By Rosaland Tyler
New Journal and Guide
Drive about 68 miles away from the landmark Door of No Return on Goree Island in Senegal to Accra, the capital of Ghana, and you will see an increasing number of young African Americans who call it home.
The point is some young African Americans are going back to where they came from. This reverse migration pattern from the United States to Ghana has gained steam in the past decade. One example is Dr. Ọbadele Kambon, who migrated from Chicago to Accra in 2008. He lives and works about three hours away from the Door of No Return, the historic spot where millions of African slaves took a final step from their home continent onto a slave ship.
It seems Ghana is delighted to see people going back to where they came from. For example, in 2001, Ghana’s parliament passed the Right to Abode law, which grants the descendants of enslaved Africans the right to stay in Ghana. Ghana also declared 2019 the Year of Return to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of a group of Africans to Virginia.
To migrate from Chicago to Accra, Kambon said he saved up about $30,000 (£24,000) and relocated in 2008. He teaches at the University of Ghana. Reflecting on his new lifestyle, Kambon said, “One time, I was holding my son (Kwaku) in my arms … and I just thought for a second that I don’t have to worry about my son being shot down on the street. This was not too long after the Tamir Rice incident.”
Life in Ghana is very different from life in the US, Kambon said, explaining how he told a friend, “Wow, this is what it must feel like to be a white person in America, just to be able to live without worrying that something is going to happen to you.”
Kambon arrived in Accra and started his doctoral studies in linguistics at the University of Ghana in 2009. Now he teaches at the Institute of African Studies.
He was joined by his wife Kala, and the couple now has three children – Ama, Kwaku, and Akosua.
About eight years after Kambom migrated from Chicago to Accra, he became a naturalized citizen in 2016 along with 33 other “returnees.” Ghana’s then-president John Mahama said at the naturalization ceremony, “I have only restored to you what rightfully belongs to you and was painfully taken away.”
While estimates vary widely, somewhere between 10 and 28 million Africans are believed to have been shipped across the Atlantic between the 15th and 19th centuries by European merchants from Africa to the Americas, as part of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
However, this is the point. While the new-reverse-migration pattern does not even remotely reflect the number of Africans, who were herded onto slave ships and forced to migrate. It surely reflects the resiliency that still lingers in the DNA of those who survived the harsh voyage from Africa to the Americas.
Many African Americans are migrating to Ghana, aiming to experience a sense of closure. The theme plays out in many lives including Afia Khalia Tweneboa Kodua who moved from Los Angeles to Accra in 2017, about six years after her first visit ignited intense emotions. “I am not a public emotional person so I got to the airport and asked [myself]: ‘What is this? Are those tears?’ It was clear something had awoken in me and ignited in me and I have to come back. My ancestors are telling me; I have to come back,” she said.
Now, Kodua lives, works, and raises her family in Accra, which is located about three hours from the Door of No Return. Katharina Schramm called this door of horror a symbol of “the cultural amnesia and sense of disconnection that slavery and the Middle Passage stand for,” in her 2010 book, “African Homecoming.”
The door, Schramm wrote, has become increasingly associated not just with its largely fictional past but also with its very real present as a place of historical “healing and closure.”
However, the same sense of closure that gripped Kodua in the airport in Ghana during her first visit in 2011 also gripped writer Richard Wright in the 1950s when he visited Ghana. Describing the engulfing sense of closure that came on the heels of intense emotions, Wright said the visit touched “a dark and dank wall” deep inside of him.
Dr. William DuBois who was buried at age 95 in Accra, put his finger on the sense of closure he felt in his poem, Ghana. “I came to Ghana,” said DuBois who moved to Accra after Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president invited him to help write the “Encyclopedia Africana.” DuBois wrote in his poem, “Here at last, I looked back on my Dream; I heard the Voice that loosed The Long-looked dungeons of my soul I sensed that Africa had come Not up from Hell, but from the sum of Heaven’s glory.”
DuBois renounced his U.S. citizenship and became a citizen of Ghana. He died in 1963 on the eve of the Civil Rights March in Washington, D.C. In the spot where Dr. Martin L. King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, Roy Wilkins announced DuBois’ death from the podium.
DuBois’ final home, a small bungalow in Accra, still stands near the tombs of DuBois and his second wife, Shirley. They lay at rest near his former home, which is today the tiny, modest W.E.B. DuBois Memorial Center for Pan-African Culture.
Describing the same gripping sense of closure, Maya Angelou who lived in Accra with her son from 1962-65, said, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” Angelou worked as an administrator at the University of Ghana. She made such an impression that Ghana honored her with a postal stamp. “The more you know of your history the more liberated you are,” she said.
And this is how Kodua’s sense of closure in the airport launched her 2017 migration from Los Angles to Ghana. Kodua permanently migrated from Los Angeles to Accra in 2017 with her three children.
Her new Asante last name comes from a descendant of Yaa Asantewaa, a 19th-century queen in the Asante kingdom, who led a revolt against British colonialists.
It is common to see African-Americans experience deep emotions when they visit Ghana, said Robert Morgan Mensah, who heads education at the Cape Coast Castle dungeons, which are harsh, stone fortresses located near the Door of No Return, the last memory slaves had of their homeland before being shipped off across the Atlantic, never to return again.
Menash said, “We don’t classify them as tourists or visitors. We say they are on a pilgrimage to their ancestral land where their ancestors were taken from. We recognize them as our own.”
Menash added, “Anytime [Africans from the diaspora] come, they come with emotions; whatever they have read about, they want to see it in the form of empirical evidence … when they come and listen to the story, they weep.”
Lakeshia Ford migrated from New Jersey to Ghana shortly after Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014.
“Mike Brown got shot and it just put this huge distaste in my mouth,” Ford said in a May 20, 2019 interview in Narratively.
Ford moved to Accra and launched her own business, Ford Communications, a strategic communications, and public relations boutique. Her business serves Ghana’s booming tech industry. She also works with firms like the financial tech company Mazzuma, which launched a cryptocurrency to make mobile payments easier, and the data mining company Viotech.
She shares workspace in a suburban office. She wakes up at 5 a.m. to pray and meditate. She gets her emails done before driving off to meetings. Sometimes she jumps on a motorbike to avoid the snarl of cars that choke the city.
Ford earned a bachelor’s degree at Spelman College and a master’s at American University. Her internships have taken her to places like China, South Africa, and Ghana, which she first visited in 2008. She returned in the summer of 2013, during graduate school, to work for the United Nations information center in Accra, and again in 2014, as a Boren Fellow.
Ford said, “Americans, you know … think (Africa) – it’s all jungles, people living in trees. It’s so crazy how that narrative has survived.”