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  • Writer's pictureKaren Okonkwo

My Honest Thoughts On The "Year of Return"

Updated: Jan 7, 2020

As I sit on my flight, I am tired, but pleased. Satisfied. Enlightened. Ghana owes me nothing. Now I understand that my perception of Ghana is skewed based on the fact that I’ve had several “head starts” to the climate of countries like Ghana. So I packed my patience with everyone else and just went on the journey. The similarities were obvious: the ghetto juxtaposed with big, fancy buildings and speckles of luxury here and there. Jollof rice and chicken served on every corner. Children bombarding your window hoping they can cash in on your sympathy. People on the streets bargaining with you just to come up on their already minimum wages. Time never being of the essence.

But, it was the differences that shaped my overall experience. As a first-generation Nigerian-American woman who holds a Nigerian passport, I’ve been to Nigeria several times. Most specifically, Mbaise in Imo State where my family is from. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I visited Lagos, Nigeria as an adult that I got to see it for all its hype. I say all this to say that it would do Accra an injustice to draw many comparisons to Lagos because it isn’t apples to apples when you consider the populations inhabiting the cities. Lagos is a big, bustling city which like Accra stands as the capital of Nigeria therefore, hundreds of millions of people reside there and there is just so much more of a big city vibe which naturally feels like so much more to see and do. Nevertheless, I can speak on feelings and Accra felt more peaceful, more safe. It was the perfect place to process even more intently my identity.

You see, most people headed to Accra, Ghana for the Year of Return. It was a marketing campaign that welcomed Africans in the diaspora to come back after experiencing slavery exactly 400 years prior. The first enslaved African was documented to reach the shores of Jamestown, Virginia in 1619 - stolen from their native home in Africa, stripped of their dignity, separated from their families as they were sold to the highest bidder. Treated like dogs, not the beautiful humans that they were (and still are). Government officials thought now more than ever it was time for Africans in the diaspora (particularly America, the Caribbean and Europe where many slaves were shipped to) to come and discover their roots and connect with the land.

I’m fortunate enough to know where I come from. I’m from Ogbe Ahiara Mbaise Imo State. Growing up, I would ask my Mom about slavery as we started to learn about it in school and she would scowl at me and say, “We didn’t have that where we were.” The convo would end there. In my adulthood when I confronted my Mom about slavery again, she said it was never taught in her school. It simply wasn’t a part of the curriculum so she never thought about it. My Dad would put more focus on things like the Biafran War. So all the while I always wondered if my family was immune to slavery. Two years ago out of pure curiosity, I did Africans like to leave details out, so I wanted to know for sure that we were who we said we were. The results came back that I was majority Nigerian, so relieved I shared my results with fam and friends and went on my merry way. Not even a few hours after receiving my results I was bombarded on the app, instagram and my personal email from some woman who was listed as like my 7th cousin. I was quite perturbed by her excessive use of reaching out, but then it hit me: Karen, you know where you come from. You’ve felt the beautiful, humid Nigerian sun kiss your black skin, you’ve grown up eating the traditional food, hearing the Native tongue, getting lost in the jungle, knowing a few generations of family history. That got robbed from her.

When I responded I decided to entertain a phone call with this woman. The excitement but also hurt in her voice was a reminder of the aftermath of the wicked ways of the people responsible for slavery. She said me participating in ancestry was a miracle because most Africans who know where they came from don’t typically take the test. She said me answering added one more missing piece to the puzzle of where she comes from. You see, historians estimate that 60 million Africans were captured and sent off in boats to become slaves in the aforementioned regions. Historians estimate that only 12 million of them made it to that final, horrific destination. The rest were killed or died on the way, hundreds stacked on top of each other like cattle traveling on the open seas for months with no food or drink, defecating on themselves. My heart quenches when I think of their sheer pain, cries and confusion as to why this was happening to them. Why they may never see their home or their families again. So I was so glad to bridge that small gap for my 7th cousin.

She isn’t the only one feeling a gap though. I have too. Watching all of these Africans from the diaspora coming home to somehow understand their identity through the environment, food, clothes, music and language was interesting to digest because I feel like I was in a similar boat with them. Mine was a smaller boat though centered around language. My family never taught me Igbo, our Native dialect. It has put me at odds when I return to Nigeria because though I’m connected to every other aspect of my culture, like American Descendants of Slaves (ADOS), I don’t know the language which I think is the biggest ways to become connected to the motherland. So as I watched and listened to ADOS cry about filling a hole that they’ve been carrying their whole life, I felt a little selfish saying, “Me too.”

Sounds like privilege- right? Well, that’s another thing I wrestled with being in Ghana. On my flight to Ghana I quietly smiled to myself as I watched African-Americans/Afro-Caribbeans/Afro-Europeans enter the plane with their kente on paired with their Nikes and silk bonnets ready to feel something different on the motherland. I was also smiling realizing that for the first time in my life, I saw African-Americans and just black people in general of all ages occupying first class and business class or premium economy seats. The loud vibrancy on the plane was nostalgic and a reminder of the constant joy black people embody no matter what odds we are against. Though the intent for most on the plane was to solve a missing puzzle to their family lineage, it was crazy to see how there was privilege in that. Round trip tickets to Ghana were pushing $3K and above. So elite, well-off Africans in the diaspora were the main ones who got to experience this pilgrimage. I worried that this elitism would impact expectations and also impact the experience for locals. Are we disenfranchising and marginalizing the people there? In ‘returning’ are we somehow gentrifying the locals? Every part of my trip was the most luxe experience: I stayed in a 4.5 star hotel, Ubered everywhere or hitched a ride with someone who had a driver, had all-access media passes to Afrochella, was a +1 to the President’s house Party, rubbed shoulders or was in the same rooms as Tina Knowles, Naomi Campbell, Lupita N’yongo and Jidenna, hung out with all the elite black creatives. All the while, I wondered what experience the locals were having and have been having before my privileged self ever got there. It seemed like I was living in a utopian perspective of Ghana.

I ended up attending an event that my friend was on a panel for put on by Magic and Melanin. It brought all of my thoughts to the table by bringing people across the diaspora and a local to speak on this surge of people coming to the country. There was an acknowledgment of the privilege of being able to travel to Ghana and it was met with a responsibility to tread lightly in activating that privilege when interacting with locals. It reminded everyone to stop and take the time to talk and listen to locals and understand their way of life rather than coming in and telling locals how things should be run which is often what privileged people do. The phrase “acting like colonizers” was a good example to put into perspective. Someone in the audience said, “It’s irrational to try to apply change without first learning - knowledge, empathy, action. It has to be intentional; not passive.” We can’t go to somebody else’s home and tell them how to run it without first understanding them and their ways.

Understanding history is so important which is why I was glad to be able to stray away for a day and visit the slave castle in Cape Coast as well as visit the National Park. Admittedly, I don’t believe I had the same feelings as people who were African American and didn’t know their African family lineage visiting there. Remember, I grew up being told that my immediate family had no ties to slavery. So my sentiments were more so of total sorrow over how human beings could be treated like this. It humanized all the African Americans around me. I literally kept saying, “Wow, all of you have a relative that came through here.” “How incredible that you are a product of these brave people?!” “You are these people’s wildest dreams- you’re their legacy.” I also reflected on how much me and my family have benefited from slaves revolting and demanding independence. African Americans paved the way so that my father could voluntarily make his way to America in the 80s via Nigeria to build the success he has today which in turn I benefited from. I gained a level of privilege. Every African in the diaspora has benefited.

Going back to my initial comments about feeling out of place not knowing my dialect/language, maybe I needed something to be relatable to everyone on this journey of bridging the gaps and becoming unified as Africans. We all have something to discover, unpack, learn and share. In this new year ahead, I will be more diligent about learning my dialect/language and also encouraging Africans in the diaspora to pay a visit to Ghana, Nigeria or other African countries to ask the locals questions and figure out how synergy can be made so we can all make our ancestors proud and let them know that they did not die in vain.

What was your experience and feedback on visiting Ghana or any African country last year?

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