At the airport, a Togolese man, George, asked me “Why do they write Black on the birth certificate in America?”
How do you explain the concept of race to someone that has never had to learn it? I tried to imagine a world where minority and inequality had nothing to do with race, and I quickly realized that I could not.
Colonization happened because outside nations wanted to control other nations’ wealth through education, research, and publishing, all of which are vital to the oppression of indigenous people around the globe. The term “Black” originated from colonizers’ attempts to separate, demean and destroy African identity. Now, in 2019, identifying as black in America does not necessarily mean you are African American. Colonizers created race and this distinction, “Black” ignores the vastness of our diversity.
Awkwaaba means welcome in Twi. Ghanaians are so nice, peaceful and considerate! My connection with this country, specifically, the people, is powerful. It’s real. It’s different. I belong without having to prove anything and I am blending in pretty well here. Never have I ever, ‘blended in.’ It is an inviting feeling. Each moment in Ghana contributed greatly to a unique and rare experience. Per James Baldwin, “an identity would seem to be arrived at by the way in which a person uses his experience.” I came here to study education within the context of development, but identity and its underlying importance in everything we do, quickly became the focus of this trip.
On Friday, June 14th, 2019, we made our way down to the Elmina Castle. We had the privilege of touring this UNESCO world heritage site with Ghanian students from the University of Winneba. We are a diverse group of New Yorkers. It is about a three hour drive and palm trees line the coast so perfectly, only God could have been responsible. The drive down to the castle is scenic, bumpy and peaceful. On the way from Accra, you pass the University of Winneba and the University of Cape Coast. Elmina is a fishing village and the Elmina Lagoon is situated behind the castle’s. I wish the lagoon could talk because it is the only thing that remains that bore witness to the atrocities that happened, years ago, in the Elmina Castle.
The Elmina Lagoon is overcrowded with boats and men with items for sale will approach you as soon as you exit the car. I did not find it alarming, but it was a bit of a surprise. I just remembered the script I learned in my Sixth grade DARE program (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) when responding to peer pressure, “Just say no”. Of course, I was respectful and it never hurts to just be cool about it. The Elminians are very polite but will haggle you for a sale, even if only for one Cedi. Do not stop to talk and keep moving towards the entrance. They might walk with you and they might ask your name along the way. If you give it to them, you should expect to receive a seashell with your name and date of visit written on it in sharpie. They will try to sell it to you at the end of your tour once you exit the castle. I was touched when they presented it to me, but I was not going to open my wallet in front of anyone, so they decided to give the seashell to me for free. It is one of my favorite souvenirs.
The castle has a commanding presence, and the mystery of what lies ahead creates a rather sobering entrance into this historic monument.
Use the bathroom before you begin your tour. The narrator begins the tour in 1471, when Portuguese explorers initially sailed to Ghana because they had heard the land was rich with Gold and Ivory. The local tribes ended up trading gold, spices, and art for liquor, guns, and gunpowder, amongst other items. Because the tribes were trading gold for cheap, perishable goods, the Portuguese assumed there was a lot of gold and resultantly named the area “The Mine.” The name has been distorted over time, so this part of town is now known as Elmina. In 1482, one of the explorers negotiated with a Chief for the land in Elmina and shortly after, their Elmina Castle, was built.
“The castles were the ultimate stop in many ways. They provided the last experience that men and women had in their homeland before their final departure. For those who didn’t make it to the new world, the castles were the last place they ever saw on land.”Ghana is now home to over 40 castles through which more than 20 million Africans were traded into slavery. African Americans had their lineage stripped from them during the African diaspora. Names, ancestors, family, culture, language, values, all links home, gone. “The Transatlantic slave trade was the biggest population movement in history, displacing millions of people from Africa over a period of 300 years.” “Currently (2017), the castle has been in existence for 535 years: Portuguese (1482-1637), 155 years; Dutch (1637-1872), 235 years; Brititsh (1872-1957), 85 years; Ghana (1957-2017), 60 years.” There is a ‘door of no return’ at every castle in Ghana.
I am a descendent of Africans. My surname is of English descent. I am more than “Black.” I am African American and in that, there is so much to be proud of. A friend said I was a black star when I arrived in Ghana. We can not continue to let titles strip us of our story.
We need to converse with each other to learn the truth. Here, we are more alike than we are different so we must connect to correct what is not right. We each bring a new perspective to the table so let’s respectfully chose to share, question, challenge, listen and learn from each other. West Africans will learn much from visiting our home just as we have learned much from visiting theirs.
This will help loosen and hopefully undo the chains that have been placed around our minds. To tell me that I am a descendant of slaves limits my history to the colonial era. Our history did not start with slavery. We have a long history of culture and traditions that still exist today. There is a pre-colonial era filled with many beautiful stories about our ancestors. Learn the stories and you too will be a proud descendant of Africans. I see this amazing opportunity and responsibility to ensure the stories and the history we are taught, on both sides of the Atlantic are full, complete stories that honor our ancestors, encourage and inspire us all to be better people today than we were yesterday, and push us forward into a better future. Every story has multiple sides, perspectives and viewpoints so we must learn to acknowledge the good with the bad. The onus is on us to realize our influence, the power and the importance of sharing these stories with all in the African diaspora.
Perhaps even greater than education and development, is the responsibility we all have to hold onto our values, relearn our culture and our native language. Is that not what history as it is taught in school should be attempting to do? We should know the origins of the Kente fabric (the fabric African Americans wear when graduating), the importance of the Ashanti, Fante, Gaa and all the other tribes. We can learn the Twi language and we can learn about the infamous Anansi. There are many tribes here and more than 46 other languages spoken in this country. We should know that Ghana was the first African country to become independent. We should know who Dr. Kwame Nkrumah was. We should know the relevance of Marcus Garvey’s philosophy, today. Might he have been ahead of his time? Can his dream be revived? History may start at different points but it is not over yet.
Having a home and a culture, outside of America is one of the greatest privileges.
Just as imporant as our shared history is our ability to educate so that we all can develop an understanding of the current state of our communities within the context of eduation and development. The minimum wage in Ghana is only 8 Cedis per hour (as of today, that is $1.50 per hour). There is a lot of money in the hands of few and there is a huge gap between the rich and the poor. Mortgage interest rates in Ghana range between 14% to 30% depending on your credit history and auto loans average 32%. Leasing is not an option. Banks are privately held and there is a general impression that the government can’t (and won’t) do anything about it. Many roads remain undeveloped and access to quality education comes few and far between, with NGOs not just filling the governments gaps, but creating the standard of what quality education should be. Healthcare is so bad that politicians and those with the ability to do so leave the country for their for healthcare. Apart from dealing with these issues, Ghanians work very hard to make very little income. I have a friend with a bachelors degree from a university in Ghana and she earns only $277 per month working as an administrative assistant. 80% of the Ghanian workforce works in the informal job market.
Ultimately, we all need to learn what is needed to build a better society for all. This responsibility seems to fall in the hands of the government, our educators and those funding education. In Ghana, the education plan for the next 40 years is funded by the UK and their textbooks are published by Cambridge.
Some things transcend time. For me, I took home my Fante name, Esi, which means born on Sunday. It also just so happens to be my grandmother’s name. Is it coincidence? Who knows. It does make a pretty good story.
You’d be amazed at what the possibilities are when you decide to break out of the box the world has tried to put you in. Nobody can curse forever what is eternally blessed.
What would it look like to contribute towards the restoration of the African American back to his/her roots to help them gain a more thorough understanding of their past so that they can use it for the collective good of Ghana and Africa? How impactful would be to unite African diasporians with their ancestral roots? From this day forward, I am devoted to helping us all strengthen our relationship with and knowledge of Ghana and other west African countries. Thank you Ghana for giving me a glimpse into my past, for strengthening my roots and for giving me a sense of belonging that I have never experienced before.
Diarra, Lilian. “Ghana’s Slave Castles: The Shocking Story of the Ghanaian Cape Coast.” Culture Trip, 26 Mar. 2014, theculturetrip.com/africa/ghana/articles/ghana-s-slave-castles-the-shocking-story-of-the-ghanaian-cape-coast/.
Mutizwa, Nyasha. “Cape Coast: Ghana’s Slave Castles [The Morning Call].” Africanews, Africanews, 18 Oct. 2018, http://www.africanews.com/2018/10/18/cape-coast-ghana-s-slave-castles//.
Ashun, Ato. Elmina, The Castles and The Slave Trade. First Publishing 2004, 2017.