Marije Maliepaard – African Americans turning home in Ghana

African-Americans returning home

The Ghanaian ethnic group of Akan is (among other aspects) known for their Adinkra symbols. Symbols that represent concepts and are often connected to proverbs. They are used in African fabrics, clothes and pottery and nowadays also in logo’s, advertisements and wall paintings. One of their symbols of a bird stretching back to get an egg, named Sankofa, has become an important representation for Africans in the diaspora. The combination of the symbol and the associated proverb ‘se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi’ which translates to ‘it is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten’ embodies precisely what returned African-Americans feel: A desire to return home, to the soil of where their ancestors were taken from.

sankofa

My interest in return migration led me to African-Americans who migrate to Ghana. They themselves have never physically lived in Ghana or any other country in Africa but nonetheless they do have the feeling they belong in Africa, rather than in the United States. Ghana is a popular country for returnees because it is a relatively stable country, politically and economically, and most enslaved Africans’ last step on African ground was at one of the slave castles located along the coast of what is now called Ghana (before 1957 called Gold Coast). The spiritual connectedness to this place is very significant, I learned throughout the fieldwork.

I planned on living in a couple of different African-American communities throughout Ghana. I started off in Accra because I was in contact with a NGO that is committed to the reintegration of African-Americans in Ghanaian society on different levels, to reintegrate spiritually, economically, culturally and socially. Their office is thoughtfully located at the W.E.B Du Bois centre, the former house of African-American, Pan-Africanist, scholar and returnee Du Bois. The first time I went to the centre there was nobody at the office so I visited Du Bois’ former house that was turned into a museum after he died in the 1963. There I learned from a flyer that the whole month of February was Black History Month, organized by the African-Americans in Accra. So I decided to stay in Accra for most of the time.

During Black History Month, there were a lot of different and very interesting activities that would teach me about my subject and that would give me an opportunity to meet people. Panel discussions on African lives outside Africa, politics, a black history quiz, the famous play ‘The Raisin of the Sun’ were among the activities I attended. Throughout these observations, casual conversations and formal interviews I learned belonging is for most of them the main driver to return. One of the existential factors in the bigger theme of Human Security. Feeling you belong somewhere and being in that place gives people a certain feeling of safety and security. This sense of belonging in Africa (Ghana was more like a means to an end) was fueled by a couple of different aspects. Most returnees faced severe situations of racism, discrimination and exclusion in their country of birth – The United States in this case. Them not belonging to the majority in the U.S. and getting a different treatment than white Americans made them feel they belonged somewhere else. Certainly also spirituality is of great importance. I noticed during prayers, the pouring of libations, activities and during almost every conversation that ancestors are very important in my informants’ lives. The fact that their ancestors once belonged to the African continent and were forcefully taken from their homes and families by voracious Europeans and brought to greedy Americans is vital in this. The memories of the past have been passed down from generation to generation (for some, having enslaved family members is only two generations away) and this is for most the reason for feeling secure in the idea of belonging there, instead of in the U.S. where it is difficult for them to live as a black person.

elmina

This connection to their ancestors is by many strongly spiritually felt. An example of where this feeling of belonging is intensely felt by many of the African-American visitors is at the slave castles. The coastal towns of Cape Coast en Elmina have two of the biggest slave castles. They are turned into a tourist attraction in order to show this part of history of Ghana and also make Ghana worthwhile for a visit. Horrible things happened there so I knew beforehand that this visit would be heavy but very interesting. It was certainly very interesting but I have to admit, I didn’t actually feel that much. I couldn’t get to the core of my thoughts, or feel a tiny bit of what enslaved people should have felt there. I did feel extremely ashamed to be a Dutch person walking there (to the point that I almost didn’t want to go at all), but I thought I would feel the horror, that the whole atmosphere would feel like horror, but none of that was true, for me. For my informants, however, the experience at the castle was undeniably intense and for many the answer to their questions of belonging in the U.S. The connectedness to their ancestors they felt at the castle was very real. The fear their ancestors must have felt, the tears they shed, the blood that flowed, was felt deep down their hearts, and sometimes also physically, resulting in heavy tears, getting sick or fainting. The fact that they were able to do what their ancestors have always hoped for, for their children to be able to get back to Africa makes them feel safe and secure. And the strong connectedness they feel shows them they belong in Africa, no matter what.

African-Americans returning to Ghana: A photo blog

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My Master’s research is about African-Americans who return to Ghana after their ancestors got enslaved and brought to the Americas during the slave trade. My research group themselves have not physically lived in Africa before but they do have the feeling they return. A famous African-American and Pan-Africanist who also returned was W.E.B. Du Bois. He was one of the founders of the American civil rights organization for ‘colored’ people, NAACP. Eventually, he settled in Accra, Ghana, but passed away three years later. He is buried next to his former house, which is now turned into a museum.

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The African-American Association Ghana (AAAG) that is located on the same compound as the W.E.B. Du Bois museum and is an NGO that helps the cultural, social, spiritual and economic reintegration of African-Americans returning to Ghana. They have monthly meetings and had a great range of activities throughout the month of February, in honor of Black History Month. This picture shows the preparations for the month’s launch. The stage was nicely decorated with African fabrics and artifacts.

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During the activities of the Black History Month activities but also during many other conversations the slave trade was mentioned. Ghana, or Gold Coast as it was called at that time, has two of the biggest forts that were used to keep enslaved people that were going to be shipped to the ‘New World’. These forts are located about four hours from Accra in the towns of Cape Coast and Elmina. They are open for people who would like to learn more about this part of history. Especially many African-Americans visit one of the castles and often express to feel very connected to their ancestors and sometimes even feel the horror of what happened in the dungeons.

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An important element that can be seen at the castle in Cape Coast is the ‘door of no return’. They gave this name after the slave trade was abolished but when European ships docked close to the castle, the slaves would go through this door and be brought to the ships. This picture is taken just outside ‘the door of no return’ (when the guide kept emphasizing that we would definitely return). This part of the beach is full of fishing boats with flags from different countries. The black one in the front is a pirate flag.

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Between Elmina and Cape Coast there is a guest house that is founded by an African-American. Wall paintings are very common in Ghana and I saw this one right next to the guest house. The text says: ‘If you play only the white notes on a piano you get only sharps; if only black key you get flat; but if you play the two together you get harmony and beautiful music’. The bird that is displayed behind the face is one of the Adinkra symbols of the ethnic group Akan. The symbol is called Sankofa and means: ‘go back and get it’. This has become an important symbol for the African-American community and other Africans from the Diaspora.

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The tradition of wall paintings can also be seen at the wall of the AAAG office. The two faces that are painted here are W.E.B. Du Bois (left) and Kwame Nkrumah. Nkrumah was a Pan-Africanist and played a big role in the independence of the Gold Coast in 1957. He was the first president and changed the name to Ghana. Nkrumah encouraged Africans from the Diaspora to come back and resettle in Ghana. Obviously, the two are important figures in the context of African-Americans returnees.

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Throughout my fieldwork period I stayed in the capital city of Accra. Mostly because the AAAG is located there and the activities of Black History Month took place in Accra. Accra is a lively city with lots of traffic, chop bars – where you can get street food and busy markets. The biggest market is Makola market and spans a couple of blocks in the middle of the city. You can get anything you need. No supermarkets needed!

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