Saturday, December 31, 2022

Coming Home: Reflections and Lessons Learned

While helping to bring a canoe ashore, a fisherman braces for a wave in Lake Volta.

“There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love.” —Dr. Martin Luther King

By John W. Fountain

John Fountain stands in
Assin Manso Slave river
ACCRA, Ghana—I love Ghana and Ghana almost loved me. But I love America and America hates me. This is the great conundrum as my spirit angels beckon me home from Africa back to America as I sit aboard this Boeing 757.

I return to my Homeland from the Motherland with this much clear: A modern day back-to-Africa movement is not the antidote to American racism and the pain and angst that ails the Black body and soul, even if Africa holds deeply rooted truths about the enslavement and deportation of Black bodies to a cruelly racist world beyond this continent that is the birthplace of civilization.

I return with truths about slavery and the hate we hold brother against brother, which creates the chasm upon which outsiders still seize and prey, in order to conquer, sift and separate us, and upon which we cannibalize and slay ourselves. Still.

I return from my time as a 2021-22 Fulbright scholar with the truth that the white man, though unexcused or unabsolved of his menacing diabolical pathologies, fueled by his insatiable love of money and by his greed, did not accomplish 400 years of slavery from this continent without Africans who were consensual, co-conspirators, and major cast members in the historic catastrophic script of the world’s largest forced migration, which subsequently created the African diaspora. I return with the stinging truth as a Black man that even if I could prove by DNA Ghanaian lineage or change the status of my citizenship from American to Ghanaian, I would still never be truly accepted here as “brother.” 

For I have the blood of slaves in my veins. I am inarguably the descendant of Africans chained naked and sardined in the bottom of colonizer’s death-filled slave ships that set sail for diseased-infested voyages through the Middle Passage to America’s shores, where they were unloaded into American slavery and transported to sunbaked merciless plantations, where their blood, sweat and tears poured into the soil of America and built a nation. 

I had to come to Africa to learn that being a descendant of slaves is a “bad” thing. Something to despise, if not hate. Something—coupled with misinformation and stereotype fueled by the media and by those who hate me and my kind—that makes me an “other” in this land of my ancestors, rather than a brother. 

That causes me to feel uneasy and unsettled by the stares and side-eyes of people Black like me but who often appear more at ease, tolerant, accepting and even celebratory of foreigners who are not black like either me or them.

"The stories I uncovered in my research painted for me a much less than rosy or romanticized portrait of Black Americans who heeded the “call” to move to Ghana."

This gate leads to the path to the river where untold thousands of Africans bathed before being taken to slave castles.

In The Beginning

On Thanksgiving day in November 2021, I arrived here with arms open wide and a love and deep admiration for a land and a people that when I first visited Ghana in 2007, stole my heart. But upon my return 17 years later, I discovered that I didn’t really know her. That the experience of breathing free in a land populated by Africans—where, for the first time in my life, I was not a Black man, only a man—perhaps caused me to see through rose-colored glasses, as a tourist, not as an inhabitant. 

My return and temporary residential status, which led me beyond the slave castles and other tourist fare—beyond a YouTube glamorized Ghana of festive nightlife, restaurants, of tempting tales of so-called free land for returnees, of brimming economic opportunity and open pathways to Ghanaian citizenship—all led me closer to the truth.

The truth. Truth is, I have in the past six months been deeply moved and also at times deeply troubled on this journey. I have been extremely high and extremely low. 

At my most deeply spiritual moment, I stood in Assin Manso slave river, where in a surreal spiritual moment I was suddenly flooded with a palpable sense of connectedness to my ancestors and also by a deeply disturbing portrait that suddenly unveiled like a curtain opening before my eyes. And in that picture of grotesque horror, I saw no white colonizers leading chained, bloodied and brutalized African slaves, only Africans. 

I stood in the river, salty tears falling from my eyes as I realized in a way I had not before that moment that my ancestors were sold into slavery by their brothers. And that very much alive in the ancestors of those who sold my ancestors or in those who by ignorance or with knowledge of this past transgression, was a detectable disdain for me and other returnees come home after slavery’s time, back to the scene of the historic crime.

And I realized in that moment that there might never be any love for me here or my tribe, except for the love of our resources—our money and our time spent here as tourists seeking to reconnect with family and a land severed and forever lost in time. 

And yet, my heart feels no animus because of this rejection, even if it is broken over this eternal forced disconnection at the hands of none other than my brother and the truth that here in the ancestral land of my fathers, I am simply an “other,” an alien in the streets of a foreign land decipherable to locals by my accent, my walk, my build, my clothes and my aura. 

But even if I spoke perfect Twi or Ga and wore traditional West African clothes, I know they would never accept me as brother. I used to state this as a question to Ghanaians and African Americans who now live here. Their nearly unanimous chuckle of affirmation made me change the question to a statement of fact. They are African. I am Black. And all the invitations in the world alone for African Americans to come home won’t change that. 

And that is the revelation that sets me free. Free of the longing for some freedom land beyond America’s shores. And that compels me to fight for a better brighter America where the blood, sweat and tears of my ancestors poured to build a better nation of justice, freedom and equality, holding fast to the hope and dream of the slave for our posterity.

I love Ghana. And Ghana almost loved me. And in a sense, it is a reality that sets me free, though my work is not yet done. And there are other voices to be entertained than just my one.

At a market near a fisherman’s wharf in Greater Accra, a woman sells grilled plantain.


A woman sells plantain at the market.
My journey to record the stories of African Americans who now call Ghana home carried me across Accra and beyond, to places like Prampram, Sakumono and Tema. I interviewed men and women, young and old, retirees and entrepreneurs, newcomers and those who uprooted from America decades ago to replant their lives in Ghanaian red clay dirt. African American-born men and women who married Ghanaians and whose children were born and raised in Ghana. 

Through these interviews, which I will detail in my forthcoming project, emerges a tale of the good, the bad and the ugly of the experience of living in Ghana as a Black American. Inasmuch as my immersion into Ghanaian life had exposed my soul to the joys of the culture and to the way of life, I had also tasted the bitter fruit of being a foreigner, an outsider, a tribal outcast, though the stories I uncovered in my research painted for me a much less than rosy or romanticized portrait of Black Americans who heeded the “call” to move to Ghana.  

There is the story of the Nigerian girl who met an American boy who wanted to marry her. But her parents would not allow it. There was one big problem. Not the color of his skin. It had absolutely nothing to do with his character as an individual. The problem: He was African American. The young man, unwilling to relent, went to the girl’s parents to explain: He was not really African American, even if born Black in America. He had grown up in Ghana, raised by his grandmother. Still, the girl's parents needed verification. So they got on a plane and flew to Ghana to meet with the young man’s grandmother to prove he was not purely African American. The young man’s grandmother confirmed his story. And the parents allowed him to marry their daughter.

Two young men at a wharf watch over the day’s
catch, cooking on a smokey grill.
There is the story of the young African-American man who traced his roots to his native tribe in Ghana and moved here with his family to begin a new life in his native land. Only to be asked by the authorities who, upon reviewing his documents, inquired: “What is your family’s name?”

He could not answer. The name had been taken somewhere along the journey of slaves from Africa to America, lost in the land where slaves’ names, tribes and history were forbidden to be spoken of, washed away during hundreds of years of enslavement. “I don't know,” he answered, explaining that he had the DNA test to prove where he was from, that he was indeed Ghanaian, but to no avail. 

“What is your family’s name?” she asked again. He could not answer. “You are not Ghanaian.” Period. No name, no land. No recognition as being a descendant of Ghana.

There is the narrative among Ghanaians and other Africans that African Americans are miscreants, drug dealers, lazy no-good-for-nothings, criminally and homicidally minded. That Africans are therefore better than “us,” work harder, are of higher moral standards, less prone to violence. Largely created by the media’s portrayal of African-American life, by misinformation and false perceptions, however, it is a stereotypical false narrative that bears no more validity than the prevailing perception among some African-Americans of Africans as poor hut-dwellers in the bush, stricken by AIDS and Monkey Pox.

There is the story of African Americans being seen as “fat pockets” and the targets of opportunity to gouge them for everything—from daily produce at the markets to trinkets and souvenirs on the street, to taxi and Uber rides and other goods and services—often being charged double or far above the usual cost. There is the Ghanaian price and the American price, which depends on the American customer’s ability to discern the difference. 

There is the insult of “Obroni”—the name some Ghanaians hurl at African-Americans and that means white foreigner. The color of the skin of African Americans, however, does not trump their detectable foreign descent. “Obroni,” they tease. Laughter. Shock. Sting. 

There is the story during my time in Ghana of the African-American woman traveling with her young son in a taxi. She asked the driver to please turn down the radio. He refused. So she asked him, short of arrival at their destination, to let them out. She paid him. Irate, he said it was not enough. He climbed out of the car and beat her with his belt buckle as her son watched and no onlookers intervened. 

John Fountain interviews Jerry Johnson who founded
the African Ancestral Wall in Prampram, Ghana.
There is the case of the elderly African-American woman during my time who was taken captive in her home by her teenage Nigerian housekeeper and her mother, clubbed unconscious repeatedly by her own testimony to me and held for days as they tried to extort her for money. She believed that her captors would kill her and at one point was resigned to dying, comforted by her belief, she told me, that she would see her deceased mother in heaven. Ultimately, she was rescued and survived.  

And there is the mostly out of earshot, if at all spoken, revilement some Ghanaians hold for African Americans because of our unforgivable sin. That detestable, damnable, irreconcilable offense that is cause enough for the chasm between “us” and them and which stands glaringly as the great hereditary divide. That thing, which some African Americans, who have lived here for decades admit to having been made aware of by the Ghanaian bold enough to speak it. To make clear why they are really “better” than “us,” at least unblemished, pure, and forever not to be linked with “us.”

That thing. The damnable thing: That African Americans are descendants of slaves. And that one thing, in their minds, is something to be ashamed of.  That even being dirt poor in Ghana makes you at least better than a comparatively rich and educated Black person in America who is descendant from slaves and has slave blood running warm in our veins. Descendants of African slaves sold by Africans.

But which one of these is more to be ashamed of? Which of these African descendants—of slaves or of slave seller, or even of those who escaped either fate—is less than? 

Which of these can throw stones? Perhaps only he who is without sin.

* * * *

John Fountain taking photos of children at an orphanage/school in GHana.

I realize, having taken this journey as scholar, journalist and as great-great-grandson of a Black man born a slave in America, that there is a great divide between us—African and African American. A gulf, a systemic chasm manufactured by misinformation, by centuries of forced separation, by pure ignorance, and by the devices of those who are direct beneficiaries—Black, white or other—of our tribalistic tiffs and wholesale cannibalism that devours and undermines us at large. And what I realized, even more upon my sojourn to Africa, is that the tendency toward self-destruction, self-hate and cultural divisiveness is not simply the quandary of Africans and African Americans but also between African Americans and African Americans. 

What I also realize is that if we as a people across the African Diaspora are ever to unite for the good, prosperity and posterity of us all, then we must first grapple with and face hard truths: That we are our own worst enemy, our most formidable foe. And that we always have been. And that we have the ability to heal ourselves. We always have. And I suspect that the more we engage with each other, the more we listen and learn the truth about each other rather than fabricated jaded narratives, the more we will come to see each other as brothers and sistersthe humanity, dignity and worth in the other's eyes as a reflecton of our own. The more we will see that our collective destiny and survival are irrevocably tied to each other. Ghana taught me this. Hope and Michael, Hagar and Abena, Mama Loo, Prince Champion, Maya, Janice and Natalie, Ellis and my forever Ghanaian brother Samuel Commodore, and the beautiful people of Ghana who comprised the intricate tapestry of my journey back to Africa in its totality that shall forever be emblazoned in my memory like the regal kente cloth of the proud Ashanti people.

The view of the Atlantic Ocean from the beach in Nungua, Ghana.

Coming Home

A common scene in Ghana,
a woman carries bananas for sale
 atop her head like many other
roving merchants who stroll
through crawling traffic, hawking
their wares.
As the jet plane soars above the earth, bound west, away from Africa, back toward America, I reflect upon my Fulbright journey here. Tears fill my eyes as I am enveloped by thoughts of Ghana and the fact that the time has come for us now to part ways. And I already miss Ghana. Her pulse and heartbeat. The bustle and buzz of Accra streets amid the never-ending hustle of street merchants and the majestic porters known as Kayaye who tote their wares atop their heads with the elegance of a Paris runway model. 

I miss the blare of Afro Beats music at Junction Mall, located in suburban Tema, Ghana, not far from Nungua. I miss the roosters’ crowing, the sight of the gangster goats as I called them who troll the streets. I miss the red clay dirt. Jollof rice. The beautiful Ghanaian people, their majestic aura and sunbaked skin, the way they dance in the music, uplifted and transcendent in rhythm and spirit like the wings of ascending doves.

After about eight months in Ghana, I look forward to returning home to America.

And yet my heart is overwhelmed as I leave these shores, drifting upon memories of music, culture and a people that I have come to love. Of a place where for the first time in my life as a Black man I ever felt free. Of laughter, conversations and the Ghanaian wind and sun that embraced me. Here, in this special corner of the African diaspora where, even if they never see me as “brother,” I will always see them as mine. 

The truth is: I loved Ghana and Ghana almost loved me. That is the hurt and yet also the hope.



A scene in the sandy streets of Greater Accra Region that flow with traffic and people and where merchants line the sides of the busy thoroughfare. 

Cape Coast Castle

The Atlantic Ocean from the coast of Ghana. (Photos: John W. Fountain))