An image of the Ghanaian president with Chance the Rapper and Vic Mensa
Photo: Screenshot of Chance the Rapper's Instagram post.

Why Ghana's 'Renaissance' Campaign is Divisive

The country's follow-up initiative to its 'Year Of Return' has drawn both praise and criticism from Ghanaians.

“I’ll never forget suddenly crying the first time going to a beach in Ghana. It was so triggering. And I didn’t feel alone. My heart aches/ached for my ancestors. It was a surreal experience,” read one of a series of now-deleted tweets by Grammy-nominated American singer/songwriter, Ari Lennox.

Her heartfelt posts – views often shared by African Americans when they first touch down in the West African country – quickly turned left, attracting vitriolic messages from trolls who unrelentingly mocked her for, amongst other things, exaggerating how she felt and being excessively sentimental.

The situation descended into a virtual fight between African Americans on one hand, and Africans (mostly Ghanaians) on the other, leading to the ‘Shea Butter Baby’ singer deleting the tweets, and her photos about Ghana on Instagram.

Lennox was in the West African country in December 2021 to perform at the Afrochella Festival, one of several events held as part of the Beyond The Return: The Diaspora initiative – the 10-year plan succeeding the hugely successful 2019 Year of Return campaign, a commemorative event linked to 400 years of the first recorded landing of slaves in the United States, and a call for those in the diaspora to return to the continent.

Launched in December 2020 by President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, as a "decade of African Renaissance," the mission of Beyond The Return includes building “upon the momentum of the Year of Return, [highlighting] Ghana as a world-class, authentic global tourism brand, [deepening] the connection between Ghana and the African and Ghanaian diaspora, and [showcasing] Ghana’s investment potential to the African diaspora.” Both initiatives have been praised for encouraging Ghanaians, Africans and Black people in the diaspora to consider, or permanently relocate, to Ghana.

Corporate management consultant Aisha Asamany, who was born in the UK to a Ghanaian father and British-Caribbean mother, became one of many who decided to make Ghana her home, when she moved here in 2019. It ended up reinvigorating her career as a jewelry designer, and helped give her brand, SAHMANI, new life, telling authentic Ghanaian stories with bespoke pieces.

But the campaign has also attracted much debate about its effectiveness. Creative consultant Ama Ofeibea Amponsah believes there are a number of different factors that come into play when organizing a campaign of this sort. “For the diaspora, there are all manner of complex gaps, connections, tensions and commonalities that are being explored or abruptly rise to the surface, as the movement brings more and more diverse Africans together,” she says.

The initiatives have also turned Ghana into a tourist hotspot especially during the Christmas and New Year holidays – attracting known public figures including Chance the Rapper, who visited the West African country in early 2022, after tweeting in late December 2021 about wanting to be in Ghana. He shared videos and snaps of visiting spots like Freedom Skatepark, Ghana’s first skate park that pays homage to the late Ghanaian-American designer and artistic director of Louis Vuitton menswear collection, Virgil Abloh. Due to the fallout from the Lennox situation, Chance largely benefitted from many Ghanaians forming a virtual protective shield of sorts against any celebrity visit criticism.

That didn’t, however, stop a number of Ghanaians taking issue with his visit – with rapper Vic Mensa, who’s father is from Ghana – to the seat of the government, the Jubilee House, and his meeting with President Akufo-Addo. “Please stop allowing the president to meet people by heart he is a big man not just anyone can go and see him aaah can anyone just go and see The President of USA,” wrote Jotey Amankwah, in the comment section of the photos of the visit posted on Twitter.

“We that voted sef he never wanted to see our faces but see how he’s glad seeing u guys. Smh,” quipped user Kwabena Nino.

Tweep @KanyNusrat probably summed up the sentiments of the general response to the photos, writing: “Do you think shatta [wale] will be allowed to meet the US president. No respect for our president but people are talking about it.”

Attracting overseas visitors, especially high-profile ones with large followings, is appealing to any country looking to boost its tourism revenue. According to a CNN report, a 15-year-long tourism plan estimates that the number of tourists to Ghana will grow from a million to eight million per year, and a projected $8.3 billion will be made from the tourism industry per year by 2027.

But to some, touting the country as a major tourist destination seems to overshadow the heart of the Beyond The Return campaign, which lists the promotion of domestic tourism among its seven pillars. Attracting American celebrities and Black people in the diaspora has, understandably, drawn polarizing reactions.

Whilst some people are of the view that it’s great, and helps the country earn advertising and marketing reach worth millions of dollars for free, others have scoffed at the idea, suggesting that the strategy negatively affects locals. “Personally I don’t want Ghana to become any vacation spot biaa. We already can’t afford to live in this place. Nobody should come and make it worse for us,” tweeted singer and songwriter, Maayaa.

In spite of the controversy, there seems to be a general consensus that the Beyond The Return initiative has had some positive impact.

Beyond the Return has highlighted a desire and convergence of Africans across the globe to experience, and share, new and exciting stories about the continent," says Amponsah. "For Ghana, in particular, direct links to the slave trade and wider diaspora in the Americas and Europe has also opened doors for more meaningful connections and conversations around repatriation, identity and belonging."

OkayAfrica reached out to the organizers of Beyond The Return for comment on how their campaign is being received, but they've yet to respond. Meanwhile, while the jury may still be out on its overall value, Ghanaians like Amponsah appreciate what it's attempting to do. “Whilst there are no signs of a decrease in momentum anytime soon, we are presented with an opportunity to better the overall experience for tourists, returnees and importantly local Ghanaians too," she says.

But she believes engaging and including local Ghanaians long term is key to achieving the objectives of Beyond The Return. "The changes are already afoot to make the capital Accra a more global cosmopolitan city, though I believe this can be achieved whilst retaining a certain charm and flavor unique to Ghana and its people.”