What began as a personal trip for family and friends to celebrate her milestone 50th birthday in Africa, turned into an opportunity to share a profound moment of healing and joy for Gabrielle Union. Her two-part BET special Gabrielle Union: My Journey to 50—airing June 15, 2023—takes viewers to 3 African countries—Ghana, Namibia, and South Africa—as she documents her epic countdown to half a century of living.

With her husband Dwyane Wade, her daughter Kaavia, her mother Theresa Union and other close family members in tow—not to mention her celebrity friends such as Angie Martinez and Essence Atkins—Union says that My Journey to 50 also serves as both a reckoning and a healing.  

Gabrielle Union with daughter Kaavia and husband Dwyane Wade in Ghana. Image: courtesy of BET+.

“I was always going to film it because my mom and daughter were going, and I knew that we were going to have some important breakthroughs. I wanted to be able to document three different generations of our family in Ghana, in South Africa and Namibia,” explains The Perfect Find star. “I just wanted to see that just for ourselves and share with our family.” 

That game plan changed, however, when a lot of unexpected yeses rolled in. “I just didn't think people would be able to really come and just leave their families or work,” admits Union. “The more people that started to RSVP, I [felt] there were a lot more stories than just my personal family and [that] it could be beneficial to perhaps document it. I floated it by my guy [Oscars and BET Awards producer] Jesse Collins and Jesse was like ‘let's make this something that's bigger than you and bigger than this moment.’” 

Celebrating her 50th in Africa was largely led by a personal desire to “decenter my trauma,” shares the Bring It On star and fierce LGBTQ+ champion who has visited the Mother Continent several times throughout her life. But My Journey to 50 is not just a search for self only. As Union confronts the hold being raped as a teen has had on her for 30 years, she also makes other connections, with history, legacy, global fellowship as well as joy and love. It’s one that resonates beyond just her. As a working mother who suffers "mommy guilt," the actress also relishes sharing this experience with her daughter.  

“The locations came about through personal interest—things I saw on social media that other folks that I knew had gone, places strangers had gone on,” shares Union. For instance, her good friend Taiye Samuel led her to Ghana, where she and her crew linked with Diallo Sumbry who was pivotal in Ghana’s epic "Year of Return" campaign.    

“I knew I wanted to leave there different. I knew that the more I knew about self and my superhero origin story—and I believe everyone's origin story starts in Africa, the birthplace of civilization—I would have a better idea of my path of life for the next 50 or 60 years,” continues Union. 

Part one of the special explores the traumatic history and lingering impact of the TransAtlantic slave trade, primarily at Assin Manso River and Salaga Slave Market in Ghana, with a compassion for ancestral Africans who were kidnapped and enslaved that is rarely captured. They even spend time at the Memorial Wall of Return. Fullness, not brokenness, is the emphasis. A safari at Etosha National Park in Namibia with a view from Kaavia’s eyes shows off the wildlife for which Africa is widely known, while also zoning in on who rules what on this side of the world. It also offers an introduction to the Himba people, who still operate traditionally but, as Union shows, face challenges that resonate now.  

Queen Sono star and native South African Pearl Thusi, who appears in the special, turned Union on to Soweto-born Chef Wandile Mabaso. The chef's global pedigree includes working under 21-time Michelin chef Alain Ducasse in Paris, and his own five-star establishment Les Créatifs in Johannesburg. Union and her crew also got a personal tour of Nelson and Winnie Mandela’s Soweto home with their granddaughter, Swati Mandela. Other South African highlights include turning up at the popular and opulent Soweto club Konka and hanging in Cape Town at the Klein Goederust winery, which the Siguqa family acquired in 2019, making it Black-owned for the first time since it started in 1905. The latter is huge because, although South Africa is 80 percent Black, it is far from being significantly Black-controlled, especially in their globally-renowned wine industry. 

For her actual 50th birthday, Union ventured to Zanzibar, Tanzania. After relaxing on a beautiful private island, the main celebration was held at the luxurious Melía Zanzibar which boasts stunning views and a pristine sandy beach. It’s a major departure from the Africa we are so often shown, which is one of the main reasons the Being Mary Jane star is so excited to share this journey. Her hope is that more people will also be open to African destinations. 

“I think when people, certainly folks in America, have any idea about any country outside of America that’s not Europe, we have not been getting accurate information,” she says. So much so that Union notes that many people are surprised by places like Tanzania, which she has posted on Instagram. “If we still have this level of surprise, I need to keep talking about it,” she explains.  

Gabrielle Union addresses friends and family during her 50th birthday dinner in Tanzania. Image: courtesy of BET+.

In the end, Union hopes My Journey to 50 will inspire others “to find their own connections” and strongly believes “the more we share with each other, the smaller the world gets.” At one point in the special, she says, “There is no one way to exist as a Black person in this world.” And that is exactly what this “little Black girl from North Omaha, Nebraska” shows.  

Ronda Racha Penrice is the author of Black American History For Dummies and editor of Cracking The Wire During Black Lives Matter.