How Ghana’s “Year of Return” Sparked a Pan-African Phenomenon

Half a million diasporans visited Ghana in 2019 for the Year of Return
Half a million diasporans visited Ghana in 2019 for the Year of Return | © Wind Collective
Jessica Ankomah

Ghana’s Year of Return in 2019 marked 400 years since the first enslaved Africans reached America. It was also the year Ghana’s President, Nana Akufo-Addo, invited all people of African descent to return to the continent – specifically Ghana – to rethink their identity and reclaim their roots.

Ghana’s Year of Return is one of the most successful tourism initiatives the African continent has ever seen

With over half-a-million diasporans answering the call, Ghana’s Year of Return during 2019 became a global phenomenon. Africans abroad have continued to flock to Ghana in search of community, culture, opportunity and history. The journey has been so significant for some that they’ve taken citizenship and set up shop in the West African country, trading Western comforts for a new way of life.

Akua Aboagye-Graham, an advocate for African entrepreneurship, says that Ghana’s welcoming spirit and peaceful nature will “spark a sense of belonging and pride” in any diasporan who visits.

“You’ll become a proponent for Africa’s stunning beauty and humble lifestyle once you’ve seen it,” she says.

Ghana’s Year of Return is one of the most successful tourism initiatives the African continent has seen, leading countries like Nigeria and Uganda to follow suit. But why was President Akufo-Addo’s call to return so poignant? The answer lies in a sleepy beachside city called Cape Coast, with ports that facilitated one of the darkest forced migrations known to man.

The president of Ghana invited all people of African descent to return to Ghana to reclaim their roots

Forts, castles and The Door of No Return

For decades, people have travelled to Ghana’s Cape Coast to observe, commemorate and heal generational wounds caused by slavery and oppression. The Cape Coast is home to several slave ports and castles including Elmina and Cape Coast Castle, where thousands of Africans were forced to leave via The Door of No Return, before being shipped off in disease-infested slave ships.

Today, these castles hold tours for visitors to educate them on the reality of slavery. They’re not for the faint-hearted: tour groups are led through museums of shackles and branding irons before descending to the depths of the dungeons themselves. The hour-long tours are guided by Ghanaian historians who share in great detail the torture their people endured.

The tours can also be deeply transformative. They end by offering visitors affected by slavery a chance to walk back through The Door of No Return – a step that has taken centuries to arrive. Ghana’s Year of Return borrows its name from this tradition, encouraging those who were historically wronged to find comfort.

Pro tip: Make sure your visit to the Cape Coast is no less than an overnight stay, since there’s so much to see and do in the region. Oasis Beach Resort offers excellent accommodation at affordable rates and is a five-minute walk from Cape Coast Castle.

The Year of Return, 2019, marked 400 years since the first enslaved Africans reached America

The Year of Return: A celebration of resilience

If Ghana’s Cape Coast is a place of quiet reflection and sombre truths, then its capital, Accra, is a place of song and vigour. The Year of Return programme brought the city to life with festivals, parties and performances, drawing an influx of celebrities, too.

In December 2019, there were sightings of rappers Rick Ross and Ludacris out and about in the city. Classic Man rapper Jidenna made an appearance, electronic act Major Lazer threw epic beachside parties, and even Beyoncé was rumoured to have made the pilgrimage.

The West African music scene is booming, with the emerging genre Afrobeats at its centre. Ghana, one of the sound’s originators, has become a mecca for musicians searching for inspiration. The Year of Return leveraged the nation’s talent to host festivals of unmatched scale. The key events included:

The Jamestown lighthouse overlooks the seashore in Accra

Afro Nation

Originating in Europe, Afro Nation truly made its mark on the festival scene during the Year of Return with headliners Burna Boy, Shatta Wale, Wiz Kid, 6lack and Davido on the main stage.

Afrochella

The Ghana-originated festival has received global recognition as Africa’s answer to Coachella – but it markets itself as so much more. Its Year of Return theme, Diaspora Calling, highlighted the process of various African cultures transcending borders without losing their heritage.

The Year of Return programme brought the capital city, Accra, to life with festivals, parties and performances

Essence Full Circle

Essence Full Circle is a travel group founded by actor Boris Kodjoe and family, aiming to show the world the true face of Africa. Its week-long itinerary in Ghana was jam-packed with sightseeing, parties and discussions about owning the African identity.

Pro tip: If you’re looking for a great night out in Accra, your best bet is East Legon, Osu or Commercial Road. Here, the streets are lined with bars, clubs and restaurants celebrating the best of African nightlife, music and dance.

The music scene in Ghana is booming, and the Year of Return showcased just that

Business, growth and investment in Ghana

According to the World Bank, seven of the top 10 fastest growing economies are in Africa. Part of Ghana’s intent behind the Year of Return was not only to showcase the country as a great tourist destination, but also to generate business and investment. As an advocate for African entrepreneurship, Aboagye-Graham believes that the best ways in which to invest in Ghana’s rapidly expanding economy are through contributions to and support of the hospitality, technology and agriculture sectors.

The Year of Return was not only created to encourage the diaspora to return, but also to stimulate business and investment

Getting around in Ghana: Travelling safely

Travelling in a country for the first time is always daunting, but with Ghana’s extensive minivan and taxi network, ride-sharing and the widespread use of English, getting around is very easy and safe.

Flagging a taxi is simple – just wave your hand and contribute two cedis (about £0.30) to the pool. Small buses called tro-tros take passengers from city to city as soon as the van fills up. Tro-tro stations are a hive of activity with salespeople, drivers and food vendors all trying to catch your attention.

Ride-sharing apps like Uber have also hit the scene with responsive drivers waiting for pin drops. The price is not much more than a taxi, and they come directly with the option of credit card or cash payment. Although language is not a barrier for giving directions, with so few street names, it’s wise to memorise nearby landmarks as they are the easiest way to communicate with the driver.

Recommendation: If you stop an empty cab, make sure you agree on the cost before setting off. This will avoid any chance of surprise fair hikes upon reaching your destination.

With an extensive minivan and taxi network, ride-sharing and the widespread use of English, getting around Ghana, and especially Accra, is easy

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