Ron Claiborne Visits His African Heritage


On my first day in Accra, the sprawling, congested capital of 2 million, I was taken to lunch by the daughter of Harruna Atta, editor of the Accra Daily Mail. I had met his older daughter, a grad student at the Columbia University School of Journalism, by chance and she had urged me to look up her family.

We grabbed a cab. The driver was a man named Isaac, an Ashanti. I told him about my DNA test result. He'd never heard of such a thing.

"I took the test," I explained. "On my mother's side, it said Ashanti."

He glanced over at me. "Is that right?"

"Do I look like I could be Ashanti?"

He took a second look, smiling. "Well, because of your color."

I prompted him: "Many, many years ago?"

"Many, many years ago," he said thoughtfully, still concentrating on the road. "Mixed brown. I think it's OK. So far as you're about to discover, I think it's right."

"So Ashantis are very proud?"

"Yes, because Ashantis are very great people."

In the coming days I would hear variations of that boast, but it always seemed prideful, not arrogant.

I spent two days under the wing of Harruna Atta. he patiently explained the politics, social customs and culture of Ghana and Ghanaians. He took me to meet the tourism minister who told me -- to my shock -- that many Ghanaians are only dimly aware of the slave trade that thrived on their shores centuries ago. He said some might not even connect visiting black Americans to Africa. They would assume that there were indigenous dark-skinned people in America just as there are in Africa. I was told that when "Roots" was broadcast on national television, some people learned for the first time that black Americans originally came from Africa. Ghanaians were stunned and outraged, he said, by the depicted cruelty of the slave traders and slave masters.

Experiencing Ashanti History

I took a night bus to Kumasi, the major city in the Ashanti region. It is a bustling, modern city of about 1 million people. For hours, I walked around the packed streets. I found myself looking into people's faces looking for a resemblance to myself. Did I see it? Or did I imagine it? I wandered and wandered, imagining my distant relative here or somewhere near here. I wondered: What had happened to her that she ended up a slave, deported to the Americas? What had she thought when she was taken into bondage? Surely she was afraid. And as I peered into the faces, I thought: This person or maybe this person could be my relative.

I visited the palace of the Asantehene, the Ashanti king, whose royal lineage goes back centuries. Every sixth Sunday there is a ceremony at which the Ashantis' dead ancestors are honored in what I was told was a colorful ritual. If you are lucky, you may also have an audience with the king afterward. I wanted to meet him and tell him about why I had come there. I had been advised to bring a bottle of schnapps -- a tradition dating back to when Scandinavians occupied coastal Ghana and presented the liquor as a gift. I had brought none, risking the disfavor of the king, I was told. The ceremony was delayed, then delayed again. Then came word: The king would not perform the ceremony today because his sister-in-law had died the night before. It was a huge disappointment.

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