It took a trip to Africa to change 10 lives forever.

Six months after Irene Toland, Sidney Davis, Robin Almeida and Pamela Ramsay joined a group traveling to Africa, the effects of that trip still have not worn off.

This was not your typical African safari, point at the monkeys and “feed the children” sort of gig. For these 10 African-Americans, the journey to the West African country of Nigeria was nothing less than a spiritual, cultural pilgrimage.

In Nigeria, the most populous black nation in the world, they underwent a ritual cleansing from what they call the stigma of slavery. A local king washed their hands and feet as part of the cleansing.

Rituals and royalty

“They woke us up very early, we had no idea what we were doing,” says 53-year-old Robin Almeida. She describes the whole ordeal as an out-of-body experience, and says she feels a great privilege to have been part of the group.

The king, Eze Chukwuemeka Eri of a town called Aguleri in southeastern Nigeria, conducted the ritual ceremony following Igbo traditional rites. Afterwards, he pronounced the visiting African-Americans as princes and princesses of the royal house, bestowing them with Igbo names. Almeida was given the Igbo name Princess Ogechi Eri.

The pilgrimage was part of the inaugural Ebo Landing Project , a 2012 initiative of Nigerian historian and scholar, Catherine Acholonu. Acholonu, a former Fulbright Scholar who also served under the administration of Nigeria’s two-time president Olusegun Obasanjo, says the Ebo Landing Project is needed to help African-American break ties with their enslaved past and give them a sense of honor.

“We want to build a generation of African-Americans who have royalty,” says Acholunu.

Blacks on the bad side of the numbers

She claims African-Americans are suffering. For her, the circulating statistics and trends – like the ones that describe African-Americans as less likely to graduate from a university, more likely to have a child outside of marriage, more likely to experience nutrition related illness – is proof of a societal epidemic.

“The African-American condition comes from the fact that they’ve been demeaned and denigrated,” Acholonu says. “They feel like second-hand citizens.”

Almeida agrees.

“In a sense we are still slaves here [in the U.S.]; it’s just covered up,” she says. “You don’t see it. 90% of the black men in this community are in jail.”

For her, the 2012 trip – her first ever to Africa – instilled a sense of self-respect and dignity.

After the trip, Massachusetts-resident Irene Toland returned to her job as a beauty advisor at a local Walgreens store. She says she is a changed person with a newfound “sense of peace.” The New Hampshire native said she rarely saw African-Americans in her childhood, outside of her family. Her father told her they come from Eastern European Jews, but she felt a cultural disconnect and lack of identity.

“…I just didn’t know who I was, where I really belong,” says the 79-year-old.

This was not her first time in Africa. She’d been to Kenya on a tour, but for her, the pilgrimage to Nigeria was like nothing she had ever experienced. Now, she’s encouraging other African-Americans to participate in the 2013 trip, but admits that getting participants to go to Africa to connect with their ancestral past may be a challenge.

“There’s a lot of shame and there’s a lot of hurt,” Toland explains. “That’s why I’m trying to tell them to know about their history.”

“We black people have been robbed of that history and I don’t know why they are so ashamed of Africa.”