Originally Published February 28, 2006
In 1989 Joseph Holloway discovered Accra, Ghana. He was attending a conference for the National Council of Black Studies with other African-American professors from Cal State University northridge. The first thing that came to his mind upon arriving in this foreign land was its authenticity.
Holloway said he remembers clearly the scents of Ghana and the sweet morning dew that arose from the grass as he witnessed the locals patiently go about their business under the glaring sun. They were clad in colorful African garbs and were carrying things around on their head.
“This feels like Africa, this looks like Africa, this even smells like Africa,” the Pan-African Studies professor said.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, African-Americans have been able to obtain dual -citizenship, intermittently throughout different administrations, and receive free land. This was done as an incentive for African-Americans to participate in African government.
This has led to a significant increase in the number of African-Americans that visit, and reside in Ghana. According to the Wall Street Journal in 2001 U.S. officials estimated the African-American population in Ghana at 1,000. They also estimated 10,000 African-American tourists visit the country every year.
For many African-Americans, the desire to visit Africa stems from the desire to revisit a different place in time. “Everything has its time and place and nobody is in a rush because if you don’t get it done today you’ll do it tomorrow,” Holloway said.
Pan African professor James Bracey was one of Holloway’s companions on the conference to Ghana. He said he enjoyed the Ghanaian culture and the friendliness of the Ghanian people.
“I liked it because the language was English so you could converse with the people there,” he says.
Ghana is also home to many slave forts along the Atlantic Coast. These serve as a constant reminder of what took place on those shores several hundred years ago. Holloway and Bracy said they were deeply moved by the experience of visiting these areas.
As Holloway walked to the “point of no return,” he found himself standing at a very symbolic place. It was the spot where millions of slaves had been pushed and dragged onto ships to be auctioned off as a product on the other side of the world. It was the last place their feet would ever touch African soil before being stuffed into the overfilled slave ships heading across the Atlantic Ocean.
As he stepped inside one of the slave forts, Holloway said he was overcome by a sadness he had never experienced before.
“I could feel the spirits of millions of those people in the air,” Holloway said. “It captured me and it was as if they were speaking to me.”
The spirits were so strong that Holloway said he felt like he could reach out and touch them.
“I touched their spirits, I touched their soul,” he said. “It’s like it touches you, but when it touches you it transforms and then you go ‘yeah, now I understand what it was all about’.”
Walking farther down in the fort where most tourists don’t go, Holloway found a clay-like substance in a dark corner that he believed had been there for centuries. He scooped some of it up and saved it as a reminder of this special moment.
Bracey, who had gone on this trip with Holloway to participate in the conference and to observe Ghana’s educational system, also visited some of the slave forts in Ghana. He called it a “humbling experience.”
He witnessed a small office room with one small window 20 feet up high as the sole source of light and ventilation for the 150 women that used to be crammed in there. All the cells had a slant to them, which Bracey found out was so that when people would urinate or defecate, it would run down and accumulate at the bottom of the slope. He says slaves were only allowed to go outside once or twice per week for fresh air.
“It makes you appreciate that you were born in a different era,” Bracey said.
Holloway said that the people he has talked to that are living adjacent to the forts have never set a foot in them before.
“All they knew was that was where their ancestors went and never were to be seen again,” Holloway said. “It was just like a part of their memory that they had cut out.”
An incentive for the African-Americans coming to Ghana to invest their money and time as opposed to doing it in America is that many tribal chiefs issue free land to them. Dual citizenship is another attraction. Ghana is the first African nation to adopt legislation, called “the right to abode,” providing any person of African descent in the Diaspora to live and work in the country indefinitely.
Kwame NKrumah became the first president of Ghana in 1964. NKrumah was greatly inspired by African-American thinkers during his studies in America. He promised that if he would ever come to power in Ghana, he wanted to create the first Pan African state that included not only Africans, but also African-Americans as a very prominent part of his administration, Holloway said.
“He had become what we call a Pan Africanist, trying to make a connection and a linkage between Africans?and people of African descent living in North America,” Holloway said.
The connection was made stronger by the timing of the independence of Ghana and african-Americans.
“Ghana gained its independence at the same time African-Americans gained their freedom in terms of the Civil Rights movement,” Holloway said. “We won our freedom, they won their freedom and they rejoiced in our freedom and we rejoiced in their freedom.”
Holloway said that if African-Americans are willing to relocate and go back to Ghana, many of the principalities there are willing to provide free land for them to invest in businesses, homes and become part of the economy.
Some of the Ghanaians didn’t like the fact that African-Americans were handed land at no cost and some animosity grew out of this, Holloway said.
The word obruni, meaning foreigner, is a term that can be used to refer to African-Americans and other tourists in Ghana. Because many tourists in Ghana are white, the word obruni has also led some locals to associate it with white people. In reality, however, there is no word for white people in the Ghanaian languages, says Marvin Boateng, who is Ghanaian and vice president of CSUN’s African Student Organization.
“Africans are color blind, they don’t see color,” Holloway said. “In a country where everybody is black they see culture differences. So if you come over and have the same culture as white Americans have, then you are American, or obruni.”
Boateng said he welcomes African-Americans to come to Ghana so that they can learn about the culture, talk to the people, eat the food and see the continent from a first hand perspective instead of making judgments based on what they see in the media.
Boateng, who was back in his native country last summer, says he hasn’t heard African-Americans being referred to as obruni’s. He says Ghanaians understand that they are related to African-Americans and that they don’t see them as any type of threat.
“They are descendents of the same people so you can’t deny them something that is rightfully theirs,” Boateng says.
Holloway says the reason the African-Americans were called obruni’s and why the locals were opposed to giving away free land to them was because they thought Nkrumah was moving too fast.
“They really didn’t understand his vision and what he was trying to do because they didn’t have the intellectual know-how and sophistication to understand these ideas, they were concerned about surviving,” Holloway says. “That’s why Nkrumah wanted to educate his people, so that they would understand what he was trying to do.”
During his second visit to Ghana, Holloway had an interesting experience in a Ghanaian village called Konongo where he was confronted by a
heap of young children. They ran up beside him shouting “obruni! Obruni!” Puzzled, Holloway turned to his interpreter and asked for a translation. He was told they were yelling “white man! White man! There goes the white man,” Holloway says.
He asked the interpreter to explain to the children that he was not a white man, but that he was African-American. The interpreter obliged, but to no success. One child walked up to Holloway and said that was not true.
“He said look at yourself, you have the same clothing as a white man, you talk like a white man, you walk like a white man, you have money like a white man and therefore you are a white man,” Holloway said.
He calls the experience “deductive logic 101.” No matter how hard they tried to explain to the child that Holloway was African-American, he would not believe them because he didn’t see my color, he saw my culture, he said.
Holloway said there was a second wave of African-Americans that came to Ghana during the 1990s and.The exodus had died down a little after Nkrumah was overthrown in 1966 and the African-American community in Ghana is not as big as it used to be anymore.
Holloway said that for the most part, all those early African-Americans who went and made Ghana their home has passed away and it’s their children who are now Ghanaian citizens and are continuing to make contributions to the country. “I think the second wave of African-Americans are now coming in as entrepreneurs and investors and they’re motivated not by political ideas but (I think) they’re motivated by economic opportunities,” Holloway said.
For Holloway, the trip is one he recommend everyAfrican-American takes at least once in their lives.
“Just like Muslim’s go to Mecca and take that sacred pilgrimage, every African-American needs to go to Africa, particularly Ghana,” Holloway said.
“They need to make that positive connection and linkage,” to their African history, Holloway said.
Ultimately, for Holloway, like for the thousands of other African-Americans who make the trip, it’s about gaining a sense of pride in seeing black people in complete control of their society,
“For the first time in my life I saw black people as the majority…It was like being born again.”
Johan Mengesha can be reached at Johan.firstname.lastname@example.org