400 years ago, in late August 1619, the first Africans captured into slavery touched down the shores of Point Comfort, Virginia in 1619. Numbering over 20, these Africans were bartered for food before being sold by English traders into slavery. For the next four centuries, West Africa had to endure the cruel yet horrid fate of seeing its sons and daughters―an estimated 12 million of them―captured, stolen, chained and shipped into slavery.
Indeed, as they walked through the “Door of No Return” in shackled necks, hands and legs, and as they braced the unfriendly elements to traverse the raging waves of the Atlantic into the unknown world, they carried with them the pride and spirit of unborn progenies and yearned of all things to return to the cultivable soils of the motherland Africa. On the plantations of North America, they sang the songs of freedom and love for the motherland, waiting to return. But the year of return never came to them. Its essence, though, was never lost on their descendants.
It’s been 400 years since those Africans landed in Virginia. And in commemoration of that event, the Ghanaian President Nana Addo Dankwa Akuffo Addo officially launched, in September 2018, the Year of Return to “celebrate the cumulative resilience of all the victims of the transatlantic slave trade.” The initiative encouraged Africans in the diaspora to retrace their African ancestry, galvanized and united them with their brothers and sisters in Africa. For many a black American or Diasporan, this call resonated strongly; it reechoed the silent wishes of their ancestors. Amidst mounting identity crisis and widening racial schisms, the clarion call to return to Africa could not have come at a better time.
It appears quite plausible that Ghana leads the efforts in bringing back the descendants of these Africans who had to endure the cruel, blinding fate of leaving their homes for life in the New World. The country hosts 75 per cent of West Africa’s slave dungeons, including the Cape Coast Castle which served as the main transit point for the transportation of slaves through the Middle Passage.
However, it is instructive to note that this initiative has historical antecedents tracing as far back to Ghana’s founding father Dr Kwame Nkrumah. In his independence address, the firebrand Nkrumah framed “Africa’s liberation around the concept of Africans all over the world coming back to Africa.” Henry Louis Gates Jr., Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard, who first travelled to Ghana when he was 20 and afire with Nkrumah’s spirit, revealed that “Nkrumah saw the American Negro as the vanguard of the African people, and wanted to be able to utilize the services and skills of these African-Americans as Ghana made the transition from colonialism to independence.” Indeed, Ghana became the favourite destination of such towering pan-African figures as George Padmore, Maya Angelou, Pauli Murray, and W.E.B Du Bois.
In 2000, Ghana passed the Right of Abode law allowing people of African descent to apply for citizenship and settle in the country, making it the first of its kind in Africa. Less than a decade later, in 2007, the government launched the Joseph Project to commemorate 200 years of abolition of slavery and to encourage Africans abroad to return. Whatever its historical subtleties and contestations, Africans in the diaspora are quite pleased and evidently romanticize the idea of coming back to Africa.
Hundreds of thousands of Diasporans now troop to Ghana to rediscover their African ancestry and to have a first-hand impression of the plight of their forebears. From top-brass politicians like the late Elijah Cummings to media and entertainment icons Steve Harvey, Cardi B, and Ludacris, the journey looks to be a never-ending one.
It is enough to contend that the journeys are driven purely by the quest to reconnect with a ‘long-lost’ historical home. But the economic and political dynamics in Europe and the US equally present a compelling necessity for a return. In July, Donald Trump, in his usual divisive rhetoric, told four congresswomen, including Rep. Ilhan Omar―a Somali refugee―to “go back to where they came from.” Reflecting the sentiments of far-right nationalism across Europe, this Trump-like rhetoric drives and normalizes the political and economic exclusion people of African ancestry face. The Year of Return, therefore, provides an environment of acceptance and inclusion, allowing Africans in the diaspora to breathe an air of freedom and racial equality and perhaps create their own seat at the table.
“The honour to return to Mother Africa,” as Ilhan Omar tweeted on her visit to The Cape Coast castle, is the unifying strand by which Africans at home and in the diaspora can forge a formidable front for the forward march against modern injustices directed at them. As the Ghanaian president remarked in his announcement of the Year of Return, “together on both sides of the Atlantic, we’ll work to make sure that never again will we allow a handful of people with superior technology to walk into Africa, seize their people and sell them into slavery. That must be our resolution, that never again, never again!”
Beyond the fight against injustices, however, lies the policy’s greater development potential. Diasporans possess the translantic development experience, skills and paradigms otherwise inaccessible to the average African masses. Rather than focusing too exclusively on the pomp and pageantry, it is more important that Ghanaian policy-makers identify critical areas where they can collaborate with returnees to proffer lasting solutions to aspects of national life where mainstream policy interventions have proven ineffective.
But even as policy makers contemplate this, the Year of Return is already proving to be a huge success, especially for Ghana. According to the government, international arrivals have ballooned to 750,000 with extra tourist spending hitting $1.9 billion. Indeed, Ghanaian authorities projected total arrivals to clock 1 million before the year ends. The hospitality industry, as well as the arts and culture space have witnessed a major boost as many Diasporans participate in the epic slew of events, parties, and concerts in and out of the capital, Accra. Ghana came under the international limelight, receiving positive international press coverage and big celebrity mentions and endorsements.
This success is the result of the well-intentioned marketing and branding campaign prosecuted by the Year of Return secretariat. Nonetheless, it will be wrong to judge the success of the initiative solely by numbers and figures. To focus exclusively on statistics will be to monetize and commercialize the sordid past, thereby becoming guilty of the very same systemic practices that enslaved and subjugated our ancestors. In so doing, we risk undermining the historical significance and consciousness which is the raison d’etre of the Year of Return. As Ivy Prosper of the Year of Return Secretariat suggests, the event should, among other goals, be seen as connecting Africans in the diaspora to their past, and promoting “the positive images that Africa has instead of the negative narrative we have seen for far too long.”
We should also find it necessary to tackle what perhaps is the elephant in the room; the thorny yet indispensable question of resettlement and inclusion. What domestic anchors exist to ensure that diasporans make a home in Ghana and other countries in Africa? And just how can we foster an honest dialogue that breaks the cultural barriers and perceptions between Africans and Diasporans? Undoubtedly, it is good to see our brothers and sisters return in droves. Nevertheless, we should in an equal measure be more concerned about the kind of home they are returning to.
It is laudable that the Ghanaian president granted citizenship to 126 diasporans as part of the year of return. Maybe the government can also consider fleshing out an appropriate policy regime that fosters a conducive business and investment climate for returnees. Already, a number of returnees are buying homes and setting up businesses. Authorities need to relax the rules of doing business for returnees―tax incentives won’t be bad at all―and must collaborate with the real estate sector to provide realistic real estate prices for them.
More significantly, we must bridge the cultural divide between Ghanaians and other Africans on the one hand, and returning Diasporans on the other. This requires shedding of prevalent stereotypes that see ‘African Americans’ as a different race or even as cash cows waiting to be milked.
The Year of Return will go down as a significant milestone in Ghana’s history; and it is all the more heartwarming that the government has launched “Beyond the Return” initiative to engage Africans in the diaspora and all persons of African descent more positively in areas such as trade and investment co-operation, skills and knowledge development. Through this twin initiative, Africans and Diasporans will fully maximize their shared capacities for growth and transformation. Before then, we can do well to keep alive the conversations on the legacies of slavery, realizing, as we ought to, the need to embrace our history, bitter as it may be, to guide our paths and aspirations as a people.
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