BY J.S. ADAMS
Close to the shores of Langma Beach in Ghana, West Africa, Carol Muhammad enjoys her six bedroom house with her husband, Robert Muhammad. The couple made the move from Phoenix, Ariz., to Ghana in May, after Robert Muhammad retired.
The two haven’t looked back.
“We’ve been able to be comfortable in the house that we got, and we had somebody living here and taking care of things, so we didn’t worry about it,” said Carol Muhammad. “I would stay a few months. [Robert] would come in January and take 30 days off from the job and we could come back together. So when he retired, we said this is it.”
Carol and Robert Muhammad are only two of up to 5,000 Black Americans who’ve decided to pack up their belongings and move to Accra, the capital of Ghana. They are among thousands of American-born Blacks who now live in Africa.
With Ghana’s president Nana Akufo-Addo declaring 2019 the “Year of Return” for Africans across the Diaspora, and President Trump’s recent remarks sparking outrage, Blacks, travel groups and social conditions are putting a fresh, positive meaning to the phrase “Go back to Africa!”
It begins with a change in perspective.
Flipping a negative phrase
Referring to congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ayanna S. Pressley of Massachusetts, Mr. Trump tweeted in a July 14 thread, “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how it is done.”
The words “go back” sparked outrage in the U.S., offending many and forcing Black and Brown Americans to remember being told the same thing. It was extra offensive given that all four women are U.S. citizens.
But the phrase has a long history in the United States, going back to the 1800s. The American Colonization Society was established to send free Black people to Africa to start their own reality. Abraham Lincoln supported sending Blacks to Africa. Marcus Garvey’s Back-to-Africa movement in the 1920s encouraged Blacks to return to their native land. Mr. Trump’s words has brought back the century-old conversation, but in a negative way.
Black & Abroad, a unique platform for Black travelers, decided to counter negative stereotypes and ideas surrounding Africa and the Black Diaspora. It started with the often-offensive phrase.
“Our campaign was designed specifically to counter the hateful intent of the phrase with positivity,” Eric Martin, co-founder of Black & Abroad, told The Final Call. “Instead of allowing people to use the phrase in a negative manner, we’ve taken ownership and made it a call-to-action for Black travelers to visit the countries within Africa and learn for themselves the beauty the continent holds.”
Since launching the campaign in early April, Mr. Martin has seen an influx of Black travelers using the hashtag #GoBacktoAfrica to highlight their Motherland experiences.
“We’ve also seen an increase in businesses within the continent that are also interested in working with companies to increase Black travel to the continent,” Mr. Martin said. “The more we can provide opportunities and incentives for travelers to visit, the easier it will be to counter stereotypes about the Diaspora as a whole.”
The company sees this as having an impact on countering the negativity behind the phrase. At gobacktoafrica.com, they’ve posted the pictures, connecting “Go Back to Africa” with words such as “friendship,” “harmony” and “ease.”
“Research has shown that the phrase is used negatively at an average of 4,500 times a month, and that’s recent research,” said Kent Johnson, co-founder of Black & Abroad. “If you were to check those same numbers after Trump’s recent inflammatory statements, I’m sure its negative use skyrocketed. It’s unfortunate to say that the phrase is still a tactic utilized to demean the continent of Africa, its citizens and African-Americans as well. It implies that something is wrong about being from or being associated with Africa, and that’s far from the truth in both circumstances.”
A number of Blacks who have “gone back to Africa” share Mr. Johnson’s sentiments.
‘Being on the continent … it changes you somewhat’
For Carol and Robert Muhammad, their journey to Africa began in 1994. That was when Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan took the movement’s annual Saviours’ Day convention to Accra, Ghana.
“That was the first time I came [to Africa]. He brought 2,000 people over,” said Robert Muhammad.
Then, in 2006, Carol Muhammad received pictures of property from a woman in Phoenix who’d visited Ghana. She found out a member of the Nation had land for sale in Ghana. The Muhammad’s bought some land and had a house built, which was finished in 2008. Afterward, they went going back and forth between the United States and Ghana, until they finally made the big move. They have no regrets.
From making friends near their home to giving their own friends and family from America tours, it has been an amazing experience.
“For me, it’s second only to the Million Man March,” said Robert Muhammad. “When we came in ‘94, it was the best thing … . It was in another country and when it’s high noon and you look at the sky, and you see the people and it looks like midnight. So I could really appreciate that.”
The couple’s home sits close to a beach, which was exactly what Carol Muhammad wanted. She can walk to Langma Beach, but also lives only a few hours away from another landmark—the slave castles.
“We had friends come and we’ve taken them to the slave castles, a kind of tour of the area and let them see what it’s all about, especially our history going to see the slave castles. Cape Coast is one, Elmina is another and we usually try to get them to see those things,” Carol Muhammad said.
“There’s a lot of history here. One of my biggest ambitions is to get Black people over here and actually go to the slave castles like she was talking about. They had about 40 slave castles on the West Coast of Africa … and 30 of them was in Ghana,” Robert Muhammad said. “You really realize this is where it happened—this is where it started … It changes you somewhat.”
Even though living in Africa has proved to be a great experience for the Muhammad’s, they still face challenges.
“With me, being a woman, I guess, it’s adjusting to things I don’t have at home,” said Carol Muhammad. “I’ve always been an organic food eater and I can barely find anything that says organic.”
Robert Muhammad said there’s an adjustment to realizing that you’re no longer living in America.
“In Ghana, there’s really a stark difference between the haves and the have nots,” he said. “Africa is probably the richest continent on the planet in terms of resources, but because the awareness is not where it should be, they don’t have actually the best governance here yet. The rich get richer over here as well and if you’re on the bottom, it’s real hard.”
With President Akufo-Addo calling for 2019 to be the Year of Return, the couple has seen an influx of Blacks visiting the continent—not only now, but also over the years. They believe Blacks in the West could offer great aid to Africa.
“We stay between two fishing villages and the people, they get up in the morning, they go out and fish, and they catch enough fish to feed their family and they sell the rest. But they been doing the same thing for 500 years on the same level,” Robert Muhammad said. “So they stay on the same level, they still got rowboats. So you can’t stand over them beating your chest saying you know better, because they’re not begging anybody. They take care of themselves, their family and they make a living, so you got to approach it and it’s going to take time.”
Reconnecting to Black roots
In Philadelphia, Penn., Ali Salahuddin and his wife, Helen, work heavily with youth. As an entertainment attorney for young artists, Helen Salahuddin searched for venues where young artists such as Kriss Kross and others could showcase their talents back in the 1990s. She had the idea of starting a day club—as opposed to a nightclub—for teenagers. Different hip hop artists would come by and take pictures with the youth. This became known as the d’Zert Club.
“We got to know the children and as we began to talk to them about their history and other things, you found out they just didn’t know about their history. So we decided to add a cultural element to what we were doing,” said Mr. Salahuddin.
As a result of the Million Man March in 1995, Mr. Salahuddin and his wife decided to access the list of over 20,000 youth they’ve worked with, and take them on cultural field trips. In 1996, they had the opportunity to travel to Africa for the first time.
“As a result of that trip, that really just put me on another direction. It was just so life-changing for my wife and I to set foot on the continent and just get impacted by the ancestral energy,” he said. “When we came back, we decided, look, forget the field trips. Our thought was that every Black teenager really needs to go to the Motherland, so that’s why we put the program in effect, now called the African Genesis Institute.”
The African Genesis Institute took its first group of Black teens to Senegal in 1998, to Ghana in 1999, and each year since 2000, they’ve taken a group to Egypt.
“From a statistical standpoint, we’ve noticed a significant increase in [the youth’s] grades, a significant increase in their scores on standardized tests, respect for elders, decrease in lateness and absenteeism,” Mr. Salahuddin said. “I would say about 85 to 90 percent of the students end up going to college and about half of them end up going on scholarship. So we noticed a tremendous difference. Attitudes, it’s just like night and day.”
Coming up on August 15, the African Genesis Institute will take a group of 100 students and adults to Ghana.
“This will be the most impactful trip. I don’t even want to call it a trip. Probably the most impactful sojourn that we’ve done in our history,” Mr. Salahuddin said.
They plan to do some building in Africa, driving economics and providing a place for the African Diaspora to come to visit the continent. Mr. Salahuddin said they’ve purchased 4 1/2 acres of land in Ghana, about five minutes from the slave dungeons. They plan to build a leadership academy and camp for teenagers. Purchasing more land and building homes is also on the list.
“So we’re not just going back for a visit, we’re returning for real. So people talk about we need to go back and they want to leave this country and they want to separate, well we’re gonna make that a reality, to have someplace they can go. It won’t just be talk, it’ll be real talk,” Mr. Salahuddin said.
Dr. Ron Daniels, founder of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century, a Pan-Africanist organization, desires to see economics brought to the continent.
One of its initiatives, “The Door of Return to Africa,” partially focuses on connecting business and professional leaders in Africa and the U.S.
“There’s always an urgent need for that engagement,” said Dr. Daniels. “While we have no antagonism towards any other nation or country, Africa’s resources are vast. W.E.B. Du Bois said that Africa is the wealthiest continent on the face of the earth, but what is happening is, you have the Chinese, you have people from various Middle Eastern countries, India, who are coming in and who are really sort of carving up Africa for its own interest all over again. Some of it’s beneficial, some of it may not be so beneficial. But the issue becomes within the framework of the vision of Marcus Garvey, you know, how do we as African people, including the Diaspora, be the first ones to take control of our own resources and use those resources for our own development?”
Experiences in the Motherland
Mr. Salahuddin says it’s hard to explain what it’s like to step foot on African soil for the first time.
“When you go to the Motherland, especially if it’s your first time and you put your foot on the continent, then what happens is that there’s a spiritual phenomenon that takes place,” he said. “Some people call it ancestral energy, some people call it the territorial imperative. But it’s like if you went back to your grandmother’s house, something that you would feel when you got there. You make a connection and that’s what happens when people go to Africa, especially when they go to West Africa. They feel that spiritual connection to the ancestors.”
For Carol Muhammad, Africa’s truly become her home.
“They call all the older women ‘mom’ so you’re mom to everybody, if you’re a little older,” she laughed. “Robert has been dad. My older grandson came and visited us while we were here. He made friends with young people here that are still coming to see me, and now they call me granny because that’s what he calls me.”
The couple has made friends with a Ghanaian family that lives very close to them, and with people in a village not too far from their home.
“We can walk over there, and one of the girls has a store and me and her started walking together,” Carol Muhammad said. “She just told me the other day, she said ‘Mommy’—she’s younger—around 40, but she says, ‘we got to start walking again!’ ”
Mr. Johnson said his experience has been eye-opening.
“So far, I’ve been lucky enough to visit Ghana, South Africa, Senegal and The Gambia, and the experience has been incredibly welcoming, eye-opening, soothing, but also frustrating,” he said. “Frustrating because I wish more Black travelers would have the chance to visit one of the countries and see for themselves that the world has painted one view of Africa, and not proper nuance and appreciation it deserves.”
The continent has left Mr. Martin in awe.
“My first ever trip to the continent was in October of 2015,” he said. “At the time I didn’t know what to expect. All I can remember was spending the first few days of the trip in awe of my surroundings, realizing that it was a true blessing to touch down on the land of my ancestors. It also reminded me that we in the Western world have so much to learn about ourselves and our people. The practices, the food, the languages, the culture.”
Moving to Africa has had its challenges. For one, the Muhammad’s are still waiting for some of their belongings to arrive from overseas. Also, Robert Muhammad said the pace of business is much slower in Africa than it is in the West. However, even with the many challenges they’ve faced, it’s not impossible.
“You just gotta be in it for the long haul,” he said. “When we come from America, we got an instant mentality. It’s a process. You have to be in it for the long haul if you intend to make a difference over time.”