Saturday, January 14, 2006

Ghana Is Not "Home"

Ghana, a nation in west Africa, wants to be the homeland for people of African descent living in the Americas. The nation's minister of tourism, J. Otanka Obetsebi-Lamptey, told reporters that "We want Africans everywhere, no matter where they live or how they got there, to see Ghana as their gateway home." Ghana's Uneasy Embrace of Slavery's Diaspora This is no doubt good business, but it is more than ironic. The descendants of those who sold millions into slavery, want the descendants of those who were sold to feel at home in the land that sold their ancestors?

The territory of Ghana is defined by the treaty boundaries of a former British colony. Unlike many modern African nations, it has a compact history pre-dating colonial intrusion. It was not cobbled together from parts of several mutually hostile ethnic groups, to suit European mercantile convenience. The land that today is called Ghana was, more or less, the heart of the Asante Union, sometimes also spelled Ashanti. The Asante cobbled together an empire from several mutually hostile ethnic groups, before the British ever arrived, and made those who were not sold as slaves into Asante.

No kingdom in Africa was more astute at dealing in slaves than the Asante. Troops of highly disciplined soldiers collected ground rent for all the slave forts on their coast. Sale of slaves was sometimes halted by decree, to extract higher prices from European merchants. In fact, when the British navy and diplomatic service began trying to suppress the slave trade, the reigning Asantehene, Osei Bonsu, complained that this left him no market to sell his prisoners. He asked that the trade be restored.

Africans sold into slavery were either prisoners of war, or the cast-off rejects of their own people. They could be either high-ranking enemies, or criminals of the same community from which they were sold. Sale of prisoners as slaves was deeply imbedded in African culture long before European ships found their way south of the Sahara desert. Human sacrifice of slaves on ritual occasions was common among the Asante, Cameroon, and Dahomey. Arab merchants developed a sophisticated long-distance network for marketing slaves – which makes the whole idea that Islam is the religion for people of African descent quite ridiculous. Merchants who professed Islam were just as involved in slavery as merchants who professed Christianity. Both were rightly suspected of violating their faith in the name of profit.

It is common for natives of Ghana to refer to African-American tourists by the same word used for Europeans and pale-skinned Americans, "obruni." This could be loosely translated "white foreigner," but Africans do not traditionally refer to Europeans as "white" – except when their words are translated by Europeans or Americans who have defined themselves as "white." An obruni is an obruni, whatever their color. (People with pale skin are often referred to as "ugly," but that is a description, not an identity.) Nor do most Africans think of themselves as "black." That too is a European and colonial innovation. Africans define themselves as Senegalese, or Ugandan, or as Herrero, Ovimbundu, Bakongo...

After all, at least one third of the people in Ghana live on less than a dollar a day. What do they have in common with Americans who have the discretionary income to afford round trip international air fare and hotel accommodations? People who live without electricity and running water might recognize as long lost brothers and sisters someone who came to install both in an impoverished village at affordable rates, or free of charge. But tourists?

During the last few decades before the Civil War, and during the decades afterward, Americans of known African descent were ruthlessly taught that they had no history, that they were descended from "jungle bunnies" and ignorant savages. This was patently false, and earlier generations in America knew better. The thousands of Charleston, South Carolina slaves enlisted by Denmark Vesey included a large number who knew their Ibo heritage, and at least 10% who retained the Islamic faith of their ancestors. Benjamin Banneker's Dogon grandfather had been a prince, and the family knew it. Banneker's grandmother, an English dairy maid from Kent, called her husband "the Prince" throughout their married life. Anthony Johnson, the owner of a 250 acre plantation in Virginia, was well aware of his Angolan roots. But once lies had been told, and for a time somewhat believed, it was a natural response to claim, with pride, a renewed African heritage.

Yes, Africa did have kingdoms and empires as glorious as any in Europe. That isn't much to be proud of. Our ancestors, European or African, were mostly either cruel, petty tyrants, or illiterate, ignorant, superstitious peasants. There were always a few exceptions, that is why we have all made a little progress, sort of. During the 1600s, when the trans-Atlantic slave trade became established as big international business, Europeans were burning witches at the stake, while Africans were pounding stakes into witches – both painful deaths. Europeans during that period lacked the military and economic capacity to kidnap the millions of men and women who were taken to America. They were sold, by the "motherland." European merchants came in large numbers because Africa had slaves for sale. Slave traders paid for the privilege, humbly requested on their knees before the local king.

We are not so much better today as we sometimes think. Less than twenty years ago, the Inkatha militia in South Africa was engaged in battles with the African National Congress military wing, Umkonto we Sizwe. I remarked to a South African exile in America that a good solution would be to airlift the entire Inkatha militia to Yugoslavia, for United Nations peacekeeping duties. Moses replied "Yes, we have to stop the white-on-white violence." Isn't that the truth? Serbs practice ethnic cleansing on Bosnians, Croats practice ethnic cleansing on Serbs, Hutu practice ethnic cleansing on Tutsi... Yoruba and Hausa ganged up on Ibo a few years ago, resulting in the Biafra war...

A couple of years ago, a weekly paper in the Washington, D.C., area, published primarily for African American readers, ran a headline "Benin apologizes for slavery." That may have been the first time that a modern west African nation openly acknowledged its own historical role in the slave trade. Benin also wanted Americans of African descent to come home. After all, there are a fair number of African Americans who are prosperous today, and immigrants with money are desirable to any impoverished land. The millions of African Americans who are barely getting by? They don't have the money for trans-Atlantic air fare anyway.

Oddly enough, one of the pretexts for Britain establishing colonial administrations in west Africa was that the local rulers practiced slavery. There was a certain amount of hypocrisy in the British government posturing as friend of freedom. True, there was genuine spirit to William Wilberforce's anti-slavery efforts, endorsed by the aging John Wesley. But the British royal family and merchants, Tory and Whig, had been up to their eyeballs in the slave trade. American colonies who tried to prohibit importation of slaves were over-ruled by the King. After wringing immense profits out of the business, Britain turned around and condemned it. By then, certain American colonies, now independent politically, were so dependent on slave labor that they invented some ingenious justifications to keep it going another 70 years or so. The results for their descendants were both bloody and poisonous.

When British ships intercepted slave traders, the human cargo was taken to the nearest African coast and settled in villages. Generally, they were far away from their own kin and cultures. Local people often raided these villages, to obtain slaves to sell to another merchant willing to defy the British blockade. And so British colonialism arrived under the banner of progress and civilization, to bring enlightenment that Britain itself had suppressed for many centuries. Colonial administration of course was in the hands of another set of petty tyrants, who had absorbed the identity of "white man" and viewed all people of darker complexion with contempt. That attitude germinated first in the American colonies, then was brought back to Africa.

The glorious African kings, who financed their mighty empires on the sale of slaves, had no idea of the perverted culture their satisfied customers were digging, for themselves and their "property," on the other side of the world. Humanity will never really get over the poisonous legacy of the past until we recognize that none of us have clean hands, none of us would really want to live the lives of any of our ancestors, and none of us are defined by the past. We reinvent our own warped identity with every new generation. And then we have to recognize, whether our ancestors came from Europe, Africa, or both, the truth of that old saying "You can't go home again."

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