The unique pleasures of the Year of Return and Detty December highlight the evolving relationship between Africa and its global diaspora and the need to sustain this growing bond.
On December 27, 2019, a party flourished on a beach in Accra. It had started, nominally, at 7 p.m., but the first patrons arrived long after. Ivory sand, red cups, an agreeable breeze. Skilfully sculpted afros and serpentine locs. And, most essentially, music. From the platform at the centre of Laboma Beach, musicians, in a marvellous circuit, gave marvellous performances. Ye. Slow Down. Fall.
The crowd, not to be outdone, offered its own concert. Dialect danced with dialect, colloquialisms flirted and fused, creating a creole from Jamestown, Texas, Lisbon. East London and Senegal. The sound of a diaspora unbridled and unbothered. The sound of a people who, if only momentarily, had returned home.
African countries are fashioning new relationships with their diaspora. And, fortunately, their approaches are differentiated. In certain cases, the government takes the initiative, expending resources on programmes and outreach oriented around the diaspora. The highly publicized Year of Return, planned by the Ghanaian government, is a classic example. In other cases, the government takes the backseat, and the country’s verve, instead, does the heavy lifting. Detty December, a month-long roil in Nigeria and a clear crystallization of its nightlife, is illustrative. Neither approach is necessarily better or worse than the other. Rather, each plays on its respective country’s strengths.
GHANA’S POLITICAL HERITAGE
In September 2018, at a Washington D.C. event attended by congressmen, activists, and business leaders, Ghana’s president, Nana Akufo-Addo, announced the Year of Return. In his address, Akufo-Addo explicated the programme’s goal: ‘We know of the extraordinary achievements and contributions they [Africans in the diaspora] made to the lives of the Americans, and it is important that this symbolic year—400 years later—we commemorate their existence and their sacrifices.’
It made sense that Ghana would spearhead the Year of Return, a programme aimed at bridging the gap between Africans and the African diaspora. Prior to the programme’s inception, Ghana had already displayed a keen political interest in encouraging members of the diaspora to its shores. The country’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, was an ardent pan-Africanist, who championed the idea of a politically unified Africa. In line with his pan-African ideology, Nkrumah was sympathetic to the plight of African Americans, who, by the 1950s, were still living under the systemic blight of Jim Crow. Fittingly, Nkrumah established a friendship with Martin Luther King, who was inspired by the statesman’s activism. During a speech in April 1957, Luther King relayed a rallying message from Nkrumah: ‘Our sympathies are with America and its allies. But we will make it clear through the United Nations and other diplomatic channels that beautiful words and extensive hand outs cannot be substitutes for the simple responsibility of treating our colored brothers in America as first-class human beings.’ Nkrumah’s words were forceful, evincing a sense of shared responsibility, partially shouldered by Ghana, for the liberation of African Americans.
Successive regimes in Ghana sought to institutionalize Nkrumah’s pan-African ideal. In 2000, Ghana’s parliament passed a Citizenship Act, offering dual citizenship to Ghanaians who already had citizenship from their home countries. It also passed the complementary Immigration Act, which provided for a ‘right of abode’ for any ‘person of African descent in the diaspora’ to travel to and from Ghana with few impediments. Thus conceived, the Year of Return was actually a familiar node in Ghana’s ideological circuitry, the heir to an existing suite of diaspora-friendly laws.
GHANA’S ROLE IN THE SLAVE TRADE
Ghana’s geography, and its historical role as a slave trade hub, also made the country a resonant site for the pilgrimage. During the trans-Atlantic slave trade, slave-trading nations established multiple ‘slave castles’ alongside West Africa’s coast, where enslaved Africans were held before they were eventually sold into slavery. These castles were dispersed across West Africa. However, Ghana’s comparative advantage—its extensive coastline—made it home to numerous slave castles, including the primary ones: Cape Coast Castle and Elmina Castle. By the 18th century, 30,000 enslaved Africans were transiting through Elmina Castle each year.
The castles were physically imposing, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean like punitive wardens. Living conditions there were dire and barbaric, and enslaved Africans were subjected to abject cruelty. They were branded, chained and tortured, and enslaved women were routinely raped.
Considering the outsized role played by Ghana’s slave castles, including the volume of enslaved Africans they exported, launching the Year of Return there felt almost inexorable. There was an affective appeal in Ghana’s hosting of the Year of Return. A return to Ghana, and a visit to the slave castles, would represent a symbolic 360 for members of the diaspora, hopefully prompting a sense of closure and catharsis. Yaa Gyasi, an award-winning Ghanaian-American novelist, managed to convey this ideal masterfully in Homegoing, her award-winning debut, during one character’s visit to Cape Coast Castle. As Ghana’s minister of tourism from 2017 to 2019, Catherine Afeku, prophesied, ‘Back home in Ghana, as you go through the slave dungeons, you will know that you are the Josephs and Josephines who were sold into slavery and have come back home.’
AN ECLECTIC YEAR OF RETURN
Equipped with a consistent political track record and a resonant historical legacy, Ghana threw an expansive Year of Return. There was the scholarly (‘Panafest Colloquium, Lectures, Assemblies and Dialogue’), the cinematic (‘Benpaali Young Filmmakers Festival’) and the literary (‘AAAG Spoken Word Event’). However, the musical—Afrochella, Afronation, Detty Rave—emerged triumphant. Music has historically served as a lingua franca across the diaspora, a common joy, both sensually and substantively, that everyone can enjoy. Instruments and instrumentals had been ferried between Africa, the Caribbean, and South America since the early 20th century, creating a syncretic blueprint that persists today. Fela Kuti doused the 1970s with melodious anthems championing African solidarity, a mantle subsequently picked up in the 2010s by Burna Boy. Considering music’s impressive elasticity—its capacity for both political agitation and seamless joy—it’s no surprise it was the choice medium during the Year of Return, an event for those who’ve always had to toggle between the two modes to survive.
Conceptually, the Year of Return worked. It had a fitting host in Ghana and a well-rounded range of events. And, empirically, it appeared to be a resounding success. Official data from January to September 2019 shows that 237,000 additional people visited Ghana, marking a 45 per cent increase from the same period last year. Ghana’s minister of tourism touted a $1.9 billion influx into the Ghanaian economy due to the Year of Return. According to the Ghanaian government, it granted a record 126 diasporans citizenship in 2019, transforming the Year of Return from a symbolic sojourn into a permanent relocation, at least for those lucky few. Bright Simons, a researcher at the Imani Centre for Policy & Education, also theorized that the program improved Ghana’s international image. Buoyed by the Year of Return’s ostensible success, in June 2021, the Ghanaian government launched Beyond the Return, a ‘10-year project’ intended to ‘grow Ghana’s tourism industry, showcase its investment potential and solidify its [d]iaspora engagement programs.’ This follow-up suggests a certain durability to the Year of Return, a belief, held by the Ghanaian government, in its ability to foster economic growth.
A SUCCESS STORY?
Countervailing considerations, however, suggest we should be more cautious about labelling the Year of Return an unequivocal success. In an even-keeled article, Aaryan Morrison, a former editor at the student-run Harvard Africa Policy Journal, highlights the possible inflationary pressures of the Year of Return. The Year of Return was bound to draw tourists to Ghana in droves, thus incentivizing local vendors to increase their prices, and, in the process, inadvertently price out local Ghanaians. While a theoretically sound proposition, it’s unclear if it’s been borne out in the data.
Morrison, perhaps more convincingly, also points out how the Ghanaian government would be better served expending its resources to also address local concerns, such as rising unemployment, poverty and unreliable access to electricity. Other publications documented similar sentiments.
In an interview, Ghana’s ambassador to the US, Dr. Barfuor Adjei-Barwuah, had some advice for other African countries who were thinking of hosting their own Year of Return. He suggested individuation (‘The nature and content of the Year of Return will vary from country to country based on the genesis of their individual relationships with the diaspora and their state of development and other social considerations.’). He called for empathy, a visionary mindset. (‘But the important thing is to recognize you are inviting people to come have a good visit, to open their eyes and their pockets as they visit, and to try and ignore the hurt and historical pinch of the circumstances. So programmes would have to be designed for people to see a new world altogether.’) Dr Barfour’s words were lightly optimistic, hinting at a future series of Year of Returns, with each African country having the potential to serve as a viable host. Which begs the question: which country, will, or can, pick up Ghana’s baton?
THE GIANT OF AFRICA?
Nigeria has been christened, by the media and ordinary citizens alike, as the ‘Giant of Africa’. It has the biggest economy in Africa, with a GDP of roughly $440 billion, and is the world’s most populous black nation. Nigeria is a prolific exporter of both oil and music, with a strong specialism in the latter—stars such as Davido, WizKid and Burna Boy have helped elevate Afrobeats from a niche, continental treasure into a global phenomenon. But, despite its impressive economic, demographic and cultural feats, it’s unlikely that Nigeria can successfully host a programme on the scale of the Year of Return.
Firstly, safety is not guaranteed. Insecurity is rampant in Nigeria, with frequent incidences of robberies and murders. In October and December 2022, over 2,200 people were killed by armed herdsmen, abductors, Boko Haram and other criminals in the country. Secondly, Nigeria’s infrastructure is paltry. Power outages are notorious and rampant. Roads are unpaved and ridden with potholes, causing hour-plus long traffic jams, especially in urban centres like Lagos. As a result, Nigeria is difficult to navigate, making it a taxing destination for those seeking a long-term stay.
Furthermore, Nigeria lacks the pivotal role that Ghana and its slave castles played during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Nigeria did house its fair share of slave castles. Badagry served as an important slave port in Nigeria during the slave trade, exporting an estimated 10,000 enslaved Africans to the Caribbean and the Americas between 1518 and 1880. And Nigeria has successfully commemorated this particular heritage—since 2017, it has hosted the Door of Return festival in Badagry, a two-three day festival intended to ‘commemorate the era of slavery and the slave trade, [and] highlight the diversity of African cultures and the fruitful cultural interactions sparked by history in the diaspora.’ Nonetheless, Nigeria’s slave ports are incomparable to Cape Coast Castle and Elmina Castle, in terms of both emotional poignancy and the volume of enslaved Africans they exported.
A DETTY DECEMBER
Nigeria lacks the qualities needed to execute a year-long initiative on the scale of the Year of Return. However, there is still a place in Nigeria and, most importantly, a time, for members of the diaspora to join their brethren.
Detty December. It’s not a beckoning, like the Year of Return, but a sensibility. It’s not a year-long engagement, chugging along at a steady place. It is fleeting and frantic, ephemeral—blink once and it’s over. It is fluid, existing in multiple spaces at once: in the private confines of the home, in the raucous chamber of the club, in the suggestive breeze of the beach house.
It’s unclear when December in Nigeria acquired this prefix, but it works. It distils a national mood, a collective yearning. Life in Nigeria is hard. On a daily basis, Nigerians are subjected to an indifferent and kleptocratic government, a deadly police force, a stagnating economy, and indiscriminate violence. Thus, for those fortunate enough to partake in its festivities, December offers an opportunity to expel a gradual build up of stress.
Detty December is outward-looking, and members of the diaspora, sensing its solicitousness, flock to Nigeria. Thus, both Nigerians—those raised at home and those abroad—occupy the same space at Nok restaurant, enjoying its music and delicious orbs of amala. Like a rite of passage, both sets of Nigerians experience the same frenetic rush of concerts, the same phantasmagoria of the club, Vertigo. Social balkanization notwithstanding—Detty December may be an anodyne, but it can’t completely cure the Nigerian pathology of social cliques—both sets of Nigerians get to reap the bounty of December’s harvest.
Detty December may foreground pleasure, but it doesn’t necessarily crowd out other avenues for engaging with Nigeria’s culture and history. Members of the diaspora can visit the Badagry Heritage Museum or the Old Residency Calabar to explore Nigeria’s relationship with the slave trade. They can tour Fela Kuti’s shrine to pay homage to the progenitor of Afrobeat. They can pass by the Nike Art Gallery to gaze at contemporary Nigerian artwork. They’ll just have to do so on their own accord, rather than being gently steered by the government.
Detty December is also well suited to mediate Nigeria’s systemic flaws. Its short duration—a month—means that Nigeria’s infrastructure won’t short-circuit under the weight of visitors. Any possible strain is likely temporary. Its short duration also limits tourists’ exposure to Nigeria’s insecurity, making the trip a more palatable option for those who wish to go. Thus, a sustainable arrangement arises: members of the diaspora can visit Nigeria and have a relatively safe, immersive experience, and Nigeria’s economy, in turn, benefits from the uptick in activity, with minimal impact on its infrastructure.
TWO FRAMEWORKS FOR ENGAGING THE DIASPORA
The Year of Return and Detty December offer two viable modes of engaging the diaspora. The Year of Return is institutionalized and curated, using a generous range of events to engage and inform the diaspora. It is expansive, offering both levity and enlightenment. Detty December, on the other hand, has a much narrower proposition. It offers a sensuous escape, a chance for members of the diaspora to experience the pleasures of Nigeria’s nightlife and the sweet balm of lassitude. The two are not mutually exclusive—during the Year of Return, December in Accra was replete with parties and concerts (even featuring interlopers from Nigeria), serving as a roaring denouement to the program. The two are also finely attuned to their countries’ idiosyncrasies. The Year of Return was a fitting pursuit for Ghana—it aligned well with Ghana’s historical relationship to the slave trade and its legislative overtures to the diaspora. Detty December, in contrast, accommodates Nigeria’s strained infrastructure and boundless nightlife.
On Laboma Beach, the party continues. The air is crisp and languid, and echoes of live music rise leisurely into the sky. In a few hours, the sun’s tendrils will start to unravel, inaugurating a new day. However, on the beach’s plush shores, there is only the now—the pressing need, felt by everyone in the crowd, to sing and dance. To experience, ever so precisely, the pleasure of home⎈
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