Wednesday, December 28, 2005

B(l)ack to Africa (Ghana)?

A reposting of a lost entry: in yesterday's New York Times, Lydia Polgreen reported on Ghana's "Uneasy Embrace of Slavery's Diaspora." The article discusses how the West African nation of 21 million people has, for economic development and ideological reasons, decided to become an African "Israel." It will offer lifetime visas for all descendents of slaves (and not just those who can prove direct ancestral, genetic and historical links to the various groups or territories that once constituted Britain's Gold Coast colony and Elmina, or to the millions of enslaved people from the region who passed through the Cape Castle slave ports) now living outside Ghana. Ghana will also "relax citizenship requirements so that descendants of slaves can receive Ghanaian passports" and "is...starting an advertising campaign to persuade Ghanaians to treat African-Americans more like long-lost relatives than as rich tourists." In other words, as Ghana's first president after its independence, Kwame Nkrumah once hoped, the aim is to draw African-descended peoples and their resources from across the Diaspora (back) to the continent, to effect truly pan-African-Diasporic reverse migration and settlement.

According to the article, the tourism minister J. Otanka Obetsebi-Lamptey put it in very intimate terms: "We hope we can help bring the African family back together again." So far several thousand African-Americans live there at least part of the year, according to the article, and Ghana hopes to lure many more.

The Ghanaian government, a constitutional democracy headed by Joseph Kufuor, is planning to implement these policies within the next few years. They will coincide, as Polgreen points out, with Ghana's plans to commemorate the jubilee year of its independence (1957-2007), which also coincides with the 200th anniversary of former colonial master Britain's official ending of the slave trade (1807). Yet in its independence celebrations Ghana won't simply be commemorating its place as the pathblazer in post-World War II sub-Saharan liberation movements or its subsequent history--which has had some very rough patches, including Nkrumah's being deposed and a coup in the 1980s--but it will also honor major figures from the Diaspora like Martin Luther King Jr., and W.E.B. DuBois, one of the greatest figures in African-American and Diasporic history, who spent his final years in Ghana. Part of this appears to be a genuine attempt to formally connect with the Diaspora, and part of it appears to be a bit of salesmanship that certainly will bring in tourists, particularly from the US and Caribbean.

Polgreen's article does point out that while Ghana's idealistic plans sound appealing, there are some serious problems on the ground. First, non-Ghanaian Blacks from the West, including African-Americans, continue to be seen by many people as "obruni," or "White foreigner." Despite the cosmpolitanism of the capital, Accra, the long history of cultural circulation, and the pan-African consciousness espoused or at least acknowledged by some of Ghana's political elites, their westernness and foreignness on Diasporic Blacks still trumps ancestral connections among many locals. Then there is the issue of Ghana's economy, which once was quite strong because of the country's abundant commodities, but which has faltered in recent years as cocoa prices in particular have plummeted. It will need tremendous upgrades in infrastructure and physical development to accommodate masses of newcomers. Then there is the point that as Ghana is trying to attract Blacks from Diaspora, it is losing its own people to emigration, and in particular, the article notes, to the US, where Ghanaians are the second-largest West African immigrant group after Nigerians (another country whose regions supplied large numbers of people for the slave trade). I would imagine another problem would be resentment, after a fashion, if lots of Blacks with means moved to Ghana, started opening businesses and creating a parallel culture, yet didn't find ways to incorporate as many of the country's citizenry as possible. Polgreen doesn't mention the example of South Africa at all, nor does she compare the historical situations of Liberia and Sierra Leone, where political and social elites consisting of descendents of Diasporic Blacks ruled over and encountered tremendous tensions with the indigenous Blacks, with civil war resulting in both nations.

All in all, though, the questions and possibilities that Ghana's proposed policies present are pretty exciting, and I am curious to hear what others think about the "Door of No Return" becoming the "Door of Return." Would you immigrate, and if so, why? If not, why not?


  1. Appiah has an article in the Sunday Times Magazine, also about (largely) Ghana, which I am alternately continuing to read and throwing across the room in frustration. What do you make of it?

    Kai in NYC

  2. Hi Kai,

    I'm going to write a post about Appiah's article, which reads like a bad adaptation of the far more complex arguments in his recent The Ethics of Identity, very soon. I was sort of shocked that he was recycling the material for yet another book, but then that's how you get ahead in academe--quantity, quantity, quantity. (He is truly brilliant, though.)