Illustration for article titled Returned: A Journey Through Ghana
Photo: Marguerite Matthews
ReturnedReturned is a series that chronicles the Year of Return, an initiative to reconnect Africans in the diaspora with Ghana in 2019, the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved Africans arriving in America.

Ghana has such a rich history and culture, one that makes it a prime gateway into connecting those in the diaspora to their West African roots. There was much to see, do, learn, and savor.

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My friends and I joined a travel group that included tour guides to take us through an itinerary filled with historic attractions, from craft villages to slave castles. Our group spent almost every day engaged in outdoor activities in the sweltering heat. We spent seven Gregorian calendar days touring Ghana, which translates to a month in Returnee time.

We spent our first full day touring Accra, Ghana’s capital. We visited the W.E.B. Du Bois Memorial Centre for Pan African Culture, the site of Du Bois’ former residence. He died a beloved citizen of Ghana, after moving there to work on the “Encyclopedia Africana” at the request of Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first prime minister and president. Du Bois is buried there, though he was initially laid to rest near the Christiansborg Castle, the former seat of Accra’s government. We also visited the Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park and paid our respects to Ghana’s great leader at the mausoleum where he is buried.

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We ended our sightseeing with a walking tour of Jamestown, known as “Old Accra.” Jamestown is one of the oldest, poorest areas of Accra, as evidenced by its crumbling colonial buildings and dilapidated shacks. The area was first occupied by the Portuguese, and later by the Dutch, Swedes, and British, who lived there capturing, buying, and selling slaves. Our tour guide led us on a sweaty and smelly walk to Fort James Prison (where Nkrumah was once imprisoned), solemnly explaining the historical context of the area.

Before it was a prison, Fort James was once a colonial trading post for materials and slaves. A few hundred feet away was the entrance to a dungeon connected by an underground tunnel to Fort James. It was there that Africans thought to be too strong and defiant for physical discipline were sent for a week or more to be “broken” before being put on the ships. I crawled through the narrow hole in the ground and down the stairs into the dungeon. It felt twice as steamy down there as it was outside. I could only bear to stand on the last step for two or three minutes, clinging to the wall, staring into the pitch-black void. (I only know what the dungeon looked like from the flash photo I took.) I choked on the thickness of the air down there and I could practically taste the anguish our foreparents went through in that dungeon. ACTUAL HELL.

We closed the day with Afrochella—a one day festival in Accra designed to celebrate Africa’s diverse culture through food, contemporary art, and music. It was a complete shitshow to get into the venue and the layout and entertainment left much to be desired, but the evening was filled with random run-ins with friends, acquaintances, and celebrities and so many eye-catching expressions of Blackity Blackness. The vibe was lit!

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We headed about 150 miles northwest of Accra to spend the next two days in Kumasi, Ghana’s second largest city and capital of the Ashanti Region. There, we got to attend the Akwasidae Festival, an Asante celebration that occurs every six weeks. The Asantehene (king of the Asante people) meets with his subjects and lower chiefs in the courtyard of the Manhyia Palace (now a museum). We got to the festival after Asantehene Osei Tutu II and the Queen Mother had made their grand entrance on gold-decorated palanquins carried by a procession of men. You know how you’ve seen African women balancing large baskets filled with goods on their heads? Imagine six men carrying a whole adult human in a basket on their damn heads! What a strong-necked people—I wish I had seen it! We waited awkwardly in the long line to bow before the Asantehene and his family. The celebration was filled with drumming, singing, dancing and people dressed in traditional attire.

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I will note here that the Asante people are matrilineal. They choose their Asantehene from their mother’s lineage. A son cannot inherit his father’s kingdom. Similarly, the Queen is not the King’s wife; she is a relative of his mother who serves as his senior advisor. When the King dies, the Queen Mother nominates a new king from her male relatives (nephew, brother, uncle). When a queen dies, the King chooses a new queen from his female relatives (mother, sister, aunt). We were told this preserves the royal bloodline because only a woman can know who fathered her children (meaning she could have babies who aren’t her husband’s, so the male line isn’t reliable). The shade of it all.

The following day we visited Kumasi’s craft villages. Bonwire (bone-REE) is where the famous Asante Kente cloth is handmade on looms in a tradition passed down through generations. Getting into the little shop was an ordeal because there were so many of us in our group and many weavers aggressively trying to sell their work. Every inch of the shop’s four walls was covered with Kente fabrics. Each weaver names the pattern of his cloth. One weaver insisted on draping me in his “heart’s desire” fabric, while another weaver commented, “You look like Queen Mudda of the Asante people!”

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We also went to Ahwiaa, a wood-carving village, and Ntonso, where they make Adinkra cotton cloth—or Kente cloth that is hand-stamped with Adinkra symbols of the Akan people. Ntonso is also known for their natural black dye, made from the bark of the badie (bah-dee-eh) tree. We made our own Adinkra cloth using two or three stamps made of calabash. I chose Sankofa (meaning “to go back and get it,” or to learn from mistakes of the past, a symbol tattooed on my wrist); Nyame Biribi Wo Soro (“God is in the heavens,” a symbol of hope); and the symbol for the year of return.

On New Year’s Eve, we drove 90 miles south to Assin Manso, site of one of the largest West African slave markets. The reception area features the Memorial Wall of Return, where those returning can write their names to indicate they found their roots. There are also three graves of former slaves reinterred from Jamaica and the U.S. From these graves we learned about the dangerous journey captive Africans made to get there.

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Because Ghana is tropical and was once filled with dense, dangerous forests, captors would tie captives to trees and whip them until they bled and screamed so as to attract wild animals away from the trail, protecting the rest of their human cargo. The remaining captives who made too much noise from crying had their mouths filled with rocks and covered with masks. At Assin Manso, captives were made to rest and eat (sometimes by force) to ensure they looked healthy and strong to potential buyers. I wept as our guide led us in a moment of silence.

The walk down the path to the Donkor Nsuo river was quiet and somber. There was a group of white tourists at the river whose presence turned my sadness to anger. After they left, we went in small groups down to the river to dip our hands and feet in the waters where our captive foreparents bathed for the last time, using fanned bamboo sticks to scrub their skin before being sold at auction, branded, and walked another 40 miles to the dungeons in Elmina. Farther downstream, we dipped our hands and feet in the waters again to signify our first bath of return to our ancestral homeland. It was a calm and reflective moment for us all.

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We spent the evening at our beach “resort” in Elmina with other visitors and locals, dining together and later circling around a bonfire on the beach to burn slips of paper containing things we didn’t want to take with us into 2020. It was exhilarating to count down to the new year with friends and strangers alike. We were returned and thankful. For the next four hours of the new decade, many of us stayed out in the 90-degree heat, dancing and wining, swag-surfing and electric-sliding under the stars like any reunited black family would.

On the first day of 2020, we went to Cape Coast Castle. The day may have been the hottest since arriving in Ghana. Panama has already written about the castles and beautifully captured many of the same feelings I had while touring those spaces of torture. However, when we arrived, Ghanaian churchgoers were singing gospel songs under blue tents that filled up the courtyard. The church was hosting its annual New Year’s Day service. But it was peculiar to me given that many Europeans used religious missions as a way to gain the trust of locals and exploit them to propagate their cruelty.

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After our castle tour, we headed to a nearby village for a Fihankra ceremony, where we would receive our “official” Ghanaian names. We were welcomed by boy drummers and girl dancers wrapped in yellow and black cloth. The man who would lead the ceremony told us the drums used were for royalty and warriors returning from war after a win—and because we, too, had been fighting a war in the diaspora for our lost identities, our return home to Ghana was a victory.

The ceremony took place in a backyard, where the presiding Anona family waited for us. The ceremony started with pouring libations for the ancestors. One by one, we sat on a ceremonial stool before the chief and learned our new names and their meanings. The chief then said our Ghanaian name three times, pouring water into our mouths each time to symbolize that our “yes will mean yes,” and then said our names three more times, pouring alcohol into our mouths to symbolize that our “no will mean no.”

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My given Ghanaian name is Maame Aba Ahonya. Maame (mah-meh or mah-mee) means a woman or mother. Aba (ah-bah) is the Fante name for a female born on Thursday. Ahonya (ah-hone-yah) means wealth and prosperity. (I love my name!) Afterward, we were blessed with a prayer that the ancestors would always order our steps and that we never forget who we are. White cloths were tied around our right wrists to signify the purity of our bond and we were lovingly welcomed into this family and to Ghana. We then ate yam and hard-boiled eggs before dancing in a big, lively circle. We all felt connected in a way that we hadn’t up until this moment. This was by far my favorite part of the trip!

To complete the Fihankra ceremony, we returned to Cape Coast Castle just before sunset. It was quiet and calm. Our guide led us to the male dungeon, where we stood around the perimeter, facing the wall and touching it with our hands to connect with our enslaved foreparents. The guide implored us to speak to the spirits of the enslaved, on behalf of ourselves and our families, and vow to never let this happen again. I was filled with sadness and wept while I said my goodbyes, thank yous, and prayers.

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We were then given candles, which were lit to signify that we were once in darkness but were now in the light. We continued on to another area of the dungeon where there was an altar made up of three large white steps with various objects on each. A traditional African priest poured libations, recognizing the almighty God, the deities, and the ancestors. We left wreaths near the altar in remembrance of all those who suffered in the dungeons—one on behalf of our families, another on behalf of the African diaspora, and the last on behalf of the organizers of The Year of Return. It was a meaningful and powerful way to close out the day.

The remaining days of our trip were much more relaxed and didn’t require any heavy emotional labor. We did a walking tour of the town of Elmina, traveled along the canopy walkways at Kakum National Park, and shopped at the Accra Arts Centre. It was really nice to just enjoy our surroundings and soak up the beauty around us.

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I couldn’t have asked for a better trip. We saw and did so much in such a short period of time and created amazing memories with strangers who quickly became family. It was truly an informative and transformative trip and an incredible way to start a new year. I encourage any Black American that’s even remotely curious about this cultural experience, especially those who have never been to an African country, to travel to Ghana to do all the things and feel all the feels. There’s no place like your ancestral home because there you are truly AKWAABA (welcome)!

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