March 28, 2013
DOUALA, CAMEROON – Michael Hancock, the mayor of Denver, a city in the western United States, says he only recently discovered that his ancestors came from Cameroon.
“Many of us don’t know where we came from,” Hancock says during an interview at the University of Denver.
Hancock discovered his Cameroonian lineage through African Ancestry, a U.S. genealogy company, when it conducted DNA tests for celebrities in Denver.
He says the test reconstructed his heritage, which his family had lost following the slave trade.
“African-Americans are one of the few populations in the world who have lost their history to the slave trade and slavery, the industry of slavery,” he says. “To be able to make that connection is awfully powerful and emotional.”
He plans to visit Cameroon during the next two years and hopes to even reconnect with distant relatives.
“My goal is to go back and see the land, which my people came from,” Hancock says with a broad smile. (Read more about the mayor’s heritage discovery here.)
Hancock is not alone. Ancestry companies are promoting DNA tests to enable U.S. citizens to discover their Cameroonian heritage that their families lost during the slave trade. The organizations are also arranging tours so Cameroonian-Americans can see their ancestors’ land and culture. These emotional and informational trips raise cultural awareness about Cameroon, raise funds for the restoration of historical landmarks and inspire some Americans to return to launch development projects.
African Ancestry’s DNA tests trace the country and ethnicity of a person’s ancestors, writes Avline Ava in an email. Ava is the founder, president and CEO of The ARK Jammers Connection Inc., a U.S.-based association that partners with African Ancestry.
The association’s Ancestry Reconnection Program plans trips for people to connect with their ancestors’ land, Ava writes. The program has brought nearly 150 Americans to Cameroon in two trips, in 2010 and 2011, after they traced their DNA to the country. Cameroon’s government funded the 2010 trip so that the Cameroonian-Americans paid only for their plane tickets.
Motherland Facilitations Africa, a nonprofit organization in Cameroon that also reconnects people of African descent to their roots, organized a trip to Cameroon for 53 Cameroonian-Americans in December 2012.
African-Americans who traced their ancestry to Cameroon say that discovering their heritage connects them to their once-lost past.
Bettie Robinson, a Cameroonian-American, traced her lineage to Cameroon thanks to African Ancestry. Like Hancock, she learned that she was a Tikar.
“It was as important as breathing for me to know where I came from in Africa and who my ancestors were,” she says in a phone interview from the United States.
The slave trade had disconnected Robinson from her heritage.
“I felt sad that I did not have a fuller understanding of my African ancestry and angry that I had been denied the privilege of knowing and living my African heritage and culture to the fullest extent,” Robinson says.
Ava writes that random acts of kindness, which inspire the ARK in the association’s name, can heal the wounds of slavery.
“The institution of slavery was both a crime against humanity and a profound moral wrong,” she writes. “It destroyed the lives of millions of enslaved Africans and continues to affect their descendants today.”
She says that her association’s work can help rebuild family ancestry.
“Personally, I am humbled to be an instrument in that effort to reconnect the two halves of a once broken family,” she writes.
Organizations also arrange trips to Cameroon for Americans once they discover their heritage so they can connect with the culture and society firsthand.
Ava writes that her association’s tours took participants to several cities and locations that carry slavery history or showcase Cameroon’s beauty and culture. This included visiting an old slave port, participating in traditional welcoming ceremonies, and meeting with chiefs and senior government officials, such as the U.S. ambassador to Cameroon.
The self-awareness that the experience generated empowers Cameroonian-Americans to look at their lives in a larger historical context, which shapes their characters and values, participants say.
“They tell us the program has strengthened their identity,” Ava writes, “and they now define themselves, not as African-Americans, but as Cameroonian-Americans.”
Robinson, who has traveled to more than 17 African countries, visited Cameroon for the first time in December 2010 with the Ancestry Reconnection Program.
“I was very happy to reconnect and to travel to Cameroon,” she says. “I had a wonderful travel experience. I enjoyed my travel immensely.”
She says the Cameroonians treated her like a long-lost family member.
“The country is wonderfully beautiful,” Robinson says. “The people are amazingly friendly. We were treated like children.”
Robinson’s tour group participated in a blessing ceremony by the chief of Bimbia when they visited the old coastal slave port there on the Atlantic Ocean.
“When we arrived, that was a spiritual homecoming to our bodies,” Robinson says. “I know that I was very touched by that benediction ceremony.”
There was also a libation pouring, a typical practice performed by a leader or family head during traditional gatherings to show honor or symbolize unity, peace and good will.
“During the benediction, they prayed for us as we traveled,” Robinson says. “There was the libation, and the chief invited us into the spiritual house, and there was a wonderful ceremony.”
She says that the beautiful wood carvings she saw in the museums during the trip also impressed her and reminded her of ones she had seen in Benin City in Nigeria.
“I love Africa,” she says. “That’s where I vacation. I love the people. I love the food. I love the clothes. I just love everything that has something African.”
These trips also benefit Cameroon, Ava writes, by generating more cultural awareness, especially about landmarks such as the Bimbia slave trade port. The Ancestry Reconnection Program also holds fundraising concerts to help restore them.
The restoration of the Bimbia slave trade port, which is in disrepair and overgrown with bamboo, preserves the history of how slaves were captured, Ava writes. It also heals the past and paves the way forward. The association is also lobbying UNESCO to name the port a World Heritage Site.
The U.S. Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs also provided $76,400 (40 million Central African francs) to aid the 12-month port preservation and restoration process, which began in September 2012, according to a press release from the U.S. Embassy in Yaoundé, Cameroon's capital.
Some of the Cameroonian-Americans who participated in the trips want to help Cameroon individually as well. Now that Robinson identifies herself as a Tikar, she says she wants to travel back to Cameroon frequently and to build a community center there to educate children.
“I was happy to meet my Cameroonian brothers and sisters,” she says. “I’m a Tikar – a Tikar woman.”
The ARK Jammers Connection Inc. plans to continue its reconnection program through organized visits to Cameroon, though not annually, Ava writes. The association plans to expand the program to other countries, such as Brazil in 2013 and Equatorial Guinea in 2014.
Irene Zih Fon reported this article from Douala and Denver.