In Ghana, the smiles that welcome visitors beam as brightly as the West African sun. Stepping onto the crowded streets, strangers greeted me with “Akwaaba! Welcome home!” If this reads like the beginning of a real-life Africa dream come true, that’s because, essentially, it is. I had yearned to touch down into the nurturing soil of the Motherland for decades. Over the years, each African history book, each carefully wrapped gelé, each bowl of jollof, had inched me closer to this point and here I was, on the continent that birthed my ancestors. This trip for me, as it likely will be for other African-Americans who will set out for the country in 2019, was a deeply personal one.
I actually started my dream journey in Washington, D.C.—and there’s no place more appropriate than “Chocolate City” to kick off a sojourn to Africa. The Adinkra Group, an African cultural resource company that organizes Birthright Journeys to Africa for people of African descent, holds an annual drum and dance concert called “Birthright” in D.C. Witnessing the power of African music and dance tradition migrated to America right before I would see the original movements in Africa filled me with anticipation. By the time I stepped onto the South African Airlines flight to Accra, I was delirious with excitement. The 10-hour trip seemed to zip by; I watched one Nollywood movie, dozed for a few hours and woke up in Ghana’s capital city.
Walking out of Kotoka International Airport, the atmosphere seemed thick with history. Tro-tros, the colorful minibuses used by much of the populace, sped along while locals clad in hoodies or the vivid patterns of Ankara cloth strolled by. I actually bent down and took a photo of my feet touching African earth for the first time. “Akwaaba” translates to “welcome” in the local Twi dialect, and it is the constant phrase I would hear everywhere in Ghana. Women wrapped in brightly colored fabric, street vendors, schoolchildren, businesspeople, everyone in Ghana seemed eager to acknowledge my presence in their country, and I was taken aback by the warmth and pride that colored each “akwaaba” I heard.
As the first sub-Saharan African nation to achieve independence from a European colonizer, Ghana has represented African power and pride since its founding in 1957. Kwame Nkrumah, its first president, attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, an HBCU. He was a revolutionary who promoted Pan Africanism, which calls for all people of African descent to unify and support the African continent. So it seems fitting that Ghana has launched the “Year of Return, Ghana 2019” to commemorate 400 years since the first documented enslaved Africans left the continent on a Portuguese slave ship and landed in Jamestown, Virginia. A celebration of Africans in the diaspora, the festival welcomes descendants with a series of events, including the Back 2 Africa Festival (Feb. 25–March 7, 2019), Emancipation Day (Aug. 1, 2019) and the Right of Return (Dec. 27–29, 2019), which offers a streamlined citizenship process for Africans in the diaspora. Ghana acts as the official gateway to Africa and I rushed right through that open door.
Filled with palaces, forts, ancestral traditions, symbols and art forms, Ghana’s cultural heritage is vast. My first introduction was at the historic grand durbar that marked the 75th anniversary of Okyenhene Nana Ofori Atta I in Kumasi. A grand durbar is the name of the celebration that takes place when traditional rulers and high officials come together for various occasions. I stood in a packed crowd of locals wearing handwoven kente cloth and watched a procession of 100 royals and their courts, complete with golden chairs, staffs and embroidered umbrellas. As an African-American who always heard stories of African kings and queens, it was an unforgettable spectacle.
As the United States’ first African-American magazine with a national circulation, EBONY holds a special place in Ghana. Our delegation representing EBONY was welcomed to the Jubilee House, the official residence of President Nana Akufo-Addo. “All of us grew up reading EBONY even though it was not easy for us to get it,” the leader recalled.
At the Manhyia Palace Museum in Kumasi, I received an up-close view of African royal life. The palace is the official seat of the Asantehene, Otumfuo Osei Tutu II, ruler of the Asante people. Antique palanquins, drums, medals and golden artifacts fill the museum, and peacocks strut all over the grounds. Nearby, the village of Ntonso is famous for hand-stamped Adinkra cloth. Reserved for funerals and special occasions, Adinkra cloth features symbols that represent specific Asante proverbs. Our guide, Peter, demonstrated how dye for printing is made by pounding tree bark into a dark liquid. Next, I watched the complex art of kente weaving in the village of Adanwomase. These famous patterned cloths were traditionally reserved only for royalty. Kente comes as single-, double- or triple-woven pieces, and each color and pattern has a name and meaning. A visual representation of history, kente is a powerful symbol of Ghanaian culture and pride.
Thanks to the Ghana Tourism Authority, I was introduced to the chiefs and traditional rulers of every town we visited. It is a sign of respect to greet the chief, and I learned a list of protocols, including shaking with the right hand, slightly bowing, greeting from right to left and never crossing your legs. It’s also customary to offer a small gift, typically schnapps, which is used to pour libations for the ancestors. Entering a council of chiefs and elders can be intimidating but inevitable smiles and “akwaaba” eased my nerves. In Elmina, I was greeted with traditional dancers and singers. In Cape Coast, Chief Osabarima Kwesi Atta II, draped in green kente, sent a message to African-Americans:
“It is not a belief, it is a fact that you are a part of us. Somehow, we got divided along the way. Now you are home. Next year, many of our brothers and sisters will find their way back here, where they rightfully belong. Stay with us, learn the customs that you have been deprived of. Bring your souls back home.”
A few minutes from the chief’s palace looms the Cape Coast Fort, the place that began the separation of the souls of the diaspora. A crumbling white structure that stretches all along the coastline, the fort housed thousands of enslaved Africans before they were shipped off to North and South America. It retains an eerie ambiance. I tried to emotionally prepare myself for the tour of the dungeons, but I don’t think there’s really a way to prevent the despair and sadness I felt.
I was comforted by a contingent from the Diaspora Africa Forum, which escorted us through the grueling experience. Moving down into the dark, damp dungeons, I cried and cried. There were no windows, no room for enough air to flow with hundreds of bodies crammed into the spaces. I knew the history of the terrors of the Transatlantic slave trade, but that was no match for standing in the chamber where it began. Retracing the footsteps of the captured, we moved from the dungeons, the courtyard and through the infamous Door of No Return. High waves from the Atlantic Ocean splashed along the shore in front of the door. I gazed out at the water that once held the ships that transported my ancestors away from their homes. I still felt sad, but I also felt triumphant, because I had returned. My ancestors know that I have not forgotten them.
On the other side of the Door of No Return is the Door of Return for members of the diaspora who make the journey back to Africa. In front of this sacred entrance, libations were poured, and Gina Paige, co-founder of African Ancestry, presented me with my DNA results. African Ancestry is the only African-American-owned DNA company, and it boasts the largest database of African lineages in the world. I had taken the cheek swab test for the maternal side of my lineage before my trip. With tears falling, Paige stood in front of the Cape Coast fort and explained that my DNA linked my roots to Senegal and the Mandinka people, who are famous for the griot tradition of preserving history through music and storytelling. As a writer, it was as if the ancestors were sending me a nod of confirmation. I walked through the Door of Return with a sense of reverence and purpose.
Going back to Nkrumah’s embrace of Pan Africanism and support of the Civil Rights Movement, Ghana boasts a long connection to African-Americans. The Ghanaian president invited American civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois to Ghana in 1961 to create an encyclopedia of Africana. Du Bois became a Ghanaian citizen, and his home is now the W.E.B. DuBois Centre, which also houses his mausoleum. The center also serves as the headquarters for the African American Association of Ghana. The group, founded in 1981, supports African-Americans interested in moving to and reintegrating into Ghanaian society. It hosted a welcome lunch and showcased all its members and how they represented the diaspora in Ghana.
There was Blanche from Chicago, who runs the most popular bakery in Ghana. Sherrie from New York, who works in sanitation and renewable energy. Willie, a realtor from D.C.; and John from Connecticut, a hip-hop artist and producer of the Ghana-living YouTube series Native Borne. The members are entrepreneurs and adventurers who left the U.S. for new lives in Ghana. “You can live very well here if you plan well,” said Earna Terefekassa, a retired educator who bought land in Ghana 18 years ago, built a house and made the move in 2000. “For $8,000, I bought an acre of land on the Atlantic Ocean,” she added.
The Panafest organization works to connect the diaspora with Ghana; the biannual festival focuses on the arts as a vehicle to examine suppressed issues surrounding slavery for Africans in the diaspora and on the continent. For 2019, the theme is “Looking Beyond 400 Years: Across Continents to the Future.” The fest, set for July 24–Aug. 2, will feature pilgrimages, atonement ceremonies, lectures and performances.
CONNECTING THE PAST AND PRESENT
History forms a significant part of Ghanaian culture, but there are also many contemporary attractions. Daniel Sarfo Ayisi of Sunseekers Tours offered insight into Ghanaian culture and traditions throughout the journey. On the busy streets of Accra, I spotted many women balancing fruit and pots in front of sparkling shopping malls. Cafés and lounges are everywhere, including the chic Badu Lounge, named for songstress Erykah, that serves up live music and small bites, such as calamari and veggie burgers. There’s also Toro Toro, a tapas bar with live salsa dancing outside on Thursdays, and the Gold Coast Restaurant, a sprawling diner featuring classic Ghanaian cuisine, including kelewele and fisherman’s soup alongside pizza and grilled fish. And cue up the karaoke machine for a fun mix of African and African-American favorites.
On Oxford Street, artists and vendors line the sidewalk, selling various items including tie-dyed shirts and Converse sneakers made with multicolored African fabric. “Everything you can get in a big American city you can get here,” insisted Muhammida El Muhajir, a New Yorker who opened a media company in Accra.
Actually, I think African-Americans can get more in Ghana than they can get in the U.S. There’s a palpable connection to the deep paths of African history and culture that birthed everyone in the diaspora. In Ghana, I felt as if many of my experiences were slightly familiar, as though my cells were recognizing the history that was ripped from us. Those slave dungeons may have contained my ancestors but their free spirits live on.
“Ghana has 64 dungeons on the coast. We are the only country on the west coast that has so many. Your genes are so strong that you survived 400 years of this [slavery]. The African spirit is strong; we survived for a purpose,” declared the Hon. Catherine Abelama Afeku, minister of tourism, art and culture. “This is the pilgrimage, the mecca of the African-American diaspora [and] we want you to come home. Obama made it, you can, too. Yes, you can!”
Journalist, educator and world traveler Rosalind Cummings-Yeates’ work can be found in publications including TraveLife magazine, Midwest Living, Orbitz and USA Today Go Escape magazine. Follow her @farsightedgirl on Twitter and Instagram.
Photos by Tammy B