Since the first slave ships landed in America some 400 years ago carrying Africans to work on plantations and serve their white captives, several attempts have been made by individuals and organisations to repatriate African descendants.
Ghana is the only African country that has tried on multiple occasions to return the black diaspora back to the home of their forebears. However, the multiple attempts in the past decades to settle African Americans in Africa failed due to an unwelcoming environment contrary to the promised land.
The West African country is giving it another shot in 2019 with the launch of The Year of Return programme that coincides with the 400-year anniversary of the first enslaved Africans from West Africa reaching American shores in 1619.
The Year of Return was also launched in September 2018 by Ghana’s president in the United States with members of the Congressional Black Caucus making it the only centrally organized public-private partnership with an African nation to commemorate the arrival of Africans in the U.S.
Before Marcus Garvey presented his famous “Back to Africa” programme in New York City in 1920, a Ghanaian merchant and pioneer pan-Africanist from the Gold Coast (Ghana), Alfred Charles Sam, had personally started a campaign to resettle African Americans in their “ancestral home” in freedom.
Sam purchased the former German ship Curityba and renamed it S.S. Liberia to embark on a voyage back to Ghana to settle at Akim. He initially embarked on the first voyage with 60 African Americans who sold all their property to join him in the “promised land”. They made it to Saltpond but were denied ownership of the land Sam had promised at Akim.
After physical and financial hardships due to restrictions, some of the settlers returned to Oklahoma where they came from while others went to other African countries including Liberia.
Much earlier in the 1800s, black slaves managed to escape bondage in slave ships and return back to the continent. Others, who were enslaved in the Americas, also fought for their freedom and won the right to be returned to Africa. Examples are the Afro-Brazilian slaves who settled in several coastal towns of West Africa.
There were also ex-slave repatriations funded by the colonists that founded Sierra Leone and Liberia. Individuals of African descent also single-handedly found their way back to the continent after witnessing torturous experiences black people faced in Europe and beyond, despite the abolition of the slave trade.
In the early 1900s, Marcus Garvey also championed the return of black people to the continent and the exit of European colonizers for the Africans to manage their own affairs. This ideology was supported by the early followers of the Rastafari Movement who believed that Marcus Garvey was the John the Baptist of the time and Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia was the Messiah.
Ethiopia is noted as the second country after Ghana to offer land to black people from the West after Emperor Haile Selassie I offered 500 acres of land at Shashamene (150 miles south of Addis Ababa) for the support he received in his struggle with Italy during its invasion of Ethiopia in 1935.
The overthrow of Haile Selassie in 1974 ended the movement as the coup makers took over all lands including Shashamene and many settlers fled the country. Today, many of the returnees do not feel welcome in the country as they are still regarded as foreigners and are refused citizenship.
Ghana is the only country in the 21st century that has legally offered to resettle people of African descent in Africa. In the year 2000, Ghana became the first African country to officially open its doors to people of African descent from all over the world.
The West African country passed the “Right of Abode” law which allows any person of African descent to apply and be granted the right to stay in Ghana indefinitely.
This was followed by the launch of the Diaspora Affairs Bureau under the foreign affairs ministry in 2014 to manage the migration and engage the diaspora to provide a sustainable link with various government agencies to achieve development and investment goals.
As at 2014, over 3,000 African-Americans and people of Caribbean descent are estimated to be living in Ghana. The Diaspora Affairs Bureau has expedited the acquisition of the permanent residency which was earlier delayed by bureaucratic processes. It took some applicants years to get their official documentation when it was supposed to take six months.
Many resorted to renewable resident permits and marriages with Ghanaians to stay and work fruitfully in the country. Rita Marley, the wife of reggae legend Bob Marley, was the first person to be granted the indefinite stay in Ghana in 2014, 14 years after the law was passed.
In 2016 alone, 34 Afro-Caribbeans were granted Ghanaian citizenship to enjoy full benefits as Ghanaians. Those who have stayed on appreciate the warmth and peacefulness of the country despite the few cultural setbacks like being regarded as more American and Caribbean than African despite years of living in the country.
Ghana was home to pan-Africanists like George Padmore, Maya Angelou, W. E. B. Du Bois, Pauli Murray among others who emigrated after the country’s independence in 1957 after establishing a friendship with the first president Kwame Nkrumah who himself had studied in the United States.
Many other distinguished African Americans have visited the West African country in the 50s and 60s to witness the promised land and warm hospitality offered by Ghana.
A new crop of African Americans who either trace their genealogy to the West African country or have heard about the “home” it offers visit regularly to connect with the people and history, as well as see the tourist sites and castles that hold the dark memories of slavery.
Ghana’s 2019 Year of Return programme was designed to offer what was promised. It kicked off late December 2018 with dozens of Hollywood stars honouring the country’s invitation through Ghanaian-German actor, Boris Kodjoe, who pledged to visit his father’s home country with his celebrity friends.
In total, 93 celebrities including Anthony Anderson, Rosario Dawson, Michael Jai White, Idris Elba, Cynthia Bailey, Naomi Campbell, Jidenna, real estate mogul Jay Morrison, media personalities Mike Hill, Ebro Darden, Isha Sesay and many more were in the country for the week-long Full Circle Festival to connect to their African roots.
The first visit for many, the stars toured the beautiful landscapes of the country and spectacular historical sites where they were enlightened about the real Africa – which is not synonymous with poverty and war as always shown by the international media.
The Year of Return started officially in January 2019 with events planned in collaboration with the Ghana Tourism Authority under the auspices of the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture which is leading the project in collaboration with the Office of Diaspora Affairs at the Office of the President, the Panafest Foundation and the Adinkra Group of USA.
This article by Ismail Akwei was first published on face2faceafrica.com