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the year of the return

Year of Return. Back home. Back to Africa en masse has been a long time coming.

In 2019 Ghana held the official Year of Return. Defined by as “a major landmark spiritual and birth right journey inviting the Global African family, home and abroad, to mark 400 years of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in Jamestown, Virginia.”

Movements and plans to go home have been devised since the early 20th century, most notably Marcus Garvey’s Back to Africa Movement and The American Colonization Society settling in Liberia. In more recent times Pan African events; The First World Festival of Black Arts in Senegal in 1966, 1977’s Festac 77 in Nigeria, and Ghana’s first Panafest in 1992.

Although many have longed to go back home, some have had complex relationships with home. Many first and second gens’ early understanding of their native African countries are as a place where you’re shipped off to be straightened out or taught a lesson. For Black Americans and Afro-Caribbeans, intentional racist and fearful propaganda against Africans has long been a part of their education systems. This also is true for Black South Americans.

Year of Return’s timing couldn’t have been more perfect. The stigma around being African and being in Africa has lessened. A strengthened pride in continental Africans and their abroad children has opened up the minds of those not so directly connected. With that you get a mixture of Africans coming home to celebrate what they were made to feel ashamed of and descendants arriving to connect with a home their lineage was separated from for centuries.

But where does this leave nationals that live at home? Year of Return was praised by government agencies and supporters as being extremely successful with an (unconfirmed) $1.9 billion revenue generated and 200,000 extra arrivals.

How do the nationals and natives of west African countries like Ghana benefit from such returns? Superior and imperialistic ideals are often present – even from black American, British and non-African nationals visiting the country. Talks of non-continental Africans buying land and building communities that exclude natives. Landing with the excitement of how “cheap” the country is, bartering to the point of exploitation.

A great deal of articles, vlogs and interviews on Year of Return focus on those visiting and not natives of Ghana. However, one point made in Do Ghanaians Really Want African Americans in Ghana?//Year of Return on Virtue Graces YouTube Channel  was that although the initiative was amazing the cost to locals was steep with prices of regular goods tripling and becoming less affordable. Or, the opposite, Shea butter, Black soap, Kente and other items are negotiated to extremely low prices only to be resold abroad at a much higher price. This exploitative reselling practice started well before Year of Return but has been furthered due to more visitors. Local sellers, artists and craftspeople deserve fair compensation for their work. It’s worth the government supporting that with an absolute minimum they can legally sell at. This should follow for bulk purchases that may be resold. Or designated market areas where bulk can be sold, allowing for all types of market people’s stock to be available without their attendance at a flat, but fair, rate.

In Ghana’s ‘Year of Return’  is emotional for descendants on both sides of the slave trade, Abdul Majeed – a national – expressed his thoughts on what he believed could have been better. Expressing that those visiting for the first time, could have made more long-term investments, saying “they only just come here to talk and then go.” Having been deported from the U.S under shackles and chains, he calls on Americans recognizing and using their privilege to help.

Although it is great to celebrate the victories and early progression, there are blind spots. Ghanaians are elated at the results of it all. “The Year of Return in Perspective” on Visit Ghana’s YouTube channel interviews natives. Valentine Appiah, Sales and Marketing Manager of Elmina Beach Resort, explained revenue figures doubled from last year and Robert Mensah, Head of Education of Cape Coast Slave Castle, spoke on the enormous volume of visitors. Sister Yaa, a fruit seller of Assin Manso, also spoke on how the increased number of visitors has increased her sales tremendously. The most praised benefit has been felt financially throughout the country. Increased income is a positive for quality of life and touches every avenue of life.

Business owners, traders and sellers seem to have gained the most. Non-financial gains – like the cultural, information and relationship exchanges – will become apparent with time. My hope is that the Year of the Return will result in mutually beneficial, respectful relationships, deeper understanding of cultural practices and educational tradeoffs that are long term.

A wider range of interviews asking for perspectives from University students, adolescents, and those not working in hospitality or trading would’ve been great to consider. Ghanaian nationals have enjoyed their Year of Return, and rightfully so. Their preparation and appetite for it fostered its success: the nation had been addressed by the President with ample time to arrange plans and strategies. I personally visited Accra in December of 2019 and can attest to the organisation of the welcome from the airport to events and back on my departure. Events, tours and hot spot locations were structured, easy to navigate, and fun. A number of music festivals celebrating various African and Black musicians. Informational tours from Aburi mountains, Kwame Nkrumah memorial centre and more were ongoing. Accra’s Oxford Street was buzzing more than usual with open markets and restaurants full.

Ghana made its mark with its Year of Return. It was a historical year and an example of how to bring the diaspora home. My hope for the future would be for a similar initiative to support and deepen intracontinental travel and exchange. To take it further and encourage nationals to further connect with their countries. For all who have been disconnected from their roots to be welcomed and open to embracing. And ultimately for Africans and the diaspora to have healthy and enrichening relations with each other and our homes.

chiizii is a visual artist and designer born in London, raised in New York with an Igbo background. Her work serves as social commentary, expression of thoughts and analysis of others and self. It focuses on Black cultures where Blackness is ever present. Whilst its other qualities are examined. Engage with her on her website or on instagram

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