The diasporan community has always called Ghana home. Even before the “Year of Return,” the West African country had mostly attracted diasporan travelers looking to reconnect with their roots. And quite rightly so.
Ghana, then known as the Gold Coast, was a well-known transit place during the transatlantic slave trade. Several castles and forts remain dotted across the country as tourist destinations for diasporans interested in learning more about the places their captured ancestors were held and the conditions they had to endure before being forcibly transported across the Atlantic to work as slaves between 1515 and the mid-nineteenth century.
Aside from tourism, the West African country has recently been a popular destination for diasporans looking to relocate. Some have even settled in nicely, starting businesses and forming their own organizations. Aside from reconnecting with their ancestors, some are also giving back to the communities in which they live through education. In this regard, Jerry Johnson of Los Angeles and his Ghanaian wife built the African Ancestral Wall.
Asa Hilliard, Yaa Asantewaa, Malcolm X, Menelik II, Samuel Mahahero, Fred Hampton, Muhammad Ali, Qalidurat, Winnie Mandela, Bob Marley, and Kwame Nkrumah are among the important personalities depicted on the prominent wall at Prampram.
An annual celebration is held to honor the ancestors on the wall. Johnson stated in an interview that the annual event is done because “we prefer for our youngsters to be able to display what they’ve been learning” throughout the year.
“We started this African Ancestral Wall because we were not satisfied with the African history that we were seeing in the local schools. We see a lot of colonial history, we see a lot of European history [but very little African history],” Johnson said. “So our children come through the wall by the hundreds now. We’ve probably had several thousands through here, and we get a chance to take them through, explain, help to build their knowledge and confidence of self.”
Johnson said that they go ahead to annually showcase what the children have been doing to the public, other students, and anyone who is interested “so they know this is the kind of youngsters that we are developing.”
“As we always say we have to develop the Africans we need to solve the problems that we have, and we know that’s our children,” he added.
Johnson further stated that the venue’s activities include excursions for any school that want to visit. “It’s free,” he explained. “All you have to do is come here and we’ll walk through the 92 enormous images of African men and women in history so our children have a solid understanding of what their potential is because they have a strong understanding of what their history is.”
He continued: “I think the significance now is giving young people and even their parents and older people a place to come to not only learn the history but to meet other people who come here too. And I really think sometimes, that’s becoming the most powerful thing about it.”
It is about the individuals who meet here, and of course, the pupils who impress their parents, instructors, and friends here. So, I believe it is becoming a point where people can come together [and] not just learn history, but also learn from one another [and] establish relationships, in the hopes of building some pan-Africanism that genuinely reflects power.”
Johnson noted that throughout the portrait selection process, he developed a long list of features and attributes that he wanted the children to understand. He claims that they employ adjectives like “courage, leadership, warriorship, and ingenuity” to discover and connect relatives in history who have any of these qualities.
“So sometimes you’ll see Africans on the wall who you’ve never heard of, but they really have an attribute that I want the children to know about. And sometimes you won’t see people you expect to see because we already have several people that are demonstrating that attribute or that characteristic to the students,” he explained.
“But the main thing is we want to have a full range of African talents [and] characters available for the children to learn and to see and hopefully begin to internalize it themselves.”
Johnson said his decision to relocate to Ghana was not an American thing but an African condition that people like us find ourselves in.
“African people have no authority in the United States,” the Los Angeles native remarked. “You see people on TV who have made a lot of money and other things, but that should never be confused with power.”
Johnson used Kanye West’s current situation to argue that if his billionaire position can be taken away in a matter of days, Black people never had that power in the first place.
“So we don’t have power,” he added. “We have some people with money as long as they behave. So those were my observations. Living through that in the United States, observing as I travel around the world and discovering that African people are at the bottom in areas like Brazil and South America – and, in some ways, even here in our own country.
So we have a lot of work to do, and I’m not sure what brought me here. It’s an African condition that we find ourselves in all over the world that drew me here because I knew here is where we’ll have to be to put it all together and reclaim our sovereign sovereignty.”
Johnson also stated that it took him some time to see the African continent’s potential. He added that this was because individuals like him were taught that being brought to the country as slaves was the best thing that could have happened to Black Americans.
“Now a lot of people here in Africa think that was a good thing to happen to us,” he said. “Because they don’t know what the common African people in the U.S. deal with.”
“So we have a lot to do.”
And, while he said he had no major surprises when he came to Ghana, he was surprised by how poor the country’s education curriculum was and how extensively it reflected the European narrative of history and social order.
“They [the Europeans] have complete control of that,” Johnson added. “I assumed we had a little more internal control than we have. But it appears that we do not, therefore we are striving to alter that as well.”
He advised Africans in the diaspora to look for engaging activities that would help young people discover their identities. “Begin to prioritize Africa in your future plans. If not your personal future ambitions, then those of your children and grandkids, because at the end of the day, this is all we have,” he remarked. “Since this is the only thing we’ll ever have, let’s get to work making it what we want it to be.”
Prampram, a beach village, is less than an hour’s drive from Accra, Ghana’s capital city. Make a point of visiting the African Ancestral Wall whenever you’re in town.