African-Americans and those from the Caribbean are returning to countries like Ghana more than 400 years after their ancestors left Africa as slaves. Many say they want either to reconnect or resettle on the continent.
Tonya Saafir-Ankomah originally hails from Mississippi in the United States of America, but more than ten years ago, she decided to move abroad.
“I had this strong urge to come to Africa. I wanted to experience it. Something has been tuagging at my heart to come and visit the motherland,” she told DW. Saafir-Ankomah said she was inspired by a couple from Tennessee who had visited Ghana several times.
“They [the couple] would talk about it all the time, show me pictures, videos and things like that, which stirred up a desire in me even more to come.”
Saafir-Ankomah finally made it to Africa for the first time in 2010, and Ghana in West Africa was her destination.
She quickly fell in love with the continent. The trained lawyer now lives in the capital, Accra, and married a Ghanaian.
“I love it here, I would much rather be here than in the [United] States for sure,” she said. Saafir-Ankomah has since become an ambassador urging many Africans in the diaspora to visit Africa to experience the rich heritage.
At least 1,500 African- Americans have moved to Ghana since 2019, following a campaign by Ghana’s government. The campaign, dubbed the ‘Year of Return,’ became a catalyst for many descendants of Africans in the diaspora to embark on a spiritual and birth-right journey.
At the time , it also marked 400 years of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in Jamestown, Virginia.
“The Year of Return” was also to celebrate the resilience of all the victims of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Tradewho were forcefully shipped and displaced throughout the world in North America, South America, the Caribbean, Europe, and Asia.
The Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 did slow the visits but hasn’t stopped many African Americans from traveling to West Africa. One of the main highlights of such visits is to tour some historical sites, such as the slave castles in central Ghana, to remind them of their ancestry and reconnect with the continent.
In 2020, Ghana’s government launched what it called the ‘Beyond the Return’ campaign. It is a 10-year project under the theme, ‘A decade of African Renaissance – 2020-2030.’
Clifford Ato Ashun, the Central Regional Head of the Museums and Monuments Board of Ghana, told DW that the campaign continues to chalk much success.
“The year of return, coming in with the beyond of the return, actually have contributed immensely to coming in of the African diaspora, especially to visit Ghana and the [slave] dungeons,” Ashun said.
According to Ashun, there have been several other activities to keep the interest high among Africans in the diaspora to keep visiting.
Musical festivals like the Afro-Nation, Black Star Line Festival, and Afrochella have all played big roles in bringing in visitors.
Felisa Freeman, originally from California, is one of the hundreds of African- American visitors touring the Cape Coast castle. It is her first time in Ghana and on the African continent, she told DW.
“My expectation is to experience Africa and culture and sort of soak it in and get a little close to my roots,” Freeman said.
The Cape Coast Castle, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, is the largest of the buildings containing the legacy of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
It played a significant role in the gold and slave trades, the arrival of Christianity, and the establishment of the first formal education system through Castle schools.
The slave dungeons — for both male and female — tell the sad story of how Africans shipped across the Atlantic endured torture and inhumane treatment at the hands of their white-European masters. It is always an emotional moment for visitors.
“Coming to the Cape Coast castle is a connection with history,” Freeman said, adding that it gives her the opportunity to revisit the possible route to how her ancestors got to America.
“You just get to see the nature of human struggle for dominance,” an emotional Freeman said. The castle still has remnants of the cannons and mortars used in its defense centuries ago.
The historical museum inside the castle still contains a growing collection of art and cultural objects, including ceremonial drums, old muskets, shackles from the slave trade, and ancient pottery.
Tonya Spinkins is also visiting Ghana from the US for the first time. “I came here because I realized that the many stories about enslavement that I get to see in Hollywood movies are lacking Africanness,” she told DW.
“We are hardworking people, working hard sleeping on a piece of cardboard or something, that wasn’t the hardship of the enslavement,” Spinkins said.
“The hardship of enslavement was the rape and the violence, which was unnecessary.”
The former processing fort had an infamous ‘Door of No Return’ through which hundreds of thousands of slaves passed through, never to return to their homeland.
It is the final point of call for visitors when they tour the Cape Coast castle.
Tour guides of the castle now allow tourists to exit the same gate and return through it, but this time round, they look at a new inscription from the outside, which reads the ‘Door of Return’.
It is a symbol that Africans in the diaspora whose ancestors were taken away during the slave trade are always welcome back to the continent — a place they can call home.
Some 12 kilometers (7 miles) away from the Cape Coast castle is the Elmina castle. The UNESCO heritage site was the first trading post built on the Gulf of Guinea and is the oldest European-built construction in existence south of the Sahara.
Renee Blake, a Latina Caribbean-American linguistics professor at New York University, has led several African-American students to Ghana for a tour.
Blake said the rest of the world needs to understand what the African slaves endured centuries ago, not only Africans in the diaspora.
“Other people connected [to the history of slavery must visit] to understand our history, to try to make sense of the world we live in and to try and understand our lives,” Blake told DW.
Most visitors also tour the Assin Manso Ancestral Slave River Park, also in the central region, one of the largest slave markets for gathering people to sell into slavery during the infamous trans-Atlantic slave trade.
The River Park served as the place where slaves had their last baths before being taken to the dungeons and sold out to the “New World”.