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The year of return: One Detroiter's Ghana experience

young woman sitting on rocks looking across Ghanaian countryside.
Imani Mixon
Imani Mixon at Shai Hills

Returning to a home you’ve never known

There’s no easy, simple way to travel across the Atlantic, from the United States to Africa.

There are 5,590 miles between my hometown of Detroit, Michigan and my ancestral homeland of West Africa. Part of the reason why Africa feels so far away is because of what we grow up learning about it.

It’s sacred and old, it’s colorful and joyful, it’s traumatic and tantalizing. But most of all, many of the discussions that I’ve encountered about Africa are frozen in time. It’s about slavery and our hard-working ancestors, it’s about how deep the chasm between Black Americans and Africans has grown over time. It’s never about the people who are living, loving, or struggling in either place, in the present moment.

I traveled to the Accra region of Ghana, West Africa from December 15 to January 5 along with thousands of other Black people for the Year of Return.

Credit Imani Mixon

Beginning in 2018, word began to spread, all around the world, that the 2019 winter season in Ghana was going to be something special. In remembrance of the first slave ship leaving their shores 400 years ago, Ghana was welcoming Black people from all across the diaspora back to the country, with discounted citizenship and land as governmental incentives.

Suddenly, there were more resources to figure out what you needed to safely travel to West Africa. For some, that meant shots, pills, visas, and passports. For others, that meant travel and lodging. For me, it meant that I would finally get up close and personal with a central part of my identity, my ancestral home.

Living as one of the thousands of young women named Imani who was born in the early 90s, the concept of Africa has always felt like a responsibility of mine. Imani is a Swahili name that means “faith” derived from Kenya in East Africa. It’s the last principle of Kwanzaa, an African American celebration designed to reclaim and reimagine our African heritage. Imani, the last principle of Kwanzaa, falls on New Year's Day and I brought in the Christmas and New Year's season in Ghana.

I’ve spent my whole life with Africa etched on my identity, but this was the first year that the continent called me back.

Beyond a vacay

Credit Imani Mixon
A tour of Elmina Castle.

In certain ways, I understood that this trip would not just be a simple vacation for me. I wasn’t in an all-inclusive resort or able to fully encounter places purely as a tourist. There was a longing associated with this trip — I wanted to get to know Africa for myself, I wanted to see Ghana up close.

When we landed in the airport, the first thing I noticed was just how far Blackness travels, everywhere I looked, that’s all I saw and it reminded me of what Detroit once felt like. I was also acutely aware that I didn’t personally know any of these people, but felt welcomed by their collective spirit. Over the course of a couple weeks, I was very careful not to over-identify or assume about the places or people I encountered.

I was a humble visitor who didn’t speak any of the languages, so my only job was to open up and observe. It felt like an injustice to travel all the way to Accra and bring any preconceived American notions of what Africa could, should or would be like. Once I released my expectations, I was able to travel from moment to moment and place to place with open eyes.

Where To Go

Here are a handful of great places to visit while in Ghana:

Art Center

A huge market full of vendors with gifts, souvenirs, fabrics, clothes and trinkets to remember your time in Ghana.

Elmina Castle

A slave dungeon once owned by the Portuguese, French and Dutch. Our tour guide was insightful and left graceful space for visitors to process the heft of the place. There are higher entry fees for people who are not Ghanaian.

Impact Hub

Credit Imani Mixon
Labadi Beach sits behind the Labadi Beach Hotel.

A gorgeous co-working space at the intersection of tech and culture. Co-founder Will Senyo works really closely with community members to support and innovate local and global businesses.

Labadi Beach

Tucked behind Labadi Beach Hotel is a cool, family-friendly beach. You can grab a beach chair and get beachside food and drink service. There are vendors, performers, and horse rides. The beach was packed, but it was easy to find a nice private place to chill.

Lokko House

A boutique owned by Stefania Manfreda with a pop-up fresh juice and food booth. Although it’s a retail location, lots of local artists and creatives gather to host cultural events and activations. You can meet a little bit of everyone here.

The Republic Bar And Grill

This is a great late-night spot for food and drinks, plus an impressive roster of DJs and even karaoke nights.

Shai Hills Resource Reserve

North of Accra, you’ll find Shai Hills: a nature preserve where you climb mountains and see the native wildlife. This is the one place where I actually saw monkeys hanging out on the side of the road.

Zen Garden

A go-to place for a full American breakfast with great outdoor seating and a stage for late-night entertainment.

Credit Imani Mixon
The Independence Arch in Accra, Ghana.

Seeing My People

Despite my best efforts, mirage-like encounters with familiar faces were a recurring theme of my trip. Every time I went out, I was mapping the crowd to see if anyone looked like my friends from home, and more often than not, they did. Maybe it was the sun or the initial yearning that brought me to the country in the first place, but Ghana felt like every single stranger could be my family or were already a part of it.

There was a fondness and comfort of every place that I visited that I could not have anticipated. On my last day there, I bumped into my sorority sister in a boutique, even though we rarely even see each other in the states. I felt like the entire world was drawing closer to me.

The most staggering example happened on a Sunday afternoon visit to Labadi Beach. I saw a woman in the distance who was around the same height and complexion as my mom, her curls were blowing in the beachy wind and I was tempted to get up from my chair to go say hi. I swore I could even hear my mom’s vibrant laugh. That glimpse of my mother felt like a gift from the motherland I was finally getting to know. Right on the shores of the Gulf of Guinea, that is full of stories beyond just leisure and joy, flowing with a history of captivity.

Ghana has many stories of its own to tell. For me, I engaged with a country that was proud and Black and hot and transforming on its own terms. My Ghanaian experience is best summed up by how it made me feel — empowered, aware, complete, and loved. Being on the continent felt like an accomplishment, like a wish, a secret and a dream between myself, my future and my past. We finally made it, we found our way home, we will return.

Imani Mixon was born and raised at the magnetic center of the world’s cultural compass — Detroit, Michigan. She is a long-form storyteller who is inspired by everyday griots who bear witness to their surroundings and report it back out. Equal parts urgent and essential, her multimedia work centers the experiences of Black women and independent artists.

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