The Year of Return, a campaign calling the diaspora home, is Ghana ready?

Amanda Haarman

The Government of Ghana has declared 2019 the Year of Return. It is an open invitation to the diaspora to visit Ghana and set foot on the soil of their ancestors. With a fully-fledged marketing campaign well underway and busloads of heritage tourists travelling through the country, it leads to wonder, why does Ghana encourage its diaspora to come home, why now? And is Ghana ready?

This year marks the commemoration of 400 years since the first slave ship arrived at the shores of Jamestown Louisiana. With the launch of "The Year of Return, Ghana 2019" campaign, the President of the Republic of Ghana, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, sends out an open invitation to the diaspora to seek their ancestral roots in Ghana. Lots of people in the diaspora are already playing with the thought of one day returning to Africa. By organizing the Year of Return, “the government is giving them a deadline” - a recently relocated returnee from New York told me. “2019 is the year, this is the year. It is pulling them quicker than they would have come”.

Ghana finds itself approaching a beyond-aid era. Ever since the country formally reached lower middle-income level in 2010 as per World Bank standards, it faces the prospect of reduced foreign aid from traditional donors such as Denmark that are phasing development assistance to Ghana. In search of new ways to grow the economy and as part of a wider beyond-aid agenda, Ghana sets its hopes on the Diaspora.

Ghana Diaspora Celebration and Homecoming Summit - Photo by Amanda Haarman

With the campaign in full swing while I was doing field research for my PhD on relocated first- and second-generation Ghanaians in Accra’s creative arts scene, I took the opportunity to ask about their thoughts on the campaign.

Although my PhD research is not about the Year of Return or heritage tourism, it was hard to miss the campaign. The Year of Return has a strong media presence and marketing material can be found across the city where giant billboards are lined up in the mayor streets of Accra. Even international media such as CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera and China Daily have picked up on the campaign. I would not say that the Year of Return is the talk of the town, but it is certainly a hotly debated topic in the community of Ghanaian returnees that I study.

Poster on Accra Tourist Information Centre taken from Liberation Rd - Photo by Amanda Haarman

Just between now and the end of the year, there are an impressive number of 27 official events on the calendar of the Year of Return. December is traditionally the busy season when the diaspora and black “celebs” come to Accra for vacation, but this December will go through the roof. To some extent it is a “relabeling, repackaging” - one returnee told me. Panafest, Afrochella, and the bespoke graffiti street art festival Chale Wote were already attracting a fair share of diaspora visitors before the government launched the campaign. Still, Accra looks forward to an exciting list of events as the year comes to an end.

With a jam-packed event calendar and thousands of heritage tourists entering the country, I couldn’t help but wonder, is Ghana ready?

Naturally, there are also concerns. In fact, the campaign is received with great caution by some of the people that spoke to. They see the Year of Return as great publicity for Ghana, but this initial positive reactions is followed by a long list of BUTs. But it is “irresponsible”, but Ghana is “unprepared”, but “who benefits”, but “what will happen in 2020?”.

In a recent episode of Diaspora Weekly, the president of Ahaspora (the local returnee association) commented on Ghana’s preparedness for the Year of Return. For her, “putting Ghana on the map” is a great idea, although admittingly, she adds that it is still “rough around the edges”. She fears that Ghana cannot live up to the high expectations of American tourists, referring to missing basic amenities like “clean toilets” and offering the “customer service” they are used to. Guesthouses are sparse and there are few tourist attractions beyond Mole National Park, Kakum National Park and the slave castles in Cape Coast and Elmina. “It is like throwing a party, but you haven’t cleaned your home” - the TV host adds. Whether it is down to Ghana missing the vital infrastructure, or to unrealistic expectation from heritage tourists, some challenges will surely follow their arrival.

View from Elmina Castle, a former slave trade hub - Photo by Amanda Haarman

Another much-heard critique is the campaign’s paucity on healing. African American and Afro-Caribbean slave descendants travel to Ghana to connect to the land of their ancestors. A lady complained, “What are we doing to heal them? It’s not enough to put them in a bus, show them the dungeons, let them cry a bit and then say, ‘thank you, have a good life’. No! Where is the healing? There are many hundreds of years of separation, there is hurt, there is betrayal. And you think ‘oh, bring your money’. No, it does not work like that”. Without the necessary support structures, it is “irresponsible” to invite them home - she adds. As the government of Ghana hopes to boost tourism, the Year of Return attracts a type of homecoming that - some would argue - is probably better described as pilgrimage.

As Accra prepares for the December craze, the big questions that seems to puzzle everyone is, “What happens in 2020?” What are the long-term effects of the Year of Return? And who benefits? Owners of hotels, restaurants, and retail shops across Accra are rubbing their hands with glee at the prospects of the December arrivals. Likewise, for many of the Ghanaian returnees that I study, the Year of Return is a commercial opportunity. However, as a recent article warns, caution is needed. The influx of tourists could trigger inflation and large investments in the local tourism industry risks crowding out domestic firms. Ghana’s economy is sure to benefit from the Year of Return, but as always, some will benefit more than others.

Accessory brand run by Ghanaian returnee targeting heritage tourists - Screenshot by Amanda Haarman

Ancestral return, heritage tourism, or pilgrimage - however you wish to call the Year of Return tourism - is an important mechanism for the Government of Ghana to face a future beyond aid. The online campaign presenting Ghana and Accra from its most flattering angle, makes it hard not to get carried away with the beautiful imagery and stories of return. Yet, some seriously question Ghana’s preparedness for heritage tourism at this scale. By launching the Year of Return, Ghana has set the tone and perhaps even a future trend on the continent. As more and more African nations reach lower middle-income status and potentially face a future beyond aid (in 2020 alone, Senegal and Zimbabwe will reach middle-income status), more might pursue the diaspora option. The hope is that Ghana becomes a reference for fostering inclusive ancestral return; not just welcoming tourists with open arms, but truly embracing the diaspora that comes home.

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