In 1896, Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia embarked on a course the tale of which will be fondly remembered by the pages of history. He had come out with an army not very much imbued with the latest military technology to fight Italian forces who had been sent to conquer the ancient land. On March 1, 1986, he defeated the Italian army and its Eritrean allies, led by General Oreste Baratieri—a victory which played out against a background of unrelenting European expansion into Africa. His legacy, overall, might be controversial, yet he offers a lesson of pragmatic resistance for the ways in which he contended with Italian aggression.

Throughout all ages, there have always appeared individuals of Menelikan character, who for one reason or the other dedicate themselves to the betterment of their societies. The cause in question could vary from something as simple as tilling the land to more complex and difficult tasks as fighting a war, developing a settlement, or warding off an invasion. Depending on the scale of intervention, these individuals leave traces of exemplary lives that provide direction and inspiration to many.

In many ways, the land of Africa bears the marks of such selfless forebears, not so much by the fact that it is the birthplace of humanity, but so because it has been shaped by different historical encounters of slavery, colonialism and the recent phenomenon of neo-colonialism.  To this extent, the continent’s heroes and heroines straddle different aspects of life and are spread across different continents.

But despite their sheer number, African ancestors or ancestors of African origin have received passing, if any mention at all in world history. This is deliberate, and is aimed at whitewashing their legacies to push a more glorified narrative of the Caucasian while casting that of the African in a more negative light. Even today, some Africans are still culturally-programmed that anytime ‘ancestor’ is mentioned, they think of Satan, and erroneously rationalize that their ancestors were nothing more than ‘idol-worshipping savages’ steeped in incivility and darkness.

Far from this dim picture, our ancestors were courageous, enlightened, and spiritual men and women.  They pioneered groundbreaking innovations, built civilizations, and fought oppressions of all kinds. More importantly, they embodied a spirituality with which they communed with God, organized their societies, and formed social relations. Unfortunately, today, these giant ancestral figures have little place in the scheme of affairs, leaving Africans with little to no connection to their glorious past.

There is, therefore, an urgent need for Africans from all walks of life to embrace their ancestral heritage to guide its quest for a renewed sense of identity and greatness. Ghana is fronting this effort with “the annual celebration of our ancestors”— an event mooted and championed by Jerry Johnson, a Pan-Africanist who moved from California to settle in the serene seaside town of New Ningo, Ghana. Jerry’s initiative seeks to sensitize Africans and Diasporans, especially the younger generations, on the heroic exploits and stellar achievements of their ancestors. For much of the older and younger generations, the unfortunate fate of not having met their forebears is a spiritual blight consuming their personality and identity daily, leaving them vulnerable to foreign cultural imperialism. And as nationalism and identity politics gain momentum, the question of which ancestral figures Africans can rally around to roll back the tide of western cultural influence becomes ever more important.

The Celebration of Our Ancestors champions this quest by giving visitors to the Ancestral Wall the opportunity to interact with the visual portraits of over 90 African ancestral figures, and indeed, ancestors of African origin.  From Pharoah Imhotep and Queen Nzinga Mbande to Mariam Makeba and W.E.B DuBois, the hand-painted portraits on the wall tell stories of a once-proud and powerful African forebears, stories of how they conquered the elements, fought foreign invaders and oppressions, and built civilizations. To the casual observer, the giant, iconic ancestral wall is just another piece of art, but its significance goes deeper than the artful expression of a painter;

The political significance of having an ancestral consciousness can be found in the struggles of Africans today. Whether in Europe, the Caribbeans, United States or in the motherland, Africans are disconnected from their source of power, even as they beg entry into someone else’s home.  Nothing explains this enduring plight more convincingly than the screams and chants of far-right nationalists asking Africans to go back to where they came from. And nothing more so accounts for this seeming powerlessness than the deliberate and unintentional disconnection of us from our ancestral consciousness.  Once we are disconnected from the historical consciousness of who we are, we are left with no being and no meaning. The ancestral wall initiative is aimed at reversing this trend by making children the focus of an ancestral revival. It is to ensure that the younger generations have a different consciousness and a new understanding of the political significance of history and culture.

The world is getting increasingly globalized, producing new and radical cultures, and questioning age-old identities. Africans and people of African descent find themselves torn between a new western cultural wave eroding identities of all kinds, and their own history.  Should we adopt and fully participate in the new culture (a choice which poses an existential threat to our own identity and wellbeing) or should we embrace our own cultural legacies? Though it looks simple enough on the surface, this question is the kind that produces the identity crises many an African is faced with. Not to say that that question needs no answer, it is to illustrate that a lot of us are dealing with a crisis in identity because we are not very much aware that African our forebears have equally been brilliant, brave, innovative, and sure, have run powerful nations.

It is this beautiful mosaic of the past that the celebration of our ancestors brings to bear. As school children reenact the lives of these towering ancestral figures, we are reminded of the relevance of ancestral awareness to our current plights and our quest for political and economic emancipation.  Once we understand that ancestry is not just a tale of the ancients, it allows us to reconstruct our identity and societies in ways that make it impossible for another group to dominate us.

In conclusion, Africans and people of African origin must understand that they’re carrying the genes and minds of those who built the Mighty Giza pyramids, and that they are only as good as the extent to which they remember, celebrate, and appropriate these ancestral potentials for their own growth and development.