‘Year of Return’ movement beckons Blacks back to Africa prompting powerful cultural and economic exchange

Cape Coast Castle on the Gulf of Guinea in Cape Coast, Ghana. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Centuries ago, when the first Africans were taken from their native shores to various points in the Western Hemisphere, the overwhelming majority were destined never to see their homes again. In 1619, a slave ship landed at the settlement in Jamestown, Va., which marked what is seen as the beginning of the slave trade in America.

As 2019 became the official, “Year of Return” and the West African nation of Ghana designated as the focal point, a rebirth of sorts has taken place. With the help of several African governments, descendants of those who were once enslaved are making pilgrimages back to their ancestral homeland.

READ MORE: Why Ghana is fast becoming a hub for African-Americans

Black creatives, entrepreneurs, influencers and celebrities are taking this transitional period from one decade into another to a higher level by encouraging other Blacks to take the journey to African shores in a continuation of this movement.

“It’s so important for our collective identity, for self-worth [and] our confidence to know where we came from,” actor Boris Kodjoe (whose father is Ghanaian) explained to Boston radio station WBUR.

Kodjoe and wife, actress Nicole Ari Parker are leading an initiative in partnership with ESSENCE Ventures called the Full Circle Festival taking place over the New Year week in Ghana’s capital city of Accra. An expected 500 participants were slated to be there along with notables including former President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama, actor Michael Jai White, corporate exec Bozoma Saint John, comedian Steve Harvey, and many others.

READ MORE: The Obamas arrive in Ghana

For Kodjoe, it’s important to give his children an understanding about the history of how the journey began for Africans so long ago.

“We’re not descendants of slaves, but yet descendants of enslaved Africans,” he said. “We’re descendants of the survivors. It’s a hugely important distinction.”

Since it gained independence in 1957, Ghana has been an entry point for diaspora Blacks, particularly Americans who are looking to rediscover the motherland. Cape Coast Castle and nearby Elmina Castle were both places where tens of thousands of the enslaved were placed on ships headed for South America, the Caribbean and later the Southeastern U.S., largely in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Those who were held captive at Elmina passed through the “Door of No Return” on their way to slave ships awaiting them on the shore.

Now, what was once a symbol of despair has been transformed into the “Door of Return,” which invites their descendants to pass through again, in a symbolic homecoming to the continent.

Continuing its tradition of welcoming people back “home” was the annual Afrochella Festival, also in Accra, which is a cultural and music gathering highlighting native talent and creativity. Billed as “Ghana’s answer to Coachella,” 4,000 people were reported to have attended last year’s event, according to Ghanaweb.com.

Ghana also granted citizenship to 126 African Americans and Afro-Caribbeans during the Year of Return, Yahoo reports. The country’s Right of Abode Law, passed in 2001, grants the right of anyone from the Americas who is of African descent the right to remain in Ghana, similar to the way Israel allows Jewish individuals the right to repatriate.

Attracting diaspora Blacks back to Africa isn’t just about an emotional connection. There is clearly also some motivation that will likely have a vast economic effect.

“We must help make Africa the place for investment, progress, and prosperity and not from where our youth flee in the hope of accessing the mirage of a better life in Europe or the Americas,” said Ghanaian President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, according to the state-run newspaper the Daily Graphic.

“The time has come to engage Africans in the diaspora and all persons of African descent more positively in areas such as trade and investment co-operation, and skills and knowledge development.”

Kodjoe, agreed, noting the Year of Return movement can encourage economic interest in Africa as well through the Africa Free Trade Agreement, which was established last July by 54 African states that were once European colonies.

“…The first step of creating economic development was the African Free Trade Agreement and that was just established,” he said. “The next step is to bring members of the diaspora over, establishing a presence on the continent so that when those contracts become available, there’s somebody at the table who can put in a bid.”

China has spent years investing heavily in Ghana and other African nations. In 2016, the country offered the continent $60 billion in loans and aid to develop infrastructure, reduce poverty and improve agriculture, according to the Wharton School of Business. About $15 billion of that went to Ghana, its government said.

But Ghanaian officials want Blacks from the west to have opportunities to invest as well and see the Year of Return as a way to remind them that this invitation is open and ongoing. As much as $1.9 billion has been generated by the movement and more than 80,000 arrivals have come to the nation over the past year, reports Tourism Minister Barbara Oteng-Gyasi to Face2Face Africa.

For sure, there has been an economic boom that has come from the Year of Return. Tourism, hospitality and leisure on the continent are expected to rise to as much as $262 billion over the next 10 years, The Washington Post reports.  Celebs like Kodjoe, Harvey and even Cardi B, who recently visited Nigeria, are helping that to be accomplished.

READ MORE: Cardi B has a blast in Africa: performs two shows, makes it rain naira and gives back in a major way

Kodjoe said that means it’s time for diaspora Blacks to take notice of a new dawn for the continent and bring various nations on the continent to global economic prominence.

“It’s really about building a bridge between the diaspora and the continent,” he told WBUR. “And we are all the resources we need. Africa doesn’t need aid. Africa needs to galvanize the diaspora to invest in all these things that are necessary for Africa to take its rightful place on the planet.”


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Madison J. Gray is a contributing editor at theGrio, who has lived and worked in Ghana. You can find him on Twitter @mjgraymedia