Africans in the di­as­pora

Ghana is the first African coun­try to open its doors to peo­ple of African de­scent from all over the world – but bu­reau­cracy takes a toll

Africa Renewal - - Front Page - By Efami Dovi

In Prampram, a town just an hour’s drive east of Ghana’s cap­i­tal Ac­cra, many hol­i­day houses line the shores of the South At­lantic Ocean. One of them be­longs to Jerome Thomp­son. Lo­cated only 500 me­tres from the wa­ter, Mr. Thomp­son’s house is re­silient to the ef­fects of the salt and wind. The floors, win­dows and doors are made of hard wood. His self-de­signed fur­ni­ture is made from qual­ity Ghana­ian tim­ber and hand-carved by lo­cal ar­ti­sans.

“The ocean helps me fall asleep and wakes me up in the morn­ing,” says Mr. Thomp­son, an African-Amer­i­can re­tiree tak­ing a stroll on the beach where palm trees shade hand-carved ca­noes. “Where else can I live this close to the ocean? It would cost me mil­lions of dol­lars!”

Mr. Thomp­son, a na­tive of Mary­land in the United States, re­tired to Ghana 11 years ago. He first vis­ited the West African coun­try on a tour in 2000. “I fell in love with Ghana and its peo­ple,” he re­called, dur­ing an in­ter­view with Africa Re­newal. “It was good see­ing black peo­ple, my peo­ple, in charge of the coun­try (Ghana).”

That trip took him to many at­trac­tions across the coun­try, in­clud­ing the Cape Coast Cas­tle from where cen­turies ago mil­lions of Africans walked through the in­fa­mous “Door of No Re­turn” into slave ships bound for plan­ta­tions in the Amer­i­cas and the Caribbean, never to set foot in their home­lands again.

But for their descen­dants like Mr. Thomp­son’s, the sign that hangs on that in­fa­mous door to­day reads: “Door of Re­turn”.

“I was so ready to turn my back on the United States,” he says, adding: “We did so much for the US, yet they don’t want to see us as first-class cit­i­zens.”

A feel­ing of be­long­ing

Mr. Thomp­son is one of the 20 or so African-Amer­i­cans and other peo­ple from the di­as­pora of African de­scent who have found a home in this fish­ing com­mu­nity, at­tracted by the beaches and the peace and tran­quil­ity the town of­fers away from the hus­tle and bus­tle of Ac­cra.

Ac­cord­ing to 2014 es­ti­mates, more than 3,000 African-Amer­i­cans and peo­ple of Caribbean de­scent live in Ghana, a coun­try of about 26 mil­lion peo­ple.

What­ever their mo­tives, Ghana, the first sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa coun­try to shake off colo­nial rule 58 years ago, has be­come the des­ti­na­tion of choice for di­as­po­rans look­ing for a spir­i­tual home and an an­ces­tral con­nec­tion in Africa.

While some re­turnees have gone through the emo­tional jour­ney of trac­ing their fam­i­lies through DNA testing, for the ma­jor­ity who just come to visit, or to set­tle like Mr. Thomp­son, the feel­ing of be­ing “home” on the con­ti­nent is sat­is­fy­ing. “It’s good to know that you came from some place and it’s not just a fig­ment of some­one’s imag­i­na­tion,” he says.

Claudette Cham­ber­lain shares Mr. Thomp­son’s feel­ings of be­long­ing. She was born in Ja­maica but lived in the US and United King­dom. Seven years ago, she moved to Ghana and built a five-bed guest­house at Prampram. “When I got off the plane, I just had this over­whelm­ing feel­ing come over me,” Claudette says, adding that she re­al­ized then that Ghana was the place she wanted to be. She misses her mother and sib­lings who still live in Lon­don but she doesn’t miss Lon­don. “Ghana is def­i­nitely home, I’m go­ing to spend the rest of my days here.”

Ms. Cham­ber­lain, a for­mer den­tist, says while her na­tive Ja­maica is more beau­ti­ful, it is not as peace­ful as Ghana.

Cur­rently, there are around 200 mil­lion peo­ple in the Amer­i­cas iden­ti­fy­ing them­selves as of African de­scent, ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions. Mil­lions more live in other parts of the world, out­side of the African con­ti­nent, and in most cases they ex­pe­ri­ence racism and dis­crim­i­na­tion.

To pro­mote the re­spect for and pro­tec­tion of their hu­man rights, the UN Gen­eral As­sem­bly pro­claimed 2015–2024 as the “The In­ter­na­tional Decade for the Peo­ple of African De­scent”, to be marked an­nu­ally on 25 March.

Right of Abode

Ghana, from whose shores the ma­jor­ity of 15 mil­lion Africans passed into slav­ery, has in­vited its descen­dants in the di­as­pora to re­turn home. The coun­try has had a

long his­tory, from the days of its first pres­i­dent, Kwame Nkrumah, of en­cour­ag­ing the re­turn of per­sons of African de­scent to help with the con­ti­nent’s devel­op­ment.

In 2000, the coun­try passed a law on the ‘Right of Abode’, which al­lows a per­son of African de­scent to ap­ply and be granted the right to stay in Ghana in­def­i­nitely. And re­cently, the coun­try set up a Di­as­pora Af­fairs Bureau un­der the for­eign af­fairs min­istry to pro­vide a sus­tain­able link be­tween the Ghana­ian di­as­pora and var­i­ous gov­ern­ment agen­cies to achieve devel­op­ment and in­vest­ment goals.

But it has not been so sim­ple for African-Amer­i­cans and Caribbeans in Ghana. Only Rita Mar­ley, wife of late reg­gae icon Bob Mar­ley, has been granted the in­def­i­nite stay, and that hap­pened only last year. Those who ap­plied years ago are yet to re­ceive any re­sponse from the in­te­rior min­istry, whose char­ter states that the process should take only six months.

“It’s as if they don’t know that such a thing ex­ists,” Mr. Thomp­son says of the per­son­nel who han­dle the res­i­dency ap­pli­ca­tions.

The Ghana Caribbean As­so­ci­a­tion and the African-Amer­i­can As­so­ci­a­tion of Ghana say they are en­gag­ing the ap­pro­pri­ate gov­ern­ment depart­ment on the mat­ter.

But what Ms. Cham­ber­lain wants, like many oth­ers with res­i­dency or work per­mits that are re­new­able ev­ery year or two, is a more per­ma­nent ar­range­ment. She says: “I just feel I am com­ing home. So why should I be go­ing through all this?”

Be­yond laws

More needs to be done to make re­turn­ing African broth­ers and sis­ters feel wel­come back on the con­ti­nent if Africa is to ben­e­fit from their re­turn. Sa­muel Amankwah, the direc­tor of re­search at Ghana’s in­te­rior min­istry, ad­mits that the au­thor­i­ties need to en­gage more. “Those who left our shores are still our broth­ers and sis­ters,” he says, adding: “Of­fer­ing Africans in the di­as­pora a right to abode in Ghana is a way of en­gag­ing for our com­mon in­ter­est.”

When the late tel­e­van­ge­list Myles Munroe vis­ited Ghana in 2012 and paid a cour­tesy call on Pres­i­dent John Ma­hama, then a vice pres­i­dent, he en­cour­aged peo­ple of African de­scent living in the di­as­pora to take ad­van­tage of Ghana’s Right of Abode law and re­con­nect with the African con­ti­nent.

Mixed feel­ings

De­spite some ini­tial set­backs, peo­ple of African de­scent con­tinue to mi­grate to the con­ti­nent, though not in the ex­pected droves. And like Florindo John­son, who just re­tired from Delta Air­lines this Jan­uary, says: it is im­por­tant to en­cour­age more blacks to come.

Hav­ing flown in and out of Ghana for nine years, Ms. John­son, a Caribbean who lived in Chicago, is re­tir­ing in Ghana to op­er­ate her six apart­ments in Prampram that she in­tends to rent out as hol­i­day ac­com­mo­da­tions. “I re­ally want black peo­ple to come and see for them­selves. It is dis­heart­en­ing that a lot of black peo­ple don’t want to come be­cause of what they’ve seen in the me­dia, yet white peo­ple come.”

Efami Dovi

From left to right: Claudette Cham­ber­lain, Jerome Thomp­son, Florindo John­son and Ese Ad­jabeng in front of Ahoto Guest­house.

Africa Sec­tion/ Franck Ku­wonu

The “Door of No Re­turn” in Ghana where slaves passed through on their way to the Amer­i­cas.

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