Two days without opening my laptop – now that’s a vacation.
Logging on again today, four Africa stories that caught my eye:
– “Ghana’s Uneasy Embrace of Slavery’s Diaspora”. Lydia Polgreen, writing in the New York Times, has a useful update on a very old Ghana story: attempts to rebrand Ghana as a homeland for Africans enslaved and brought across the Atlantic to return home to.
Ghana’s coastline is lined with European-built castles, some which preceded slavery, but nearly all of which were used in the slave trade. The well-preserved – and therefore all the more viscerally disturbing – castles at Cape Coast and Elmina are UN World Heritage sites and are widely visited by Ghanaian schoolchildren, as well as tourists around the world.
The Ghanaian government – and many Ghanaian entrepreneurs – would like to have a special relationship with African-Americans who are returning to Ghana to visit these sites, encounter Africa for the first time, and perhaps discover something about their roots. When Ghana gained indepedence in 1957, Kwame Nkrumah, who’d been educated at a historically black college in the US, reached out to the African-American community to welcome leaders, investors and artists back. But when Nkrumah was overthrown and Ghana’s economy crumbled, it became harder for the nation to try to lure anyone “home”.
Now the barriers are financial and cultural. When I walk down the street in Accra, I’m greeted again and again as “obruni” – a word that means both “white man” and “foreigner”. It’s a little disconcerting at first (it’s hard not to hear the word as “honky” the first few dozen times), but it eventually becomes clear that folks are simply looking for a way to connect with you, someone who’s clearly a foreigner in their midst. I encourage friends who are visiting Ghana to learn the Twi or Ga phrase which translates as “My name is not obruni – my name is…”, which tends to get laughter in response and often starts conversations.
But it’s obviously very different to hear yourself called “obruni” when you’re an African-American in Ghana. And it’s even harder to hear the message many of my African-American friends heard while visiting Ghana – that they were “lucky” because they “got to live in America”. While this may be an astonishingly insensitive thing to say to people looking for their ancestry after being uprooted by one of the greatest crimes in history, it makes some sense when seen from the perspective of a young Ghanaian. Many Ghanaians are desperate to emigrate to the US or the UK – it’s hard to understand, from that perspective, why people “lucky” enough to live in America would be looking back towards Africa.
Chippla’s running a series on Nigeria’s 2007 presidential elections on his blog, and offers a very helpful history lesson regarding Sani Abacha, Nigeria’s military dictator through much of the 1990s. Chippla believes that Abacha was on a path towards becoming “president for life” and thinks that Obasanjo may try for a third term, despite constitutional restrictions.
Abe McLaughlin does his best to explain the almost inexplicable conflict that threatens to restart on the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea. While the conflict is ostensibly about the dusty desert town of Badme – seized by Ethiopia in the 1998-2000 war, but awarded to Eritrea by a UN-sponsored boundary commission in 2002, McLaughlin makes it clear that the conflict is at least as much about two decidedly non-representative governments and their desires to hold onto power.
In case you didn’t spend Christmas Sunday reading the NY Times Week in Review… Michael Wines has an interesting piece on the politics of aid in Africa, titled “When Doing Good Also Aids the Devil”. One of the devils in question in Wines’s piece is Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. Wines is concerned that UN food aid being brought to Zimbabwe is being distributed – at government direction – primarily in rural areas, which helps cement the effects of “slum clearances” earlier this year, designed to move hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans from Harare to rural areas. Wines likens this to aid in Darfur which has helped keep refugees in camps, allowing government-supported Janjawid militants to cement their grasp on villages the refugees have abandoned.
When I link to stories on Zimbabwe either here or on Global Voices, I’m often reminded by my Zimbabwean friend Dumisani Nyoni that the situation in Harare is lots more complicated than is generally portrayed by non-African journalists. Dumi has an excellent critique of an earlier Simon Robinson piece in Time (which I continue to think is a good piece) that touches on some similar issues – I’m hoping Dumi will weigh in on the Wines piece as well, either in comments here or on his own blog.
As soon as I saw the NYT piece on Ghana I had a bet with a good friend of mine that he will see Ethan’s rejoinder the next day. Right on cue! Ethan! It is not that you are becoming fairly predictable – what’s wrong with that anyway? – It is just that I figured your roving eyes and sensitive nerves could hardly be still when matters of which you have personal experience crop up? By the way, what’s was up with your website yesterday? I could’nt get to it all day.
Your Zimbabwean friend’s perspectives notwithstanding, I think the matter still comes to an 80-year old man’s ambition to stamp his will on a whole country, irrespective of the general will and common sense. Are there some who support him? Absolutely! Nero too had his supporters, and continues to do so. The Nazis had their supporters and some ignorant morons continue to think their actions have been exaggerated. Did Stalin have his supporters? Oh yea, and even now you will still find some all across Russia and beyond. But then the humanist measures and perceives things with a different eye. Keep up the good work, Oburoni…. I mean Ethan. Ah, I got you on that one, didn’t I?
Just a slight correction Ethan. You referred to Sani Abacha as “Nigeria’s last president before current president Olusegun Obasanjo.” Between Abacha and Obasanjo was General Abdulsalami Abubakar, who reigned for just under a year and returned Nigeria back to constitutional democracy.
Kwasi, my Twi’s rusty, so you’re going to have to accept Ga: “Acheemi ‘Brofunyo’. Achomi ‘Yaw’.” As for the site – yeah, database went down for a few hours and I forgot to restart it. New year’s resolution – 99% uptime…
Chippla – good catch – thank you. I made the change.
Re Ghana and Slavery,
When I first visited the “slave castles” I was absolutely stunned by them. If you search, there are more of them thean people realise. The archaeological potential of the sites is immense and shamefully ignored.
The castles are an important factor in why an improbably high proportion of the diaspora choose to view Ghana as the place of their ancestry. It also helps that it is the safest, nicest and most democratic of the options to visit.
Ghana has enormous tourist potential. I always believed that the chief reason it hasn’t been developed was foolish protection of Ghana Airways – favouring the national carrier’s interest over the national interest. BA and Ghana Airways were allowed to fix fares on the route at ludicrously high prices – about three times the Lonson-New York fare, across the range, for the same disctance. You could – and still can – buy a two week holiday in the Gambia, with accommodation and food included, for half the cost of just the flight to Ghana. Now that GA has been replaced by GIA, I hope we will see real air services liberalisation.
I believe that one problem that has been exacerbated by the African-American influence is a totally warped historical presentation, in evidence at Cape Coast and Elmina.
Slavery was a terrible evil. And appalling British slave traders, and British or British descended plantation owners, were among those responsible. But at Cape Coast, for example, for the majority of the time this was a British base its express purpose was to fight slavery. For sixty years post-1832 the British government, at enormous cost in both money and dead sailors (mostly from malaria, patrolled West Africa to fight the slave trade. This part of history is similarly ignored.
Similarly, nothing acknowledges the role of Africans in the slave trade. Graphics show white men driving slave caravans to the coast – something most unlikely – and no African sellers are shown or mentioned in the Barter Hall.
Let me stress, that I am not, in any sense, an apologist for the slave trade, which was an appalling crime against humanity. But I don’t think a cartoon version of history helps anyone.
Ekow Eshun’s “Black Gold of the Sun” is an excellent example of the tribulations of “returning home” see my piece “Where are you really from?”
Black Gold of the Sun
Hi Ethan — a friend of mine emailed me this article in response to the Ghanaian article on slavery and ghanaian relations with the african diaspora: an alternative view point, which i thought i’d share with you and readers of your blog:
Henry Louis Gates and the Times: Unfit to Print
by Margaret Kimberley
Printer Friendly Plain Text Format
On December 27, 2005 the New York Times printed an article entitled
“Ghanaians’ Uneasy Embrace of Slavery’s Diaspora.” The New York Times
rarely delivers on its claim to give its readers “all the news that is fit
to print.” Even white politicians like John Kerry get biased coverage when
they dare to challenge the established order. If a white presidential
nominee can’t catch a fair break from the Times, then black people are
definitely out of luck.
According to the Times, black Americans should just forget about visiting
Africa or forging any links with Africans. Like people in poor nations all
over the world, many Ghanaians seek to emigrate to the United States. The
Times tells us that Ghanaians envy their American cousins for being taken
Suppose, for arguments sake, that the statement is an accurate assessment
of some Ghanaian opinion. A real newspaper would then ask how much
Ghanaians know about the United States, and what if anything they have been
taught about African American history or their own history for that matter.
Ghanaians aren’t alone in seeking refuge in nations that exploited them.
Most of the southwest United States was stolen from Mexico. Mexicans know
this but still cross the border in hopes of improving their lives. The
United States military killed hundreds of thousands in the Philippines at
the turn of the last century. That unforgotten history doesn’t prevent
Filipinos from waiting years to get green cards that ensure their passage
to the country that caused their people so much anguish.
The reality is that Europe and the United States created terrible poverty
and instability around the world. So much so, that the people they oppress
yearn to live in the oppressor nations in hopes of improving their lives.
The real point of the New York Times article is to tell black Americans
that they should just get over the past, realize they are in the best
nation on earth, and stop trying to learn anything about their ancestral
home. After all, Africa is poor and its people envy three hundred years of
slavery, lynching and Jim Crow.
No other group is dissuaded from learning about its ancestry as much as
black people are dissuaded. Even groups whose ancestors immigrated
voluntarily came from poor countries. Their homelands weren’t just poor,
they were often oppressive. There would have been no immigration if that
were not the case. Yet the New York Times doesn’t tell anyone else to
forget about identifying with their place of origin. Only black Americans
are told to wise up and be grateful for what the system has meted out to
Not content to make light of African Americans attempts to connect to
Africa, the times had to add the piece de resistance. They had to call
Henry Louis Gates.
Gates’ area of expertise is African American literature. He is not a
historian. He is not a mental health professional. He is not an expert on
public affairs. He is not an economist. He knows literature and that is
all. Despite his limited base of knowledge, he is continually called upon
to opine on subjects he knows little if anything about.
Gates is definitely shrewd. He has gamed a system that confers top dog
status on only a few black faces. Journalism schools teach courses like
Gates 101 and grade students on their ability to get in touch with Gates
when in need of a handy quote about black people.
Several years ago Gates proudly showed the world how little he knew in the
PBS documentary series “Wonders of the African World.” In the slave trade
segment, Gates’only moment of anger was directed at an Ashanti prince. If
Gates wants to wax righteously indignant, he should interrogate a member of
the Brown family of Brown University. The Brown fortune was made through
slavery, as were many others. Gates ought to give a Brown descendant the
third degree on camera.
In the Times article Gates gives us this nugget of wisdom. “The myth was
our African ancestors were out on a walk one day and some bad white dude
threw a net over them. But that wasn’t the way it happened. It wouldn’t
have been possible without the help of Africans.” A real historian might
have added that there would have been no slave trade without a demand from
Europe and America.
From Canada, where slavery was once legal, to the Caribbean, and all the
way to the tip of South America, white Americans developed and sustained a
voracious need for African free labor. Maybe the Times will tackle that
subject some day.
If the Times and their journalistic brethren stopped thinking of the head
Negro in charge of all things involving colored people, they might find a
useful perspective and write better articles. The New York Times can make
local phone calls and find experts on any subject known to humankind. New
York City is home to Columbia University, New York University and a 19
campus City University of New York, to name just a few.
Is it possible that some of these institutions have experts on African
history? Of course they do, but they will never be heard from as long as a
publicity savvy English professor is the only acceptable source of
So, if on your next visit to Ghana, you are referred to as “obruni,” a word
usually reserved for white people, don’t worry about it. Take it as an
opportunity to learn from another culture and to teach people who may need
to learn from you. In any case, obruni has probably come to mean “foreigner
who has more cash than I do.”
Margaret Kimberley’s Freedom Rider column appears weekly in BC. Ms.
Kimberley is a freelance writer living in New York City. She can be reached
via e-Mail at .You can read more
of Ms. Kimberley’s writings at freedomrider.blogspot.com.
Re Ghana’s Uneasy Embrace.
I am impressed and find many of your impressions to be accurate. This is because I get a bit frustrated because of supposed African stories I hear or read which almost sound made up, or like the story a hungry child will tell if you give them $20 so that you can feature them in a documentary. Of course you can make sound impressions even if neither you nor the Ghanaians you saw could understand the other’s language. I am not sure how much interaction you had with Ghanaians who could communicate with you in your language, I would like to shed some like on the “you’re lucky to be from America” theme. It is almost a corollary to the “thank God my grandpa was on that boat” theme. It is an economic reaction more than anything. The image of America is one of plenty and comfort and the people who tell you how lucky you are to be in America are referring to just that. The land of plenty and comfort where you almost always have electricity and running water, a television and corn flakes (it was a coveted breakfast item in my school when I was about 12 years old). Of course they say this with no practical understanding of the realities of the other challenges. And rightly so. Dred Scott or “Plessy v. Ferguson is a ridiculous case to a person who has not experienced life in multi racial America and even if this person understands the time and the season of America, the lack of experience means that this issue never comes to the forefront of his/her mind when he thinks of America. Even if it did, it becomes a utility issue. S/he would place more weight to the ability to get the “luxuries” of comfort, and assume that racial issues are no problem if s/he can find these comforts. Of course if s/he finds these comforts, then s/he will begin to see the place of race, or better yet, s/he may never find these comforts and rightly or wrongly attribute it to race. It is only the good story of the opportunities that they know. The same frustration is what drove many blacks that came to African countries to thank God that their ancestors were slaves. They could not fathom the poverty and the reality of economic depression. For them, the opportunity to find a job when they graduated from college, to have running water and bathrooms in their home, was important, and could exist with racial tensions, rather than the existence of no racial tensions, but several economic problems. The truth, when any black person goes to another country which is just about 100% black, is that the only thing you have in common is color. There are some dormant yet strong things like culture that bind all the black people, but time and distance have weakend these ties and it can be rekindled only through consistent and true education. Having said that, this is a very refreshing piece in contrast to Maya Angelou’s “All God’s Children Need Walking Shoes.” Which is a sad reaction to cultural confusion where she compares her negative experiences in Ghana to racism in America. Race is not an issue in Ghana though things like education and class are more significant derminants of social standing. Anyway, it is good to hear the experience of a black person who visits an African country and is able to see it for the simple place that it is, without superimposing the unfortunate social complications of America onto every experience. Yes, every foreigner is an Obroni to a number of people. It does not necessarily mean “white” like you said, nor foreigner. It is an Akan word, that is now used by any and everyone. However it is a word to that means “hey stranger!” most of the time. The person using this word has the dual purpose of calling for attention to himself (for fun, to ask for money, to get to talk to this foreigner) and bringing attention to this foreigner. It is difficult to find a meaning for it. It changes in place and time.
Your experience in Ghana in a limited but significant manner can be likened to that of an American White in Lapland or Finland. Your color brings you together with the people (by an American definition, although you laugh to remember that they call you “white”), but it ends there, unless you and them learn and understand each other’s culture and where it connects if so. Your stories are not the same. The story of slavery told in America (your brothers sold you) is not the same as the story told in Ghana (they captured your brothers in the many wars for natural resources that plagued and still plagues the continent.) I went to school in Capecoast and I heard of the castles just once when I had a tour for one of my classes. I returned a couple times to show American family members around. The history is mixed. What is interesting are the churches on top of the dungeons. Some blacks that reject the western religion do so because they find it incompatible that the missionaries co-existed with the slavemasters in the castle or did they not? Others have a “reject the sin and not the sinner” approach (not very on point here) and so are ok with the religion. By and large there is not a sentiment that is close to uniform in the country. However the important thing is to learn about the people and the culture if you are interested. Also, it is good to try, even when difficult, to look through clear eyes and not through the spectacles of American society and history, otherwise your vision will be distorted. Ghana, America, Canada, Nigeria, Togo Senegal are all different countries and our experiences in anyone of those countries become a part of us, but we should allow a pure understanding of each culture, untained by whatever impressions we gain from the other. Sorry for this “too much information” response to your article. I liked it and I hope that other people who visit will come close to understanding some of their experiences better. We are after all one people.
One of the most challenging issues that I have faced in Ghana is that the slave trade is actually more understandable in a global context there than it is among most African Americans. This is expected. Rich nations have always become rich on the backs and in the exploitation of the poor. US, European, now Asian and a laundry list of others have exploited African men, women, children, natural resources, religion, spirituality, and ancient origins to advance their own wealth and power.
The current “war on terror” even has rich men exploiting the illiterate and poor in order to advance their own greed. Muslim ‘terrorists’ tell their goons to do terrible things in order to gain favor with their god. Christian leaders like Bush do exactly the same thing….americans may not be literate, but most Americans lack a comprehensive understanding of the world and are more often entertained than educated. It isn’t hard to find poorly educated Americans who can be convinced that killing Muslims in the name of god is appropriate….I remember bumper stickers 45 years ago in Chicago that said, “Kill a commie for Christ!”
Slavery, oil exploitation, and all the rest are extensions of historical traditions of robbing the poor to serve the rich. Maybe that is why the legend of Robin Hood is so attractive to so many people.