Beyond the Return

Posted by: Andy Djaba Comments: 0 0 Post Date: 29/09/2020

Andy reflects on the wider implications of Ghana’s successful Year of Return initiative and what these could mean for Black people everywhere

Black Star Gate, Accra // Wikimedia

Described by some as the Miami or Ibiza of West Africa; Ghana’s capital Accra, was the place to be over the 2019 festive period. In light of the fact that 2019 marked 400 years since the first recorded arrival of enslaved Africans on American soil (in what was then the English colony of Virginia), Ghana president Nana Akufo-Addo coined 2019 the “Year of Return”. This, the culmination of a movement sparked by his impassioned anti-Western dependency speech, acted as a rallying call for the diaspora far and wide to “return home”, connect with, and re-imagine a future “beyond aid” for the continent. Thousands of young Africans across the diaspora responded to President Akufo-Addo’s powerful call and flocked to the capital to party and unite with those on the continent.

As a British-born Ghanaian raised in North West London whose parents moved to the UK in the ‘80s, my personal background is not too dissimilar to that of many other second-generation immigrants. However, since my dad started working there in 2012, I have been fortunate enough to frequently visit Ghana (on average, about twice a year for close to a decade). As such, I have been able to witness first-hand the transition in the Western perception of Ghana from a somewhat innocuous destination to a trendy hotspot for millennials across the diaspora. Honestly speaking, it hasn’t always been the case that I’ve considered myself lucky to visit Ghana as often as I have been able to. Once the natural novelty of returning to the “motherland” had worn off, I distinctly remember being the butt of several ignorant “jokes” from my peers, particularly around the time of the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Since circa 2016, however, Ghana has seen a sharp rise in popularity which has coincided with the trajectory of African music and culture into mainstream popularity amongst Western audiences, as evidenced by the box-office shattering reception of films like 2018’s Black Panther and the success artists like Burna Boy and Davido have seen in the US market. Coupling this with the Year of Return initiative, which saw the Ghana Tourism Authority partner with various travel and lifestyle brands to bring a jam-packed schedule of events targeted at the millennial demographic seeking to indulge in Accra’s high life, and the annual December descent of the diaspora on Ghana took on a life of its own in 2019.

“We can no longer continue to make policy for ourselves, in our country, in our region, in our continent on the basis of whatever support that the Western world or France, or the European Union can give us. It will not work. It has not worked and it will not work.”

– President Nana Akufo-Addo

With so much on offer this December, it was a case of picking your poison and, whether your choice was the inaugural Ghana edition of popular beach festival Afronation, Afrochella at El Wak Stadium, Mr Eazi’s Detty Rave, or any of the countless other events at spots including BloomBar and Luna Rooftop bar, there were numerous opportunities for revellers to celebrate African music and culture. Personally, I went for Afronation Ghana and was impressed by the relative smooth running of what was just the second outing of the festival. However, given the COVID-19 pandemic, the ambitious plans to unite the African diaspora through international festivals across the globe in destinations including Puerto Rico and Mexico may ultimately backfire on festival co-founder, SMADE. What also struck me about my December in Ghana was the rampant creativity on show from a culture that is developing at a startling rate. We are witnessing the early stages of a creative renaissance in Ghana and Africa, similar to the Harlem Renaissance of 1918-37, which saw a blossoming of African American culture, particularly in the creative arts, and arguably the most influential movement in African American literary history, with the emergence of African American writers calling for greater social and political engagement, such as Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston. Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president and the revolutionary who led the country to independence from Britain in 1957, once said the African Renaissance is supposed to tell the stories from the societies the way it is. That is to say, there is no need to wait for someone to come and tell our stories for us.

What is happening in Ghana and across Africa is a truly phenomenal creative revolution and the young and exciting creative communities emerging are platforming authenticity, telling Ghanaian and African stories in a manner which is unapologetically Black and unapologetically African. Ghanaian and African culture and creativity are being elevated on a more global scale and, crucially, this is being done on our own terms, driven by Africans both on the continent and in the diaspora. Far too often in the West, Black creativity is met with the rhetoric of, and celebrated for, “changing narratives” and “breaking stereotypes”. Whilst I have no issues with striving for excellence, I am uncomfortable with the trend of demanding “Black excellence” of ourselves because white mediocrity is often used as an implicit standard against which to measure this excellence. This is especially true when considering the fact that the designation of what is deemed a ‘success’ is still overwhelmingly bestowed on the parts of DIY culture which exist in close proximity to, reflect, or have been accepted and affirmed in some capacity by white structures and institutions. This begs the deeper question of what the intrinsic value of our culture is outside of the white gaze. However, I liked the fact that, in this case, it didn’t feel like this was the focus, much like how the Harlem Renaissance involved Black artistic development with relative autonomy from white traditions and was characterised by Black artists having greater control over representations of Black culture and experience.

“The festival that united the African diaspora” // Afronation Ghana

Another large part of the reason I enjoyed this year’s trip to Ghana so much, especially compared to previous trips, is the fact so many of my fellow British Ghanaians and Ghanaian Londoner friends were also out there. Early on in the trip, my sister and I attended a speech on leadership and career development which my dad delivered at a conference held by his church. He proudly started the speech by telling the audience, “my kids are at the back”, before going on to joke, “you could say they’re sort of obrunis*!” This harmless joke at our expense is rooted in truth; although travelling to Ghana is often referred to as “returning home”, and that is the entire essence of the “Year of Return” initiative, the fact of the matter is London is the only home I’ve ever known. Third Space theory, attributed to Indian English scholar and critical theorist, Homi K. Bhaba, explains this concept of being stuck in the middle, which is all too familiar for many in the diaspora, living in countries which are inherently violent towards their existence whilst simultaneously feeling like a foreigner in the “home” nation. Second generation immigrants must all go on a journey to discover self. It’s not straightforward, it’s awkward, it’s uncomfortable, oftentimes sad and leads to anger. Some do so willingly, whilst others find safety in fooling themselves into thinking they are truly accepted in either their home nation or their adopted nation. With that being said, a sense of Black British identity has been painstakingly carved out over the years and I found it comforting to be surrounded by so many Black Brits with similar lived experiences, so as to feel a little less like a foreigner.

*(Obruni means foreigner in Twi and is colloquially used to refer to white people)

“All people of African Descent whether they live in North or South America, the Caribbean or in other parts of the world, are Africans and belong to the African nation.”

– Kwame Nkrumah

With its aim of encouraging unity between all people of African origin, both on the African continent and across the diaspora, 2019’s Year of Return initiative can be described as modern pan-Africanism. Pan-Africanism and calls for African unity are, of course, not new concepts by any stretch of the imagination.  In fact, pan-Africanism was particularly popular during the struggle for independence in Africa (espoused by revolutionary leaders such as Algeria’s Ahmed Ben Bella, DR Congo’s Patrice Lumumba and Guinea’s Ahmed Sékou Touré), as well as among influential early 20th century African American thinkers, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, and with political activists like Marcus Garvey. Pan-Africanism is important because the success of all Black people is inexorably linked to that of Africa; Black ownership and self-determination globally is something children of the African diaspora should be striving for and that begins on the African continent.

Last year, I attended the launch event for Sonaaar, an events-based social and professional network aimed at profiling and empowering the next generation of pan-African leaders in the UK and, during her keynote speech on pan-Africanism in the 21st Century, Patricia Lamour MBE claimed that the failure of pan-African purists has been their inability to reach the young people where they are and in what they’re interested in. Given the fact that Africa has the world’s youngest population, with a median age of just 20 years old, according to the United Nations, it is particularly important that young Africans are engaged. This is what makes the Year of Return such a promising initiative; by engaging the diaspora through Black culture, pan-Africanism is made accessible to young Africans in the 21st century. My hope is that improved connections and the expansion of the global creative community does not only mark a cultural change in how children of the diaspora relate to the motherland, but also a socio-political change. Whether this happens is, in part, dependent on what we in the diaspora do moving forward. 30 years ago, when my parents first moved to the UK, they had no plans for the move to be permanent. However, decades on and three children later, they still hadn’t returned. Change will be gradual but we must stem the drain of talent which sees young Black people leave Africa to build their wealth in the West with the intention of sending a portion “back home”. Therefore, if we want to see a world, in our lifetime, where there is sufficient opportunity in Africa for its young population to remain, then it is imperative that we engage with our countries of origin with the long term view of permanently returning.

“A state in the grip of neo-colonialism is not master of its own destiny. It is this factor which makes neo-colonialism such a serious threat to world peace.”

– Kwame Nkrumah

In light of the recent public discourse regarding (anti-Black) racism following the widespread protests in the US and beyond sparked by the police murder of George Floyd and countless other Black people, many people in the diaspora have found themselves at a loss, coming to the realisation that the countries in which they live seem committed to treating their Black lives as less than equal. Upon reflection during this period, I find myself increasingly becoming a separationist  – not a segregationist or integrationist  – and I often question why we beg for a seat at the table here, in a burning Babylon, whilst continuing to neglect the wealth of burgeoning opportunity on the continent. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, London-based think tank, Future Agenda, projected GDP on the continent could hit $2.6 trillion in 2020 and projected GDP growth of 4.1% by 2021. With 6 of the top 15 fastest growing economies in 2019 being African countries  and the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCTFA) formed last year to accelerate intra-African trade, the continent is on the cusp of industrial revolution. Every time a region of the world goes from poor to rich, one country tends to lead the charge. In Europe, the UK was the first to industrialise. In East Asia, it was Japan. In Africa, Ghana could be responsible for getting the process started. Ghana has one of the fastest growing economies on the continent, with a solid 2019 growth rate of 7%, and has numerous advantages over other countries in the region in terms of institutions, geography – it lies on the coast and has plenty of ports through which goods can be shipped and received – and human capital – its population of 31 million is large enough to create a substantial domestic market, whilst simultaneously small enough such that providing jobs and food isn’t too insurmountable a challenge. Approximately half of this population belongs to the Akan ethnic group, meaning Ghana has comparably fewer issues associated with ethnic tribalism than in many other post-colonial states. Ghana also has a relatively healthy population, with lower child mortality than its neighbours, better education and literacy rates, and scores well on international indicators of governance quality, freedom, democracy, ease of doing business and corruption. However, despite all this promise, there remains a plethora of very real barriers preventing further development in Ghana and Africa; not least the fact that, in 2016, only 43% of the sub-Saharan African population had access to electricity and there was only 39.8% internet penetration in 2019 (compared to 62.7% penetration globally).

Chief among these barriers facing the continent, however, is neo-colonialism. Kwame Nkrumah once described neo-colonialism as the last stage of imperialism and, 55 years later, it is hard to argue this hasn’t manifested. Since European colonialism ended in the latter half of the 20th century, African “freedom” has arguably been limited to subservience. The colonial pact, which sees France continue to receive colonial taxes from, and allows France to have a say on and grants it a seat in the political and economic affairs of 14 of its former colonies, is a prime example of this. With these Francophone countries unable to even sell their natural resources before consulting and giving France first refusal (regardless of whether more profit could be made through selling elsewhere), they might as well be classified as 21st century French colonies. The Western perception of Africa as a pool of resources to freely pillage has arguably persisted and, if the recommendation of two prominent French doctors to use Africa as a sample population  in which to trial a yet untested COVID-19 vaccine is evidence enough, this perception even still extends into the Western view of African bodies too.

China’s somewhat aggressive investment strategy in Africa // Business Insider

In the last decade, China has taken a particular interest in Africa. The country is by far the largest bilateral creditor to Africa, investing more than America, Japan and the United Kingdom combined, according to the World Bank. This interest shows no signs of abating and, as recently as 2018, Chinese president Xi Jinping proposed an additional $60 billion in financing for Africa in the forms of assistance, investment and loans. Western media outlets have been critical, quick to label the latest round of Chinese financing a “debt trap”, loading African countries with unsustainable financial burdens. Whilst the rampant Sinophobia in the West means China’s supposedly sinister intentions may have been overstated, this also does not mean Beijing is helping Africa develop out of mere benevolence, especially given the suspicious lack of transparency concerning many of these deals. However, many African governments, rich in natural resources but lacking the capital and indigenous engineering capability to undertake the type of large-scale construction projects necessary for further development, have welcomed Chinese investment enthusiastically and have entered into some questionable agreements. Examples of such controversial decisions include a project which added $160m to Sierra Leone’s foreign debt and saw China pay for the 62 km toll road being built between the capital, Freetown, and Masiaka, a business hub. Perhaps even more scandalous is the Kenyan government’s waiving of its sovereign immunity on the Kenya Ports Asset. This decision has left the Kenya Port Authority exposed to foreclosure should the Kenya Railways Corporation default on its loan from China’s Exim Bank; i.e. the lucrative Mombassa port, strategically placed in east Africa, is likely to be confiscated by China as a result of the Mombassa-Nairobi railway, a Chinese-funded project with Chinese management and all revenues upstreamed to China.

President Akufo-Addo’s speech re-ignited the debate regarding whether the marginal gains from foreign direct investment are worth saddling the continent with World Bank/ International Monetary Fund (IMF) debt. What needs to come with anti-Western dependency is not dependency on the sudden “benevolence” of China, but an abolition of the beggar mentality which sees Africa continue to look outside to solve its problems. It has become a case of always looking towards the West or China, and we Africans across the diaspora must seek to disrupt this. The history of imperialism and anti-Black racism, and the reluctance to train locals – large Western multinationals instead choose to employ expensive expatriates and China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which builds the transport links and infrastructure necessary to grow businesses, saw Africa import 200,000 Chinese contractors in 2017, according to the Johns Hopkins’ China-Africa Research Initiative – would implore Africa to err on the side of caution when continuing to deal with both the West and China. Although Chinese investment in the last decade has helped many African countries reach a new level of urbanisation and industrialisation (necessary for countries to thrive in the global capitalist framework), to prevent neo-colonialism continuing to plague Africa, further growth and true independence needs to be achieved with minimal outside investment. Currently, as is the case for the continent as a whole, Ghana’s main exports are all commodities, with unprocessed commodities accounting for more than 80% of the country’s export revenue. In order to become the Japan of West Africa, Ghana must undergo a major structural transformation. I’m no expert economist but, as the country looks to sustain its economic growth by diversifying its economy and shifting from its reliance on commodities and the informal, precarious employment in the service industry to a more sustainable model based on a booming manufacturing sector, what it needs is to lean on the youthful dynamism of its skilled workers from the diaspora. Ghana is not yet the success story of Africa but by seeking to engage its diaspora, it could be and could provide a model for other African countries to follow.

“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots”

– Marcus Garvey

Two days after George Floyd’s murder, in response to a tweet asking when this will end, UK rapper, author and activist, Akala tweeted the following:

I completely agree with his sentiment – Africa needs to be self-sufficient and this won’t be possible until it leans on the talent of its diaspora. Of course, I am aware that none of us currently have billions to invest in Africa so what’s next to bring this long-term dream to reality? It has been said that revolution begins with the individual and I have a number of suggestions for how millennial and generation Z Africans across the diaspora can move forward.

Earlier this year, I read Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, a chronological tale which follows the bloodline of two half-sisters born in 18th century Ghana. I can’t recommend it highly enough, an excellent read with countless quotable gems. One such gem reminded me of my favourite Bob Marley lyric – “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery / None but ourselves can free our mind”. Gyasi writes: “The British were no longer selling slaves to America, but slavery had not ended… They would just trade one type of shackles for another, trade physical ones that wrapped around wrists and ankles for the invisible ones that wrapped around the mind.” I think the tired notion that Africa needs “building” and the lingering perception of Western culture as somehow superior to African culture are harmful symptoms of this mental slavery, rooted in internalised white supremacy and anti-Blackness coupled with an African inferiority complex. Before we attempt to engage with the continent, we in the diaspora must first humble ourselves. Rather than compare, we should be taking the best of both worlds. We must reject the narrative pushed to us by the Western media of a monolithic, impoverished Africa and appreciate the diverse blend of cultures present on the continent.

In engaging with the continent, one place to start is by educating ourselves. I don’t claim to know anything about Ghanaian history or African history, but I’ve recently started to read up* on and consume online content about it, including from the It’s a Continent  and Africa’s Victors podcasts. In doing so, it has also been a somewhat empowering journey of self-discovery. I was shocked to learn that, prior to colonisation, early European visitors had documented the extravagance of various African civilisations, describing early 19th Century Kumasi, home to a high-functioning, flourishing Asante society, as incredibly ornate with tall, thatched roof buildings, toilets which flushed with boiling water and spotless streets which were swept daily. As its former name suggests, gold was in abundance in Ghana – so much so that gold statues and ornaments were littered everywhere, and simple commodities were priced using gold dust. My shock at learning this drives home the point that we have been indoctrinated to view Africa as less than. In school, African history wasn’t taught at any real depth so we must take responsibility ourselves. The onus is on us to educate ourselves and I implore fellow Africans in the diaspora to do the same. Those of us privileged enough to still have grandparents and older relatives who lived through Africa’s tumultuous history should not take this for granted – ask them about their experiences if you can! In Homegoing, Gyasi provides some insight into and a possible explanation of why African history isn’t taught in school: “Besides, if we go to the white man for school, we will just learn the way the white man wants us to learn. We will come back and build the country the white man wants us to build. One that continues to serve them. We will never be free.” Unfortunately, it could be argued that Africa has adopted the very system set up to oppress it, with corruption and despotism too often causing African leaders to become our countries’ own oppressors.

* My ever-growing pan-African literature and African history reading list includes Pan-Africanism: A History by Hakim Adi, Kwame Nkrumah’s Politico-Cultural Thought and Policies: An African Centred Paradigm for the Second Phase of African Revolution, The State of Africa by Martin Meredith, and more.

Another way to better engage with the continent is through language. The importance of mother tongue in protecting self-entity, culture and the ethno-linguistic rights of people from post-colonial societies around the world cannot be overstated and, in 1999, UNESCO went as far as declaring 21st February International Mother Language Day – in reference to the Bengali Language Movement, a political movement in former East Bengal which was a precursor to the Bengali nationalist movements which led to Bangladesh’s eventual liberation and independence. Kwaku Daapah, founder of Talking Drum Academy, an online community of Akan culture and language enthusiasts, described mother tongue as “the lost inheritance of diaspora”. Considering the many second-generation immigrants (myself included) across the diaspora who can’t speak their native languages, it is difficult to argue with Kwaku’s assessment. Inability to speak the native languages represents a significant barrier to connecting with the continent and large swathes of history can quite literally get lost in translation. Furthermore, if we aren’t intentional about preserving the mother tongue, these languages are in danger of erasure within the next few generations; especially given the fact that, in many cases, the colonial languages (English, French, Portuguese, etc.) have been adopted as African countries’ official languages for administrative purposes and ease of international relations. Thankfully, there are plenty of affordable online resources to learn African languages, including Lingua 54, Learn Akan and more!

Homegoing further impressed upon me the violent history of the African American bloodline – Gyasi graphically details their treatment, from how “America used to lock up Black men off the sidewalks for labour or how redlining kept banks from investing in Black neighbourhoods, preventing mortgages or business loans” to the convict leasing system and the Great Migration; from “heroin in Harlem in the ‘60s” to “crack everywhere in the ‘80s” and the “war on drugs” – and raised some interesting considerations, particularly surrounding Africans’ complicity in the transatlantic slave trade. Describing Cape Coast Castle, Gyasi writes: “If ever there was a place to believe was haunted, this was it. From the outside, the Castle was a glowing white. Powder white, like the entire thing had been scrubbed down to gleaming, cleansed of any stains… When they entered, things started to look dingier. The dirty skeleton of a long-past shame that held the place together began to show itself in blackening concrete, rusty-hinged doors.” This “long-past shame” is an unfortunate aspect of the legacy of that fateful moment in 1619, which left an indelible stain on human history, that we Africans must confront and do some hard thinking about. Of her visit to Accra during the Year of Return festivities, Beyoncé’s mother, Tina Lawson, told CNN: “The experience has been eye-opening. I understand now why everyone is talking about coming here. This place makes me want to heal.” More attention should be paid to the significant racial trauma present, from which necessary healing must take place; this will require more than granting citizenship, as Ghana has done. What does it really mean to tell an African American descendant of slavery to “return home”?

I am acutely aware of my positionality and privilege in encouraging Africans across the diaspora to reconnect with the continent; it is easier said than done for some and, as we strive towards a reimagined African identity, independent of whiteness, it is important to consider those on the margins of said identity. This includes African Americans, those with no familial connections in Africa and Black members of the LGBTQ+ community (Africa can be particularly hostile and unsafe for queer and trans people). I am also aware that the discussion thus far has been largely targeted at Africans living in the West; the messaging needs adapting for others in the Black diaspora living elsewhere across the world – for example, how can the Caribbean community be better communicated to, such that issues unique to them are taken into account? It is also important to question what it means for droves of children of the diaspora to suddenly return to the motherland. Given that those of us able to return will likely enter as at least upper-middle class citizens, a possible implication is that the rank inequality already present on the continent could be further exacerbated. At the moment, we are enamoured with Africa, but this novelty will eventually wear off. I liken it to the wealthy Arabs that come to London and only know Knightsbridge and Edgware Road – this leads to a romanticised view of Africa and it would be remiss of us to go back without engaging with, and attempting to participate in solving, the very real issues out there.

A point I tried and failed to adequately articulate when discussing Beyoncé’s Black is King on a recent episode of 2 Gs in a Pod  pertained to the deification of Blackness. This is a deep consideration into what happens to the psyche of someone whose sense of identity centres around their Blackness when they enter a society in which race isn’t as much of a consideration, tribalism trumps nationalist pride and classism is rampant. Gyasi briefly addresses tribalism in Homegoing, writing: “The British had been inciting tribal wars for years, knowing that whatever captives were taken from these wars would be sold to them for trade… The Gold Coast was like a pot of groundnut soup… The Asantes, were the broth… the Fantes, were the groundnuts, and the many other nations that began at the edge of the Atlantic and moved up through the bushland into the North made up the meat and pepper and vegetables. This pot was already full to the brim before the white men came and added fire. Now it was all the Gold Coast people could do to keep from boiling over and over and over again.” Tribalism has plagued Africa for centuries, with the 1994 Rwandan genocide perhaps the most tragic example of its consequences, and we in the diaspora must be mindful of this. A sense of national pride can reduce internal tribal tensions, but it is a fine line to tow to avoid the toxic aspects of nationalism, examples of which include South African xenophobia, British exceptionalism and delusions of grandeur, which arguably fuelled the Brexit campaign, and the English Defence League’s (EDL) recent “defence” of Winston Churchill’s statue. I am a proud British-born Ghanaian and this sense of national pride is all well and good when it comes to less serious matters, but we must be mindful of not letting this escalate beyond banter about jollof wars. It is important to remember a sense of pan-African unity must always supersede national pride, especially given the fact that the modern borders of Africa’s 54 countries were arbitrarily drawn by the colonial powers during the scramble for Africa at the 1884 Berlin conference anyway.

The 2019 Sudan crisis, which saw the overthrow of President Omar al-Bashir after 30 years in power, shows the impact of having an engaged diaspora, with the Sudanese youth community across the world embarking on a social media campaign, effective in amplifying the voices of activists on the ground and providing crucial global media coverage to the violent atrocities inflicted upon protesters during the revolution. I would go as far as saying that it is our duty, as Africans living in the diaspora, to take an active interest in affairs on the continent and determine how we can contribute to their solution, whilst also being careful not to centre self. Currently, we millennial and generation Z members of the African diaspora are here for the enjoyment but not for the political crinkum crankum. However, it is a vital matter of urgency that we find a way to better relate to the continent outside of the ‘Parte After Parte’ every December.

“The forces that unite us are intrinsic and greater than the superimposed influences that keep us apart”

– Kwame Nkrumah, “Africa Must Unite” speech (1963)

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