This year the country of Ghana has implemented a dynamic initiative called “The Year of Return” in which the Ghanian government is encouraging blacks of the diaspora to travel to its land where they will be welcomed back “home”. Obviously, due to the Transatlantic Slave Trade where millions of Africans (12.5 million to be exact) were stolen and displaced from their homeland, there are millions of their descendants dispersed around the globe. What Ghana is doing is admirable, but the invitation has been met with mixed reception from some in the diaspora and leads me to ask the question, can one ever truly go home?
Now, in this case, “home” is the continent of Africa. What we know about the Transatlantic and Triangular Slave Trades is that Africans were kidnapped from many countries across the continent and many times the inhabitants from those countries were complicit in the slave trade themselves. This fact in no way absolves the European and American involvement and perpetuation of the despicable practice, but for the sake of the main idea of this particular post, it is important to note.
What happens when you violently remove a people from their lands and force them to divorce their language and culture and all that they knew? Well, we don’t really need to get into that (many of you already know), but when those people are aware that people who look like them willingly participated in that violence, in that destruction, it breeds an air of resentment and even hostility in some. Many people have questioned the motive behind the Ghanian government’s welcome. Some even going as far as to accuse it of only wanting the money that increased tourism would bring to the country.
I recently read Maya Angelou’s memoir, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes which is based on her time living in Ghana. In it she writes, “They didn’t want to know that they had not come home, but had left one familiar place of painful memory for another strange place with none. …just two more people in an unceasing parade of naïve travelers who thought that an airline ticket to Africa would erase the past and open wide the gates to a perfect future.” The painful truth is if your sole purpose for traveling to Ghana or any country on the continent is to go “home” then you are setting yourself up for possible disappointment. There are no wide open arms or groups of greeters waiting to welcome your glorious return. The people in these countries have their own worries, trials and lives that they must navigate themselves and we know the ills that plague some of these countries as well. They see your “return” as a mere visit that will in no way lift the daily burdens they contend with – before and after your visit. Your temporary return “home” will give you but a mere glimpse into the political, economic, and social climate at play in these countries.
The other factor we must accept is that they truly owe us nothing. I know. I know. That one is hard, but it’s the truth. You see, slavery upended the strength of many African societies and tribes and they have never fully recovered. Can you imagine losing entire villages of men overnight? Then having your lands and resources raped under the heavy, unyielding hand of colonialism. The only winners in the slave trade were those who benefitted from the free labor and created generations of wealth as a result.
I could write about this at length, but for the sake of brevity I will conclude with this- I feel we should all visit the continent, but visit with no expectations, no idealizations, and no sense of entitlement. Do no harm to the locals you come in contact with and go with an open heart and mind. The continent is vast and the cultures numerous. Some will be happy you are there and genuinely welcome you while others will regard you as any other tourist. And for those, Maya Angelou has the best advice, “Don’t let them trouble your heart. …But your people…they from this place, and if this place claims you or if it does not claim you, here you belong.”