What happens when a large group of individuals reconnect and trace their roots back hundreds of years to the exact same place where their ancestors once lived? Often, when we hear about ‘birthright’ trips, we may think of Israel and Judaism. But the 2019 Year of Return to Ghana aims to add a new perspective: African Americans returning to Ghana and Western Africa 400 years after the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Endorsed by the President of Ghana, Nana Akufo-Addo, the objective of the Year of Return is to encourage people of the African Diaspora to connect to each other, reconnect to Africa and invest in the continent, while boosting tourism.
There is great power in understanding where we come from and the deep, ancestral wisdom and culture that lasts throughout generations, making us who we are today. This commitment to understanding history and legacy has the power to transform how we interact with our institutions, society and each another. Jameelah Nasheed from Teen Vogue writes, “Everything we are as a nation (United States) today stems from everything we were, and if we don’t reconcile with the truth — even, and perhaps, especially the painful parts — we’re at risk of repeating those past atrocities. This Year of Return isn’t just for African Americans. It’s the perfect time for all Americans to take a look at who we really were, who we really are, and who we’d like to become.”
Much like the objective of the New York Times 1619 Project, the Year of Return is an opportunity to reconnect with one’s heritage and roots, and also an opportunity for seeking truth, reconciliation and healing that result from confronting a painful history that still impacts today.
At the nexus of these journeys of discovery during the Year of Return is art, fashion, photography and culture. Through these vehicles of expression, Ghanaian culture is celebrated and the positive, vibrant aspects of the culture shine through, crumbling many of the myths that almost always portray Africa as impoverished, struggling and disadvantaged. Ebonee Davis, model, activist and founder of Daughter, beautifully showcases this intersection of artistry, heritage and connection. After traveling to Ghana to reaffirm her own identity with Very Temporary, she tells her story through photographs, modeling local garments and creating an organization to bring more individuals of the African diaspora back to the continent through a sponsored scholarship program.
Viola Labi, a Ghanaian-Canadian luxury fashion specialist and founder of Woven Worldwide, is another example of how travel to Ghana inspires artistic work that has social impact. Upon exploring her history and connecting to local artisans during her trip to Ghana, Labi now empowers local women and honors Ghana’s cultural capital through a collaborative fashion line and a platform that leverages fashion as a tool for positive social change. These are just two instances of diasporic travel to Africa inspiring entrepreneurship, community and artistry when granted opportunities to see Africa and experience the variety of cultural and social nuances. Travelers can dispel myths about the continent for themselves and more importantly, create their own narratives about where they came from.
Travel is helpful for gaining a deeper understanding of personal identity, relationship to the larger, international community and especially for understanding diaspora connections. As access and knowledge about opportunities like the Year of Return is limited, the work of organizations like Birthright Africa and Magic & Melanin are important for those of the African diaspora who want to travel to Africa and experience cultures that are deeply connected to their history and ancestral origin stories.