I N T R O D U C T I O N
From surfing across all social media platforms, to detailed google docs managing multiple itineraries and group messages between friends and family, The Year of Return made its way across the Atlantic into the palms of our hands. Marking the 400th anniversary of enslaved Africans leaving the shores of the Ghanaian Cape Coast and arriving in Jamestown, Virginia, the country opened its doors to children of the diaspora, calling them to return home.
The Year of Return launched by the West African country Ghana, sought out the descendants of those captured from Africa’s shores. Ghana hosted a wide variety of entertaining activities: festivals, fashion shows, dinners, parties, outdoor adventures and cultural experiences. There was something for everyone, leaving very little room for FOMO (fear of missing out) to creep in. With over one million visitors by the end of 2019, the West African country capitalized on $1.9 billion in tourism related to this historic anniversary of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
As I looked across the airplane aisles, I felt the anxiousness and excitement in the air as we flew over the waters our ancestors crossed. There were conversations emphasizing “the return home” by many passengers who were visiting the country and continent for the very first time. Once we landed, a sense of belonging gripped us as we were welcomed in traditional akwaaba fashion – our heartbeats matching the beats of the drums as we retrieved our luggage. There were warm smiles wishing us a pleasant stay and a happy return home, as the Ghanaian sun kissed us hello as we embarked on our journeys.
C U L T U R A L E X C H A N G E
The country kicked off the Year of Return with AfroChella, a huge one-day festival celebrating Africa’s diverse culture: food, music, art and dance. Think of it as Coachella, but entirely black – black-owned, black artists and a black audience. The theme of this year’s festival was Diaspora Calling. The festival displayed work of African creatives and entrepreneurs like Asare Adjei and clothing from ALÁRA, a contemporary West African fashion and accessories brand. The music showcased popular West African artists like Tiwa Savage, Nana Kwabena, iPhone DJ and many others.
PHOTO 1: KEMET – EVE, Oil, Acrylic, Pure 24 Karat Gold on Natural Linen Canvas 2019 by Asare Adjei. Photo taken by Heather Balenger
It was evident that many of the visitors were there for one common reason – a connection. Whether it be with the food, the art, or the people, the start of our trip was solidified by swaying arm-in-arm to what Fader Magazine has coined “the modern day negro spiritual” – The “Swag Surf”. From the walls of the East Room of the White House, across the Atlantic to the red dirt roads of Ghana, this energetic song has touched many souls, unifying us as one.
PHOTO 2: Buoyant Travel Year of Return Group 2019. Photo by Briona Lamback of Buoyant Travel.
TASTEMAKERS FULANI DINNER
This was my first time in West Africa and I wanted to experience West African food in its traditional style. One of my most memorable experiences was attending a three course Fulani dinner by recognized Fulani chef, Fatmata Binta. Hosted by one of the top curated travel companies specializing in African culture, Tastemakers Africa, this experience treated us to foods from the Fulani, one of the largest ethnic groups in West Africa. We dined on a mat and enjoyed a delicious meal, which included an Attaya Tea ceremony, tasty dessert and an opportunity to speak with Chef Binta herself.
PHOTO 3: “Fulani Dine-on-a-Mat” dinner with Chef Fatmata Binta (center), family and friends. Photo by Tayler Ulmer of Well Taylered.
Chef Binta’s goal of maintaining her culture was her driving force in creating this experience, “I feared that my culture was fading away. As children, our Fulani values and morals were instilled in us through food, through dining on a mat with our loved ones”. A frequent traveler and culinary curator, her vision is to bring people closer together and promote West African cuisine and culture to the rest of the world.
PHOTO 4: Fulani Dinner Courses – Anise fermented ginger beer, Attaya Tea and honey glazed roasted mushrooms on top of jollof with fonio (left) and Fulani dinner décor including placemats, and mudcloth napkins sitting under cups of anise fermented ginger beer (right). Photos by Heather Balenger
Surrounded by friendly laughter, soulful music and flavor-packed West African delicacies , the Fulani dine-on-a-mat experience gave rise to a unique sense of Ghana that highlighted my return home.
G L O B A L P E A C E M A K I N G
Unlike me, many travelers obtained their visas weeks before traveling to Ghana. With thousands of travelers coming to the country for the Year of Return, the Ghanaian government allowed visitors to obtain their visas “upon arrival”, bypassing the traditional approaches of consulate appointments and mailing-in visa applications. The standard three-to-ten day waiting period was waived and for the same price as in the United States, I applied and received my Ghanaian tourist visa in under thirty minutes upon arrival. Not too bad, right?
Although I was able to receive my visa seamlessly at the airport, I had to present proof I received my required vaccinations before I could step foot into Ghanaian Customs.
Now that the Year of Return has ended, Ghana is no longer offering visas “upon arrival”. Those seeking to travel to the country must apply through the traditional methods.
CHANGING THE WESTERN VIEW OF AFRICA
Remember those late night “Feed the Starving Children” infomercials? practically labeling the entire continent of Africa as poor and disadvantaged. Well, Africa, is far from children with limp bodies starving in huts and tents. The Year of Return was a prominent gateway showing us what Africa is really like today, squashing stereotypes that Africa is filled with lions and tigers roaming the streets like squirrels, unhabitable living conditions, and starving children.
Photo 5: Nubuke Foundation, an open-air contemporary art museum in Accra.
Photos by Heather Balenger
From couture fashion shows and fine dining experiences, to homes turned into art galleries, Batik fabric workshops and cooking classes, Ghana developed a luxurious, yet culturally rich tourist infrastructure that dispelled stereotypes about African primitiveness. The Year of Return designed elaborate itineraries that brought African-Americans and Ghanaians together. Hand-in-hand, we cemented new footprints by linking our pasts and sharing our destinies.
Ghana tourism sky-rocketed on the account of the Year of Return. Memes exacerbating FOMO for those who couldn’t make the trip have been a selling point for many black owned travel companies planning their “Beyond the Year of Return” trips. “Members of our travel community were eager to book their spots on our future trip after they saw our content we produced while in Ghana for the Year of Return”, says Briona Lamback, CEO and Founder of Buoyant Travel, a black travel company specializing in curating travel guides, group trips, and events featuring black owned businesses. “For 2020, we’re heading back to Ghana with another group of travelers to connect with the cool across the diaspora – places, events, and people”.
C E L E B R A T I N G D I F F E R E N C E S I N C U L T U R E / S O C I A L I S S U E S
On the last day of the decade, I spent my time at Cape Coast Castle, one of the forty remaining slave posts built on the “gold coast” by European traders. Cape Coast was coined the “gold coast” for the copious amounts of gold found in the area. I tearfully walked through dark and damp slave dungeons where my ancestors were locked away. I touched the same walls covered with markings from their nails and hands. I felt their presence as I walked across the original floors they were forced to cross.
Photo 6: Cape Coast Castle Door of No Return (left).
Original 300-year-old floors of the Cape Coast Castle (right). Photos by Heather Balenger
Ironically, I felt like I’d been rebirthed as I passed through the “Door of No Return” – a blood-stained portal through which my ancestors couldn’t foresee their futures. Outside of the door, footed in the sand and surrounded by sea, the crisp breeze kissed my face as I thanked my ancestors for their courage. I returned through that same door, with a gliding push from my ancestors, sending me off with victories and blessings for the year of 2020.
Photo 7: Heather Balenger at Cape Coast Castle. Photo by Ousman Sahko of Blacktag.
As I walked through the castle, I could only think – I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams.
As I left the castle, I noticed the colors of the Ghanaian flag waving above, but one color in particular caught my attention – the gold. This color symbolizes the richness of our ancestors. The soil that their food grew from was rich in gold; the materials they used to build tools and their homes came from that exact land. When our melanin glistens, it is a reminder that we too are made of gold and our value is priceless.
COMING TOGETHER THROUGH ART
Every summer, in Jamestown, a neighborhood in Accra where the first known slave ship left for Jamestown, Virginia, is Chale Wote Street Art Festival. The festival brings together art, music, and dance to the streets of Jamestown. Local and international artists flock to this area to create, inspire and appreciate art together.
Photo 8: Graffiti by H.Nortey. Photo taken by Heather Balenger.
Although the Jamestown area does not have as many resources as other affluent areas of Accra, the community thrives on its uniqueness. Vibrant colors shower the walls of the neighborhood where striking and meaningful murals can be found around almost every corner. The art sparks so much joy and gives both locals and tourists a chance to connect with their creative sides.
Photo 9: Graffiti by Kamal Larry. Photo taken by Briona Lamback of Buoyant Travel.
If Ghana is not on your winter travel plans, I highly suggest visiting in August for the Chale Wote Street Art Festival – you won’t regret it.
C O N C L U S I O N
Medaase (thank you) to Ghana for opening its doors and welcoming us home. Although I’m not fully certain of my ancestry, I embraced Ghana as my ancestral homeland. The experience was a soul-altering journey and for that I am truly grateful.
I am returned, I am reconnected and I am reborn.
Photo of Heather Balenger on day one of 2020 at Labadi Beach by Nigisty Lulu
Heather Balenger can be reached on Instagram at @_thegirlwithcurls or by email at email@example.com.