The Passage Back

Americans in search of their African origins relive and revive a history that is barely remembered here in Cameroon.

Bimbia is a small village that you only reach after an hour of driving on a rocky trail across forested slopes. It perches on the heights above the city of Limbe in southwest Cameroon. After reaching Bimbia you leave your car behind and descend on foot through a bamboo forest to reach the old port. Here there are still remnants of the ancient slave trade, foundations of the buildings in which kidnapped Africans were imprisoned before being loaded onto ships.

Here 87 African-Americans gathered recently in memory of their ancestors, brought to this symbolic place by New York nonprofit ARK Jammers. ARK’s Ancestry Reconnection Program had taken them from the northern interior to the coastal south of the country and ended with this pilgrimage to Bimbia, an unknown and abandoned Cameroonian Goree [the Senegalese island that has become the African symbol of the slave trade].

The day was filled with emotion for the American visitors. A few hundred meters from the beach, local people staged a performance depicting the capture of slaves by neighboring villagers.

The Americans cried as they listened to the screams of an actress helpless as her son was dragged away in chains. They cringed when they tasted the palm wine brew offered to them by the traditional village chiefs as a purification ritual. And when the local villagers sang them a welcoming song, they replied with a spontaneous gospel chorus before walking down to the rocky shores to pay tribute to their ancestors.

Lauren, in her thirties, a marketing professional from Texas, says in a voice filled with tears: “It’s so strange, I understand all of the pain and suffering that happened here, but at the same time, I am who I am today because of that pain and suffering.”

Fair skinned, with delicate facial features, Lauren talks emotionally of the process that brought her here to Cameroon.

“It is incredible, as African-Americans we are mainly thought of as descendents of slaves. But by retracing our origins, we become the descendents of free men too. It makes a huge difference when we stop thinking that our history only began three or four hundred years ago, with someone who had no freedom.”

Those origins are retraced with a DNA test by African Ancestry, the company which invented the concept. Gina Paige, president and co-founder of africanancestry.com, is also here with the group of American visitors:

“As African-Americans we are unable to trace our genealogy beyond a few generations, because the written records of our ancestors stop at a certain point,” she says. “Thanks to DNA, we can determine with precision the ethnic origin of a person. The use of DNA is becoming very popular. We have tested more than 20,000 people. Fifteen to twenty percent of them trace their origins back to Cameroon.”

Gina Paige’s figures demonstrate the central role played by Cameroon in the slave trade. But the country’s history of slavery is little studied and little understood.

Another visitor to this village, Lisa Aubrey is a professor of African and African-American Studies at the University of Arizona. Wearing a t-shirt with the slogan “Black Holocaust”, dreadlocks knotted in a bun, this fifty year old black American talks emotionally about her latest findings on the slave trade:

“To this day Cameroon is not considered by many researchers to have been an important crossroads of the slave trade. But we are discovering now that this is a complete mistake. Originally the count of those who were deported from Cameroon was said to be 46,000, now we think the number was more like 68,000. But even this figure probably underestimates the trade from Cameroon when we think that at least 32 million Africans were victims of the transatlantic and transaharan trade.”

The arrival of the “Camericans” is of course an opportunity for Cameroonians to revive a history which is as painful as it is taboo. Certain tribes essentially collaborated with the Europeans to capture and sell their neighbors as slaves to the Europeans those hundreds of years ago.

During the pilgrimage to Bimbia, an elderly villager delivers an apology to the African Americans. “They did not understand,” he tells the group while describing how slaves captured from neighboring tribes were traded to traditional coastal tribal chiefs for alcohol and worthless trinkets brought to them by the Portuguese, the first Europeans to control the trade.

The healing process is therefore definitely a part of this “return to origins” program, as Aubrey explains it:

“We are all still trying to heal from this looting of Africa. We finally have the opportunity to meet our people and become what we really are! The African continent suffered too – its human resources were looted and this had important economic consequences, while the European countries turned into the developed countries they are today thanks to the slave trade. We want to give back what belongs to our continent, side by side with our African brothers and sisters.”

In the village of Bimbia everybody was coached and prepared for the arrival of the “brothers and sisters from America”. Banners were hung in the streets to welcome them. The villagers also sang and danced to greet them. Though they were moved by the visible emotion of the “Camericans”, some locals wished there was more to the event than a symbolic reunion and greeting.

Sopo, in his forties, works as a hospital porter in the neighboring city of Limbe. He hoped the “Cameroonian-Americans”, who descended on the village with their touchscreen tablets and impressive cameras, would give a bit of money to help develop his native village:

“They should do something! They have seen that we don’t have any roads, any proper buildings, no hotel, no hospital…”

When he is asked if it isn’t a little premature to demand an economic hand from the African-Americans, Sopo’s answering logic is implacable:

“Some of our children leave with visas to the Western world and they never come back. Isn’t that proof enough that life is much sweeter there? These Americans can do something for us.”

By Sarah Sakho