“Yes, but where are you from originally?” is a question that I have been plagued with throughout my life. Whether asked by the parents of friends as a young girl, or the new acquaintances who believe it’s appropriate to probe my familial history upon meeting, this relentless questioning of my origins and identity from childhood until now has made a significant impact on my sense of self and belonging.
The fact is, I was born in England, like my father; my mother moved here from the Caribbean aged four. My paternal grandfather spent much time working in the UK before moving over permanently to start a family, and my great-grandfather moved to England to study at Cambridge, so my roots in Britain – not that I have to quantify them – are at least a century old. I am incredibly proud to be black and British, yet this negation of my Britishness with that seemingly innocuous but actually rather loaded question about origins has frequently made me (and I’m sure the thousands of others hounded with it too) ponder the concept of ‘home’, heritage and nationality.
Though I’ve visited St Kitts – one of the islands my mother is from – and grew up on my maternal grandmother’s rice and peas and stories of her homeland, in my 28 years I’d never visited west Africa, where my father’s side is from, and had less understanding of that piece in my jigsaw puzzle. I have always been aware that my great-grandfather, J.E. Casely-Hayford, was an esteemed author, politician and journalist, that his book Ethiopia Unbound (1911) was one of the first novels by an African to be published in English, and that he was a pioneer of Ghanaian independence, which happened in 1957. I’ve always known of his huge impact on Ghana but I knew little of the country itself, and its rich history and culture.
So I decided last year to embark on a trip to Ghana in order to seek some sort of deeper self-knowledge and understanding. Though I recognised that the country was my ancestors’ 'home', not directly mine, I knew it would offer insight into who I am and exactly where I’ve come from. My dual heritage means that although I’m immediately identifiable by skin colour as ‘African’, I had little affinity with it personally and up until now, no direct experiences.
Ekow Eshun’s 2005 autobiographical book Black Gold of the Sun, about his return to Ghana on a five-week pilgrimage to clarify his identity, guided me in my late adolescence as I tried to reconcile my heritage with my Western perspective. I hoped that as his trip had been so meaningful to him, a 'homegoing' would offer me that same insight. And so my boyfriend and I headed out to Accra on Christmas Day to spend a week there.
With fortunately no time difference to acclimatise to, we landed in Accra airport late in the evening on Christmas Day and were met by a wall of heat and an unexpected sea of faces as we exited the terminal. Hundreds of people called out to arriving family and friends and I was immediately stunned by an enveloping sense of love and community. This was presumably heightened by the fact that it was Christmas and a popular time for the global diaspora to return to the 'motherland' but that first heartwarming image of multitudes of relatives being reunited around us will stay with me for a long while.
We followed our taxi driver through the bustle of the airport and set off for our hotel, Olma Colonial Suites (a strong reminder of Britain's former occupation of the country) in Osu, just behind Oxford Street. The main stretch running through Osu, Oxford Street is a cacophony of street vendors, stalls and malls by day, evolving into a heaving epicentre of nightlife with bars and restaurants offering delicious local cuisine, drinks and dancing, and ought to be a first port of call for any new visitor. We visited Republic on our first night, a seemingly unremarkable outside bar with plastic chairs overflowing into the street that swiftly turned into a vibrant hub as locals and tourists alike came to enjoy the atmosphere and karaoke. This was our first real taste of the ever-present energy that ripples like an electric undercurrent through the city.
On our second day in Accra, on a stroll through the streets of Osu, I was struck by the vivid colour of the country. In contrast to the grey uniformity of London, it was like suddenly seeing the world in technicolour, with the burning yellow sun above, verdant palm trees lining each street, brightly painted buildings in every direction, the rich, patterned clothing worn by everyone we passed, the red earth beneath our feet and the nearby blue seas stretching down the coast.
After spending a day exploring Osu's varied retail offering, from stalls selling kente cloth and international calling cards, and women selling food on the side of the road from baskets atop their heads, to concept stores and galleries that would not look out of place in Berlin and burger bars you'd expect in Williamsburg, it was apparent that there is a juxtaposition of modernity and ancient tradition, affluence and poverty.
Following recommendations from Ghanaian friends in London, on our second evening we ventured out to a district near the airport, known as Airport City – a luxury urban development that houses many of the capital's upmarket restaurants, clubs and apartments. Not dissimilar to the shiny high-rise architecture of Dubai, this area was clearly the hang-out of the young, rich and flashy but lacked the true essence of Ghana I was seeking in its sterile buildings and generic interiors and menus. If you're after a decent bowl of pasta, a fancy cocktail or a Mayfair-esque club then pay a visit to Coco Lounge, Urban Grill, Carbon and the Polo Club; however, these places all felt lacking in the culture and personal history I wanted to explore.
And so we made a visit to Osu Castle, previously known as Fort Christiansborg, situated on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean's Gulf of Guinea. Built by Denmark-Norway in the 1660s, the castle has switched hands between Denmark-Norway, Portugal, the Akwamu and Britain in its long history, finally becoming the seat of government following Ghana's independence. A striking, white building (though now slightly dilapidated) rising above the sea, the fort is also home to an ugly history, as just one place along the Gold Coast where thousands of men, women and children were held captive before being shipped to America and the Caribbean during the slave trade.
Many of us have learned about slavery in history books but nothing can prepare you for standing inside the dark, confined dungeons where your forefathers may have been shackled and tortured a few centuries before. The reaction I experienced seeing those underground rooms both at Osu Castle and a few days later at Elmina Castle, where countless innocent people were kept manacled for months, surviving on minimal food and water, having to live shoulder-to-shoulder among their own excretion and even menstruation, was a visceral feeling I've only felt a few times in my life. To see marks in a wall where someone has scratched away in desperation or hopelessly carved a tally of the days they'd been imprisoned in windowless, claustrophobic cells, before being sent through 'The Door of No Return' onto the slave ships, will give you a harrowing glimpse of degradation and the depths of immorality as well as the purest examples of human strength and endurance.
From Osu we headed to Cape Coast, a city and fishing port, a three-hour coach ride from Accra. As we ventured further from the capital, multistorey buildings were replaced by simpler huts and houses. Away from the clamour and chaos of Accra, there was a tranquillity and slower pace as children played in the street and adults prepared meals, while others returned from the fishing boats. After a restorative meal at our picturesque beach hotel, Coconut Grove, of Red Red and plantain, fufu and chicken stew, we took a taxi to Elmina Castle, the culminating point of our visit.
Erected by the Portuguese in 1482, Elmina Castle is the oldest European building in existence south of the Sahara. First established as a trade settlement, the castle later became one of the most important stops on the route of the Atlantic slave trade. It is estimated that between 12 and 25 million slaves left the beaches of Cape Coast to be transported to the Caribbean and North and South America, the majority passing through Elmina Castle.
We were fortunate enough to be given a tour of the castle (a World Heritage Historical Monument) by the director, Ato Ashun, a remarkable, soft-spoken man who has worked there for 20 years. With an unparalleled knowledge of the history of the building, Ashun walked us from top to bottom, beginning in the spacious living quarters of the European missionaries and officers down into the dungeons where African men, women and children were kept. A true custodian of African history, Ashun imparted the devastating accounts of our ancestors with such care, detail and emotion (despite having relayed the story hundreds of times previously) that it was impossible not to be moved. As we exited the main courtyard towards the end of the tour, Ashun reiterated the importance of continuing to share the story so our forefathers did not die in vain. His message was echoed by an epitaph in the courtyard reading:
"In everlasting memory of the anguish of our ancestors. May those who died rest in peace. May those who return find their roots. May humanity never again perpetrate such injustice against humanity. We, the living vow to uphold this."
Ato Ashun, who is currently studying for a master's at Cape Coast university, alerted us to the fact that the campus was just a short distance from our hotel. Aware that one of the university's halls was named after my great-grandfather, we made a detour via the campus before returning to Accra the next morning. In just six days I had already established an intrinsic connection with the country but standing in front of the bust of my ancestor, who had contributed so much to Ghana and the Pan African movement, consolidated my feelings of belonging with an overwhelming pride and essential link to my homeland.
It was a strange feeling, packing my bags to return to the place I've called home my whole life, having felt such an immediate closeness to the people and country I'd visited for just a week. Considering so many still have a one-dimensional idea of Africa as a continent ravaged by poverty and corruption, I urge you to travel to Ghana yourself to discover the cultural richness, warmth and generosity of the people and country. Since my trip, I have spent much time reflecting on the complex notion of 'home' and have come to the realisation that home may not be a singular place but an intricate web of converging histories. For me, 'home' is the privilege of having a sense of belonging and innate link with each far-flung country I'm from, and with that comes a responsibility to enrich others by educating them about these multifaceted, varying cultures. If you're after an adventure, I couldn't recommend Accra and Ghana highly enough. I'm already plotting my next return and, seeing as you've made it this far in my 2000-word ode to Ghana, I really hope to see you there.