Reflecting on the Year of Return, Ghana, 2019

Last year, Ghana held a landmark year-long program called the Year of Return. The program was monumental as it aimed to tell the stories that were forgotten, to remember the lives that were taken during slavery, and also provided a way for the African Diaspora to reunite and explore their African heritage.

According to the official site, the Year of Return is described as “a major landmark spiritual and birth-right journey inviting the Global African family, home and abroad, to mark 400 years of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in Jamestown, Virginia. The arrival of enslaved Africans marked a sordid and sad period when our kith and kin were forcefully taken away from Africa into years of deprivation, humiliation and torture. While August 2019 marks 400 years since enslaved Africans arrived in the United States, ‘The Year of Return, Ghana 2019’ celebrates the cumulative resilience of all the victims of the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade who were scattered and displaced through the world in North America, South America, the Caribbean, Europe and Asia.”

The symbolism of the Year of Return being hosted by Ghana is that Ghana was considered the point of no return for a lot of the kidnapped Africans in the Transatlantic slave trade. These forts were the last places of their homeland they saw. Ghana has around 30 slave forts and 4 slave castles that can be seen along the coast. One such slave castle is the Cape Coast Castle which was built by Sweden in 1653 as a trading post for timber and gold by the Swedish Africa Company. However, the castle went into British possession in 1664. In 1664, Cape Coast Castle became the center of the entire transatlantic slave trade. Enslaved Africans were kept in the dungeons of the castle. Elmina Castle is another slave castle that was built in 1482. It is estimated that more than half of the slaves were transported using the transatlantic route passed through Elmina Castle. These castles have been turned into museums so that visitors can confront the violent history of slavery and reflect.

The weight of this history has meant that events of the Year of Return play different roles. As such the events were curated around creating an experience to educate, while also hosting events that allow for celebration and community. One such event was the Full Circle Festival that was held in December of 2018. The Full Circle Festival took place in Accra and was led by Boris Kodjoe, Nicole Ari Parker, Patrick Kodjoe, and Bozoma Saint John. The festival was a call to celebrities, business executives and influencers to travel to Ghana to learn more about Ghana’s history, to connect and to have dialogue about culture. Around 120 guests travelled for the event and social media was flooded with images and videos of celebrities visiting different locations in Ghana, attending the event and having these wonderful experiences. The event was a huge success with almost 10,000 positive social media posts and half a billion media and social media impressions. The tourism that it brought is also estimated to be more than $70 million. Throughout 2019, Ghana held several events and activities that were a mixture of educational and celebratory. These events were accommodating to every age group ranging from concerts to dinners, to touring sites. Events such as Afrochella; an African arts festival to highlight African talents, Panafest; Pan African cultural events for people of African descent, and tours of historic sites.

In reflection of the Year of Return, it has been declared a success by President Nana Akufo-Addo. The Year of Return was initially expected to attract 500,000 visitors, while the number was over 750,000 visitors. Also, according to the Minister of Tourism Barbara Oteng Gyasi the Year of Return injected about $1.9bn (£1.5bn) into the economy. Furthermore, the Ghanian government told BBC that 126 people had been granted citizenship. The events were successful not only in the boost in visitors and revenue from tourism, but they also sparked dialogue about forging stronger connections between the African diaspora and the continent of Africa.

The Year of Return was so successful that a second round was planned for 2020, called ‘Beyond the Year of Return’ which aimed at expanding on the driving forces behind the Year of Return. Beyond the Year of Return is part of a broader project which is a 10-year project under the theme of a “Decade of African Renaissance 2020-2030.” Events had to be pushed back because of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, there are great plans in store for not only Ghana but many other countries in Africa to hold events similar to the Year of Return.

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