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African-Americans returning to Ghana: A photo blog

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Plaque on the wall of the W.E.B Du Bois Museum

By Marije Maliepaard            My Master’s research is about African-Americans who return to Ghana after their ancestors got enslaved and brought to the Americas during the slave trade. My research group themselves have not physically lived in Africa before but they do have the feeling they return. A famous African-American and Pan-Africanist who also returned was W.E.B. Du Bois. He was one of the founders of the American civil rights organization for ‘colored’ people, NAACP. Eventually, he settled in Accra, Ghana, but passed away three years later. He is buried next to his former house, which is now turned into a museum.

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The African-American Association Ghana (AAAG) that is located on the same compound as the W.E.B. Du Bois museum and is an NGO that helps the cultural, social, spiritual and economic reintegration of African-Americans returning to Ghana. They have monthly meetings and had a great range of activities throughout the month of February, in honor of Black History Month. This picture shows the preparations for the month’s launch. The stage was nicely decorated with African fabrics and artifacts.

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The slave castle in Elmina

During the activities of the Black History Month activities but also during many other conversations the slave trade was mentioned. Ghana, or Gold Coast as it was called at that time, has two of the biggest forts that were used to keep enslaved people that were going to be shipped to the ‘New World’. These forts are located about four hours from Accra in the towns of Cape Coast and Elmina. They are open for people who would like to learn more about this part of history. Especially many African-Americans visit one of the castles and often express to feel very connected to their ancestors and sometimes even feel the horror of what happened in the dungeons.

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An important element that can be seen at the castle in Cape Coast is the ‘door of no return’. They gave this name after the slave trade was abolished but when European ships docked close to the castle, the slaves would go through this door and be brought to the ships. This picture is taken just outside ‘the door of no return’ (when the guide kept emphasizing that we would definitely return). This part of the beach is full of fishing boats with flags from different countries. The black one in the front is a pirate flag.

Marije foto 5Between Elmina and Cape Coast there is a guest house that is founded by an African-American. Wall paintings are very common in Ghana and I saw this one right next to the guest house. The text says: ‘If you play only the white notes on a piano you get only sharps; if only black key you get flat; but if you play the two together you get harmony and beautiful music’. The bird that is displayed behind the face is one of the Adinkra symbols of the ethnic group Akan. The symbol is called Sankofa and means: ‘go back and get it’. This has become an important symbol for the African-American community and other Africans from the Diaspora.

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The tradition of wall paintings can also be seen at the wall of the AAAG office. The two faces that are painted here are W.E.B. Du Bois (left) and Kwame Nkrumah. Nkrumah was a Pan-Africanist and played a big role in the independence of the Gold Coast in 1957. He was the first president and changed the name to Ghana. Nkrumah encouraged Africans from the Diaspora to come back and resettle in Ghana. Obviously, the two are important figures in the context of African-Americans returnees.

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Throughout my fieldwork period I stayed in the capital city of Accra. Mostly because the AAAG is located there and the activities of Black History Month took place in Accra. Accra is a lively city with lots of traffic, chop bars – where you can get street food and busy markets. The biggest market is Makola market and spans a couple of blocks in the middle of the city. You can get anything you need. No supermarkets needed!

Marije Maliepaard is a Master student Social and Cultural Anthropology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

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