[1619–Return To The Source]
The Door of No Return.
“Wow, this place has grown a lot since I was here 20 years ago,” I observed.
My daughter and girlfriend just nodded at me, taking in their first glimpses of Africa as the taxi drove through the hustle-bustle of Accra – the capital city which on my prior trip was not only smaller but absent all the construction, the ubiquity of cell phones, and the current proliferation of Mercedes. But it made sense. Ghana – the world’s fastest-growing economy in 2011 – is booming. More surprising to me was the still bad road conditions our taxi was encountering, and even more disturbing, the poor housing and street conditions. “Dad,” said my daughter, “it seems like there are two Ghanas.”
Let me back up to explain briefly that our 10-day adventure was inspired by Ghana’s declaration of the “Year of Return” – the 400th commemoration of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. It peaked the interest of the two ladies in my life; and it stirred in me –a member of the “Lost Tribe” cut from our roots and shipped abroad – the desire to reconnect with this country that gave me a sense of home and ancestry those many years ago. And so we heeded the call, for when Ghanaians – renowned for their warm smiles and sincere spirits – say “Akwaaba” (welcome), who can resist?
Perhaps it is this open spirit that also explains the unification of this rapidly growing country, which though smaller than the state of Oregon has nearly quadrupled in population over the last 50 years to its current 30 million. Ghana stands out not only because of its English-speaking capacity and political stability but its peaceful coexistence of multiple groups/clans and of Christians, Muslims and followers of traditional religion. One of the reasons why I consistently recommend Ghana as a starting point for sisters and brothers visiting the Motherland is its clear sense of a distinct, vibrant identity – the cadence, rhythm and passion of Twi, Ga, Ewe, and Fante; the brightly-colored kente cloth and other bold patterns in people’s dapper outfits; the elegant, straight-back stride that enables the balancing of nearly anything on people’s heads; and the captivating “High-life” music pumping from cars and street vendor’s radios.
Ghanaians have much to be proud of. Their many indigenous cultures and languages have not perished with English or modernization. Their rich Akan traditions persist, including a continuing lineage of Ashanti royalty. Politically, they succeeded in making a transition, following 20 years of military coups, to democratic rule and effective multi-party elections with greater than 70% participation rates (versus the USA’s 55%) and a peaceful transfer of power between rival parties. Furthermore, it was Ghana’s courage and leadership as Africa’s first country to break the yoke of colonialism that spurred on the succession of 1960s independence movements. Appreciation here extends not only to visionary statesman and prolific author Kwame Nkrumah but also to the mass movements behind him – and the women (inspired perhaps by the fighting spirit of Yaa Asantewaa – the 60 year old Queen Mother who led the Ashanti into battle against the British after they exiled her grandson the king.) And, the country’s openness embraced our African-American intellectual giants W.E.B. and Shirley DuBois, both of whom renounced their American citizenship and moved to Accra in 1961 where W.E.B. died and is buried, after helping to forge the vision of Pan Africanism to unite the Continent and liberate Black people everywhere. They were followed by many African-Americans who planted the seeds of “return,” choosing to repatriate or consider Ghana their second home, including Maya Angelou and Malcolm X. It was inspiring to see large tour groups of our sisters and brothers continuing this tradition by making this pilgrimage, and learning that some have for years been deepening their ties here, buying property and making investments.
“But do they see us?”, asked Mr. Alote, a local griot/historian whom we befriended at Accra’s Jamestown Café — a center dedicated to promoting art and intellect, owned by acclaimed architect Joe Osae-Addo and his sister Maanaa, who was our gracious host. As he walked us through Jamestown’s bustling neighborhoods, Alote raised a skeptical eyebrow about the perspective of those who are returning – seemingly concerned only about the past, while overlooking the plight of the living. The three of us however had no choice but to see. Undertaking long road trips and utilizing public transportation – including waiting for hours at local markets for the bus to fill – we observed first-hand that it is an extremely hard life for most people. Though having done much to reduce poverty, Ghana still has 25% of its population earning less than $240 a year; begging and homelessness is growing, and housing shortages, pollution and disease are severe in certain areas, with social programs notably underfunded. Conversely, “the number of millionaires will increase by 80% over the next decade and the country’s wealthiest 80 people own the equivalent of 7% of the country’s entire GDP” – as evidenced by the high-end shops we saw at the new malls, and the proliferation of expensive cars on the road.
Brother Alote’s words were worth considering, leaving me wondering about my perhaps overly sentimentalized notion of “return” by us privileged westerners who can afford thousands of dollars for the journey with a myopic focus on history, while donning blinders to present realities. I felt compelled to ask “return for what?” Indeed, was that not essentially the cry and demand of the people against their own beloved Kwame Nkrumah: “Independence — for what?” Nkrumah, whose statue was toppled upon his overthrow in 1966. As noted by Thomas – our young, bright and impassioned guide at the Nkrumah mausoleum – the severed bronze head remains seated separately, ominously, as a stark reminder of the challenges of power and the potential consequences if leaders do not remain accountable to their people. “We seek more than a change in the composition of our oppressors; we seek freedom,” Thomas said proudly.
For this reason, the slave castles of Cape Coast and Elmina were particularly poignant for me on this trip. I cried; we cried; the groups of fellow sojourners all cried – for the dark, cramped dungeons, the torture rooms, the “Door of No Return” and yes, the water pool above, specially designed to ensure that the pious worshippers in the chapel up top would not have to hear the cries and the clang of the shackles below. All are harrowing reminders of man’s inhumanity to man. But they made me think particularly of the complicity of local kings and chiefs in the slave trade. Inspired by the Adinkra symbol “Sankofa” – learning from our past – we must never allow new forms of enslavement, whether by multi-national corporations or local businesses, not on ships this time but in sweatshops. Ghana’s great bounty – with huge gold reserves (second only to South Africa) and a diversified economy that includes oil, gas, and of course cocoa (which drives the $100 Billion global chocolate industry) – offer prosperity for not only a few but for the collective good, which is a common concern of many African traditions.
Perhaps a new Diasporic partnership, spawned from the vision of DuBois and the Pan African pioneers, can fuel a new dialogue on building a truly just economy based not merely on “growth” but on distribution and quality of life –health, education, living wage– for the average person; and hopefully it will address the paradox of persistent poverty within the wealthiest continent, possessing 70% of the world’s mineral resources. A new, productive conversation would move beyond the common refrain of “corruption” to address the fundamental underlying issues of extraction and the undercounting and siphoning off of the Continent’s massive wealth. After all, it was Nkrumah who warned against such insidious patterns of “neo-colonialism,” patterns which may explain why all of Ghana’s riches and economic growth are somehow still rated in the “official” global indicators at a value that is one-third below the economy of Cuba,ii a country considerably smaller by size and population, virtually absent mineral resources and US investment, and operating outside of “free market” principles.
Embarking on its own path, Ghana, could become a real-life “Wakanda” – “WaGHANdA”! – leading a Continental and Diasporic commitment to an Afro-futuristic life-affirming reimagination of our global existence. With its stars currently aligned, Ghana could lead the way with ownership, control and processing of its own natural resources; with prioritization of its local goods over its extensive imports; with cultivating new, sustainable technologies; and with crafting a new “development” model that is not constrained by “growth” and accumulation in the hands of a few but cares for distribution and quality of life for all.
A new paradigm for the Black Diaspora would begin countering the fear, anxiety, sense of scarcity, dysfunctionality and violence that has come to define so much of our everyday lives in parts of Africa, the Caribbean and certainly here in the Americas. By creating, crafting, conjuring up — by radically reimagining — we can fashion a new, distinct and sustained African forward-looking identity that doesn’t emulate the west or repeat the pain of the past. Just as Ghanaian High-life has catapulted across global airwaves, a HighER-life orientation can transmit a contagion of a futuristic, transcendent vision above and beyond materialism, consumerism and individualism, above and beyond racism, misogyny and militarism. breathing and thriving instead on collective liberation, the realization of full human potential, and peaceful, planetary mutuality.
“But how do we get there?,” was essentially the question posed by a young Ghanaian-Londoner at the Jamestown Café book talk by scholar Kojo Yankah on the state of the Black Diaspora; “… and especially with our next generation that is buried in social media and commercialism?” Admittedly, a big challenge; but a large generation of bright, young educated minds sits ready in Ghana – land of plenty – with a Black Diaspora and its allies returning in solidarity to find a way.
Interestingly, in this designated “Year of Return,” a marker was placed on the back of Cape Coast castle – at the very spot where our enslaved ancestors took their final steps before being hauled into that horrific Middle Passage. Above the portal a new sign was added: “Door of Return.” As we turn and recross that threshold, let us not only draw from our past but face squarely our present with a fierce determination to forge a new and transformed future. “WaGHANdA Forever!”
Millard “Mitty” Owens has, for 25 years, supported various approaches to community economic development and social justice. His work includes the pioneering group Self-Help in North Carolina, the Ford Foundation, NYC government, and NYU’s Wagner School of Public Policy. He has traveled extensively and lived briefly in Zimbabwe. He currently works with foundations and investment firms advancing mission-aligned, sustainable investment. He invites comments at [email protected]