Ghana Seeks African-American Dollars, Skills

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports on Ghana's efforts to attract black American tourism and skilled labor.

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ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon and this is NEWS AND NOTES. Centuries after their ancestors were forced onto slave ships, some African-American's are returning to the content to visit and to live.

One country making an extra effort to welcome them is Ghana. But returning comes with complications.

NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton has the story.

(Soundbite of African music)

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON reporting:

This song, in a number of local Ghanaian languages says Akwaaba: welcome home. That's precisely the message Ghana's Tourism Minister Jake Otanka Obetsebi- Lamptey wants African Americans and other Africans in the Diaspora to hear: to consider Ghana their gateway back to the continent. Diasporans is a collective name he uses for the offspring of those sold into slavery, who left Africa's shores hundreds of years ago on route to the Americas and the Caribbean, never to return.

Mr. JAKE OBETSEBI-LAMTPEY (Minister of Tourism, Ghana): They went over there and they built the U.S. anybody now called the Americans. But then in building over there they left this place. They left their own vineyards untoiled. So now we're saying bring some of those skills back here, and let us toil in our vineyard and let us develop our own continent together.

QUIST-ARCTON: Based on the Israeli model, Ghana is hoping to woo the descendants of slaves to think of Africa as home. It's an ambitious project with a key event scheduled next year to commemorate Ghana's 50th independence anniversary and the 200th anniversary marking Britain's abolition of a transatlantic slave trade. The Ghana government is planning customary funeral rites for the millions who died, plus a healing ceremony for their descendants who survived to wash away the pain of the past and the evil of slavery, said the tourism minister.

Mr. OBETSEBI-LAMTPEY: For every parent who was torn away from their family, there is a child on the homeland too who is also grieving. So the pain is shared. It is not a pain that is one-sided only. This is pain is universal African pain. The hurt is a universal African hurt.

Unidentified Man: We are on our way to the female dungeon and a minimum of 400 women were killed over there.

QUIST-ARCTON: This is Elmina Castle, built in 1482 by the Portuguese. It's one in a string of former slave forts dotted along Ghana's Atlantic coastline. Of an estimated 12 million enslaved Africans who made it across the ocean on the notorious triangular voyage between Europe, Africa and the America's, at least half a million are said to have landed in the U.S.

Ghana's Elmina Castle is a hugely popular destination and place of pilgrimage for African American tourists and visitors from other parts of the world with links to Africa.

Ms. VERGI(ph) HARRIS BOVELL(ph) (Tourist): It's hard to understand how they would do that and think of the people not as human, but still wanting to do that. It's barbaric.

QUIST-ARCTON: Vergi Harris-Bovell and her daughter Renee traveled from Washington, D.C. to Ghana's slave trading coast over the holidays. As they toured Elmina Castle, they let out gasps of disbelief and disgust, alternating with sobs of sorrow and shock silence. Peering through the portal of no return, across a narrow opening overlooking the Atlantic, they took in the suffocating atmosphere of a dimly lit dungeon. This is where slaves, men or women, were manacled and shackled, waiting to be shipped out.

Ms. RENEE BOVELL (Tourist): It's horrible that this happened, but if this didn't happen, then we wouldn't, my mother and I, and other people in the Diaspora wouldn't be here. And the thing I think to realize is people had to be marched from all over survived that; then they had to survive living in here; then they had to survive in the boats; then they had to survive during the slavery; then they had to survive in the apartheid, the Jim Crow that we had in the United States. And you look now out of all the people we had, no matter what we touch, we excel in.

Ms. HARRIS-BOVELL: I guess it helps me to understand the strength that we have today, but it doesn't help me to understand the brutality of slavery.

QUIST-ARCTON: But it's not just the tragic legacy of slavery that Ghana once returnees like the Bovells from the U.S. to experience during their visits. Ghana's ancient heritage and customs are also a powerful [unintelligible]. Like these [unintelligible] beating a message of welcome to visitors to Elmina. Yet they don't always feel welcome. Some African Americans are upset and angry that not all Ghanaians accept them as long lost relatives. They complain they're often referred to as Obruni, a word used to describe a white foreigner.

Ghana's tourism minister JAKE OBETSEBI-LAMTPEY says Ghanaians also need some training, effective advertising and an awareness campaign.

Mr. OBETSEBI-LAMKEY: This is why we have to get people together, because there's a lot of ignorance about this whole subject. A lot of the Diasporans are very bitter, because they're bitter against homelanders. And we are going to be teaching our people here to start to call Diasporans [unintelligible], welcome back home, brother; welcome back home, sister.

Mr. BYRON LIFRUC(ph) (Resident of Ghana): Yeah, they call us Obruni, yes. They call us foreigners, as well. So my own people are doing it. We are not easily accepted here as brothers. Some accept us, some don't.

QUIST-ARCTON: Byron Lifruc is originally from Jamaica. He relocated to Ghana, making it home three years ago, and runs a guest house with his wife here in Elmina.

Mr. LIFRUC: Yeah, I am African. Whether other people, Americans accept us or not is another thing. We're just still seen as foreigners. We're not accepted as citizens. We cannot own our land. We have to lease land. So that doesn't really [unintelligible] to come back her to resettle.

QUIST-ARCTON: There is also a tug-of-war between Ghanaians and visitors from the Diaspora about how the slave fort should look. They may share a common legacy, but they clearly interpret it differently. Should the castles be restored and cleaned up, as many Ghanaians would prefer to boost tourism. Or should they remain a grimy graveyard, testament to the barbaric treatment of the ancestors? That's the option for the majority of African Americans and for some Africans like Lalaya Trempe(ph). A Ghanaian, she now lives in Connecticut but was back home recently on vacation visiting Elmina Castle for the first time.

LALAYA TREMPE: I don't think it should be beautified. I really think it should be left the way it is as a constant reminder we stood in one cell for just five minutes with the doors shut and it was terrifying. I mean, we can forgive, but I don't think we should ever forget what happened.

QUIST-ARCTON: Ghana is planning to smooth the way for those who choose to settle in Africa permanently or part-time. A special lifetime visa for returnees from the Diaspora fast tracked dual nationality and applications for citizenship and Ghana passports, plus secure land tenure for those who hoping to build are all high on the agenda for the tourism minister.

Mr. OBETSEBI-LAMTPEY: And about 100 to 150 women were kept here...

QUIST-ARCTON: And for Renee Bovell from Washington, D.C., as she completed her tour of Elimina Castle's slave dungeons, coming to Ghana, she concluded, was a true homecoming.

Ms. BOVELL: That to me is exciting. I feel like even though I don't know for a fact that most likely I'm probably from somewhere at least walking distance, maybe three months walk, but at least walking distance from around here. So that part makes me happy, and it makes me feel very comfortable here in Ghana. It gives you a sense of belonging.

(Soundbite of African music)

QUIST-ARCTON: Music to the ears of those Ghanaians who see this initiative as a first step in persuading Renee Bovell, a mother, and many others to seriously consider coming back home to invest in Africa.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Elmina.

(Soundbite of music)

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