Pan African village for returning diaspora in Ghana becomes a source of bitterness
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Four years ago, Ghana launched a campaign to welcome people from the African diaspora back to the continent of their ancestors. The country has even created a settlement offering free land to transplants so they can build homes and businesses. But as NPR's Emmanuel Akinwotu reports, that settlement has become a source of bitterness.
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EMMANUEL AKINWOTU, BYLINE: Dozens of houses are dotted across Pan African Village, a rural settlement enveloped by miles of lush farmland and palm trees near the Atlantic coast.
LENVAL SKIERS: Nobody has ever lived there before. It was idle land.
AKINWOTU: Lenval Skiers says he was the first to settle here three years ago and says he'll never leave. We meet in the lounge of his six-bedroom home and guest house.
SKIERS: I was born on the island of Jamaica couple of months before 1950, right? So I'm an old man now or oldish.
AKINWOTU: He lived and worked in Canada for over 40 years, but never felt he really belonged.
SKIERS: We as Blacks and Native people are regarded as second-class citizens. We've reached a stage now where there is an option to find land. Countries where you can be totally free.
AKINWOTU: So when he retired, he considered starting a new life elsewhere. And then in 2019, Ghana's President Nana Akufo-Addo launched a major campaign.
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PRESIDENT NANA AKUFO-ADDO: Fellow Ghanaians, we have dubbed this year the year of return.
AKINWOTU: The year of return was a call to the African diaspora to come back to the continent and to Ghana. Thousands of Black people like Skiers arrived, encouraged to visit or even settle. Then he found out about a project offering free land in a settlement within the town of Asebu along Ghana's Cape Coast.
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AKINWOTU: So we're walking through a dirt road that parts through this 5,000-acre expanse of lush farmland that's Pan African Village. That's a diaspora settlement donated or offered by a local traditional ruler to any Black diasporas wanting to come back to Ghana.
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AKINWOTU: All around me, there are clusters of homes that have already been built and many of them under construction dotted all across this vast expanse of land. Moyen Vivalee is among a small community of people living permanently in Pan African Village. She was born in Jamaica and then lived most of her life in the U.S. Then she moved from Atlanta, Ga. last year and soon after, she says she was given a new title.
MOYEN VIVALEE: My name is Na Bwafwoyena Oyem Mpese Tulu I. My title is Diaspora Development Queen for Ghana.
AKINWOTU: I meet her in her living room, sitting on a wooden throne, her feet on a stool that rests on a lion skin rug. She's dressed in kente fabric, traditional Ghanaian clothing draped over her shoulder. She says she was crowned by chiefs from the Ga ethnic group.
VIVALEE: I was concerned about my retirement and the money that I was going to get for my Social Security could not pay a light bill or water rate.
AKINWOTU: But things turned around on a visit to Ghana. She acquired two plots of land and built a large, two-story house last year.
VIVALEE: It was a salvation for me. I felt free.
AKINWOTU: I ask her what she thinks about life here.
VIVALEE: In Ghana, people are humble. They don't need much to live. Food is the most important to a lot of people in Ghana, you understand? OK, so they don't even need a fork. They use their hands. I mean, it sounds like poverty, but when you think about it, how much do we really need to survive?
AKINWOTU: A lot of local people that we've spoken to feel like the diaspora have an advantage over them when they come here, because they have foreign currency, they have access to land that they don't have access to.
VIVALEE: Yes. They should own. If you're here as a Ghanaian, you should be able to own your own land and build your own home. So it's not our fault. We didn't get anything free.
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AKINWOTU: But the local traditional ruler puts it differently from his palace on a hill overlooking the town. Okatakyi Dr Amanfi VII is known as the paramount chief of Asebu and created the Pan African Village project there.
OKATAKYI DR AMANFI VII: I wanted to show to our diaspora brothers that we care for them. They are from Africa.
AKINWOTU: It's among a growing number of diaspora settlements that have emerged since the year of return.
AMANFI: My last check show that we have about 560 people who have already taken land.
AKINWOTU: The land is free and the only charges are what he calls administration fees of about $1,000 per plot. I ask him whether local people in Asebu have had similar opportunities.
AMANFI: Every Ghanaian must have access to land here. So irrespective of whether you agree or whatever, you must have access to land. Land is life.
AKINWOTU: But he evades the question, and some, like 59-year-old Kwesi Otu Bensil still have even had their land taken away.
KWESI OTU BENSIL: So we have been farming there for so many years, for generations and for generations.
AKINWOTU: We meet outside his modest home with other farmers and members of his extended family.
BENSIL: I used to farm lime, coconuts, oranges. But it has been destroyed.
AKINWOTU: They are among hundreds who used to farm on the land that belonged to their family for at least four generations until the chief argued that as a traditional ruler of the town, he had the power to give it away. The family refute this and have taken him to court.
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AKINWOTU: They show me a copy of a high court order suspending any construction there. But the construction hasn't stopped. Forty-four-year-old Daniel Kweku is another farmer in the family. He says when they went to challenge the diasporas building there, they were threatened with guns.
DANIEL KWEKU: Some of the diasporas told us we have gun at their places, so if we went there again, they will shoot us.
AKINWOTU: And now he's too afraid to go back there again, and he says they feel they've been hunted from their land. Sixty-eight-year-old Ebusebe Kojobedu is the head of the family. He says when he first heard about the settlement, he supported it until he was told his land of 123 acres would be given away. He says the chief told him the land was not sold but given away to the diaspora for free, so he wouldn't be paid for it.
EBUSEBE KOJOBEDU: No compensation. It means if I don't fight for it, my family property is going, too. Lost.
AKINWOTU: But like many legal battles over land, the case will likely take many years. All while more settlements are set to emerge, offering the dream of a new life in Africa. Emmanuel Akinwotu, NPR News, Cape Coast, Ghana.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELA FLECK'S "THROW DOWN YOUR HEART") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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