Home is Where the Heart is: A Woman’s Pilgrimage to Ghana

Home is Where the Heart is: A Woman’s Pilgrimage to Ghana

“British by nature, Ghanaian by blood”, it was to be the breaking away from social expectations of family holidays to her ancestral home that led one Black British traveller to realise the true power of her West African roots.

the first thing I see on stepping off the plane at Accra’s
Kotoka International Airport, the sign scrawled in huge letters:
“Akwaaba”. Written in Twi, a dialect of the Akan language, it means
“welcome” and always gives me a warm sense of homecoming. Outside,
there’s the familiar smell of Ghanaian humidity and the vivid sight
of crowds of locals waiting to see the travellers returning to, or
visiting this West African hub for the first time.

Ghana’s president, Nana Akufo-Addo, declared 2019 “The Year of
Return” – an official commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the
arrival of African slaves in America. He urged international
visitors, especially ones from the black diaspora, to return
“home”. Among those who took him up on the invitation were
supermodel Naomi Campbell, rapper Cardi B and Beyoncé’s mother,
Tina Knowles. Stuck in a grey and miserable London at the time, I
couldn’t help but feel a twinge of jealousy as I saw so many make a
joyful pilgrimage back to Ghana.

My own call to return “home” came following the death of my
grandfather, who had been the royal chief of Asankragua, a small
town in the Western Region of the country. His funeral was to be a
traditional affair, steeped in Ghanaian custom, as befitting his
totemic role in the community. Although this trip to Ghana would be
my fourth, it was, in many ways, like discovering the country for
the first time. I didn’t know it when I boarded the plane, but this
was to be the trip on which I would learn that many things I
thought I’d known about my cultural roots were superficial. Living
in the UK, I had become disconnected from my heritage, conflicted
by the reality of being British by nature, Ghanaian by blood.

I am not the only British-Ghanaian millennial to have
experienced this plight. Many others, like me, considered
travelling with their parents to Ghana as just a holiday, albeit
one filled with visits to “this auntie… that uncle”. While this
round of social activities may be convivial, it is also restrictive
– providing very little opportunity to discover the country for
oneself. Unless, that is, you break free.

After three days of watching and listening to the non-stop
drumming sounds of funeral processions, I decided to leave
Asankragua and make the twelve-hour coach journey back to Accra. It
was to be a personal quest during which I would explore Ghanaian
history – and also see more of what the country’s 16 diverse
regions had to offer than what had been possible on visits to
relatives. It was an odyssey of both highs and lows. The poignancy
of visiting Ghana’s slave fortresses and unravelling the dark
history of the transatlantic slave trade is something that will
stay with me forever.

Following hours of being packed like a sardine on a “Tro-tro” –
Ghana’s privately owned minibus and taxi service – I arrived at the
Cape Coast. Once the heart of the largest slave-trading centre in
West Africa, today the area is a laid-back fishing town with an
arty vibe. The air lingers with the whiff of a salty sea breeze and
like the murmur of a heartbeat, you hear the gentle sound of waves
crashing onto the shoreline. Crumbling colonial buildings dress the
streets, seabirds swoop in their numbers onto the beaches and the
fishermen cast their nets where slave ships once sailed.

Children roam innocently outside the walls of Cape Coast Castle,
one of the places where modern-day Ghana meets the past. There is
invaluable history to be discovered here for those who wish to find
it. My tour guide explained the origins of the 16th-century Unesco
World Heritage site, before taking me to the individual male and
female slave dungeons.

My stomach tight, I entered the pitch-black dug-out, with its
minute slithers of iron frames for ventilation. It was impossible
to imagine how 1,500 slaves, two-thirds of whom were male, were
shackled together here. It was 32 degrees celsius outside, yet I
felt ice-cold as I stepped into the female portion of the enclave,
the site of where countless women and girls had been abused by
captors over two centuries.

Other than the sound of sandals scraping the cobblestones, very
little was to be heard, our small group proceeding in silence. The
expressions on our faces, however, said it all. I sobbed; the
trauma of what millions of African slaves went through still
permeates the air.

We were guided to a sign labelled the “Door of No Return”. This
infamous door opens to the stairway that leads to the ocean, upon
which millions of Africans were shipped across the Atlantic to the
Caribbean and the Americas. It would be the last time these slaves
would stand on African soil before having their identities
eternally erased.

As some kind of solace, the “Door of Return”, was since built
for the ancestors of the slaves, such as myself, who have managed
to come back home. A message from the traditional chiefs of Ghana
reads: “In everlasting memory of the anguish of our ancestors, may
those who died rest in peace, may those who return find their
roots, may humanity never again perpetrate such injustice against
humanity. We, the living, now vow to uphold this.”

The power of these words was not lost on me. In a moment of
reflection while sat by a cannon pointing out at an invisible enemy
in the Atlantic Ocean, it dawned on me how privileged I am as a
Black woman born in the UK. What a luxury it is, in this modern
era, to not be able to comprehend what it was like to be held
captive in such unbearable and brutal conditions.

My visit also took me to Elmina Castle, another slave fort in
Cape Coast, and the Osu Castle in Accra. Both sites were equally
disturbing – and emotionally draining. There are 60 such forts
along Ghana’s 300-mile stretch of coast. After spending time at
some of them, I realised that, in my mission to understand Ghanaian
history better, I should not focus simply on slavery.

The best way to understand Ghanaian culture, it transpired, is
to meet local artisans, who, before Covid hit, were contributing to
a flourishing tourism sector by turning traditional skills into
businesses. Venturing into Akosombo, a small town in the country’s
Eastern Region, I met Nomoda Ebenezer Djaba at his Cedi Beads
factory. Being adorned with statement jewellery has for centuries
been an integral part of Ghanaian ceremonies such as births,
marriages and funeral ceremonies. At the factory, Djaba showed me
the process of how traditional Ghanaian glass beads – often
referred to as “krobo beads” – are created from raw materials –
recycled old bottles and broken glass. Watching this intricate
procedure left me with a newfound respect for the time-honoured art
I had been wearing around my neck.

I also explored Lake Volta, the largest man-made body of water
in the world based on surface area, contained behind the Akosombo
Dam. It generates a substantial amount of Ghana’s electricity and
was the country’s most ambitious development project, as a newly
independent state in 1966, led by Ghana’s first president Kwame
Nkrumah. Nkrumah was a character I had long heard about and his
revolutionary ideology is still heavily revered around the African
continent today. Walking through Accra’s Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum,
captivated by the bronze statues, fountains, and peacocks, I was
most drawn to the impeccably curated collection of Nkrumah’s
personal belongings, which included the smock he wore while
declaring Ghana’s independence, as well as copies of personal
correspondence and numerous photos of him standing shoulder to
shoulder with various world leaders – including Fidel Castro.

In stark contrast to the mausoleum and its gardens’ tranquility
was the organised chaos of the capital’s Makola Market. Here, I was
surrounded by a multitude of women traders, along with a handful of
men, all of whom called me over to peruse their goods. They were
selling everything under the sun, my favourites being the colourful
afrocentric wax-print fabrics for tailoring, authentic shea butter
for the skin and the feast of Ghanaian delicacies such as yam,
kenkey (a corn-based dumpling), dried fish and freshly baked bread.
Despite being “Ghanaian”, vendors still clocked me as “foreigner”
and hiked up their prices accordingly, leading to repeated rounds
of haggling.

No longer a child, and exploring this country as a solo
British-Ghanaian woman, I – at times – felt like a fish out of
water. I still don’t know where I quite fit in with it all. There
remains a lot for me to discover about Ghana, from the
fast-changing cosmopolitan appeal of Accra to the quiet simplicity
of rural villages. But, as my plane readied for take-off from
Kotoko Airport, I smiled; I had finally become acquainted with my
home away from home. And now that Ghana has started rolling out its
vaccination programme, I eagerly anticipate the day when I will be
greeted by the word “Akwaaba” once again.