The government of Ghana spent 2019 inviting African Americans to visit the country. The national tourism campaign was called the “Year of Return.” Last year marked the 400th anniversary of the arrival of enslaved Africans in North America, and the campaign focused on bringing members of the African diaspora back to the land from which their ancestors were taken.
Stateside spoke with two Detroiters about their own experiences in Ghana during the Year of Return.
Maurice Cheetham moved to Ghana from Detroit in 2017 after visiting the country and being moved by the sense of community he felt there. He now runs a travel company called African Roots Travel, and helps other African Americans connect to a country that is opening itself up to the world.
Cheetham said he thinks the campaign has been hugely successful for Ghana tourism.
“It was past the point of people just coming for a novelty. People were coming for real connection because they were invited home. And this was something that [they] had long yearned to have, was someone to say ‘Hey, we want you to come here, we want you to be a part of this.’”
Imani Mixon is a Detroit-based journalist and writer. She travelled to Ghana for three weeks over the holidays to visit her Ghanaian boyfriend’s family. While in Ghana, Mixon went on a tour of the Elmina castle. The fortress served as a major hub of the transatlantic slave trade. She was one of the only Americans on the tour, and Mixon said she felt a profound and sad connection to the landmark.
“You could just feel that horrible things happened in every single, you know, place that you went into," Mixon recalled. "So it really was just beautiful. I felt like I was bringing my whole family, my whole lineage, my whole ancestral line with me to this place that maybe we had been to before. So there was a responsibility for me to ask some tougher questions and listen a little harder.”
Both Cheetham and Mixon said that a key part of visiting Ghana is to balance historical sightseeing like the Elmina castle with exploring the "new Ghana." Cheetham said there is a thriving artistic community to experience, as well as the chance to build relationships with the people who live there. Western conceptions of the country are often misguided, said Cheetham, and it's important for visitors to keep an open mind and “come ready to understand [the country] on all levels.”
Mixon said that keeping an open mind was what led to such a transformative journey for her. She'd encourage other travelers to embrace the ways in which Ghana is different from America.
“Things just look different, sound different, smell different, taste different," she said. "In the same way that you would go to Paris and accept that as normal, like that same open mindedness needs to also be granted to countries that we kind of owe ourselves to.”
The Year of Return might be over, but Cheetham said that he thinks this is just the beginning. He expects to see more African Americans making the trip to Ghana and other African countries in the years to come.