Looking up at the massive walls that barred her ancestors from their family, freedom and any hope of returning, the black scholar takes in the dilapidated castle, the chains nailed into the ground that built to restrain her, and moves forward. In the Twi language of Ghana, the term Sankofa best characterizes this moment: To know where you are going, you have to know from where you’ve come.
On August 7, 10 students from the City University of New York (CUNY) journeyed to Ghana to explore their cultural roots through the Birthright AFRICA program. Co-founded by Diallo Shabazz and former Goldman Sachs associate Walla Elsheikh, Birthright AFRICA is an intensive eight-week program that funds student travels through New York, D.C. and Ghana with a focus on African culture and innovation.
For Elsheikh, Birthright AFRICA spawned from the realization that she grew up learning little about her African heritage, though part of her childhood was spent in Uganda, Sudan and Sweden.
“There’s so much more to the story of who we are as a people, regarding the great civilizations, kingdoms and queendoms that our people developed: the science, the technology, the arts and culture we’ve contributed to the world,” Elsheikh told Blavity. “I wanted to learn this history and present-day legacy for myself and bring others along on this journey within the U.S. and select countries in Africa.”
With Shabazz, Elsheikh began a partnership with CUNY that would sponsor students of African descent, including African American, Afro-Caribbean, Afro-LatinX and African youth, as well as other variations of those spread by the diaspora.
“It is important to reach across the diaspora of youth and young adults of African descent to showcase how similar we are because we share an ancestral heritage,” Elsheikh said. “Often in the U.S., the one-sided narrative of Africa and African heritage being rooted in war, poverty and disease can make us feel ashamed and cause us to look at each other in a negative light. Birthright AFRICA is a space for unity and collective dialogue to continue as we celebrate our resilience and brilliance as African-descended people.”
During the program, students visit The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the African Burial Ground in downtown Manhattan, the Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn, the National Museum of African American History and Culture and Howard University. Students are also immersed in conversations with black leaders and entrepreneurs to encourage innovation. In the program's final leg, scholars go abroad to visit the Kwame Nkrumah Memorial, W.E.B. DuBois Center and the Cape Coast Castle (also known as the slave castle) in Ghana.
In reflection, the memory of walking through the Cape Coast Castle stayed with program founders and scholars alike. The castle is one of about 40 in Ghana which was built by Europeans traders. They would eventually surpass its purpose in the gold trade and take on the role of enslaving African men and women before they were forcibly transported across the Atlantic.
Elsheikh recalls watching the students walk through the “Door of No Return,” which was an African’s last footprint on their homeland before becoming slave cargo and re-entering through the “Door of Return,” where, as decedents of African people, the scholars could “feel the magnitude of themselves returning to the motherland and paying homage to the ancestors,” Elsheikh said.
Students from the pilot program shared this emotion, recalling the transformative moment for themselves.
“I’m walking through the same halls that my ancestors had to have walked through,” 2017 Birthright AFRICA Scholar Kasson Mangin-Colon said in a reflection video. “Learning about the history and seeing the chains in the ground, we were trying to hold in all that emotion, but when we got out of it, we just started to break down. We walked out of the point of no return and walked back in the point of return, so that means we’re returning to the homeland. The African men who were in the water were like ‘Akwaaba,’ welcome back to your land.”
Another student reminisced about watching a documentary in the Asante Kingdom, noticing photos on the wall and pinpointing a portrait of a king with a familiar name.
“His last name was Ware,” 2017 Birthright AFRICA Scholar Geno Ware said, referencing Ashanti Emperor-King Otumfou Nana Opoku Ware II. “That gave some value to my last name, and confidence and pride to carry that last name.”
Elsheikh hopes Birthright AFRICA can expand its reach by partnering with other educational partners in the future, including universities, high schools and community-based organizations, to provide this experience to all young people between 13 and 30 years old. Supporters can donate to help Birthright AFRICA reach its goals.
View a recap from last year’s Birthright AFRICA experience below:
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