The African Americans who chose to return to Africa
Saturday March 05 2022
When Ghana declared 2019 ‘’The Year of the Return,’’ it opened the floodgates for African-Americans, descendants of slaves captured and shipped out of Africa, to move back not just to Ghana, but to Africa.
Ghana holds a significant place in the lives of African-Americans because it was and has preserved to date, one of the largest slaveholding ports on the West Coast of Africa.
St Georges Fort at Elmina, built by the Portuguese in 1482 -- and infamous for its role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade through the ‘’Door of No Return’’ --- has been for decades, a place of pilgrimage for African-Americans seeking to make a connection with their ancestral roots.
But even long before the 2019 declaration by Ghana, many African-Americans had visited Africa and some even moved here either temporarily or permanently. In 1961 for example, Maya Angelou moved to Egypt and shortly later to Ghana where she joined a small, tight-knit expatriate African-American community that included the great scholar and activist W. E. B. Du Bois, the writer William Gardner Smith, lawyer Pauli Murray, journalist Julian Mayfield, and sociologist St. Clair Drake.
At the height of the American civil rights agitation, a number of members of the Black Panther movement moved to Tanzania, and lived outside Arusha where they formed a community, calling themselves ‘’Afros.’’
Decades later, many more Africa-Americans are visiting Africa, doing genetic tests to trace the origin of their ancestors by ethnicity and tribe, and visiting the modern-day countries as a way of finding their identities.
The Ghanian declaration of 2019 as the year of the return, was timely because it came at a time when African-Americans, in general, were facing increased racial discrimination in the US through civic suppression, police brutality and killing, social alienation through poor housing and health amenities, and ultimately the rise of Donald Trump and Trumpism.
All these factors had led to an increase in the number of Africa-Americans opting to leave the US. Some chose to look beyond Ghana and West Africa and moved to East Africa. Rwanda and Tanzania so far are host to a growing number of these ‘’returnees’’ and a quick YouTube search brings up a number of video channels run by ‘’returnees’’ documenting their new lives and even advising other African-Americans on how to go about making the move.
Recently I hung out with a community of ‘’returnees’’ families living in the Tanzanian commercial capital of Dar es Salaam. They were holding what they call a ‘’Uniting diaspora Pop-up Shop.’’
At the event, held on Sunday, I had trouble recognising who is Tanzanian-born and who is American-born, as they all blended in perfectly, that is until one spoke. Being a Sunday, most attendees who are business people, event organisers and newly arrived African-Americans were all wearing informal African print Sunday clothes. Many were still navigating their way around the city and how stuff works.
"This is truly what my spirit needed to hear," said Tori Upton, a visiting Africa-American.
"I am happy to see more African-American returning to the motherland and leave all the racial stuff in the US, although I sometimes wonder if they cope well with our two world-differences; things like technology development, street life in Dar, household conditions and the like," said Irene Isaya, a resident of Dar es Salaam who sells popcorn and fresh juice smoothies at the pop-up shop.
We met Naima Bowe-Woods who moved here with her three children and her mother in 202I when the world was still under the pandemic cloud.
“I knew I wanted to move to Africa, but I didn’t know which country to go to since I've never been to the continent before even on a visit. Some of our friends moved to Ghana, but I decided to join my mother and move to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania instead.”
Within six months of settling down, Naima set up and co-owns a hair salon at Mbezi Interchick on Mbezi Beach Street, a middle-class neighbourhood of Dar es Salaam. Her mother, Yasmin Bowe-Woods runs a couple of charity organisations including Mheco Daycare, a charity educational centre.
The daycare offers free quality education to children from kindergarten to primary school education. It caters for orphans, street children and those living with HIV/Aids in Bunju, Dar es Salaam.
Bowe-Woods says she was looking for a haven for herself and her family and the fact that Tanzania did not close its skies or borders to international travellers during the Covid-19 pandemic, made her decision to move here easier.
“I am a fan of Tanzania’s late president John Pombe Magufuli and we took his word as a welcoming note for us to come home,” she said in reference to his stance on Covid-19 and vaccines. She added that they travelled to settle in Tanzania just six months after making the decision to move.
To Bowe-Woods, Magufuli’s leadership and low Covid-19 cases in Tanzania was enough hope that this was the haven she was looking for on the continent.
Naima and her mother are not alone. Many more African-Americans recently moved to Africa to escape racism and police killings of black people in the US.
“I moved to Tanzania for my family,” said Tim Ford, who left Memphis, Tennessee and who together with his wife Chavon see Tanzania as an ideal country to settle and start a new life and without having to look over his shoulder all the time because he is the ‘’wrong’’ race or colour.
“We were looking for somewhere close to what we think is our ancestral origin. We were once in Jamaica and we loved it there but as African-Americans, we wanted to settle somewhere close to home and that’s Africa,” said Ford. He said they wanted to settle close to the origin of mankind, which is in the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania.
A YouTuber, entrepreneur and herbalist, Ford said that the happy faces on the streets and the warm welcome he and his family received when they first got to Tanzania won him over.
“That was the most amazing part,” he said laughing out loud, adding that, “We thought Africans don’t like African- Americans.”
Before deciding to settle in Tanzania, Ford and his family visited Kigali, Rwanda’s capital -- which has the honour of being Africa’s cleanest city --- but “but apart from the city being clean we did not feel like it’s a place for us to settle, a place we can call home, and then we moved to Dar es Salaam and here we are,” said Ford.
He says he can relate to the Chagga people who live in the northeast, in the Kilimanjaro region, because of his entrepreneurial skills. Within his nine months of settling in Dar es, Salaam, Ford organised a ‘’Uniting the diaspora pop up shop,’’ to bring together African-Americans in the city for a meet and mingle event.
“Since we got here, we have been helping other Africa-Americans settle in Dar through our YouTube channels and events like this.” Once in a while, they hold the ‘’pop up shop’’ and offer children entertainment, raffle giveaways, food and dessert vendors and other products. There is always music.
It also provides a platform for people to network with like-minded people, as well as fellow African-Americans. But it is not all rosy, holding hands and singing Kumbaya.
Ford confesses that he grows homesick sometimes when he cannot find ‘’genuine’’ people with whom to build and connect. "Most people I met during my first few weeks here had a hidden agenda, both locals and my fellow African-Americans. They were all looking to gain something from me and from the pop-up fair. That makes me miss my family and friends I left in the US," he said.
But Ford and his wife Chavon look at other aspects of their lives and are grateful. For example, the food and the weather have been easy to adapt to. The weather especially tops their list of ‘’likes’’ although they confess it is a bit "too hot" this year, but still perfect for a day on the beach.
We met Uber driver Mathias Boniface at the pop-up shop and he said; “We come here a lot, I met Nehemiah and his mother, Nicol Manning, a month after they moved to Dar es Salaam, and they love it here. I’m friends with six African-American families who moved here between 2019 and 2021, and it’s shocking the rate at which African-Americans are moving to Tanzania.” He is also friends with other returnees, namely Sharhonda and Tonny Rivera, referrals from Nehemia.
Nehemiah and his mother first moved to Greece then Sweden, and Ghana before settling for Tanzania.
Since 2019, a number of African-Americans have moved to and settled in Dar es Salaam, around Mbezi Beach, Kigamboni, Mikocheni and Bahari Beach streets but also upcountry in Arusha, Moshi, Iringa and Mwanza.
“Tanzania is now our new hope. We are yet to establish our businesses due to a few processes with Tanzania immigration. But when we relocated we brought our expertise and intentions to build with our brothers and sisters,” said Ford, expressing optimism.