Elizabeth Ohene Writes: Celebrating the return

I stopped worrying long ago about whether you can celebrate the anniversary of an unpleasant event or not. I no longer even agonise about whether I mark or celebrate an anniversary. Everything becomes a celebration in the end.

I have been wondering if some of us were having such a difficulty about the Year of Return and agonising over marking or celebrating. It sounds grotesque to talk about celebrating slavery, but that is another story.

Just in case there are some people out there who have missed this completely, it is not too late to be reminded that this year 2019 marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival in America of the first slaves captured from West Africa and the formal start of the transatlantic slave trade that saw the forced transportation of millions of Africans into the Americas.

Our President, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, has thrown an open invitation to the African diaspora to come home this year and visit to mark the anniversary. I suppose the first difficulty is, can those in the diasporas mark or celebrate something here without the full participation of those of us here?

Then there is the little difficulty of the difference in perception between those we are inviting and those of us in the homeland, the unasked question that always hovers between the Black Americans and us: Did your ancestors help enslave my ancestors?

A decidedly uncomfortable question that goes with the presence of the slave forts and castles that dot our coastline. There are about 40 of these castles built by the European traders that served as the main thoroughfare through which the majority of millions of Africans were transported to the Americas as slaves.

Castles

The castles stand as silent and loud testimonies and daily permanent accusatory signposts to the slave trade. I have never seen anybody come out smiling from these dungeons where the slaves were kept before embarking on their forced journeys. Even when a particular castle has had a makeover like the Christiansborg Castle at Osu, which served as the seat of government for years, you would always feel the weight of its history.

Each time you went up the stairs to what was called the Credentials room, you would have to go past the observation post at which the slave master stood to peer down and make his selection of who would warm his bed for that night among the slave women being paraded in the dungeon.

There are rooms in the Elmina and Cape Coast castles where if you stood and listened long and hard enough, it always appeared you could hear the voices of desperation and despair from 300 years ago. There are rooms there where the acrid smell of blood and sweat seem to rise to the nose all these many years later.

There are rooms in there that no matter how often or how regularly they are painted, remain cloaked in the desolation of their original use.

The questions raised by the castles refuse to go away. Are the castles tourist sites that should sell postcards and mementoes of the events that took place there; should we re-enact the abduction, the trussing up of the captured men and women or should the sites be treated like sacred ground? Should we pipe music through the rooms or should they be funeral grounds? We sing and dance on funeral grounds, don’t we?

Many African-Americans are traumatised by the experience of going through the dungeons, and their despair often turns to anger when they discover they are asked to pay a higher fee than Ghanaian citizens to enter the castles. I suspect they would be even angrier if the castles were allowed to rot away and disappear for lack of money to maintain them and which is why they continue to pay the entry fees and endure the trauma of visiting the slave castles.

Slave trade

It might be 400 years since the start of the slave trade and nearly 300 years since the end, but it is not an issue that will ever disappear from our consciousness, with or without the castles on our coastlines. The slave trade led to the creation of an African diaspora in the Americas and other parts of the world.

Year of Return

The Year of Return is celebrating the ultimate triumph over adversity of these Africans taken away as slaves who have survived and succeeded in the Americas.

The marking of this anniversary shows there is a new determination to come to terms with the obscenity of the slave trade and turn the reality of the existence of the African diaspora to good advantage.

It will hopefully change the relationship between the continent and the Black people in the diaspora to one of pride and mutual respect. It will demonstrate that we have overcome that door of no return at the slave castles.

I had been having my personal angst about how to deal with the fact that some 400 years after the event, there are so many of us who are struggling to go and live in these places to which Africans were forcibly taken as slaves.

I have gone back to read again Keith Richburg’s book ‘Out of America’, in which he does not stop short of saying thank God my ancestors were sold into slavery and I escaped being an African in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Triumph over adversity

Luckily for us, the majority of successful Blacks in the diaspora don’t seem to be in the Keith Richburg mode, as many Black celebrities seem to have embraced the call for the Year of Return. I suppose if we are trying to demonstrate triumph over extreme adversity, there is nothing better than to show the descendants of slaves overcoming all the odds and returning home as celebrities.

I have a 14-year-old niece, Sarpongmaa, and a 12 going on 13-year-old nephew, Sena, who keep me up to date with who is in and who is out on the celebrity front. By their count, there have been so many celebrities coming into the country, they are beginning to canvass we should have a Year of Return every year so they can spend all their time celebrity spotting.

There is also something to be said for those whose ancestors did help to enslave other people’s ancestors standing in line in the hope of taking selfies with their now famous descendants.

The only thing left to make it all complete is for those of us here to take a keener interest in the anniversary. We have called for the party, we should show more enthusiasm.

On reflection, I know just why I can’t “feel” the fever, to borrow a term popular with our media people. You can’t have an anniversary without a special cloth. Where is the Door of Return Cloth, or T-shirt or handkerchief?

To Top