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.

I am one of the disrespectful negroes who returned to Ghana and left the rest of you unsuspecting negroes back in triflin’, dumb, and dirty-ass America, and was admonished, defriended, blocked, and unfollowed by Damon because of it. While I didn’t intend for my social media feeds to add to anyone’s FOMO-turned-existential crisis, I am not sorry. You really should (could?) have been there! Because wow!

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Ghana wasn’t even on my radar for 2019. It was at my homegirl’s insistence that we join The Year of Return movement. “Girluh! Have you seen all these Black celebs in Ghana? We need to go!” I had noticed many photos taken in Ghana posted on Instagram but hadn’t put much thought into why. I assume anything celebs are doing is too rich for me to do, so I just generally admire the view from the poverty line and keep scrolling. But learning about the Gold Coast’s attempt to attract those in the diaspora “home” to commemorate the 400th anniversary of slave ships arriving in the Americas was indeed enticing.

I don’t think either my homegirl or I had any particular expectations for this trip, despite knowing many people who had traveled to Ghana in the past. We let the Google search “black travel Ghana” be our guide. We found that most of the curated trips took place at the end of the year. Many travel packages featured itineraries based in Accra, filled with parties. We wanted to explore as much of Ghana as possible, so we booked a trip that would provide a noteworthy cultural experience in different cities as we celebrated our heritage along with a new decade.

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But from the time we made our first trip payment in June to when we checked in for our flight at Washington Dulles International Airport in December, my anxiety kicked in and I exhausted myself from feeling all the feelings and overthinking all the thoughts, including: the thrill of returning to a place I’m “from” but had never been; the stress of trying to find a decent flight and the sticker shock from paying almost a stack more than budgeted; the frustration of sporadic, inadequate trip information from our trip organizers; the panic of getting the required and recommended immunizations; the fear of forgetting to begin taking my anti-malarial pills on time; the compulsive packing and repacking of clothes, shoes, toiletries, bug repellent, and medicine, while still ensuring enough saved space for purchased goods. Not to mention the envy of getting “Nigga! I just lived my best life three times over before lunch!” iMessages from Panama (who had gotten there about a week before me); the excitement of uniting with other black Americans (many of whom were my friends traveling to Ghana at the same time) in our ancestral homeland; the dread of uniting with so many other black Americans in our ancestral homeland that it feels like an overpriced, overhyped Afropolitan D.C. event. Agh! So many thoughts!

Sitting at our gate in Brussels Airport in the early morning, waiting for our connecting flight to Kotoka International Airport, surrounded by nothing but beautiful black people of all ages in varying stages of “I’m black” attire and animated chatter about any and everything, I felt spiritually connected to these strangers. For the first time I was at ease and ready to embark on this journey. We were going to our long, lost home! And it was going to be incredible!

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Stepping off the plane and onto the actual Motherland for the first time in my life was indeed special. Even driving down state-neglected clay roads with ginormous potholes near our beach “resort” in Nungua—a town in Accra that no self-respecting taxi or Uber driver would take you to because it’s “too far”—I was beaming with pride and gratitude to travel on African ground.

Because of the lack of communication with our travel organizers and the hype around The Year of Return and Afrochella, I had some worry that our trip may end up being Fyrechella. But once we connected with our other friends from the D.C. area on the trip, the rest of the people in our travel group and our resident tour guides—all of whom we would be with for the next seven days—I felt reassured that this trip would be legit. I’d never traveled with a large group of strangers before and was surprised at how easily these people felt like family—namely since we were always together and often got on each other’s nerves. We all came longing to be connected to our roots and many of us became connected with each other in the process.

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As far as I know, according to Ancestry.com, my father’s people largely come from Cameroon/Congo and Togo/Benin. But I embraced Ghana as my symbolic ancestral homeland, nonetheless. Ghana had the desire to share a part of history that blacks in the West seldom hear or learn about, which was what happened to our enslaved ancestors before the Middle Passage, and I thirstily drank it all up. But I also longed to know about the people here in the now. I took notes as I listened intently to our tour guides discuss history and culture (on the bus, during walks, at rest stops, during curated tours); I read every sign and plaque in the museums and I asked lots of questions to make sure I got the facts right and spellings and pronunciations right. Everything was new to me and I felt obligated to fill my brain with as much as I could.

In another article, I will detail my experience visiting culturally and historically significant sites in Accra, Kumasi (the Asante capital), and Elmina (home of the largest Gold Coast slave trading posts). There’s so much that went on, it’s hard to capture it all in one place. This post can only contain an abbreviated version of what I learned, saw and felt. If I could have captured the scents and tastes and heat (my God, that equatorial African sun just hits different), I would share those, too.

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So, here are some random observations and experiences:

  • Throughout our time in Ghana, our Ghanaian tour guides and other locals made us feel genuinely welcome to a home we never knew. Not just with the greeting “Akwaaba!” but with the way they treated us and made us feel truly a part of their space.
  • I was unreasonably afraid of having a Charlotte in the Sex and the City movie moment, so I struggled daily to shower with my mouth closed. I also stayed away from raw fruits and vegetables because I worried that my stomach would cause an episode during one of our long days out in the villages.
  • Bargaining with vendors in the markets was an even more stressful event than trying to avoid consuming tap water. I hated the “name your price” game and often ended up paying more for items that other people in our group got for a fraction of the price. I wasn’t built for it.
  • Many places we visited had children asking for money. It’s heartbreaking because you look into their little faces, knowing they don’t have much and you have the world, so you want to give them something, but you know if you give to one, you’ll never be left alone. When we were in a craft village in Kumasi, I watched children buzz around asking the Americans for candy and money, with varying degrees of confidence or pitifulness. One boy looked up at me with puppy-dog eyes and said, “Will you give me some money?” I sadly said I didn’t have any for him and he scowled and said, “Give me everything you have!” What kind of Lilliputian stick up was this?! On our last night in Accra, after a late night of drinking at a popular lounge, I watched a barefoot young boy chase our car down for many blocks to get a few Ghanaian cedis all because he saw our friend give some to other kids.
  • During our walking tour of Jamestown, Accra, there was a large band of teenagers crowded on and around a truck slowly making its way down the street, blasting music. There was a young man sitting on the top of the truck, muttering incomprehensible lyrics (to anglophones) intensely into the microphone. Imagine “Short Bus Shorty” with a Twi-speaking Waka Flocka. Some youths were attracted to our presence on the sidewalk and jumped between our 20-person group to dance, but most were indifferent and walked by us as if we weren’t there. It was odd and amazing.
  • It was interesting to hear about and watch this experience through the perspective of the two people in our group who were Ghanaian because they were seeing Ghana through a different lens. One woman had parents that were both from Ghana, but she’d only been to Ghana to visit family. I watched her, with no American slave roots, weightily take in the slave castles, sobbing as we concluded our tour of Cape Coast Castle. I felt as much sadness for her and others who could trace their roots as I did for the rest of us lost in the diaspora because we all had to learn this awful history deep into adulthood.
  • There were so many men! Like, everywhere we went was a sausage fest. In the U.S., we’re so used to egg salads, where black women are generally the majority. In Ghana, there was no shortage of men of all ages working as tour guides, fishermen, makers, and vendors of the fine crafts we purchased, or just having drinks at the bar (and/or actively out to get that K-1 visa). The men were aplenty. It made my homegirl and I consider what our lives as black women in America would be like if so many of our men weren’t locked up in prison or being killed from senseless violence.
  • There were also so many chickens and goats roaming freely around. I have no idea how anyone could tell to whom they belonged. But let me tell you, those for real free-range chickens produce the best eggs I have ever tasted!
  • I most loved watching the women and girls go about their daily lives. The ones swaying down the red clay roads to church in their finest bright or lacey African attire with not a speck of dirt above their feet. The ones perfectly balancing large baskets filled with water or eggs, or fish, or clothes on their heads, sometimes while running down the street to make a sale. The ones with babies or small children strapped to their backs, tending to their business as usual. The ones sitting and cooking food over an open flame on the side of the road.
  • Also, I think the key to a quiet baby is sitting atop a woman’s butt. I only saw two crying babies, and they were being held in someone’s arms. Forget an overpriced baby carrier, all you need is a thick strip of cloth! And, well, some yams to hold the child up.
  • I wanted to take pictures and videos of everything, to remember every inch of the beauty of life in Ghana. But I didn’t want to make the locals feel like they were an exhibit or a show, so I used my camera sparingly. Beyoncé said I could relive an experience in my mind, so I hope my hippocampus cooperates.
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After my trip, a friend asked if I felt like the trip was just a tourism ploy. Yes, The Year of Return is a marketing initiative, in part to make Ghana a key travel destination for African Americans. But this, in turn, afforded me a meaningful opportunity to explore my roots. It was nothing short of an amazing, affirming, soul-altering trip. I am returned, I am reconnected and I am reborn. Medaase (thank you) to our Ghanaian family who so graciously welcomed us home. I am forever grateful to have ended 2019 and started 2020 with my dear friends and our new siblings from throughout the diaspora. May we boldly move forward in life, knowing the ancestors are guiding our steps.

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