Year of Return

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Mark Riechers/Midjourney (TTBOOK)

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Original Air Date: 
September 03, 2022

2019 was an important year throughout the African diaspora — the 400th year since enslaved Africans first arrived in the United States. In Ghana — once the center of the European slave trade — 2019 was declared "the year of return" and the start of a campaign to encourage descendants of enslaved Africans to re-connect with the land of their ancestors. Thousands of African-Americans made the trip to Ghana — and many have decided to stay. They're fed up with police brutality and systemic racism in the US, ready to build new lives in Africa — and their number is growing.

L to: Yeleyeni Songsore and her husband; Mawiyah Kambon and Kamal Kambon; Kwaku Asantu Maroon Asare
Articles

At least 1,500 Black Americans have moved to Ghana since 2019, when the government declared its "Year of Return" initiative, calling on Africans in the diaspora to return to Africa. As the US continues to confront its history of racism and police brutality against Black people, many are heeding Ghana's call.  

Length: 
20:36
Charles (right) interviews Prince Marfo (left). (TTBOOK)
Audio

Prince Marfo is the Suyani Cultural Director of Ghana. He says his government needs to do a better job of welcoming African Americans — he wants to see them welcomed as sisters and brothers not just as Americans with resources.

Length: 
7:44
American plane in Africa
Audio

Just as thousands of African Americans are moving to Ghana, some Ghanaians are migrating to the West. Literature professor Ato Quayson explains that it raises a difficult question: should they stay in Africa or pursue a high-profile career in North America or Europe?

Length: 
9:16
Robert (left) and Kofi (right) together in 2008. (Robert Hanserd)
Audio

Two friends of 20 years — Robert Hanserd and Emmanuel Kofi Bempong — show what a relationship between African Americans and Ghanaians can be.

Length: 
10:39
Show Details 📻
Airdates
September 03, 2022
Guests: 
TTBOOK
Centre for National Culture Ahafo and Goaso National Culture Sunyani BRong AHafo-Ghana
Professor of English
Full Transcript 📄

Anne Strainchamps (00:00):

It's To the Best of our Knowledge. I'm Anne Strainchamps. Today's show begins with a reveal and a conversation between two friends.

Charles Monroe-Kane (00:19):

So, Robert, do you want to be visual or do you want to shut it off?

Robert Hansard (00:24):

We can leave mine on. I'm cool. As long as that's, whatever, it don't matter.

Anne Strainchamps (00:30):

Charles Monroe-King is our producer and Robert Hansard is his friend.

Charles Monroe-Kane (00:35):

I had this idea of you just saying, "Hey, my name is Robert Hanser," and you say what you want to say

Robert Hansard (00:38):

All right.

Charles Monroe-Kane (00:40):

It's pretty personal. I don't want to either talk or interrupt you until you're done. Does that make sense?

Robert Hansard (00:47):

Yes.

Anne Strainchamps (00:50):

Robert is a professor of history at Columbia College, Chicago. He's the author of "Identity, Spirit and Freedom in the Atlantic World, the Gold Coast and the African Diaspora."

Robert Hansard (01:02):

All right, so I'll just start in then.

Anne Strainchamps (01:05):

Yeah.

Robert Hansard (01:10):

Hello, everyone. My name is Robert Hansard. I'm actually African American and West African, and what's called Atlantic World historian. I go back and forth to Africa quite a bit, but I guess I'm here to reveal my DNA results. It's from 23andMe, so here's the ancestry.

Charles Monroe-Kane (02:05):

So Robert, what were the results?

Robert Hansard (02:11):

Well, let's see they say using this category, Sub-Saharan I'm 88.9% from the Sub-Saharan region of Africa. The major markers, I guess you call them, are Nigeria is like 32%, so that's not a big surprise. Ghana is 25%, the next highest. That was interesting. The Senegambia, 4.2%, so that's interesting too. About 10% European, British and Irish, which that's interesting because I've been kind of investigating that.

Robert Hansard (02:55):

They have this thing that says where you have connections, what they call ancestry composition, in the Caribbean. Mine goes straight to Jamaica, straight to these places that I've always talked about that had all these Maroon resistances with different folks, [inaudible 00:03:14] being the primary group, like the 25% from the Gold Coast is an interesting number, I guess.

Charles Monroe-Kane (03:24):

Was there anything you were afraid of?

Robert Hansard (03:29):

That I was going to be all white... No, I'm just playing. I'm just kidding. If I offend anybody by saying that I'm just joking there. I don't know. Nothing really. It kind of revealed to some degree what I already kind of knew from looking at... One of the things I would like to do is look at the slave trade database because I just want to look at how those numbers come out vis-a-vis these numbers.

Charles Monroe-Kane (03:59):

You've been going back and forth to Ghana for 20 years. Some of those timeframes you've been there a long time. Have you ever thought about moving there?

Robert Hansard (04:05):

Oh, yeah. I've definitely. Yeah, I'm considering moving as other folks are, but more because of the maybe long, long, long-term connections I've been building there. So, yeah, something in that context.

Anne Strainchamps (04:24):

A few things. A lot of people take DNA ancestry tests, but for some like Robert, the results can spur a set of questions that are profound and pragmatic. What would it be like to return to the place your ancestors came from? Not just to visit but to actually move to Ghana? Well, more and more people are doing just that. So when Robert made another trip to Ghana recently, Charles Monroe-Kane went along to.

Charles Monroe-Kane (04:57):

Well, the Ghanaian government called 2019 the Year of Return. It's the 400th anniversary of the first slaves that came to America, and they want to get people to come visit, come to Ghana, and it worked. Many, many people came to visit.

Charles Monroe-Kane (05:12):

But what, I don't think Ghana was ready for that a lot of those people came to visit a couple years later, a year later were like, "I'm sick of racism in America. I'm sick of George Floyd getting killed. I'm sick of all of it." So since 2019, thousands of African Americans have moved, and many of them under 30, single. It's quite interesting actually.

Anne Strainchamps (05:31):

Ever since W.E.B Du Bois settled in a Accra, Ghana has been a kind of symbolic home for African Americans.

Charles Monroe-Kane (05:39):

In 1957, when Ghana became a country, it became the leader of Pan-Africa Movement. We actually got Marcus Garvey, and like you said, W.E.B. Du Bois, a lot of people, African-American, especially intellectuals, associated themselves with being in Ghana.

Anne Strainchamps (05:52):

Partly because Ghana was the place where the European slave trade had been centered.

Charles Monroe-Kane (05:57):

Yeah. I mean, it's one of the most powerful places I've ever seen in my life. I went to the main castle where the slaves came through. Almost a million slaves went through there through the British castle, and it's just horrible when you go there. I can imagine being African American and coming on a visit to Ghana and having the same slave tour that I got and how that would feel. That's where your ancestors are from. They came from that door, the door of no return, it's called, and that's where they went out and that's how they got to America. I can really imagine the power of that if you're just visiting it.

Anne Strainchamps (06:28):

So you put together this entire hour, looking at what it's like for African Americans who are repatriating to Ghana and what it's like for Ghanaians to be welcoming African Americans. Tell me about the first piece we're going to hear.

Charles Monroe-Kane (06:43):

I asked this guy, he's a Ghanaian journalist, very famous. His name is Ridwan Karim Dini Osman. He asked just to track some rural African Americans down for me and interview them about how they're settling in.

Kwaku Asantu Maroon Asare (06:59):

Welcome.

Ridwan Karim Dini Osman (06:59):

Thank you.

Ridwan Karim Dini Osman (07:02):

In this thick forest up the hill of Akuapem-Mampong, a town in South Ghana, Kwaku Asantu Maroon Asare lives in a one-bedroom house, the only structure in this vast forest.

Kwaku Asantu Maroon Asare (07:17):

But you're from Ghana? Where you're from?

Ridwan Karim Dini Osman (07:18):

Yeah, I'm Ghanaian.

Kwaku Asantu Maroon Asare (07:18):

Oh, good, good, good. Me, I'm going to need to see it.

Ridwan Karim Dini Osman (07:25):

A drive to this place is breathtaking as the car meanders its way through winding roads.

Kwaku Asantu Maroon Asare (07:32):

We got a lot of birds.

Ridwan Karim Dini Osman (07:34):

It looks like you are fascinated by your own location.

Kwaku Asantu Maroon Asare (07:37):

Yes. This is what it's all about to be in tune with nature.

Ridwan Karim Dini Osman (07:42):

I see.

Kwaku Asantu Maroon Asare (07:46):

And for me, I'm in tune. I can hear everything.

Ridwan Karim Dini Osman (07:52):

Born in the U.S., Asantu Maroon Asare now calls Ghana home. He moved from Florida to Ghana to settle permanently a year ago. Maroon says racism and repeated police attacks on Black Americans forced him out of the U.S. He made the final decision to relocate to Ghana after the murder of African American George Floyd by the police in Minnesota.

Kwaku Asantu Maroon Asare (08:21):

Before George Floyd, you had Ahmaud Arbery and the list goes on. The last straw for me was George Floyd. What I see as anomalies was just normal for the system. At that point I told myself I would leave, and I would go where the system is different.

Ridwan Karim Dini Osman (08:44):

And the system has been different since the 42-year-old moved to Ghana.

Kwaku Asantu Maroon Asare (08:54):

When you leave America, everything is white. You pass through custom, it's dominated by white people. You pass through the airport, it's dominated by white people. And when you arrive in Ghana and you get off that plane and you don't see no white people. And then you tell yourself, this is where I should be, a place where the people look like me. Even if you don't know the vehicle, you still feel a connection.

Ridwan Karim Dini Osman (09:23):

Maroon's quest to settle in Africa actually started years ago when he traced his ancestral roots through the genetic test 23andMe.

Kwaku Asantu Maroon Asare (09:32):

It showed me that my roots were Nigerian and Ghanaian, that a high percentage of my roots was from Nigeria and Ghana. That piqued interest to the degree that I need to go visit.

Ridwan Karim Dini Osman (09:51):

And to reflect his African identity, he changed his name.

Kwaku Asantu Maroon Asare (09:57):

Now I use Kwaku Asantu Maroon Asare. That gives you more history about who I really am instead of Andre St. Patrick Lewis.

Ridwan Karim Dini Osman (10:11):

Aside from the name change, he's now falling in love with Ghanaian music in the house. For instance, this song by popular Ghanaian rapper, Sarkodie.

Kwaku Asantu Maroon Asare (10:28):

Oh, "Strength of a Woman," Sarkodie.

Ridwan Karim Dini Osman (10:32):

Oh, I see. You love the "Strength of a Woman" by Sarkodie.

Kwaku Asantu Maroon Asare (10:33):

Yes, yes, yes.

Ridwan Karim Dini Osman (10:33):

Do you know how to sing that?

Kwaku Asantu Maroon Asare (10:45):

A little bit.

Ridwan Karim Dini Osman (10:46):

Okay. So just give me a bit of that.

Kwaku Asantu Maroon Asare (10:49):

I take my last city and I bet on you.

Ridwan Karim Dini Osman (10:57):

Of course, moving to a different continent is a major life change. So what will sustain Maroon in Ghana?

Kwaku Asantu Maroon Asare (11:06):

Real purpose of becoming an ancestor that fights for Black power, Black liberation and Black protection. If you have that as a foundation, then you have a real purpose in life.

Ridwan Karim Dini Osman (11:21):

Kwaku Asantu Maroon Asare is one of thousands of African Americans who have made Ghana their new home. Since 2019, Ghana's call for people in the African diaspora to return home has led many Black Americans to settle in this West African country.

Ridwan Karim Dini Osman (11:42):

About 20 miles from Maroon's home is Tutu, another small town in Southern Ghana. Here I meet a 28-year-old poet and writer, Yeleyeni Songsore, in her apartment. Born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, she's now a permanent Ghanaian resident.

Yeleyeni Songsore (12:08):

Hello.

Ridwan Karim Dini Osman (12:13):

Hi, Yeleyeni, is that a name?

Yeleyeni Songsore (12:17):

Yes.

Ridwan Karim Dini Osman (12:17):

Nice to meet you.

Yeleyeni Songsore (12:17):

Nice to meet you, too.

Ridwan Karim Dini Osman (12:17):

Finally, I'm here. You have such a nice place.

Yeleyeni Songsore (12:17):

Thank you.

Yeleyeni Songsore (12:17):

My name is Nikia Brown, that's the name my mother and my father gave me. And since I've come to Ghana, they've named me "Yeleyeni" which is a name from the north and it means "speak once." So the importance of being brief, of being proverbial, and of being very important when you speak. Yeleyeni, that's what people call me here now.

Ridwan Karim Dini Osman (12:40):

Yeleyeni Songsore has been living in Ghana for almost one and a half years. She's not only found a home here, but also love. She married a Ghanaian and is now pregnant.

Yeleyeni Songsore (12:54):

Yes, I am currently eight months pregnant with my first daughter.

Ridwan Karim Dini Osman (13:02):

Songsore says the thought of having a child in Ghana gives her enormous joy.

Yeleyeni Songsore (13:06):

I envision my child just being able to have a stronger sense of identity. Here I envision her being able to be more like, at least starting off, my natural hair is beautiful. My natural skin is beautiful. I come from an abundant and glorious people.

Ridwan Karim Dini Osman (13:23):

In a sense, her journey to Ghana started years ago. She experienced a lot of racism and trauma in the U.S,, going back to her history class in high school.

Yeleyeni Songsore (13:35):

They omit African history and they tell you your history. They start it from the point of slavery. Basically they begin their story of Africans to the Europeans is, "When we picked you up from on the boat and took you to the America..." When I started to really realize that I was being lied to — which was probably around when I was 18 or 19 years old and I'm 28 now — I realized, wow, this history is not true.

Ridwan Karim Dini Osman (14:06):

Then the series of police brutalities against African Americans got her thinking a lot more about where she wanted to live.

Yeleyeni Songsore (14:16):

And some of us are like, no, I'm not going to stay here and be oppressed and be subjected to this. I'm worth more than that. I deserve and I have a vision of something greater that I can do.

Ridwan Karim Dini Osman (14:27):

She then took the bold decision to move to Ghana. Here, she realized life was totally different.

Yeleyeni Songsore (14:35):

One time me passing a police and the police is giving me a high five and I've never gave a high five to a police officer in my life. I've been alive 28 years. I wouldn't even feel comfortable touching one. Keep distance first and foremost. That type of stuff, it makes you angry just to know it doesn't have to be like that.

Ridwan Karim Dini Osman (15:00):

But Ghana also has its own challenges. The country is struggling to deal with corruption, not to mention its struggling economy. Currently there is high inflation as the cost of food and fuel and almost everything is skyrocketing.

Ridwan Karim Dini Osman (15:19):

You were angry and you come to Ghana, a developing country. Can that anger sustain you?

Yeleyeni Songsore (15:26):

You have to also have a passion for your people. When you have a vision of victory, of "I want to see my people win. That's going to sustain you over a long period of time.

Ridwan Karim Dini Osman (15:40):

She is also optimistic that as small black people leave the U.S. to settle in African countries like Ghana, it could also help speed up the development of the continent.

Yeleyeni Songsore (15:58):

Obviously, Africa has its troubles and has... A lot of them are connected to history, but you have to have people willing to work through those troubles to get to a greater vision. Being in America, you're only going to be able to be tolerated and that's not the vision, I don't think, people should have of themselves. It's being in a place where you're tolerated only. The vision is for people to be free and independent and to have control be self-sufficient over themselves.

Ridwan Karim Dini Osman (16:38):

A few miles away from Songsore's residence is the home of 75-year-old Mawiyah Kambon. It is an eco-friendly environment. She uses solar energy to power her house and also has a farm where she grows what she eats. About eight months ago, she moved from North Carolina to settle permanently in Ghana.

Mawiyah Kambon (17:04):

I could see the beauty here. I could see the naturalness here. There's not that Ghana's without problems because there's ethnic prejudice and some corruption and all, but I could see that everywhere I turned, there were black people doing everything. And so mine was not a last straw. Mine was an intent to come.

Ridwan Karim Dini Osman (17:28):

It is not Kambong's first time in Ghana. She visited the country a couple of times in the 1970s. But this time she came with her husband, Kamal Kambon, her husband for over 40 years. Kambon says the relocation of many Black Americans like herself is sending a strong message to America.

Mawiyah Kambon (17:50):

The world is changing. This is no longer going to be a world for imperialists. It's the black man's time and we're rising all over the globe. And so wherever we are, we're going to be great.

Ridwan Karim Dini Osman (18:08):

Ghana hopes people of the African diaspora who relocate to Ghana can help steer a development by bringing new skills and talent as well as American entrepreneurialism. Two years ago, the government said it would allocate about 500 acres of land for African Americans moving to Ghana, carving out enough space for about 1,500 families to settle. The government also said it will facilitate citizenship for those who wish to become Ghanaians. Back in the home of Sonsore, she has a word of advice for anyone planning to settle in Ghana.

Yeleyeni Songsore (18:56):

It's not just about wanting to escape America, but it should be also about how you want to build Africa. So if you're just thinking about escaping, then you want to come here and get frustrated, because there's also issues that you might want to escape in Ghana.

Ridwan Karim Dini Osman (19:13):

While some are skeptical that this move by Black Americans to Ghana, won't stand the test of time, Kambon and Maroon disagree.

Mawiyah Kambon (19:23):

What will sustain me is just being back close to nature. Being with family, being with ancestors who dwell here. Those are the things that matter for me.

Kwaku Asantu Maroon Asare (19:37):

Ghana for me, I hope to achieve more in the values, African values that I have now, than that which I have in the U.S., hopefully give birth to the next [inaudible 00:19:56], the next Marcus Garveys.

Anne Strainchamps (20:15):

Ridwan Karim Dini Osman is a journalist and news anchor based in Ghana. He won the 2021 International Center for Journalist award for his COVID-19 reporting. Also he took some great photos of the people he talked with for this piece. You can check them out at ttbook.org.

Anne Strainchamps (20:39):

Coming up, Charles Monroe-Kane is on the road in Ghana with two historians.

Emmanuel Kofi Apraku Bempong (20:45):

For him, they say, Daddy Robert. That's the name they call you, isn't it? And then they know that he's here. Why Daddy Robert has come? It's going to be contemporary and planted

Robert Hansard (20:57):

In his book, "African Indigenous Systems," there's a place in there where I describe in detail my first time in Kontomire stew. Here's no lie. Every time I go somewhere, that's the first thing I'm asking for, especially if it's good. Sometimes they make it as a small side when they have a big meal, but when they make it as the main big meal, watch out, it's delicious. It's delicious. I can eat a day. Even now it's good. It's good.

Anne Strainchamps (21:20):

Here's To the Best of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio, and PRX.

Anne Strainchamps (21:35):

We're talking about the current wave of African Americans moving, repatriating to Ghana. Charles, you were telling us earlier that the Ghanaian government actually jump-started this in 2019 with their "Year of Return" campaign?

Charles Monroe-Kane (21:49):

Yeah, I watched some of the ads. They absolutely just grabbed your heart. If you're African American and it said, "Come home." Ghana spends a lot of money and time and effort to maintain traditional culture. I met this man named Prince Marfo. He's a cultural director, but there are multiple cultural directors that are ministers of culture. He was ready to critique what the government's doing, what the government should do more of. He's also aware that other people in the government see this as an economic boom, right? "Hey, they're going to come in, they're going to start nonprofits. They're going to start businesses. They're going to pay taxes." He sees that as attention of what is the role of the African American coming in? Is it economic or is it cultural?

Prince Marfo (22:29):

A thing that is happening now. Actually, it's a very good thing that is happening now, because to me, when I look at the African American, sometimes I ask myself, what identity do they have? Because they don't belong there. And if they come here and they also don't belong here, then where do they belong to?

Prince Marfo (22:51):

It is heartwarming that we have our brothers coming back because this is where they belong to because there they are not seen as part of them. It doesn't matter how many years they've been staying there. They will not be accepted there, but they are brothers who have just traveled and they are back.

Prince Marfo (23:11):

To me, if we don't look at them from that lens, as our brothers who have just traveled and they are coming back and we look at them as Americans, then we have failed in our attempt to call them back home.

Charles Monroe-Kane (23:24):

I know I should know the answer to this question, and I don't. You work for the government. Is there an official part of the government that sure Ghana can welcome them, but is there something official to work with people to help them understand your values, better to integrate them into society into your society?

Prince Marfo (23:40):

What are they coming here to do? They're coming to learn their values. They're coming to learn their history. They are coming to learn about their culture. That's all that they're coming to do.

Charles Monroe-Kane (23:48):

That's what you do, right?

Prince Marfo (23:49):

And that is our work.

Charles Monroe-Kane (23:52):

As the cultural director, would you want funding? Would you want to have the control of African Americans coming to educate them when they come in?

Prince Marfo (23:58):

Yes, we would want funding. We want the opportunity for us to even welcome them and then integrate them into the society. We have the core power. We have the entry point to all the communities because we work closely with the chiefs and the communities around. We know all the values that are within every community.

Prince Marfo (24:19):

And to me, if you say Year of Return and you keep them in Accra, Accra is not Ghana. Accra was just an exit point, but what you went through, through the hinterlands to the forest from the north, if it is a conscious effort to really welcome them, then they should know their roots. As they move along, I know with the power of our ancestors, when you get to a community or any part of the country that your ancestors spirit is, you will feel it in your body. You automatically feel it in your body, "This is where I belong."

Charles Monroe-Kane (24:59):

Because it seems now people are just come around on their own. I know somebody and they come here and you don't even know they're here.

Prince Marfo (25:05):

Yes.

Charles Monroe-Kane (25:06):

So you already started daydreaming, right? Here's what you would do. You would have them go in the slave route down, which is actually a very good idea. Okay. Let's pretend you and I run the bringing in of African Americans. What else would you do? What would you do for them?

Prince Marfo (25:21):

I will look for opportunity for them to invest and feel at home. The fairest thing is, if we really don't see them as our brothers and still see them as Americans coming, I think when they feel at home and they stay, then they will think of staying or maybe coming back, and then coming back will be what? What am I coming back to Ghana to do?

Prince Marfo (25:45):

But if you have a business that you set up here and you know that you have a home maybe you have built her, then you are coming back to look at the success of it or the fill of it, right? We need them to bring in their investment, to bring in their technology, to bring in their experience, to build a country. So we need to make their grounds fertile for them to germinate.

Charles Monroe-Kane (26:07):

It could be be a school teacher. It could be a nurse. It could be a businessman who wanted to integrate?

Prince Marfo (26:12):

Bring them in. As we will kill the seed before it is even planted.

Prince Marfo (26:22):

Your ancestors wear slaves. Period. You are now not a slave. Let's push that one aside. That is the way forward. That is what I'm looking at. Rather than repeatedly talking about the pain that the ancestors went through. In the course of even telling their stories, some of them can collapse,

Prince Marfo (27:02):

Taking them through the dungeon and showing them how the ancestors slept and how they were taking through that tunnel into their ship. You are just reversing the pain that they have come to heal. They are not historians who come and look for history. They are just people who have traveled. They've come home.

Prince Marfo (27:38):

So if my brother comes from a journey, I need to sit down with my brother. Welcome. That is our culture. When you come, we give you water. You take your water. We ask you what transpired when you went out. You give us all the details. We also give you what has happened in your absence. And then we take a conclusion on it and it becomes a new model for us to move on.

Anne Strainchamps (28:12):

Prince Marfo is the cultural director for the Sunyani region. Charles, what's the music?

Charles Monroe-Kane (28:18):

Oh, yeah. Okay. This is amazing surprise. We went to a friend, a mutual friend's house. And when we got there, there was a dance troupe and a drumming troop and singers. This was one of the dances. It's basically about two fisher folks who are sitting on the beach, and they're kind of discussing if they're going to keep fishing. A lot of drumming, you hear the male and the female drum. Well, this is two different drums kind of competing for who's going to go back out and fish again. And then we had fish.

Charles Monroe-Kane (28:56):

It was just a very powerful thing. It brought me back to what he was saying about culture. I'm a white dude, but I could imagine what that would feel like coming from the south side of Chicago when you're 28 years old. When you move there on your own and you get to have the experience I just had, it would be very powerful instead of being in a hotel.

Anne Strainchamps (29:19):

Coming up. One reason Ghana's encouraging African Americans to resettle there is to remedy a problem that's plagued many African nations for years, the brain drain to the west. It's To the Best of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Anne Strainchamps (29:40):

African Americans may be moving to Ghana in increasing numbers, but that is nothing compared to the number of Ghanaian-born Africans who migrate every year to Europe and the US. This is a familiar story for Africans with professional ambitions. Once you're qualified in your career, you have a choice, stay in your native country or pursue a high profile career in north America or Europe.

Anne Strainchamps (30:04):

For Ato Quayson, it wasn't that much of a question. Born and raised in Ghana, he grew up in a family of storytellers. As he told Steve Paulson, his love of books led to his career as a renowned literary scholar at Stanford and past president of the African Studies association.

Ato Quayson (30:22):

My father of a weekend of a Saturday, there would be food and he would invite kids in the neighborhood to come. He would tell us, regale us with folk tales. He never repeated the same story. He often said that it was an insult to a story to be repeated the same way.

Steve Paulson (30:42):

But you have to have a knowledge of a lot of folk tales to be able to do that?

Ato Quayson (30:46):

So that's how I started. My mother was also avid story, but her tales were CT. She was a trader at the market, so she brought lots of market stories. You know what, today I now understand as organizational storytelling. Stories about the market actually as an organization. The anecdote is very important for me, the anecdote, the detail, and the relationship in the anecdote detail, background, foreground. So these were readily satisfied in literary studies.

Steve Paulson (31:24):

When did you start to realize that this is what you wanted to study? You wanted to study literature.

Ato Quayson (31:28):

It was actually somewhat by accident. My father like most people of his generation wanted me to go into the profession, wanted me to be a lawyer. I was interested. In fact, I did a year of law, but at the time I was extremely lazy as a young man. I thought that I should choose a subject to do at university that would allow me to spend as much time as possible, lying down in bed, and English literature seemed to be a perfect. Most people wonder whether I'm joking, but it's actually true. I spent a lot of time just lounging around in bed, reading all kinds of books, and it was magnificent.

Steve Paulson (32:14):

This was the University of Ghana.

Ato Quayson (32:15):

University of Ghana. So that's what got me to do literature. Of course, I did a combined honor with Arabic, but Arabic, you could do a little bit of it lying down, but English literature was magnificent because, and it satisfied my... At the time I felt that the highest sign of civilization was languidness or leisure. The more leisurely you could be, the greatest sign of civilization. This was a kind of ridiculous romanticized idea.

Steve Paulson (32:48):

When you were becoming a literary scholar in college, and maybe once you went off to graduate school at the University of Cambridge, were you mainly reading books by Westerners or by Africans?

Ato Quayson (33:00):

Well, it was varied. The education, the undergraduate curriculum at the University of Ghana, which is where I did my undergrad, it was a very traditional English department. The reading was very, but not dissimilar to the kind of period paper immersion that you would find in any tradition, it was very completely traditional.

Steve Paulson (33:23):

So then you went off to the university of Cambridge to get your PhD. And of course, England was one of the colonizers of Ghana for centuries. You ended up becoming a scholar of post-colonial literature. Yeah. And I guess I'm wondering if Cambridge was a good place to investigate this subject?

Ato Quayson (33:43):

Well, at the time it didn't seem like a good place. In fact, I was the first African to have been admitted to the faculty of English to do a PhD in like 30 years.

Ato Quayson (33:54):

Now, this also meant that I was an object of curiosity. Before that I had many times to answer the question, whether Africa had literature, the novel form is foreign and so on. So I talk about those things all the time. However, the one advantage that Cambridge provided me is that precisely because everyone was ignorant and a little bit confused, I could define my own self, how I wanted.

Steve Paulson (34:22):

I would think for a lot of African scholars who go off to a Western university and get a PhD, the question is where do you want to live? Where do you want to work? Do you go back to Africa or do you go find a job at a university in north America or Europe? Was that a big question for you?

Ato Quayson (34:43):

It was a big question because when, throughout my PhD, my mind, and I said this to anyone that bothered to listen was to get my doctorate and go back to the English department at which is in the University of Ghana and to "shake up the department." That's all I wanted. I wanted to get my degree and go back to my department and teach them.

Ato Quayson (35:03):

In my final year of my PhD, which was my year three, my supervisor called me in and said that I should apply for at the time what they call... This is post-doc. I applied for post-doc, but in the Cambridge Oxford system, they are called junior research fellowships. When I said, "Well, what does this mean?" He said, "Oh, just apply. See what happens." By some stroke of luck, I actually won one of those very... They're very prestigious. And my supervisor, I remember when I won the GRF that was in Oxford for the first time, he actually hugged me. He had never done that before. It was very English, very distance. He gave me a hug and then he said something that I'll never forgot. He says, this represents the golden fleece of academic life in this country. You will understand many years from now. And it turned out to be true.

Ato Quayson (35:57):

Gradually the idea to go back and go and shake up my department in Ghana was put off... Let me finish this and then I'll go, and then of course I never went back.

Steve Paulson (36:06):

So you spent years then teaching at the university of Cambridge, in England. Then you later spent another dozen years teaching at the University of Toronto. And now you are at New York University. So your whole career has been at Western universities.

Ato Quayson (36:21):

Yes.

Steve Paulson (36:22):

Do you feel torn at all or was that just sort of the logical thing to do?

Ato Quayson (36:27):

No. I used to feel torn, especially in the start of my career because the only way I can use hunger, the hunger for knowledge that I myself had growing up in Ghana and what I know the impact of, if I had gone back, what kind of impact I would've done. I always used to think of, I need to take early retirement from the Western system and go back home to the [inaudible 00:36:57].

Ato Quayson (36:57):

However, the idea of home also began to shift in the sense that I began to establish more networks of both professional and convivial networks outside the country, so as strong and perhaps even stronger than what I had at home.

Ato Quayson (37:14):

I went back to Ghana. Many times I have collaborations and so on, but more and more, my friends were abroad and my intellectual interlocutors were also abroad. The idea of home began to change gradually. So like 15 years in, I began to see that perhaps I had held an overly romanticized idea of what going home might mean. My book at Oxford Street was partly to address that nostalgia for home. The reasons why the book came up, but one of it was what does it mean to not be at home, but to think of home and feel home and homesick on a daily basis. One of the ways to address that was to write a book about Accra.

Steve Paulson (38:03):

Do you ever think about moving back to Ghana?

Ato Quayson (38:05):

All the time. Yeah, I think about it all the time and what it might take to move. I would love to move back to Ghana, have a good library and live close to an airport.

Steve Paulson (38:18):

The definition of a global citizen.

Ato Quayson (38:22):

I need a good airport. I don't care where it is, but I need a good airport.

Anne Strainchamps (38:33):

That's Ato Quayson, a literary scholar who now teaches at Stanford University. He's the past president of the African Studies Association and his many books include Oxford Street, Accra, City life, and the Itineraries of Transnationalism. He was talking with Steve Paulson.

Anne Strainchamps (38:57):

We're talking about relationships and connections across the African diaspora. This is an hour our producer Charles Monroe-Kane put together after he spent several weeks traveling around Ghana with a couple of friends. Charles, there is one more bit of tape you wanted to play for us. Can you set it up?

Charles Monroe-Kane (39:16):

It's funny. You say a couple of friends. I was coming with one friend. He was an African American professor. You heard him earlier in the show, Robert Hansard from Chicago, but he has his best friend as a Ghanaian historian, and I kind of just tagged along. I was like the white token, they call me. It was really cute.

Anne Strainchamps (39:30):

Wait, so Robert is African American. Who's this other guy?

Charles Monroe-Kane (39:33):

Kofi Bimpong is a Ghanaian, and they know each other because they've been friends for 20 years off and on. It was just such a lovely thing to hang out with them. We were drinkers. We would drink at night and we would drink this stuff called origin. Origin is this local liquor that's made from bark. It's very strong, lots of herbs and stuff in it. We would sit around and drink origin for hours.

Charles Monroe-Kane (39:58):

We're on a bus. It's rough traveling there, by the way, especially in the rainy season. I realized as the two of them were joking around, I'm like, "Oh, my God, this is the microcosm of the whole reason I came to Ghana." It's that diaspora coming together in a beautiful way.

Emmanuel Kofi Apraku Bempong (40:13):

I had met Robert in a little about 20 years ago when I was a tour guide. I had then just completed my first degree in history from the University of Ghana. Robert had also come on tour with this group of young men to Ghana, basically to have an in-depth cultural understanding of the African.

Charles Monroe-Kane (40:43):

Robert, tell me what it was like for you when you guys first met.

Robert Hansard (40:48):

I worked for an organization in Chicago called Youth Guidance, which was an organization that worked directly in community schools throughout the city of Chicago to bring programming that actually took kids out of really very tough communities in Chicago and exposed them to African history and culture and used a rights of passage sort of process that brought young men as Kofi described to come to Africa and to sort go through a process of being exposed to and learning about Africa. Everything from naming to exposure to the slave experience, just a range of things. Kofi and I connected because we both were very interested in similar subjects and just over time we built a very, very strong relationship.

Charles Monroe-Kane (41:32):

So it's 20 years later, I'm sitting with you guys in a bus going to your house with your children and he knows your children. You have a book and he wrote the forward and he's advising you on your PhD. What is that? What is that relationship like?

Emmanuel Kofi Apraku Bempong (41:53):

The relationship has been win-win situation in the sense that there has been impact that has been achieved on both ends. Again, when I met him, I was running my own company. Through his inspirations, guidance and so forth, I have been able to almost near to the completion of my PhD as well. Before I met him, I have not even made attempt of writing a book. Since I helped him in doing his PhD and then also helped him in writing his book, he equally inspired me in writing my own and kept me on my tools and so forth and my book is almost out now. As you can see, I have a test run copies of it.

Charles Monroe-Kane (42:40):

Robert you've been coming here for 20 years off and on. you wrote a book from here. You do a lot of stuff. You brought me here, which is thank you, by the way, it's been very powerful experience. What are you getting out of this?

Emmanuel Kofi Apraku Bempong (42:55):

You will hear honorarium after honorarium when we talk, because there's so much that he and I celebrate, and yet there have been struggles with it. But mostly what you'll hear is our celebration of our connection. More than anything else, the more and more we came, the more I came, the more and more I felt like I was at home. And that has a lot to do with the fact that we connected as brothers. We became brothers over time. And so that's why I know his kids very well. He knows my wife and my kid. That's why, because we build something significant.

Emmanuel Kofi Apraku Bempong (43:24):

For me, it's very valuable. There's something that happens to me in my spirit when I come here every time, it doesn't matter. The U.S. Brings a negative vibe to me sometimes, even in the airport, the aspect of being sweated down and my passport being pulled or separated out. And oftentimes there's a racial component to that. Not every time I get all the issues about security, but very frequently, there's a racial component to the slowing down of things. It builds attention. And if you couple that with being pulled out of a police car, you couple that with being separated out, even when you have a PhD, your couple that with seeing your wife or your child being maltreated because of their race, suddenly to come here is a release. In many ways is a release for me, it's just helpful for me. It helps me. It helps in my own spirit to get strong.

Emmanuel Kofi Apraku Bempong (44:10):

Again, every time I come here, I feel strong. When I go home, I can go back home. Now I can go back to the U.S.

Charles Monroe-Kane (44:16):

Yeah, that's what I was going to ask you. Where is home?

Emmanuel Kofi Apraku Bempong (44:21):

Home is here. Even if I don't end up living here, even though that's part of what I hope to do in the end, this is still my home. This is my spiritual home. I'm beyond the bounds of time. I'm beyond the bounds of culture and all of these other things that may say, "Oh, no, you can't go." I'm not necessarily social political. It says that restrain and say, "You can't go this, that, the other." There's something greater that has happened. So when I came here and I could see freedom in this real form and I could touch it as tangible and then write about it as a historical kind of a thing. That was the end for me. I knew I was home then.

Charles Monroe-Kane (44:59):

For both of you, it's interesting. Obviously we've been hanging out for three weeks in cars and traffic jams and you're home and the wonderful places. We're tired and eating and drinking origin and having fun, doing everything. It's been an amazing experience for me. I'm chasing-

Emmanuel Kofi Apraku Bempong (45:16):

[Inaudible 00:45:16].

Charles Monroe-Kane (45:18):

We've been literally like... I'm chasing a story. The story is African Americans coming to Ghana, which is a big story. A lot of African Africans are coming to Ghana. And then it dawns on me one day, we're all driving on a car together, and I'm like, "This is it." So you guys both know that there are African Americans moving here all the time. You guys have the relationship already in a microcosm. What would you say to the African American family moving here? What advice would you give them?

Emmanuel Kofi Apraku Bempong (45:46):

You see if I want to talk to an African American, like you said, who wants to come to settle here, what I would say is that he should make a decision whether he wants to get himself to be fully lived as an African, or he's coming here to live just as a visitor and go. You could see that Robert doesn't live like a visitor.

Emmanuel Kofi Apraku Bempong (46:15):

Over the years, when you came to the house, you saw the way the children and my wife and everything was with him. We fetch water together. We do everything together. We eat together. He stays in my house, everything. That is an African American, who is prepared to come home.

Charles Monroe-Kane (46:34):

Robert, what about you? I mean, like we said, there's a lot of people moving here. You in many ways have, what do you say to that guy listening right now? It was like, yeah, I'm sick of America. okay. You're going to move to Africa. Okay, dude., what do you say to him?

Robert Hansard (46:47):

I have to quote Haile Selassie. He said "liberate before you repatriate." I have to quote him there because you have to free yourself first. That's mainly the main things. For us, as Black Americans, myself included sometimes, I just describe race constraints and constricts us sometimes. But you know what? You got to be able to do, let it go. But I would tell you this, if you are a person who you are a black American, and you're a very serious about it, come here to listen.

Robert Hansard (47:16):

Don't come here telling everything. You don't know any. Even if you know everything. There are doctors and lawyers and brilliant people who have come here and lived here, but they have not been successful. The ones who have been successful have learned to listen. Take your time and understand. Don't come with a prejudice, because those are the very things that we are critical of the whites in the U.S. For doing. So why will you come here and bring all of your baggage of this and that? I presume this, I expect this and then the other. Slow down. Listen.

Charles Monroe-Kane (47:54):

I have one last question. What about origin?

Emmanuel Kofi Apraku Bempong (48:00):

You see, in coming to contact with Robert, I could see that there are certain things that, "Do I live here?" He seems to introduce them to me all the time. It's the same thing that this drink origin came about because in my relationship with him all the time, yes, we always meet, we share drinks, but our commonest drink that we have had, the BS, and the look how simple ones that we all used to.

Emmanuel Kofi Apraku Bempong (48:32):

Then one time I started seeing him, exposing something we call origin. He started ordering origin, origin, origin, which was a starting departure from the normal beer that we always drink. So I said, "Okay, then I will give it a try." I give it a try. It was a very good drink. So I asked, "How did you got to know about this?" This is the best. It's more, even better than beer. Ever since, origin has been my best drink. I always tell people that, "Do you know who introduced me to this drink? I have a friend from America. He came from America to come introduced origin to me." Ever since it's been my favorite drink.

Anne Strainchamps (49:14):

That's Robert Hansard and Emmanuel Kofi Bimpong, speaking with Charles Monroe-Kane. Kofi is a Ghanaian historian and author of "African Indigenous Systems." Robert is a professor of history at Columbia College, Chicago and author of "Identity, Spirit and Freedom in the Atlantic World, the Gold Coast and the African Diaspora."

Anne Strainchamps (49:39):

This hour was produced by Charles Monroe-Kane and Charles, how do you want to go out?

Charles Monroe-Kane (49:44):

Well, like we should, with all things in our lives, I want to go out with this song. This song was called Akwaaba by Guilty Beats. It's interesting. This song has 11 million listens on Spotify and 10 million views on YouTube.

Charles Monroe-Kane (50:08):

Keep in mind, that Ghana only has a population of 30 million people. So if you're driving in cabs and hanging out in Ghana, you're going to hear this song. But I think more important to me is the title of the song, Akwaaba. Akwaaba means welcome in the Twi language.

Charles Monroe-Kane (50:24):

Second, so many people welcomed me in Ghana. I want to thank them. I want to give credit to Ridwan Karim Dini-Osman, Will Gyamfi, Pharaoh Shabazz, Anne Mascot, Prince Marfo, and of course my friends and travel companions, Kofi and Robert.

Anne Strainchamps (50:42):

Thanks to you for listening. Be well, join us again next time.

Charles Monroe-Kane (50:47):

Medaase.

Last modified: 
September 08, 2022