New York Times, December 27, 2005
Ghana hopes descendants of enslaved Africans will think of Africa as their homeland - to visit, invest, send their children to be educated and even retire.
CAPE COAST, Ghana - For centuries, Africans walked through the infamous "door of no return" at Cape Coast castle directly into slave ships, never to set foot in their homelands again. These days, the portal of this massive fort so central to one of history's greatest crimes has a new name, hung on a sign leading back in from the roaring Atlantic Ocean: "The door of return."
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Michael Kamber for The New York Times
A former slave-trade fort in Cape Coast, Ghana, is a popular destination for African-American tourists.gift to return after Christmas; this
Michael Kamber for The New York Times
A tour guide describing the conditions once faced by captives before they were shipped as slaves from the Elmina Castle fort in Ghana.
Ghana, through whose ports millions of Africans passed on their way to plantations in the United States, Latin America and the Caribbean, wants its descendants to come back.
Taking Israel as its model, Ghana hopes to persuade the descendants of enslaved Africans to think of Africa as their homeland - to visit, invest, send their children to be educated and even retire here.
"We want Africans everywhere, no matter where they live or how they got there, to see Ghana as their gateway home," J. Otanka Obetsebi-Lamptey, the tourism minister, said on a recent day. "We hope we can help bring the African family back together again."
In many ways it is a quixotic goal. Ghana is doing well by West African standards - with steady economic growth, a stable, democratic government and broad support from the West, making it a favored place for wealthy countries to give aid.
But it remains a very poor, struggling country where a third of the population lives on less than a dollar a day, life expectancy tops out at 59 and basic services like electricity and water are sometimes scarce.
Nevertheless, thousands of African-Americans already live here at least part of the year, said Valerie Papaya Mann, president of the African American Association of Ghana.
To encourage still more to come, or at least visit, Ghana plans to offer a special lifetime visa for members of the diaspora and will relax citizenship requirements so that descendants of slaves can receive Ghanaian passports. The government is also starting an advertising campaign to persuade Ghanaians to treat African-Americans more like long-lost relatives than as rich tourists. That is harder than it sounds.
Many African-Americans who visit Africa are unsettled to find that Africans treat them - even refer to them - the same way as white tourists. The term "obruni," or "white foreigner," is applied regardless of skin color.
To African-Americans who come here seeking their roots, the term is a sign of the chasm between Africans and African-Americans. Though they share a legacy, they experience it entirely differently.
"It is a shock for any black person to be called white," said Ms. Mann, who moved here two years ago. "But it is really tough to hear it when you come with your heart to seek your roots in Africa."
The advertising campaign urges Ghanaians to drop "obruni" in favor of "akwaaba anyemi," a slightly awkward phrase fashioned from two tribal languages meaning "welcome, sister or brother." As part of the effort to reconnect with the diaspora, Ghana plans to honor the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., W. E. B. DuBois and others it calls modern-day Josephs, after the biblical figure who rose from slavery to save his people.
The government plans to hold a huge event in 2007 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the end of the trans-Atlantic trade by Britain and the 50th anniversary of Ghana's independence. The ceremonies will include traditional African burial rituals for the millions who died as a result of slavery.
Estimates of the trade vary widely. The most reliable suggest that between 12 million and 25 million people living in the vast lands between present-day Senegal and Angola were caught up, and as many as half died en route to the Americas.
Some perished on the long march from the inland villages where they were captured to seaports. Others died in the dungeons of slave castles and forts, where they were sometimes kept for months, until enough were gathered to pack the hold of a ship. Still others died in the middle passage, the longest leg of the triangular journey between Europe, Africa and the Americas. Of the estimated 11 million who crossed the sea, most went to South America and the Caribbean. About 500,000 are believed to have ended up in the United States.
The mass deportations and the divisions the slave trade wrought are wounds from which Africa still struggles to recover.
Ghana was the first sub-Saharan African nation to shake off its colonial rulers, winning its independence from Britain in 1957. Its founding father, Kwame Nkrumah, attended Lincoln University, a historically black college in Pennsylvania, and saw in African-Americans a key to developing the new nation.
Ghana's Uneasy Embrace of Slavery's Diaspora
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Published: December 27, 2005
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"Nkrumah saw the American Negro as the vanguard of the African people," said Henry Louis Gates Jr., chairman of the African and African-American studies department at Harvard, who first traveled to Ghana when he was 20 and fresh out of Harvard, afire with Nkrumah's spirit. "He wanted to be able to utilize the services and skills of African-Americans as Ghana made the transition from colonialism to independence."
Many African-Americans, from Maya Angelou to Malcolm X, visited Ghana in the 1950's and 60's, and a handful stayed. To Nkrumah, the struggle for civil rights in the diaspora and the struggles for independence from colonial rule in Africa were inextricably linked, both being expressions of the desire of black people everywhere to regain their freedom.
But Nkrumah was ousted in a coup in 1966, and by then Pan-Africanism had already given way to nationalism and cold war politics, sending much of the continent down a trail of autocracy, civil war and heartbreak.
Still, African-Americans are drawn to Ghana's rich culture, and the history of slavery.
Ghana still has dozens of slave forts, each a chilling reminder of the brutality of the trade. At Elmina Castle, built by the Portuguese in 1482 and taken over by the Dutch 150 years later, visitors are guided through a Christian chapel built adjacent to the hall where slaves were auctioned, and the balcony over the women's dungeons from which the fort's governor would choose a concubine from the chattel below.
The room through which slaves passed into waiting ships is the emotional climax of the tour, a suffocating dungeon dimly lit by sunlight pouring through a narrow portal leading to the churning sea.
"You feel our history here," said Dianne Mark, an administrator at Central Michigan University who visited Elmina Castle, six miles from Cape Coast castle, in early December, tears welling in her eyes as she gazed across the massive, buttressed walls to the ocean. "This is where our people are from. That is a deep, deep experience. I look at everyone and wonder, 'Could he have been my cousin? Could she have been my aunt?' "
Like any family reunion, this one is layered with joy and tears. For African-Americans and others in the African diaspora, there is lingering hostility and confusion about the role Africans played in the slave trade.
"The myth was our African ancestors were out on a walk one day and some bad white dude threw a net over them," Mr. Gates said. "But that wasn't the way it happened. It wouldn't have been possible without the help of Africans."
Many Africans, meanwhile, often fail to see any connection at all between them and African-Americans, or feel African-Americans are better off for having been taken to the United States. Many Africans strive to emigrate; for the past 15 years, the number of Africans moving to the United States has surpassed estimates of the number forced there during any of the peak years of the slave trade. The number of immigrants from Ghana in the United States is larger than that of any other African country except Nigeria, according to the 2000 census.
"So many Africans want to go to America, so they can't understand why Americans would want to come here," said Philip Amoa-Mensah, a guide at Elmina Castle. "Maybe Ghanaians think they are lucky to be from America, even though their ancestors went through so much pain."
The relationship is clearly a work in progress. Ghanaians are still learning of their ancestors' pivotal roles in the slave trade, and slave forts on the coast, long used to thousands of foreign visitors, have in recent years become sites for school field trips.
When the United States and the United Nations gave Ghana money to rehabilitate and restore Cape Coast castle, the government agency responsible for the castle repainted it white. Residents of Cape Coast were thrilled to see the moisture-blackened castle spruced up, but African-Americans living in Ghana were horrified, feeling that the history of their ancestors was being, quite literally, whitewashed.
"It didn't go over too well," said Kohain Nathanyah Halevi, an African-American who lives near Cape Coast.
A recent African-American visitor to Cape Coast castle took the emotionally charged step through the door of no return, only to be greeted by a pair of toddlers playing in a fishing boat on the other side, pointing and shouting, "obruni, obruni!"
William Kwaku Moses, 71, a retired security guard who sells shells to tourists on the other side of the door of no return, shushed the children.
"We are trying," he said, with a shrug.