Missed Ghana’s ‘Year of Return’? No worries, here are 8 significant, historical sites you should visit | Photo + Story

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Ghana’s “Year of Return” initiative sparked a movement of Blacks and Africans in the diaspora to journey to “The Motherland.” The year long campaign allowed visitors to explore and travel to important sites that tell of a rich history and narrative nuanced about slavery and before. While Ghana has its significance, there are many more locations to travel than the Door of No Return. Go see for yourself.

Last year, Ghana launched a successful campaign encouraging African diasporans to visit Africa. Titled the, Year of Return, it coincided with the US revisiting the 400 year mark of the arrival of the first Africans in Virginia who were forced into slavery.

One of the most stable African countries on the continent, and the foremost to reconnect with descendants of Africans taken to work in a chattel slave system that fueled capitalism, Ghana’s campaign drew 1.9 million visitors. A 200,000 increase from previous years’ visitors, the Year of Return also generated $1.5 billion in profit. So lucrative was the event that Nigeria attempted to take advantage of the flow of Black tourists. 

During the year long, multimillion dollar initiative, Ghana strategically embedded activities and trained a number of tourism agencies to accommodate visitors. Attracting a range of guests from high profile Black celebrities to inquisitive backpackers who might not have considered West Africa as a destination, from New Year’s Eve to the Christmas holiday, they held a number of marque events. One of which was swearing in the first 100 Black internationals as citizens. Among them was Rita Marley and several of her heirs. Marley made Accra, Ghana her home around 2005. There, she goes by her Akan name, Nana Afua Addobea, where she runs the Rita Marley Foundation and much of Bob Marley’s estate.

At the heart of the Year of Return, was the idea for those to walk the lands that their ancestors might have once lived. For diasporans, the return home or to, “The Motherland,” a nomenclature termed by diasporans for Africa, was also a spiritual journey. With the feel goods, the reality is that the majority of diasporans did not make the trek. Furthermore, most might never return. Admittedly, there are a number who do not want to visit due to the brutal truth that Africans participated in the selling of other Africans in the trade. Though most handling was done by whites in Europe, the Caribbean and the Americas, it still is a point of contention.

| Read: Returning to from Africa: Safia Rashid launched an urban garden |

More of the lack of travel might also deal with the fact that only 42% of US citizens hold passports. Of that, the percentage of African Americans is not information known, but due to the generational disenfranchisement, the numbers are more than likely, significantly lower than the national average.

Nonetheless, the ability to visit sites that have historical significance in the experience of Black people, and people of African descent still can occur after the Year of Return, and beyond Ghana. Though I do encourage folk to travel there and everywhere they can expand their lens of the world, there is more to the the story of the Black experience in the Americas and the Caribbean. From traveling South to hopping south of the border, here are some popular and profound places to visit to learn the depth of history, culture and tradition for the last 400 years, and even before then.

Bahia, Brazil

Brazil is often noted as the country with the largest population of African descendants outside of Africa. However, the real trophy goes to India, but that is a part of history that many in that part of South Asia refuse to admit. So we’ll go where the prize is wanted. 

Nonetheless, Brazil to this day has the largest Black population in the West. Slavery ended in Brazil in 1888, which was 23 years after the US. Before the brutal institution was dismantled, the Portuguese transported millions of Africans from ports in Nigeria and Angola. To this day, there is a flow of West Africans to Brazil and a huge Nigerian community. Specifically, the ethnic group, the Yorubas, who were largely transported to Brazil. The retention of African culture remains so deep that the spiritual tradition of Candomblé and a number of other indigenous religions remain.

In the state of Bahia, the evidence of Africa is part of everyday life. From the women selling acarajé, a street food derived from the Yoruba akara or friend black eyed peas, to the wearing of head wraps and even in some towns the teaching of Yoruba, Bahia is a vibrant sacred space. As well, it is lively. 

During the night in the main city, Salvador, you can catch concerts and street performances teeming with drums and dancing paying homage to Yoruba gods such as Xangô and Oxum. On special days, like January 1, there is a massive celebration in Bahia. Residents and devotees go to the beach to place flowers, fruits and other delicacies in the ocean to appease the mother spirit Yemanja.

If you want to explore slavery, there is a dome that sits right on the water. It used to be where they kept Africans before being transported to the mainland. You can get there by going to the older part of the city. As well, the main square in Salvador is the auction block and whipping post. This is where Olodum drummers and capoeira bouts  are held many days. But, to get more history, go into the interior. There is a town called Palmarès where a famous slave insurrection took place. The leader, Zumbi was an enslaved man from Angola who led the revolt in Palmarès. Since, the people have lived in independence.

Gullah Sea Islands: South Carolina, Georgia and Florida

Photo credit Eric Muhr

Along the southeastern coast are a line of islands that once held thousands of Black folk called Gullah or Geechee. Descendants of those formerly enslaved kept aspects of their culture more than mainlanders. Because they lived semi-isolated on islands that could only be accessed by boat or ferry, they were relatively undisturbed for decades after Emancipation. Of course, that changed.

In the early-to-mid 1900s, white developers began to forcibly remove people from their homes in a number of nefarious ways. As it turned out, Gullah land is prime real estate. Because it was passed down generations without proper titles or deeds were lost, many lost their property. Included, there were families removed by white domestic terrorism. Today, there are a few islands that still hold the descendants who hold tight to their traditions. Some moved to the mainland, but maintain their time honored culture. Evident in dialect, basket weaving, food, and even in the way they bury their dead, the Gullah Sea Islands are gorgeous and hold essential memory.

Photo credit: Eric Muhr

| Read: Jazz keeps Gullah roots at the center | 

Please find the time to take a trip to the coast and discover people who are known for making indigo die during the slave trade and harvesting premium rice. So accurate were the rice fields, that mathematicians years later in studying their configures were befuddled at the preciseness of the surveying. That’s Black genius.

| Read: Ceremony to rebury old remains of Charlestons early enslaved |

If you cannot make it to the coast, go to Charleston. There are several sites and museums to visit. Check in with the Gullah Society or brilliant chef, Greg Collier, a recent James Beard Foundation nominee.

Richmond, Virginia

Photo credit: Brian McFarland
Photo credit: Derrick Brooks

When the US celebrated its 400 year anniversary of Africans coming to Colonial America, they came to Richmond. When you come, you must visit Shockoe Bottom, around 17th Street Market, the downtown area was the largest slave- trading district in the United States north of New Orleans. Located on the banks of James River, it is estimated that between 300,000 and 350,000 people of African descent were sold out of Virginia in a 30 year period right before the Civil War. Later on, nearby Shockoe Bottom also housed a vibrant middle class Black community after Emancipation.

During slavery, Virginia was known as a “breeder state” meaning it forced Africans and Natives to copulate and produce kids similar to animal breeding. Throughout Virginia, there were breeding farms alongside agricultural production. On these particular sites, selected men and women became human manufacturers. A dark stain in history and particularly, for Richmond, today, the city percolates as a vibrant community that recognizes its past, but looks to a brighter future.

While there, you must check out the Richmond Night Market, started and run by Adrienne Cole Johnson and Melody Short. It’s a monthly event running from April to December that features local food, artisans and performing artists. 

| Read: Richmond’s newly installed night market showcases the vibrancy of a bustling city |

Johnson and Short are two Richmonders who have been committed to equity, diversity and inclusion in the art and craftsperson space, as well as the local economy. Invest in them and you’ll see Richmond from a beautiful lens.

Cartagena, Columbia

For those who have a passport and want to see another side of the Black experience in America, take a trip south to South America. 

Unfortunately, US mainstream media soiled Cartagena with its fantastical tales of cocaine and drug lords. What they really hid was the fact that Cartagena is a Black city with a population of about 70 to 80 percent Afro-Columbians. Si, Señorita.

Africans and Blacks in Cartagena dates back before America was a concept. Evidence of slavery was as early as the late 16th century. As well, the locals were dark-skinned, which is a nice way of saying . . . well, Black. 

Plus, Cartagena is a port city so many Africans were shipped to fuel the Portuguese and Spanish slave trade for hundreds of years. I did not stutter when I said, hundreds of years.

If you go to the old part of the city, in the center, there is a square where market women sell fruit. Their signature traditional dress of vivid colors while they carry baskets of fruit atop their heads is hard to miss. What you might overlook are these iron balls on the ground. They were where they tied Africans waiting to be sold. Oh yes, the center city was the main auction block too.

With slavery came a lot of revolts and emancipatory actions. While many believe Haiti is the first free independent sovereign site, it really is a village about 3o miles outside of Cartagena known as Palenque de San Basilio. In 1603, there were 36 escaped slaves who founded it. Since then, it has been free territory. 

If you cannot make it to Palenque de San Basilio, then I suggest you catch a boat and sail down the chain of small islands along the Columbia coast. About an hour’s boat ride from the port there is an all-Black island who are descendants of Africans. Along the way, you will see islands filled with Blacks who escaped slavery and found refuge. Sometimes, boys in dugout canoes will meet you. Give them money. They are the poorest in the country. Don’t trip if you see someone who looks just like you or your cousin. I did. The best time to go is during the winter in the states. It can get quite hot down there.

Zanzibar, Tanzania

Remember when I mentioned earlier that India had more Blacks or folk of African descent than Brazil? Well, a critical site for that is Zanzibar, which had a slave trade hundreds of years before West Africa.

With much of its “cargo” going to what we consider the Middle East and parts of South India and some of South Asia, Zanzibar is an island off the coast of Tanzania that has a rich history in the silk road trade, as well as the introduction of Islam into Africa.

The main market in Zanzibar was the place where Africans were sold, right next to the many spices and seafood. You’ll see that in a lot of areas around the world. For some reason, Western societies keep the location of the auction block around its financial institutions. Ask the US, in New York, Wall Street was the auction block during the slave trade there.

Although, Zanzibar is a trek, as it is on the eastern side of Africa, it is worth the journey.

St. Kitts and Nevis

Throughout the Caribbean, there are plantations dating back to slavery hundreds of years. Within the lush landscapes of St. Kitts and Nevis, their preservation are both magical and powerful.

St. Kitts and the smaller island, Nevis, located two miles away, produced tobacco, indigo and sugar for over 200 years for several European colonial powers. Ending slavery in 1834, but extending it to a “servitude” of Blacks for four more years, there are plantations that still stand. For the past 15 years, there has been efforts to restore the historical landmarks.

Take an ATV tour of the sugar cane plantations that dot the island. The windmills are markers for factories that once crushed cane stalks to extract its sweet, brown juice. As all sugar cane plantations, it was a deadly and laborious job. Limbs and lives were lost, so the historical sites hold very strong energy.

Real story; my husband and I were at one sugar mill that was left half-restored. The owner wanted to make it into a hotel, but kept running into issues. Hmm, I wonder why? When I walked into one of the last remaining structures, the hair on my arms stood up. There were spirits in there.

I told my husband and he slightly smirked at me, dismissing my claim. However, when I asked him to take a picture of me deep in the room, he almost flung the camera down. He said that when he went to take the picture there were white orbs all around me. With that experience, I felt that St. Kitts held a lot of narratives that needed to be heard or experienced.


Waterkant, Paramaribo, Suriname. Photo credit E Go Studios at unsplash

By far, this is the most off the beaten path for travelers. Suriname, another South American country brought slavery to its land long before the US. Similar to all slave colonies, there were runaways and rebels until slavery ended in 1863.

In fact, those who formed secreted villages often attacked plantations and freed others. As a result, this played a critical role in Suriname and French Guiana, to end slavery in the region.

One of the popular stories generated from Suriname is that of Mama Pansa, an enslaved woman brought from Africa. She braided rice from West Africa in her hair to eat and plant in the Americas. Her ingenious plan, along with other women who did it, sustained Africans who fled into the bush of the region.

Today, the descendants of those who created free states during slavery are called Djukas or the Maroons of Suriname. Previously, they were called Bush Negroes, but that has been deemed a pejorative term, though the term maroon means a “wild person,” and Djukas is also demeaning. 

Because a large sector of Afro-Surinamese remained in remote places of Suriname, they maintained language and tradition from Africa for hundreds of years. Suriname filmmaker, Frank Zichem, visited Ghana, where most Afro-Surinamese came from. In his documentary, “Katibo Yeye,” he learned that African culture and language were preserved well in his home country. So much so, when a Ghanaian visited, a villager spoke with the visitor with both men understanding each other.

Montgomery, Alabama

Montgomery was one of the major hubs to trade enslaved people. Located in the deep south, it served as an important depot in which Africans and Blacks were auctioned off. At one point, Montgomery had more businesses dedicated to the business of slavery than inns and restaurants. That is how profitable enslaved people were in the Americas.

There is also a rich Civil Rights legacy in Montgomery that you must check out. Plus, Tuskegee, Alabama is nearby, and I suggest you visit the HBCU, Tuskegee University. Here’s a fun fact told to be by urban designer, Nmadili Okwumabua. Some of Tuskegee was built by Afro-Cubans who attended the school in the early 1900s because they were barred from attending predominantly white institutions that their fairer fellow migrants got into. That means Tuskegee has profound Black international connections.

But while you’re in Montgomery, there’s a swanky jazz and blues club called Sous La Terre Underground located in the downtown area. Of other importance, you must go to the The National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum.

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