2019, the year of return for descendants of former African slaves

President Kwame Nkrumah speaking at the White House on March 8, 1961


In a recently released music video, Fuse ODG and Damian Marley (Bob Marley’s youngest son) explore the themes of slavery, colonialism, black pride and modern day police brutality.

“Bra Fie” (which translates from the Ghanaian Akan language as “Come Home”) is an Afrobeats tune that harks back to the pan-Africanist themes of some of the older Marley’s anthemic hits. But it could also be a soundtrack for a potential wave of “homecoming” to Ghana for people of African descent.

August 2019 will mark 400 years since the anchoring of an English ship in Jamestown, Virginia (USA), carrying a small group of enslaved Africans. While African slaves had been in other parts of the Americas (including the United States) before 1619, that year is widely regarded as the commencement of the African slave trade to North America.

In all, the Transatlantic slave trade from Africa to the Americas lasted four centuries (1444-1888) and involved nearly all the European powers.

When Brazil became the last country to abolish the slave trade in 1888, an estimated 17 million African men, women and teenagers had been seized from the continent and transported to plantations across the Americas. In fact 17 million is a conservative figure that UNESCO says excludes the many who died on the way and were thrown into the high seas. Many of the enslaved Africans came from West Africa, and presentday Ghana was a significant place of origin. To mark the landmark anniversary, Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo, in October, declared 2019 as “The Year of Return”. He said Ghana would launch a series of programmes to encourage people of African ancestry to make the “birthright journey home for the global African family”.

The idea of a homecoming of “our brothers and sisters” – the descendants of those who were taken away – is one that Ghana has long fancied and championed, the President said.

Right from the founding of modern Ghana, its early leaders, led by the first president, Kwame Nkrumah, preached a pan-Africanism that transcended the shores of continental Africa. As a student in the 1930s America, Nkrumah saw at first hand the racism black Americans endured, and it radicalised his consciousness about Africanness and blackness. In some ways, it was a driving force for him to return home in 1947 and eventually become the lead architect of Ghana’s independence – the first sub-Saharan African country to break free from European colonialism.The civil rights movement in the United States was also at its height and many black American leaders at the time felt a connection to this new black African country that had gained self-determination in a largely peaceful manner.

Leading civil rights leaders including Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King, Ralph Bunche (the first African-American to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950), and Mordecai Johnson (the first African-American president of Howard University) attended Ghana’s Independence Day celebration on 6 March 1957.

Nkrumah and Ghana made a huge impression on Martin Luther King, which later inspired one of his famous sermons, “Birth of a Nation”, upon his return to the US.

Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali also made high profile visits to Ghana years later. The black star on the national flag is inspired by the Black Star Line shipping company founded by the pan-Africanist orator Marcus Garvey, which had the grand ambition of facilitating the return of African-Americans to the motherland.

Accra has also been home to black American thinkers and exiles such as Maya Angelou (for three years along with her son Guy), Sylvia Boone (the first tenured black woman professor at Yale University), Julian Mayfield, W.E.B Du Bois, and George Padmore, all of whom lived and worked in Ghana. Du Bois and Padmore are buried in Accra and their homes are now public libraries.But even before this period, Accra had long been home to the Tabon people, a group of African slaves in Brazil who returned after a popular slave rebellion. The Tabons arrived in Accra in the 1820s and 1830s and their descendants have fully assimilated into Ghanaian social and political life.

Black Mecca
Positioning Ghana as the home of global Africa and the place for a spiritual journey of self-discovery has been an idea promoted by governments since Nkrumah. The country has been host to the biennale PANAFEST/Emancipation Day celebration since 1992, and in 2001 the Right of Abode law was passed, giving anybody of African ancestry, the right to stay in Ghana indefinitely. On the occasion of Ghana’s 50th independence anniversary in 2007, the government also launched a “Joseph Project” to encourage the descendants of enslaved Africans to return.

In December 2016, 34 “returnees” became Ghanaian citizens in a naturalisation ceremony attended by the then President John Mahama. “I have only restored to you what rightfully belongs to you and was painfully taken away,” President Mahama said after handing out the naturalisation certificates. Dr Obádélé Kambon was one of the 34 and has lived in Ghana for 10 years. He first visited Ghana in 1998 with his mother, Dr Mawiyah Kambon who first came to Ghana in 1972 after adopting the Akan traditional spiritual system.

“Back in the 1960s, many of us came to understand that we are not white people so why should we have white names?,” says Dr Obádélé Kambon. “My parents had that level of consciousness before my birth so they decided to give me the name bádélé which translates from Yoruba as ‘the king arrives [or returns] home,’” he says.

After some years teaching in tertiary institutions in Chicago, bádélé moved to Ghana in 2008 and started his doctoral studies in linguisticism in 2009 at the University of Ghana, where he now teaches at its Institute of African Studies. He is a near native speaker of Akan (the main language of Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire) and Yoruba (Nigeria and Benin). He is also proficient in Wolof (Senegal and Gambia) and has some level of competency in Kiswahili (East Africa) and Kikôngo (Angola, DRCongo and Congo-Brazzaville).

Kambon, 39, puts Ghana’s hegemony as the home of black people down to better packaging compared to some of its neighbours. Just like the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, Ghana has the infrastructure to back its narrative – by way of the well preserved European slave forts and castles on the coast, where captured women and men were loaded onto ships, never to return home. The visibility of the castles have increased following recent high profile, emotional visits by the Obamas, CNN’s Don Lemon and Colin Kaepernick.

“Freedom from fear”
While this is not the first time Ghana is seeking to encourage a return, the rising popularity of ancestry DNA tests coinciding with police brutality and the reawakening of white nationalism in the USA have rekindled a desire by some AfricanAmericans to know more about their roots.

Kambon feels there are advantages to moving to Ghana, telling the story of a friend who had also moved to Ghana. “He said ‘this is what it must feel like to be white in America’. You are able to walk around freely, nobody is going to do something to you just because you are black because everybody around you is black. In the US, the police come around you and your heart skips a beat. Here, there is a level of freedom from fear that can’t be purchased.”

The official policy of welcoming returnees has been backed largely by local attitudes. While there is an awareness of the otherness of returnees, Kambon says many ordinary Ghanaians see him as one of them. His ability to speak a local language and his adherence to the Akan traditional spiritual system has particularly endeared him to local chiefs.

Kambon, just like the famous returnee Rita Marley (wife of the late Bob Marley) has even been enstooled as a chief in eastern Ghana where he bears the title “ruler of the rearguard”. – Quartz