Currently, there are around 200 million people in the Americas identifying themselves as of African descent, according to the United Nations. Millions more live in other parts of the world, outside of the African continent, and in most cases they experience racism and discrimination.
To promote the respect for and protection of their human rights, the UN General Assembly proclaimed 2015–2024 as the “The International Decade for the People of African Descent”, to be marked annually on 25 March.
Ghana is the first African country to open its doors to people of African descent from all over the world but bureaucracy takes a toll.
Ghana, from whose shores the majority of 15 million Africans passed into slavery, has invited its descendants in the diaspora to return home. The country has had a long history, from the days of its first president, Kwame Nkrumah, of encouraging the return of persons of African descent to help with the continent’s development.
In 2000, the country passed a law on the ‘Right of Abode’, which allows a person of African descent to apply and be granted the right to stay in Ghana indefinitely. And recently, the country set up a Diaspora Affairs Bureau under the foreign affairs ministry to provide a sustainable link between the Ghanaian diaspora and various government agencies to achieve development and investment goals.
But it has not been so simple for African-Americans and Caribbeans in Ghana. Only Rita Marley, wife of late reggae icon Bob Marley, has been granted the indefinite stay, and that happened only last year. Those who applied years ago are yet to receive any response from the interior ministry, whose charter states that the process should take only six months.
The Ghana Caribbean Association and the African-American Association of Ghana say they are engaging the appropriate government department on the matter.
“It’s as if they don’t know that such a thing exists,”says Mr.Jerome Thompson of the personnel who handles the residency applications. Mr Thompson lives in Prampram, a town just an hour’s drive east of Ghana’s capital Accra, many holiday houses line the shores of the South Atlantic Ocean. One of them belongs to him. Located only 500 metres from the water, Mr. Thompson’s house is resilient to the effects of the salt and wind. The floors, windows and doors are made of hard wood. His self-designed furniture is made from quality Ghanaian timber and hand-carved by local artisans.
“The ocean helps me fall asleep and wakes me up in the morning,” says Mr. Thompson, an African-American retiree taking a stroll on the beach where palm trees shade hand-carved canoes. “Where else can I live this close to the ocean? It would cost me millions of dollars!”
Mr. Thompson, a native of Maryland in the United States, retired to Ghana 11 years ago. He first visited the West African country on a tour in 2000. “I fell in love with Ghana and its people,” he recalled, during an interview with Africa Renewal. “It was good seeing black people, my people, in charge of the country (Ghana).” That trip took him to many attractions across the country, including the Cape Coast Castle from where centuries ago millions of Africans walked through the infamous “Door of No Return” into slave ships bound for plantations in the Americas and the Caribbean, never to set foot in their homelands again. But for their descendants like Mr. Thompson’s, the sign that hangs on that infamous door today reads: “Door of Return”.
“I was so ready to turn my back on the United States,” he says, adding: “We did so much for the US, yet they don’t want to see us as first-class citizens.”
Mr. Thompson is one of the 20 or so African-Americans and other people from the diaspora of African descent who have found a home in this fishing community, attracted by the beaches and the peace and tranquillity the town offers away from the hustle and bustle of Accra.
According to 2014 estimates, more than 3,000 African-Americans and people of Caribbean descent live in Ghana, a country of about 26 million people. Whatever their motives, Ghana, the first sub-Saharan Africa country to shake off colonial rule 58 years ago, has become the destination of choice for diasporans looking for a spiritual home and an ancestral connection in Africa. While some returnees have gone through the emotional journey of tracing their families through DNA testing, for the majority who just come to visit, or to settle like Mr. Thompson, the feeling of being “home” on the continent is satisfying. “It’s good to know that you came from some place and it’s not just a figment of someone’s imagination,” he says.
More needs to be done to make returning African brothers and sisters feel welcome back on the continent if Africa is to benefit from their return. Samuel Amankwah, the director of research at Ghana’s interior ministry, admits that the authorities need to engage more. “Those who left our shores are still our brothers and sisters,” he says, adding: “Offering Africans in the diaspora a right to abode in Ghana is a way of engaging for our common interest.”