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Bittersweet homecoming for Ghana's African Americans

Written by: Staff
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ACCRA, Nov 21: African American Toni Manieson knows what it is like to sing the blues.

In African dress and with dyed-blond cropped hair, she croons and sways in the bar she owns in the town she has made her home: Jazztone in Accra, the sweaty oceanside capital of the West African country of Ghana.

Nine years in the city, she is one of several African Americans who have come back to the continent of their ancestors, some by accident and some by choice.

Millions of West Africans were shipped from whitewashed slave forts on the Ghanaian coastline to a life of slavery in Brazil, America and the Caribbean.

The journey back to Africa is one the Ghanaian government hopes many people of African origin will make next year, which is Ghana's 50th birthday and the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in Britain.

Members of the Ghanaian diaspora will be granted a ''diaspora stamp'', granting them visa free access to Ghana and will be encouraged to buy land and invest.

But for some, the trip to Ghana accentuates the difficulty of having a foot in two such vastly different cultures.

For Manieson, who has come to cherish Accra, the trip following in the footsteps of her Ghanaian husband Victor proved bittersweet.

Her husband's family found it difficult to get used to his independent American wife and their relationship entered a downward spiral, ending in divorce.

''They felt he couldn't control me,'' she says in her slow drawl. ''It took a lot of adjusting, what with not all the women having a lot of rights and the men controlling everything.''

JOSEPH PROJECT

The tourism and investment drive is called the Joseph project after the Biblical slave, who was freed by his Egyptian master and rose to become adviser to the pharaoh.

Implicit in the project is an apology for the role played by many Ghanaians in selling their fellow Africans into slavery, in an era when tribal chiefs sold captives to European slave ships.

''We have a shared heritage; we think all Africans are from Africa one way or the other,'' said Victoria Sarpong, from the Ministry of Tourism and Diasporan Relations.

''We need to invite people so we can move forward. We are saying we should forgive and forget and move forward.'' For many, the return to Africa represents a long-cherished dream.

Growing up in a segregated America, Renee Neblett knew from the age of 12 she wanted to visit Africa and her first trip matched her expectations. ''I was smitten by how gracious people were. It was everything I ever dreamt of,'' she said. A veteran of the civil rights movement, the 59-year-old is proud of her family's history, proud to be the descendant of slaves who survived separation from their home and family and a deadly boat journey to a new country.

''To end up in the bottom of a ship, tied up and to survive it: when I think I came from that, I feel very privileged to have that ancestry,'' said Neblett, who now runs a cultural exchange centre in the seaside town of Kokrobitey.

The extremes of racism experienced in America make it easy to romanticise a return to Africa, she said.

''We had such a miserable time in America. Nobody can imagine what it was like to be black in America. It is easy to romanticise an African past you don't know,'' said Neblett.

The ''Josephs'' have different hopes and expectations for the visit to the continent of their ancestors, as does the Ghanaian government, anxious to make its country a gateway to Africa for thousands of tourists.

''I was not a back to Africa person,'' Manieson said. ''I didn't really understand what colonialism was.'' Waiting in restaurants for service while Ghanaians rushed to serve white people left her ill at ease and she became aware how little she knew of the place she was living in.

''Some people tell me they know I am not Ghanaian, they know I am not from here,'' she said. ''I see them treat white people differently; I didn't know about any of that before I came.'' Despite divorce and the difficulties of crossing the cultural divide, Manieson decided to ''stay and make it work'', building her bar into one of the city's popular live music venues. The reward has been a security that eluded her before.

''I always had this insecure feeling, and it didn't matter where I lived. Boston, Atlanta. Here, I don't have that feeling. My daughter wants me to come home, I said home, where's that?'' she said.

REUTERS

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