Ghana in the Diasporas: historic linkages between Ghana and the French Antilles

Source: map produced by Fiifi Boateng, Alliance Française d’Accra.

The colloquium Ghana in the Diasporas: Historic linkages between Ghana and the French Antilles was organised by the Embassy of France in Ghana, Institut Français du Ghana and the Alliance Française d’Accra, on 8 November 2018 at the Alliance Française d’Accra, Ghana. The conference brought together leading thinkers and scholars within the field of African Diaspora Studies from France and the French Antilles, as well as Ghanaian scholars and Ghanaian government officials. This was to debate, reflect and discuss Ghana’s historical position within the discourses and narratives of the Atlantic Slave Trade Routes in the “New World” and most specifically Ghana’s presence in the French Antilles.

Ghana, since the late 1950s and early 1960s, has become home for returnees from the Black Atlantic Diasporas, particularly in the aftermath of Ghana’s independence. Ghana’s first president Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, was one of the pioneer figures of the Pan-African movement. He engaged and encouraged the Atlantic diaspora to return to their “motherland” by uniting them to the newly independent Ghana, during the Civil Rights Movement in America. Nkrumah’s efforts saw a temporary and permanent return of African Americans and Anglophone Caribbeans relocating to Ghana in the 1960s. Leading members of the Civil Rights Movements such as Martin Luther King and Malcom X, but also the boxing legend Muhammed Ali all visited post-independent Ghana. Others who made Ghana their home included some African-American academics, Pan-African activists and intellectuals such as W.E.B Du Bois, St Clair Drake, journalist and writer Maya Angelou and the Trinidadian Pan-Africanist George Padmore. Ghana still remains home of return for the Atlantic diasporas.

As 2019 marks 400 years (1619-2019) of documented enslavement of people of African descent to the New World, it has been declared “Year of Return” and as such, been commemorated in Ghana throughout the year, via discussions, debates symbolic cultural events. The colloquium presented here is part of these commemorations.

The objective and the purpose of the colloquium was to question the apparent silence that surrounds slavery in the French Antilles diaspora, and to analyse the links that might exist between the history and narratives of the Atlantic Slave Trade in Ghana and in the French Antilles. The main focus of the colloquium was to examine and discuss the ties between Ghana and the Black Atlantic diaspora, in an attempt to bridge the historical gaps between Anglophone, Francophone and Lusophone slave routes. Contemporary migrations and return of Ghanaians from the diaspora were also discussed in order to understand the broad definition of the term African diaspora and its links to the notion of “Roots” and “Routes” in West Africa and Ghana. More specifically, within the context of Roots and Routes, what does the notion of return to the “motherland” entail?

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The idea of Roots has long been an important metaphor for place attachment as Malkki points out, it is part of a metaphorical system including the soil and the land, linking people to place, identity to territory (Malkki 1992, p. 24). In the context of this colloquium, roots signify emotional bonds with the physical environment which is connected to a land, soil, local community and shared culture.

Authors such as Clifford (1997), Gilroy (1993), Hall (1996), have suggested that the relationship between place, people, and culture may also be thought of in terms of routes. Rather than focusing on the local anchorage of peoples and cultures, this concept points toward their mobility, their movements, encounters, exchanges, and mixtures. This mobility may take many different forms: permanent or temporary migration, travel, tourism, transfer or exchange of cultural artifacts (Clifford 1997, p. 10). Hall (1995) argues that, we are witnessing today a move from roots to routes: “More and more people in general—not only ex-colonized or marginalized people—are beginning to think of themselves, of their identities and their relationship to culture and to place, in these more ‘open’ ways” (p. 207). Clifford (1997) and Gilroy (1993), on the other hand, emphasize the complementarity of roots and routes. In Clifford’s account, roots and routes are not necessarily opposed but rather “intertwined” (p. 4), representing two different, but not mutually exclusive, ways of regarding the relationship between people, culture, and place. Gilroy on the other hand, suggests the investigation of “the relationships between rootedness and displacement, locality and dissemination” (p. 105)

Clifford (2013) notes that Returns is a willingness to understand history as contingent and open-ended, not only as a refutation of past meta-narrative, but also as to take seriously an “indigenous longue durée or the idea that disruptions of colonization, settler-colonialism, and modernity can be seen as brief moments in much longer histories that are passing on the way to more hopeful futures (p. 42). In other words, the notion of return here is about reconnecting to a “motherland” which can be an imagined motherland for the Atlantic diaspora and a “homeland” for the Ghanaian diaspora which can be translated as a concrete homeland. The idea of reconnecting to a “motherland” and a “homeland” can both be viewed within the context of identity construction and reconstruction of people of African diaspora descent in a globalised world.

A key issue highlighted during the colloquium was the paradigm shift from viewing the Atlantic slave trade legacy from a victimization standpoint, to viewing this legacy as a celebration of the empowerment and resilience of people of African descent, and thus of the ties that link Ghana to the Atlantic diaspora. This colloquium represents the first conference organised in Ghana on the French Antilles historical ties with Ghana and set the basis for reflective debates about Ghana in the French Antilles. In this regard, it served as an official channel for long term and future collaborations in research, cultural, academic and student exchange programs between Ghana and the French Antilles, specifically with the Université des Antilles and Memorial ACT in Guadeloupe and partnerships with academic and cultural institutions in Ghana.

Panel presentations

Panel discussions on the presence of Ghana in the French Antilles commenced with a historical account of the Atlantic diaspora and the Coast of West Africa. Dr. Dominique Rogers from the Université des Antilles presented a case study on the history of Gold Coasters in Martinique in which she confirmed the direct link between modern day Ghana and the French Antilles through the Atlantic slave trade. This presence was emphasized through the narrative of Martiniquais families with names which resonates with some Ghanaian traditional names and as such links them to modern day Ghana as their ancestral home. Other forms of the presence of Gold Coasters in the French Antilles was articulated through the cultural and religious practices of “Quimbois” a melting pot of African religious practices and Catholicism. Quimbois in Martinique and Guadeloupe is the equivalent of other Afro Caribbean religious practices such as: Orisha in Trinidad and Tobago, Obeah in Jamaica, Voodoo in Haiti, Santaria in Cuba and Candomblé in Brazil.

Prof. Kwadwo Appiagei-Atua, University of Ghana, focused on the decolonisation aspect of International Law in order to understand the process of deconstruction of the African diaspora identity. Prof. Kwadwo Appiagei-Atua illustrated the idea of identity construction and reconstruction processes shifting from victim to empowered and resilient people, within the context of International Law is of paramount importance in understanding the history and linkages between Africa and its diaspora.

A discussion then developed around the notion of Return migration and the nexus between returning to “homeland” vs returning to the “motherland” for both the Atlantic diaspora and the Ghanaian diaspora in West Africa and in Ghana introduced by Jamilla Hamidu. The notion of returning to the “motherland” made reference to Atlantic diaspora returnees, with the examples of Antillais returnees to the “motherland” in Francophone West African countries such as Senegal and Benin. Dr. Moussa Traore, from the University of Cape Coast then presented the case of other Atlantic returnees through the example of the Tabom, a group of Afro-Brazilians in Ghana and their process of integration in James Town in Accra and its environs.

Returning to the “motherland” on the one hand is associated with Atlantic diaspora as was demonstrated by Prof. Esi Sutherland, University of Ghana, whose presentation centered on the Pan African Historical Theatre Project (PANAFEST) and its activities in Ghana. PANAFEST is a pioneer organisation and foundation which initiated official debates and civil society engagement through its efforts in giving the Anglophone Black Atlantic Diaspora discourse visibility in Ghana through arts and other forms of cultural and historical programs. Prof. Sutherland’s presentation focused mainly on the case study of the African-American and Caribbean returnee narratives in Ghana.

On the other hand, PhD candidate and Leturer,  Jamilla Hamidu from Sciences Po Bordeaux engaged with the notion of returning “home” in reference to the Ghanaian diaspora. Her presentation discussed the benefits of return migration to Ghana through the lenses of ‘brain gain,’ i.e. the circulation of qualified Ghanaian returnees and their contribution to the development of Ghana in various sectors such as academia, political governance, health and business. She emphasised the human resource capital, financial capital and social capital that returnees come home with, which in turn enables them to be “bridge-builders” or “brokers” for the development of their homeland as circular migrants and permanent returnees.

With regards to the government of Ghana’s policies pertaining to returnees in Ghana for both the Atlantic diaspora and the Ghanaian diaspora, Mr. Akwasi Ababio Awuah, Director of Diaspora Affairs, Office of the President, indicated that, the government of Ghana was in the final stages of enacting policies on return migration to Ghana. According to Mr. Ababio this will be articulated through the easing up of institutional red tape to enable Ghanaians abroad wishing to return home easily. He further noted that, the government was currently in the process of implementing the “Right of Abode” to facilitate the smooth return and integration of the Atlantic Diasporas in Ghana.

Conclusion

The conclusion from the panel presentations on Ghana’s presence in the Atlantic diaspora reiterated the idea that, the dispersion of people of African descent in the Atlantic was not a linear affair between one specific African country and a specific country in the Atlantic world. In other words, the narrative of “Roots” and “Routes” of the Atlantic slave trade is necessarily multifold both in Africa and in the New World. As a matter of fact, people of Ghanaian descent are present in the French Atlantic diaspora, as well as in Lusophone Atlantic diaspora, Hispanic Black Atlantic diaspora (particularly Cuba), and, obviously, in British and American Atlantic diaspora (Commonwealth Caribbean and African Americans).

Quimbois in Martinique and Guadeloupe, Orisha in Trinidad and Tobago, Obeah in Jamaica, Voodoo in Haiti, Santaria in Cuba and Candomblé in Brazil constitute African cultural and religious practices that directly or indirectly link Ghana to these Caribbean countries. The panel presentations also showed that, the term African diaspora can be defined as a broad term including recent migration of Ghanaians in Western Countries. Equally the term “returnee” is not exclusive to the Atlantic diaspora coming back to a “motherland” but also to include Ghanaians returning to their “homeland”. The processes of identity construction, deconstruction and reconstruction in the diaspora for both the Atlantic diaspora and Ghanaian diaspora is not static, as it continues to evolve. And as such, it plays an important role for the reintegration of returnees in Ghana via the same process of deconstruction, construction and reconstruction of their identities once in Ghana for both the Atlantic diaspora and Ghanaian diaspora.

In a nutshell, Ghana in the Diasporas is simultaneously about disruptions and deconstruction of the African diaspora identities, about roots in the New World, and about the routes of reconnections and reconstructions of returnee Diasporas identity in the motherland and homeland Ghana.

Panel Composition

Dr. Dominique ROGERS, Université des Antilles

Prof. Esi SUTHERLAND, University of Ghana, Legon

Prof. Kwadwo APPIAGYE-ATUA, University of Ghana, Legon

Dr. Moussa TRAORE, University of Cape Coast

Mr. Akwasi ABABIO-AWAH, Director of Diaspora Affairs, Office of the President of the Republic of Ghana

Mrs. Jamilla HAMIDU, Sciences Po Bordeaux (Project founder and Colloquium coordinator)


Bibliography

Clifford, J. 2013. Returns: Becoming Indigenous in the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press.

Clifford, J. 1997. Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century. Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press.

Gilroy, P., 1993. Small Acts: Thoughts on the Politics of Black Cultures. London: Serpent’s Tail.

Hall, S. and Du Gay, P. eds., 1996. Questions of Cultural Identity. London: SAGE Publications. http://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781446221907 

Malkki, L., 1992. “National Geographic: The rooting of peoples and the territorialization of national identity among scholars and refugees.” Cultural Anthropology, 7 (1) : 24-44. https://doi.org/10.1525/can.1992.7.1.02a00030

Jamilla Hamidu

Jamilla Hamidu is a PhD Candidate and Lecturer, Les Afriques dans le Monde, Sciences po Bordeaux.

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Jamilla Hamidu

Jamilla Hamidu is a PhD Candidate and Lecturer, Les Afriques dans le Monde, Sciences po Bordeaux.

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