Year of Return

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Mark Riechers/Midjourney (TTBOOK)

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Original Air Date: 
September 03, 2022

2019 was an important year throughout the African diaspora — the 400th year since enslaved Africans first arrived in the United States. In Ghana — once the center of the European slave trade — 2019 was declared "the year of return" and the start of a campaign to encourage descendants of enslaved Africans to re-connect with the land of their ancestors. Thousands of African-Americans made the trip to Ghana — and many have decided to stay. They're fed up with police brutality and systemic racism in the US, ready to build new lives in Africa — and their number is growing.

L to: Yeleyeni Songsore and her husband; Mawiyah Kambon and Kamal Kambon; Kwaku Asantu Maroon Asare

At least 1,500 Black Americans have moved to Ghana since 2019, when the government declared its "Year of Return" initiative, calling on Africans in the diaspora to return to Africa. As the US continues to confront its history of racism and police brutality against Black people, many are heeding Ghana's call.  

Charles (right) interviews Prince Marfo (left). (TTBOOK)

Prince Marfo is the Suyani Cultural Director of Ghana. He says his government needs to do a better job of welcoming African Americans — he wants to see them welcomed as sisters and brothers not just as Americans with resources.

American plane in Africa

Just as thousands of African Americans are moving to Ghana, some Ghanaians are migrating to the West. Literature professor Ato Quayson explains that it raises a difficult question: should they stay in Africa or pursue a high-profile career in North America or Europe?

Robert (left) and Kofi (right) together in 2008. (Robert Hanserd)

Two friends of 20 years — Robert Hanserd and Emmanuel Kofi Bempong — show what a relationship between African Americans and Ghanaians can be.

Show Details 📻
September 03, 2022
April 01, 2023
January 20, 2024
Centre for National Culture Ahafo and Goaso National Culture Sunyani BRong AHafo-Ghana
Professor of English
Full Transcript 📄

- It's "To The Best Of Our Knowledge." I'm Anne Strainchamps. Today's show begins with a reveal and a conversation between two friends.

- [Charles] So, Robert, do you want to be visual or do you wanna shut it off?

- No, we can leave mine on, I'm cool. As long as that's, you know, whatever, it don't matter.

- [Anne] Charles Monroe-Kane is our producer, and Robert Hansard is his friend.

- [Charles] So, I had this idea of you just saying, "Hey, my name is Robert Hansard," and you say what you want to say.

- All right.

- It's pretty personal and I don't wanna either talk or interrupt you till you're like done.

- Yes.

- Does that make sense?

- [Robert] Yes.

- [Anne] Robert's a Professor of History at Columbia College Chicago. He's the author of "Identity, Spirit, And Freedom In The Atlantic World, The Gold Coast and the African Diaspora."

- All right, so I'll just start in then, all right?

- Yeah.

- All right. Hello, everyone. My name is Robert Hansard. I'm actually a African American and West African, and what's called the Atlantic World Historian. I go back and forth to Africa quite a bit, but I guess I'm here to reveal my DNA results. It's from 23 and me, so here's the ancestry. That's it.

- [Charles] So, Robert, what were the results?

- [Robert] Well, let's see. They say using this category, Sub-Saharan, I'm 88.9% from the Sub-Saharan region of Africa. And like the major markers, I guess you call 'em or Nigeria's, like 32% so that's not a big surprise. Ghana is 25%, the next highest. And that was interesting. The Senegambia like 4.2%. So that's interesting too. About 10% European, British, and Irish, which that's interesting because I've been kind of investigating that. They have this thing, I guess that says where you have connections, what they call ancestry composition in the Caribbean. And mine goes straight to Jamaica, straight to, you know, these places, that I've always talked about that had all these Maroon resistances with different folks at Khan being the primary group, like the 25% from the Gold Coast is an interesting number I guess.

- [Charles] Was there anything you were afraid of?

- [Robert] That I was gonna be all white? No, I'm just playing. I'm just kidding. I'm just kidding. I hope I don't offend anybody by saying that. I'm just joking there. But, I don't know. Nothing really, it kind of revealed to some degree what I already kind of knew from looking at, right? You know, one of the things I would like to do is look at the Slave Trade database 'cause I just wanna look at how those numbers come out. These are these numbers

- [Charles] You've been going back and forth to Ghana for 20 years, some of those timeframes. You've been there a long time. Have you ever thought about moving there?

- [Robert] Oh, yeah, I've definitely, yeah. I am considering moving as other folks are, but more because of the maybe long, long, long-term connections I've been building there. So, yeah, something in that context.

- [Anne] So, a few things. A lot of people take DNA Ancestry Tests, but for some, like Robert, the results can spur a set of questions that are profound and pragmatic. What would it be like to return to the place your ancestors came from? Not just to visit but to actually move to Ghana? Well, more and more people are doing just that. So when Robert made another trip to Ghana recently, Charles Monroe-Kane went along too.

- [Charles] Well, the Ghanaian Government called 2019, the "Year of Return." It's the 400th anniversary of the first slaves that came to America. And they had, they wanna get people to come visit, come to Ghana, you know, and it worked. Many, many people came to visit. But what, I don't think Ghana was ready for that. A lot of those people came to visit a couple years later. A year later were like, "I'm sick of racism in America. I'm sick of George Floyd getting killed. I'm sick of all of it." So, since 2019, thousands of African Americans have moved and many of them under 30, single, it's quite interesting actually.

- [Anne] Ever since WEB Du Bois settled in Accra, Ghana has been a kind of symbolic home for African Americans.

- [Charles] In 1957, when Ghana became a country, he became the leader of Pan-African movement. As we get Marcus Garvey, and like you said, WEB Du Bois, a lot of people, African Americans, especially intellectuals, associated themselves with being in Ghana.

- [Anne] Partly because Ghana was the place where the European Slave Trade had been centered.

- [Charles] Yeah, I mean it's one of the most powerful places I've ever seen in my life. I went to the main castle where the slaves came through. Almost a million slaves went through there, through the British castle and it's just horrible when you go there. And I think I can imagine being African-American and coming on a visit to Ghana and having the same slave tour that I got and how that would feel. That's where your ancestors are from. They came from that door, The Door Of No Return, it's called. And that's where they went out and that's how they got to America. So I can really imagine the power of that if you're just visiting it.

- [Anne] So you put together this entire hour looking at what it's like for African Americans who are repatriating to Ghana and what it's like for Ghanaians to be welcoming African Americans. Tell me about the first piece we're gonna hear.

- [Charles] So I asked this guy his name, he's a Ghanaian journalist, very famous. His name's Ridwan Karim Dini-Osman. And he asked him just to track some rural African Americans down for me and interview them about how they're settling in.

- Welcome.

- Thank you.

- [Ridwan] In this thick forest up the hill of Mapong, a town in Southern Ghana, Kweku Asantu Maroon Asare lives in a one-bedroom house. The only structure in this vast forest.

- [Ridwan] So, you're from Ghana, where are you from?

- Yeah, I'm Ghanaian.

- Oh, good, good, good.

- Yes, yes.

- [Ridwan] A drive to this place is breathtaking as the car meanders its way through winding roads.

- We got a lot of birds.

- [Kweku] It looks like you are fascinated by your own location. Yes,

- Yes, yes. This is what it's all about.

- Uh-huh.

- To be in tune with nature.

- I see.

- [Ridwan] And for me, I'm in tune like I could hear everything.

- [Ridwan] Born in the US, Asan Tomaroon Asare now calls Ghana home. He moved from Florida to Ghana to settle permanently a year ago. Maroon says, "Racism and repeated police attacks on Black Americans, forced him out of the US. He made the final decision to relocate to Ghana after the murder of African American, George Floyd by the police in Minnesota.

- [Charles] Before George Floyd you had Ahmaud Arbery and the list goes on. The last straw for me was George Floyd.

- Mm.

- You know. So, what I seen as anomalies was just normal for the system. So at that point I told myself I would leave and I would go where the system is different.

- [Ridwan] And the system has been different since the 42-year-old moved to Ghana.

- [Asan] You know, when you leave America, everything is white. You pass through custom, it's dominated by white people. You pass through the airport, it's dominated by white people. And when you arrive in Ghana and you get off that plane, you don't see no white people. And then you tell yourself, "This is where I should be, a place where the people look like me." Even if you don't know the people, you still feel a connection.

- [Ridwan] Maroon's quest to settle in Africa, actually started years ago when he traced his ancestral roots through the Genetic Test, 23andMe.

- [Asan] It showed me that my roots were Nigerian and Ghanaian, that a high percentage of my roots was from Nigeria and Ghana. And that... That piqued my interest to the degree that I need to go visit.

- [Ridwan] And to reflect his African identity. He changed his name.

- [Asan] Now I use Asantu Kweku Maroon Asan that gives you more history about who I really am instead of Andre St. Patrick Lewis.

- [Singer] Success music, ha

- [Ridwan] Aside from the name change, he's now falling in love with Ghanaian music. For instance, the song by popular Ghanaian rapper, Sarkodie. ♪ It doesn't matter how you feel ♪ ♪ Eh, this is the strength of a woman ♪ ♪ Ain't nobody better than the boss chick ♪

- [Asan] Oh, "Strength of a Woman,"

- [Ridwan] "Strength of a Woman."

- [Asan] So, yeah, sing us that one.

- [Ridwan] Oh, I see, you love "The Strength of a Woman" by Sarkodie."

- Yes, yes, yes, yes.

- Mm.

- Yes.

- You know how to sing that?

- A little bit.

- Okay, so just give me a bit of that. ♪ I take my last city and I bet on you ♪ ♪ Mese I got love for you ♪

- [Ridwan] Of course, moving to a different continent is a major life change. So what will sustain Maroon in Ghana?

- [Asan] Real purpose of becoming an ancestor that fights for Black power, Black liberation, and Black protection. If you have that as a foundation, then you have a real purpose in life.

- [Ridwan] Kweku Asanto Maroon Asare is one of thousands of African Americans who have made Ghana their new home. Since 2019, Ghana's call for people in the African diaspora to return home has led many Black Americans to settle in this West African country. About 20 miles from Maroon's home is Tutu, another small town in Southern Ghana. Here, I meet a 28-year-old poet and writer Yeli-Yeli Sonsori in her apartment. Born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland. She's now a permanent Ghanaian resident.

- Hello.

- Hi, Yeli-Yeli.

- Yes.

- Is that your name?

- Yes.

- Yeah, nice to meet you.

- [Yeli-Yeli] Nice to meet you too.

- Finally, I'm here.

- Yes, I'm-

- You have such a nice place.

- Thank you.

- [Ridwan] Yeah.

- [Yeli-Yeli] So, my name is Nikia Brown. That's the name my mother and my father gave me. And since I've come to Ghana, they've named me Yeli-Yeli, which is a name from the North and it means speak once. So the importance of being brief, of being proverbial, of being very important when you speak Suyani. That's what people call me here now.

- [Ridwan] Yeli-Yeli Sonsori has been living in Ghana for almost one and a half years. She's not only found a home here, but also love. She married a Ghanaian and is now pregnant.

- [Yeli-Yeli] Yes, I am currently eight months pregnant with my first daughter.

- [Ridwan] Sonsori says, the thought of having a child in Ghana gives her enormous joy.

- [Yeli-Yeli] I envision my child just being able to have a stronger sense of identity. So here, I envision her being able to be more like, at least, starting off. My natural hair is beautiful. My natural skin is beautiful. I come from an abundant and glorious people.

- [Ridwan] In a sense, her journey to Ghana started years ago. She experienced a lot of racism and trauma in the US, going back to her history class in high school.

- [Yeli-Yeli] They omit African History and they tell you your history started from the point of slavery. Basically, they begin their story of Africans to the Europeans is when we picked you up from on the boat and took you to America. When I started to really realize that I was being lied to, which was probably around like when I was 18 or 19 years old, and I'm 28 now, I realized wow, you know, this history was not true, is not true.

- [Ridwan] Then the series of police brutalities against African Americans got here thinking a lot more about where she wanted to live.

- [Yeli-Yeli] And some of us are like, "No, I'm not gonna stay here and be oppressed and be subjected to this. I'm worth more than that I deserve and I have a vision of something greater that I can do."

- [Ridwan] She then took the bold decision to move to Ghana. Here, she realized life was totally different.

- [Yeli-Yeli] One time, me passing, you know, a police and the police is like giving me a high-five and I've never gave a high-five to a police officer in my life. I've been alive 28 years. I wouldn't even feel comfortable touching one, like keep distance, first and foremost, that type of stuff. It makes you like angry just to know it doesn't have to be like that.

- [Ridwan] But Ghana also has its own challenges. The country is struggling to deal with corruption, not to mention its struggling economy. Currently, there is high inflation as the cost of food and fuel and almost everything is skyrocketing. You are angry and you come to Ghana, a developing country.

- Mm-hmm.

- [Ridwan] Can that anger sustain you?

- [Yeli-Yeli] And you have to also have a passion for your people. When you have a vision of victory of I want to see my people win, that's going to sustain over a long period of time.

- [Ridwan] She is also optimistic that as more Black people leave the US to settle in African countries like Ghana, it could also help speed up the development of the continent. ♪ Ghana is cool, Ghana is fine ♪

- [Yeli-Yeli] Obviously, Africa has its troubles and has, a lot of them are connected to history. But you have to have people willing to work through those troubles to get to a greater vision. Being in America, you're only gonna be able to be tolerated and that's not the vision I don't think people should have of themselves is being in a place where you're tolerated only. The vision is for people to be free and independent and to have control be self-sufficient over themselves. ♪ Ah, Africa ye ♪ ♪ Mama Africa ♪ ♪ We cry for peace ♪ ♪ Africa ♪

- [Ridwan] A few miles away from Sonsori's residents is the home of 75-year-old Maria Kabong. It is an eco-friendly environment. She uses solar energy to power her house and also has a farm where she grows what she eats. About eight months ago, she moved from North Carolina to settle permanently in Ghana.

- [Maria] I could see the beauty here. I could see the naturalness here. It's not that Ghana's without problems because there's, you know, ethnic prejudice and some corruption and all. But I could see that everywhere I turned there were Black people doing everything. And so, mine was not a last straw. Mine was an intent to come.

- [Ridwan] It is not Kabong's first time in Ghana. She visited the country a couple of times in the 1970s, but this time, she came with her husband Kamal Kabong, her husband for over 40 years. Kabong says, the relocation of many Black Americans like herself is sending a strong message to America.

- [Maria] The world is changing. This is no longer going to be a world for imperialists. It's the Black man's time, and we're rising all over the globe. And so, wherever we are, we're gonna be great.

- [Ridwan] Ghana hosts people of the African diaspora who relocate to Ghana can help steer a development by bringing new skills and talent, as well as American entrepreneurialism. Two years ago, the Government said it would allocate about 500 acres of land for African Americans moving to Ghana, carving out enough space for about 1,500 families to settle. The government also said it'll facilitate citizenship for those who wish to become Ghanaians. Back in the home of Sonsori, she has a word of advice for anyone planning to settle in Ghana.

- [Yeli-Yeli] It's not just about wanting to escape America, but it should be also about how you want to build Africa. So if you're just thinking about escaping, then you wanna come here and get frustrated 'cause there's also issues that you might wanna escape in Ghana.

- [Ridwan] While some are skeptical that this move by Black Americans to Ghana wouldn't stand a test of time, Kabong and Maroon disagree.

- [Maria] What will sustain me is just being that close to nature, being with family, being with ancestors, you know, who dwell here and those are the things that matter to me.

- [Ridwan] So Ghana, for me, I hope to achieve more in the values, African values that I have now than that which I had in the US. Hopefully, give birth to the next Kwame Krumans. The next Marcus Garveys

- [Anne] Ridwan Karim Dini-Osman is a journalist and news anchor based in Ghana. He won the 2021 International Center for Journalists Award for his COVID-19 reporting. Also, he took some great photos of the people he talked with for this piece. You can check them out at Coming up, Charles Monroe-Kane is on the road in Ghana with two historians.

- [Robert] And so, for him, they say Daddy Roberts, that's the name they call you, isn't it? And then they know that they say, one time that Robert has come, it's going to be conglomerate and planted. In his book "African Indigenous Systems," there's a place in there where I describe in detail my first time, meaning And he is no lie. Every time I go somewhere, that's the first thing I'm asking for. Especially if it's good. I don't like, you know, sometimes they make it as a small side when they have a big meal, but when they make it as the main big meal, oh, watch out. It's delicious. It's delicious. I can eat today, you know? And even now. Even now it's good. It's good.

- [Anne] It's "To The Best Of Our Knowledge" from Wisconsin Public Radio... And PRX. We're talking about the current wave of African Americans moving repatriating to Ghana. And, Charles, you were telling us earlier that the Ghanaian Government actually jump-started this in 2019 with their Year Of Return campaign.

- [Charles] Yeah, I watched some of the ads. They absolutely just grabbed your heart if you're African American, and said, "Come home." Ghana spends a lot of money and time and effort to maintain traditional culture. I met this man named Prince Marfo, he's a Cultural Director, but there are multiple cultural directors that are like ministers of culture. He was ready to critique what the Government's doing, what the Government should do more of. He's also aware that other people in the government see this as an economic boon, right? Hey, they're gonna come in, they're gonna start nonprofits, they're gonna start businesses, they're gonna pay taxes. He sees that as attention of what is the role of the African American coming in. Is it economic or is it cultural?

- [Prince] A thing that is happening now, actually, is a very good thing that is happening now. Because, to me, when I look there are the African American, sometimes I ask myself, "What identity do they have?" Because they don't belong there.

- [Charles] Right.

- [Prince] And if they come here and they also don't belong here, then where do they belong to? So it is heartwarming that we have our brothers coming back because this is where they belong to. Because there they are not seen as part of them. It doesn't matter how many years they've been staying with them.

- Right, right.

- [Prince] They will not be accepted there. But we, they are brothers who have just traveled and they are back. To me, if we don't look at them from that lens as our brothers who have just traveled and they are coming back, and we look at them as Americans, then we have failed in our attempt to call them back home.

- [Charles] I know I should know the answer to this question and I don't, you work for the Government. Is there an official part of the Government that, sure, Ghana can welcome them, but is there something official to work with people to help them understand your values better to integrate them into society, into your society?

- [Prince] What are they coming here to do? They're coming to learn their values. They're coming to learn their history. They're coming to learn about their culture. That's all that they're-

- Coming to do-

- [Prince] And that is our work.

- [Charles] Yeah. So as the Cultural Director, would you want funding? Would you want to have the control of African Americans coming to educate them when they come in?

- [Prince] Yes, we do want funding.

- Right.

- We want the opportunity for us to even welcome them, and then integrate them into the society. We have the call power. We have the entry point to all the communities because we work closely with the chiefs and the communities around, and we know all the values that are within every community. And to me, if you say, "Year of Return," and you keep them in Accra, Accra is not Ghana. Accra was just an exit point. But what you went through, through the hinterlands, through the forest from the North. So if this is really a conscious effort to really welcome them, then they should know their roots.

- Wow.

- And as they move along, I know, with the power of our ancestors, when you get to a community or any part of the country that your ancestor's spirit is, you'll feel it in your body. You automatically feel it in your body. This is where I belong.

- [Charles] 'Cause it seem now, people are just coming around their own 'cause they know somebody and they come here and you don't even know they're here.

- [Prince] Yes.

- [Charles] So you already started daydreaming, right? If you ran it, here's what you're dealing with, and you would have them go on the slave route down which is actually a very good idea. Okay, let's pretend you and I run the, bringing in of African Americans. What else would you do? What would you do for them?

- [Prince] I would look for opportunity for them to invest and feel at home. Because first thing is, if we really don't see them as our brothers and still see them as Americans coming, I think when they feel at home and they stay, then they will think of staying or maybe coming back. And then coming back will be what am I coming back to Ghana to do? But if you have a business that you set up here and you know that you have a home, maybe you have built here, then you are coming back to look at the success of it or the feeler of it.

- Right.

- Because we need them to bring in their investment, to bring in their technology, to bring in their experience, to build a country. So we need to make the grounds better for them to germinate.

- [Charles] Right, it could be a school teacher, it could be a nurse.

- Yes.

- [Charles] It could be a businessman, why not integrate?

- Bring them in.

- Bring them in.

- [Prince] As we will kill the seed before it is even planted. ♪ My poppy, my mommy ♪ ♪ You are leaving ♪ ♪ My mommy, my poppy ♪ Your ancestors were slaves, period. You are now not a slave. Let's push that one aside. What is the way forward? That is what I'm looking at. Rather than repeatedly talking about the pain that ancestors went through... And in course of even telling their story, some of them can collapse.

- Right?

- [Prince] Taking them through the dungeon and showing them how the ancestors slept and how they were taken through that tunnel into the ship. You are just reversing the pain that they have come to heal. They are not historians who come and look for history. They are just people who have traveled, they've come home. So if my brother comes from a journey, I need to sit down with my brother. Welcome, that is our culture. So when you come, we give you water, you take your water. We ask you what transpired when you went out. You give us all the details, we also give you what has happened in your absence. And then, we take a conclusion on it and it becomes a new model for us to move on.

- [Anne] Prince Marfo is the Cultural Director for the Suyani region. Charles, what's the music?

- [Charles] Oh, yeah, so, okay. So, this is this amazing surprise. We went to a friend, a mutual friend's house. And when we got there, there was a dance troupe and a drumming troupe and singers. This was one of the dances. And it's basically about two fisher folks who were sitting on the beach and they're kind of discussing if they're gonna keep fishing, ♪ Yo ♪ A lot of drumming, you hear the male and the female drum, well, this is two men, two different drums kind of competing for who's gonna go back out and fish again. And then we had fish. It was just a very powerful thing. And it brought me back to what he was saying about culture. Like I'm a white dude, but I could imagine what that would feel like coming from say the South Side of Chicago when you're 28 years old and you move there on your own and you get to have the experience I just had, it would be very powerful. Instead of being in Accra in a hotel. ♪ Yo ♪

- [Anne] Coming up. One reason Ghana's encouraging African Americans to resettle there is to remedy a problem that's plagued many African nations for years. The brain drain to the West, it's "To The Best Of Our Knowledge" from Wisconsin Public Radio. ♪ Hey ♪ And PRX. African Americans may be moving to Ghana in increasing numbers. But that is nothing compared to the number of Ghanaian-born Africans who migrate every year to Europe and the US. This is a familiar story for Africans with professional ambitions. Once you're qualified in your career, you have a choice. Stay in your native country or pursue a high-profile career in North America or Europe. For Ato Quayson, it wasn't that much of a question. Born and raised in Ghana, he grew up in a family of storytellers as he told Steve Paulson, his love of books led to his career as a renowned literary scholar at Stanford, and past President of the African Studies Association,

- [Ato] My father of a weekend of a Saturday, there would be food and he would invite kids in the neighborhood to come and he would tell as regales with folk tales.

- Hmm.

- And he never repeated the same story. He often said that it was an insult to a story to be repeated the same way.

- [Steve] Well, you have to have a knowledge of a lot of folktales to be able to do that.

- [Ato] Yeah, yeah. So that's how it started. My mother was also a avid story, but her tales were city. She was a trader on the market. So she brought lots of market stories. You know what today I now understand as organizational storytelling. So stories about the market actually as an organization. So, the anecdote is very important for me. The anecdote, the detail. The anecdote, the detail and the relationship in anecdote, detail, background, foreground, so these were readily satisfied in literary studies.

- [Steve] When did you start to realize that this is what you wanted to study. You wanted to study literature.

- [Ato] It was, actually, somewhat by accident. My father, like most people of his generation, wanted me to go into the profession, wanted me to be a lawyer. And I was interested, in fact, I did a year of law. But at the time, I was extremely lazy as a young man. So I thought that I should choose a subject to do at university that would allow me to spend as much time as possible lying down in bed. And English literature seemed to be perfect. So that's, most people wonder whether I'm joking, but it's actually true. I spent a lot of time just lounging around in bed reading all kinds of books. And it was magnificent, so that-

- [Steve] This was the University of Ghana.

- [Ato] University of Ghana, so that's what got me to do literature. Of course, I did a combined honors with Arabic. But Arabic, you could do a little bit of it lying down. But English literature was magnificent because, and it satisfied my, 'cause at the time I felt that the highest sign of civilization was languidness or leisure. The more leisurely you could be, the greater the sign of civilization. This was a kind of ridiculous romanticized idea.

- [Steve] So, when you were becoming a literary scholar in college and maybe at, once you went off to graduate school at the University of Cambridge, were you mainly reading books by Westerners or by Africans?

- [Ato] Well, it was varied. The education, the undergraduate curriculum at the University of Ghana, which is where I did my undergraduate was... It was a very traditional English department. The reading was varied but not dissimilar to the kind of period paper immersion that you would find in any tradition. It was very completely traditional.

- [Steve] So, then you went off to the University of Cambridge to get your Ph.D. And, of course, England was one of the colonizers of Ghana for centuries. And you ended up becoming a scholar of post-colonial literature.

- Yeah.

- [Steve] And I guess I'm wondering if Cambridge was a good place to investigate this subject.

- [Ato] Well, at the time it didn't seem like a good place. In fact, I was the first African to have me admitted to the faculty of English to do a Ph.D. in like 30 years. Now, this also meant that I was an object of curiosity, you know, for I had many times to answer the question whether Africa had literature, the novel form is foreign, and so on. So I thought about those things all the time. However, the one advantage that Cambridge provided me is that precisely because everyone was ignorant and a little bit confused. I could define my own self however I wanted.

- [Steve] So I would think for a lot of African scholars who go off to a Western university and get a Ph.D., the question is, where do you wanna live? Where do you wanna work? Do you go back to Africa or do you go find a job at a university in North America or Europe? Was that a big question for you?

- [Ato] It was a big question because when, throughout my Ph.D., my mind, and I said this to anyone that bothered to listen, was to get my doctorate and go back to the English Department at Legon, which the University of Ghana. And to quote-unquote, "Shake up the department." That's all I wanted, I wanted to get my degree and go back to my department and teach there. In my final year of my Ph.D., which was my year three, my supervisor called me in and said that I should apply for, at the time, what they call JR, this post-doc. I applied for post-doc but in the Cambridge Oxford system, they're called Junior Research Fellowships. And when I said, "Well, what does this mean?" He said, "No, just apply, see what happens." By some stroke of luck, I actually won one of those very, they're very prestigious. And my supervisor, I remember when I won the JRF, that was in Oxford, for the first time, he actually hugged me. He had never done that before. It was very English, very distance. He gave me a hug, and then he said something that I'll never forgot. He says, "This represents the Golden Fleece of academic life in this country. You'll understand many years from now." And it turned out to be true.

- [Steve] Hmm.

- [Ato] Gradually, the idea to go back, and go and shake up my department in Ghana was put off. So let me finish this, and then I'll go. And then, of course, I never went back.

- [Steve] So you spent years then teaching at the University of Cambridge in England? Then you later, spent another dozen years teaching at the University of Toronto and now you are at New York University. So, your whole career has been at Western universities.

- Yes.

- Do you feel torn at all or was that just sort of the logical thing to do?

- [Ato] No, I used to feel torn, especially in the start of my career because the kind of... The only way that I can use is hunger. The hunger for knowledge that I myself had growing up in Ghana, and what I know the impact of if I had gone back, what kind of impact I would've done. I always used to think of, I need to take early retirement from the Western system and go back home to the of home. However, the idea of home also began to shift in the sense that I began to establish more networks of both professional and convivial networks outside the country, so as stronger, and perhaps even stronger than what I had at home. So I went back to Ghana many times I have collaborations, and so on. But more and more, my friends were abroad and my intellectual interlocutors were also abroad. The idea of whom began to change gradually. So like 15 years in, I began to see that perhaps I had held an overly romanticized idea of what going home might mean. My book "Oxford Street" was partly to address that nostalgia for whom, the reasons why the book came out. But one of it was what does it mean to not be at home but to think of home and feel home and homesick on a daily basis. One of the ways to address that was to write a book about Accra.

- Yeah. Hmm, do you ever think about moving back to Ghana?

- [Ato] All the time. Yeah, I think about it all the time, and what it might take to move. I would love to move back to Ghana, have a good library, and live close to an airport.

- [Steve] The definition of a global citizen.

- Yeah, yeah.

- A good airport.

- [Ato] I don't care where it is, but I need a good airport.

- [Singer] Okay, okay, okay, ow!

- [Anne] That's Ato Quayson, a literary scholar who now teaches at Stanford University. He's a past President of the African Studies Association, and his many books include "Oxford Street, Accra: City Life and the Itineraries of Transnationalism." And he was talking with Steve Paulson. ♪ Hey, ha ♪ We're talking about relationships and connections across the African diaspora. This is an hour our producer Charles Monroe-Kane put together after he spent several weeks traveling around Ghana with a couple of friends. And, Charles, there is one more bit of tape you wanted to play for us. Can you set it up?

- [Charles] You know, it's funny you say a couple of friends, I was coming with one friend, he was an African American professor. You heard him earlier in the show, Robert Hansard from Chicago, but he has his best friend, his a Ghanaian historian, and I kind of just tagged along. I was like the white token, they call me, it was really cute.

- [Anne] Wait, so Robert's African American. Who's this other guy?

- [Charles] Kofi Bempong is a Ghanaian, and they know each other because for 20 years, they've been friends for 20 years off and on. And it was just such a lovely thing to hang out with them. And we were drinkers, we would drink at night, and we would drink this stuff called Orijin. And Orijin is this local liquor that's made from bark. It's very strong, lots of herbs and stuff in it. We would sit around and drink Orijin for hours. We are on a bus, it is rough-traveling there, by the way, especially in the rainy season. I realized the two of them were joking around. I'm like, "Oh, my God, this is the microcosm of the whole reason I came to Ghana." It's that diaspora coming together in a beautiful way.

- [Kofi] I had met Robert in a little about 20 years ago when I was a tour guide. I had then just completed my first degree in History from the University of Ghana. And Robert had also come on tour with this group of young men to Ghana, basically, to have an in-depth cultural understanding of the African

- And, Robert, tell me what it was like for you when you guys first met.

- [Robert] Yeah, I mean I worked for an organization in Chicago called Youth Guidance, which was an organization that worked directly in community schools throughout the city of Chicago to bring programming that actually took kids out of really very tough communities in Chicago, and exposed them to African history and culture and use like a rites of passage sort of process that brought young men as Kofi described, to come to Africa and to sort of go through a process of being exposed to and learning about Africa. Everything from naming to a exposure to the slave experience, just a range of things. So, yeah, I mean, Kofi and I connected because we both were very interested in similar subjects and just over time, we built a very, very strong relationship.

- Yes.

- [Charles] Okay, so it's 20 years later, I'm sitting with you guys in a bus going to your house with your children and he knows your children, and you have a book and he wrote "The Forward," and he's advising you on your Ph.D. like, what is that like? What is that relationship like?

- [Kofi] The relationship has been a win-win situation in the sense that there has been impact that has been achieved on both ends. And, again, when I met him, I was in, running my own tour company, again, through his inspirations, guidance, and so forth, I have been able to, and almost narrow to the completion of my Ph.D. as well. And also, before I met him, I have not even made attempt of writing a book. Yes, and since I helped him in, during his Ph.D., and then also helped him in writing his book, he equally inspired me in writing my own and kept me on my toes, and so forth. And my book is almost out now, as you can see. I have a test-run copies of it.

- [Charles] And, Robert, you've been coming here for 20 years, off and on.

- Yeah.

- You wrote a book. From here, you do a lot of stuff. You brought me here, which is, thank you, by the way. It's been a very powerful experience. What are you getting out of this?

- [Robert] You will hear honorarium after honorarium when we talk because there's so much that he and I celebrate and yet there have been struggles with it. But mostly what you'll hear is our celebration of our connection, and more than anything else, the more and more we came, the more I came, the more and more I felt like I was at home. And that has a lot to do with the fact that we connected as brothers. We became brothers over time. And so, that's why I know his kids very well. He knows my wife and my kid. That's why, because we built something significant. For me, it's very valuable. There's something that happens to me in my spirit when I come here every time. It doesn't matter. The US brings a negative vibe to me sometimes, even in the airport. The aspect of being sweated down and my passport being pulled or separated out, and oftentimes, there's a racial component to that. Not every time I get all the issues about security, but very frequently, there's a racial component to the slowing down of things and it builds attention. And if you couple that with being pulled out of a police car, you couple that with being separated out, even when you have a Ph.D., you couple that with seeing your wife or your child being maltreated because of their race, suddenly, to come here is a release. In many ways, it's a release for me. It's helpful for me. It helps me. It helps me in my own spirit to get strong again. Every time I come here I feel strong. When I go home. I can go back home now. I can go back to the US.

- [Charles] Yeah. That's, but you just said it, so. So, where is home?

- Home is here.

- Home is here.

- Home is here. So even if I don't end up living here, even though that's part of what I hope to do in the end, this is still my home. This is my spiritual home. This is where, this is my spiritual home. So I'm beyond the bounds of time. I'm beyond the bounds of culture and all of these other things, they may say, "Oh, no, you can't go," Or not necessarily 'cause sociopolitical, it says that we restrain and say, "You can't go this, that, the other." There's something greater that has happened, you know? So when I came here and I could see freedom in its real form and I could touch it as tangible and then write about it as a historical kind of a thing. That was the end for me, I knew I was home then.

- [Charles] You know, for both of you it's interesting. So obviously, we've been hanging out for three weeks. And cars and traffic jams and your home and wonderful places, and we're tired and eating and drinking Orijin, and just having fun doing everything, it's really... It's been an amazing experience for me. I'm chasing-

- Tourist needs meat to eat.

- [Charles] And we've been literally like I'm chasing a story. The story is African Americans coming to Ghana, which is a big story. A lot of African Americans are coming to Ghana. And then it dawns on me one day, we're all driving in a car together, and I'm like, "This is it." So you guys both know that there are African Americans moving here all the time.

- [Robert] Yeah.

- [Charles] You guys have the relationship already in a microcosm. What would you say to the African American family moving here? What advice would you give them?

- [Kweku] You see, if I want to talk to an African American, like you said, who wants to come to settle here? What I would say is that he should make a decision as whether he wants to get himself to be fully lived an African or he's coming here to leave just as a like a visitor and go. And you could see that Robert doesn't live here like a visitor. Over the years, when you came to the house, you saw her the way the children and my wife and everything was with him. We fetch water together. We do everything together. We eat together. He stays in my house. Everything. That is an African American who is prepared to come home.

- So Robert, what about you? What I mean, like we said, there's a lot of people moving here.

- Yeah.

- You in many ways have.

- [Charles] What do you say to that guy listening right now? He's like, "Yeah, I'm sick of America." Yeah.

- Okay, you're gonna move to Africa. Okay dude, what do you say to him?

- [Robert] I have to quote Haile Selassie. He said, "Liberate before you repatriate." I have to quote him there 'cause you have to free yourself first. That's mainly the main things. And for us as Black Americans, myself included, sometimes as I just described, race constraints and constricts us sometimes. But you know what you gotta be able to do, let it go. But I will tell you this, if you are a person who you are a Black American and you're very serious about it, come here to listen.

- [Kofi] Thank you.

- [Robert] Don't come here, telling everything you don't know any, even if you know everything. There are doctors and lawyers and brilliant people who have come here and lived here, but they have not been successful. The ones who have been successful have learned to listen. Listen, Take your time and

- And understand.

- And understand. And understand, and don't come with any... Don't come with a prejudice,

- Conceived mind.

- A prejudice. Because those are the very things that we are critical of the whites in the US for doing, so why would you come here and bring all of your baggage of this and that? I presume this, I expect this, and that, and the other, slow down.

- Slow down.

- [Robert] Listen.

- [Charles] I have one last question. And what about Orijin?

- [Kofi] You see, you see, you see, in coming to contact with Robert, I could see that there are certain things that, do I live here? He seems to introduce them to me all the time. And it is the same event that this drink Orijin came about. Because in my relationship with him, all the time, yes, we always meet, we share drinks, you know, but a communes drink that we have had with the beers and they look how, you know, simple ones that we all used to. Then one time, I started seeing him exposing something we call Orijin. He started ordering Orijin, Orijin, Orijin, which was a starting departure from the normal, you know, beer that we always drink. So I said, "Okay, then lemme give you a try." I give the try, so "It's very good drink." So I asked, said, "Ah, how did you got to know about this? This is the best, it's more than even better than beer." So ever since Orijin has been my best drink, and I always tell people that, "Do you know who introduced me to this drink? I have a friend from America, and he came from America to come introduce Orijin to me." And so ever since it's been my favorite drink.

- [Anne] That's Robert Hansard and Emmanuel Kofi Bempong speaking with Charles Monroe-Kane. Kofi is a Ghanaian historian and author of "African Indigenous Systems." Robert is a Professor of History at Columbia College Chicago and author of "Identity, Spirit, And Freedom In The Atlantic World, The Gold Coast And The African Diaspora." This hour was produced by Charles Monroe-Kane, and, Charles, how do you wanna go out?

- [Charles] Well, like we should with all things in our lives, I wanna go out with a song. ♪ Akwaaba Akwaaba Akwaaba Akwaaba ♪ This song is called "Akwaaba" by Guilty Beatz. This is interesting. This song has 11 million listens on Spotify and 10 million views on YouTube. Keep in mind, the Ghana only has a population of 30 million people. So if you're driving in cabs and hanging on Ghana, you're gonna hear this song. But I think more important to me is the title of the song "Akwaaba." "Akwaaba" means welcome in the twi language. ♪ Akwaaba Akwaaba ♪ Second, so many people welcome me in Ghana. I want to thank them. I wanna give credit to Ridwan Karim Dini-Osman, Will Gianfi, Pharaoh Shabazz, Anne Mascot, Prince Marfo, and of course, my friends and travel companions, Kofi and Robert.

- [Anne] And thanks to you for listening. Be well, and join us again next time.

- [Voice Over] PRX.

Last modified: 
January 26, 2024