Following the aroma through traffic to find roasted peanuts and fried plantain. Dancing with adorned church ladies with white handkerchiefs to praise music. Learning how to eat fufu (mashed cassava) and soup with my hands for the first time.
These images flitted by my wondrous five-year-old eyes during my first and only trip to Ghana. Since then, I’ve held the idea of returning to live in my parents’ first home as a key goal. My vision of what this homegoing could look like expanded a few months ago when I learned that 2019 marks roughly 400 years since the first Africans—blacksmiths, farmers, storytellers—were brought as slaves to what we know now as the United States.
To commemorate a time that holds both tragedy and rebirth, Ghana has declared 2019 the Year of Return. Members of the African diaspora are invited to visit Ghana and participate in art festivals, educational tours, and healing dialogue that emphasizes belonging and resilience. The United States is also getting involved—Congress created a nationwide Commission that will plan events around the impact of racial discrimination and the contribution of Africans to the country.
As I rushed to search for cheap flights to Ghana that day, I immediately thought of a traditional Ghanaian image from my childhood—that of a bird with its neck facing backwards. Known as Sankofa, this symbol roughly translates to “Return to the past and bring forward that which is useful.” Growing up, I always thought of sankofa images on fabric and home decor as a literal mandate to return to my roots. But the Year of Return is encouraging me to consider it as an emotional return as well.
To some, emotionally returning to past events might seem solely depressing, but the plan for a Year of Return fills me with hope. Acknowledging past events and their ongoing effects in our society moves all of us one step closer to painting a common memory, which I believe leads us to just governing and living.
For the past 400 years tell a story of not only pain, but also resilience. My mother grew up close to Elmina Castle in southern Ghana, where for years children, women, and men were imprisoned while they awaited ships to take them across the ocean. To leave the dungeon, they walked through an opening called the “Door of No Return,” embarking on a journey meant to strip them of their history, dignity, name, and life. Yet, because both the ancestors taken and those left behind fought for liberation, thousands of African descendants will return freely to Elmina this year, lighting candles for people who are not forgotten.
Whether or not I can physically visit Ghana this year, the Year of Return is encouraging me to return in my own way by adding to our common memory of the past 400 years. I’m learning my family history, reading the stories of powerful Ghanaian women like warrior Yaa Asantewaa and author Ama Ata Aidoo, and finding creative ways to invest in a country that taught me the power of the past.
Comfort Sampong’s heart is sparked by fried plantains, tropical foliage and the stories of women thriving and creating a way out of no way. She graduated in 2018 with majors in economics and international development. Now she lives in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, where she works on English communications for the Association for a More Just Society, a Honduran non-profit fighting for justice and peace.