than write a welcome letter.
Instead, Keyserling helped organize an event Thursday at Penn Center that reinforced the cultural ties between the West African nation and the Gullah community of South Carolina's Lowcountry.
"There are a lot of ways to keep the culture alive," Keyserling said. "There's a real movement not to freeze Gullah in slavery."
Six members of the Single-Leg Amputee Soccer Association performed two songs and dances for an appreciate audience - a foretaste of their performance Saturday afternoon at Beaufort's 28th Annual Original Gullah Festival.
Emory Campbell, Penn Center's director emeritus, talked about how his eyes were opened to the Lowcountry's extensive African influences following his 1987 visit to Sierra Leone.
Campbell noted how slaves from that west African region were valued in the Carolina colony for their rice growing skills.
"That's why we like rice," Campbell said. "Every time we have the opportunity to reconnect, we should do so."
Marlena Smalls of the Hallelujah Singers talked about the musical influences of Africa that help define America's music today.
Albert Mustaphah, one of the association members, also talked about the significant connections between Sierra Leone and South Carolina, such as the ties between wealthy colonist Henry Laurens and Richard Oswald, a main partner in Bunce Island, a major slave trading operation on West Africa's coast.
He presented Penn Center with a few stalks of rice harvested in Sierra Leone, as well as a basket and other implements from the rice culture there.
Another association member, Mambu Jabaty, recalled how he lost most of his relatives in the war, which began when he was 15 years old.
After the war ended in 2002, Jabaty said he was traumatized and very angry. But eventually, he joined with other others who were maimed to play soccer and start a new organization that would support them and help them put the war's effects behind them.
"All of us were brutalized during the war," he said, "but we have overcome that. That's why you see us today singing, dancing, rejoicing. We have overcome that."
Shirley Kablan of New York's Empowered Living Initiative is serving as the players' guide during their two-week visit to the United States.
The group, which has a total of 350 members who were brutally attacked during the war, aims to promote world peace through soccer and to highlight the plight of 1 billion blind, deaf and otherwise disabled people on earth, 80 percent of whom live in developing countries like Sierra Leone.
"We let people know that there are so many people worldwide who do not have handicapped access," she said. "It's like a struggle every day to do normal activities."
To build strength, members of the association practice soccer without crutches, but they use them during games for balance. Some members showed off flashes of their athletic prowess, skills forged from having to adjust to a new life.
Campbell said the group's injuries are the result of Sierra Leone's 10-year civil war, but theirs is a story of perseverance, not pity.
"They knock you down," he said, "but as a human being, it's your nature to get back up and live."
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.