Hundreds of people of African descent — from the U.S., the Caribbean, the United Kingdom and Africa — are descending on the cities of Accra and Cape Coast in Ghana, West Africa. They go to experience firsthand what the final days were like for enslaved Africans that were held in inhumane conditions, then loaded onto slave ships for the nearly three-month voyage across the Atlantic to the Americas.
This year, groups are also going in response to an invitation from the Ghanaian government to celebrate the “Year of Return,” an initiative to unite Africans on the continent with people of African descent living around the world.
Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo announced earlier this year that the time has come for people of African descent to make the journey back home. He said Ghana is offering African-Americans and Caribbean people the opportunity to return and the right to live as Ghanaian citizens indefinitely, pronouncing 2019 as “The Year of Return.”
“In the year 2019, we open our arms even wider to welcome home our brothers and sisters,” Akufo-Addo said.
Ghana is the only African nation engaged in this public-private initiative linked to the passage of H.R. 1242 by the U.S. Congress in 2017, the 400 Years of African-American History Commission Act, sponsored by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.). The law set up a history commission to fund and carry out activities marking the 400th anniversary of the “arrival of Africans in the English colonies at Point Comfort, Virginia, in 1619.”
In Cape Coast, two notorious slave dungeons — Cape Coast Castle and Elmina Castle — are the focal point of most visitors. Initially used for trading by the Portuguese, Dutch, English, French, Swedish, Danish and Germans, the forts are a vivid reminder of the cruel and torturous aspects of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Tour guides also describe the role Africans played in its profitability.
For many of African descent, whites as well, the castles are an emotional reminder of the lives lost and the survivors, held in those dungeons for weeks, chained and naked with little food or water. While many died on the slave ships, millions of the strongest — men and women alike — lived long enough to be distributed for sale in South America, the Caribbean, and the United States.
Ghanaian chiefs have issued an apology for their forefathers’ complicity in the slave trade, and Diasporans by the hundreds are entering the Door of Return and making Ghana their home. As of 2015, an estimated 3,000 African Americans now reside in Ghana.
Amid a vast gathering of African Americans that participated in a ceremonial libation, sang the Black national anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and boarded fishing ships for the Return Journey to Elmina Castle, were three young D.C. high school students, the youngest among the group. It was each one’s first trip to Africa and an opportunity to immerse themselves in a new and unfamiliar culture.
Taleyah Evans, 15, is a 10th-grader at Banneker Academic High School. She, along with Jamerah Bowen, 16, a 12th-grader at Eastern High School, and Ballou High School graduate Tatiana Robinson, 17, an incoming freshman at the University of Miami, were selected by William O. Lockridge Community Foundation President Wanda Lockridge to visit Ghana this summer.
The trip was coordinated by Roots to Glory, a Baltimore-based tour company that specializes in reuniting African families and returning Africans in the Diaspora to Africa. The group of students and eight others spent 10 days in Ghana visiting historical landmarks, museums and a local village where each person stayed overnight with a host family.
“I intend to take students to Africa once every two years so that they can learn about its history and the culture, and understand its significance to the U.S.,” Lockridge said.
She said she is especially interested in ensuring that students in Wards 7 and 8 are recruited for the program because of the exposure not otherwise provided in their homes or classrooms.
Jamareh, who aspires to become a special mission aviator in the Air Force, said this was her first international trip. She said she wanted to go to Ghana because she wanted to experience “a different way of life.”
“My first impression was literally, ‘Oh, it’s not that hot at all, it feels great actually,'” she said.
Jamareh said she was “captured by the buildings” although she felt they looked “too much like rich cities in America.” Her favorite memory was talking and playing with the children in the Atunkwa Village in the Central Region.
The group was greeted by the chiefs, the Queen Mother and the elders. Children also performed traditional dances while others played the drums.
“I would have to say that in Africa, there are a lot of great things that aren’t shared [in America], and I want to know why,” Jamerah said.
Taleyah said she also enjoyed spending time and connecting with the children in the village. While she has traveled to Trinidad and Tobago, she said she looks forward to going back to Ghana and to other African countries. An aspiring neurosurgeon or dance company entrepreneur, Taleyah, said she went because she also wanted to experience the culture, and to “see where my ancestors came from.”
Tatyana, the former student member to the D.C. School Board, just began her freshman year at the University of Miami to pursue a double major in Computer Science and Mathematics. But before leaving, she told the Informer, “Yes, I went to Ghana to return to my roots.”
She was most impressed by “how people hustle for what they want,” she said, after seeing street vendors that start their day at the crack of dawn and work until dusk while trying to earn enough money to take care of their families.
Overcome by the loss of her grandfather who died just days before she departed, Tatiana said her most significant memory was walking along the path of the Assin Manso Slave River historical site. It is where the captured Africans were taken for their last bath on the way to the slave dungeons. There, she wrote a message to her grandfather on a memorial wall, and she stood barefoot in the river where she prayed.
“You’ve got to understand it for yourself,” she said. “Just walking along that path and standing in that river allowed me to tap into another side of me. It got me more connected with who I am.”