Beyond the Year of Return 2019: back from the rivers of Babylon Featured

By Nana Yaa Mensah November 21, 2019 3840 815 comments

Prime Minister Mottley of Barbados is in Ghana this weekend to bury the bones of a forgotten slave. Observers believe her visit marks the take-off of a fast-expanding new export for Ghana – heritage tourism.

With the sun high in the sky yesterday, the diplomatic proceedings were brief and the speeches formal, but every moment of the reburial ceremony was weighted with emotion and a sense of wrongs righted. Mia Amor Mottley, the Prime Minister of Barbados, was at Assin Manso in the Central Region with the remains of a slave of African descent, believed to have died in Barbados in the early 18th century.

The unnamed man was coming back to Africa to lie in his birthplace and the home of his ancestors. His final resting place will be next to two other former slaves and icons of the Back to Africa movement: Samuel Carson from the United States and Mother Crystal from Jamaica, who were both reburied near Nnonkonsuo, the River of No Return, in the 1990s.

The unusual homecoming could have been sombre, yet it was a celebratory and joyous occasion. Here, on the spot where countless black slaves took a final bath before being herded on to ships and transported across the Atlantic to North America and the Caribbean, one of “our own” was returning to be among his people. The poignant ceremony also marked the take-off of Ghana’s bid to become a leading player in the international heritage tourism business.

The reinterment in Assin Manso on November 14

Akwasi Agyeman, chief executive of the Ghana Tourism Authority (GTA), is calmly anticipating a boom he can see coming. In December 2018 “travel to Ghana” went viral online as a first wave of US- and European Union-based tastemakers, celebrities, creatives and entertainment industry figures, led by the supermodel Naomi Campbell and the actor Boris Kodjoe, arrived in Ghana to see in the New Year.

Instagram was peppered with images of what was their first encounter with Africa for some out of the group of forty influencers. Their enthusiasm and rapturous response to their visitor experience gave Ghana the kind of quality public exposure that money can’t buy.

Visitor arrivals from the United States have increased without interruption. GTA research doing a year-on-year comparison shows numbers up in every month of the first half of 2019, with the smallest increment a 13 per cent increase in March and a peak boost of 36 per cent in April.

“December is going to be huge,” Mr Agyeman says. “It’s almost impossible to get any direct flights out of London now for Christmas.” He and his team are working to find other arrangements for late birds looking to catch a flight south to Ghana for the end of year.

Yet most Ghanaians seem none the wiser about what is pulling so many of our diasporan brothers and sister to our shores. Transatlantic slave history isn’t part of the national curriculum. It doesn’t loom in the national imagination. And even where it is commonly known about ‒ or has been unearthed, as the British-Ghanaian curator and journalist Ekow Eshun did in his memoir Black Gold of the Sun ‒ it is a subject of some shame.

Agyeman suggests that the time is ripe for Ghanaians to start waking up to this painful chapter in our history and the role our ancestors played in it.