Why this African-American moved to Africa to build the Ancestral Wall

Francis Akhalbey December 13, 2022
Face2Face Africa - African Ancestral Wall Founder, Jerry Johnson

Ghana has always been home to the diasporan community. The West African nation – even prior to the “Year of Return” – has largely attracted diasporan tourists who want to reconnect with their roots. And rightfully so. 

It is common knowledge that Ghana, then known as the Gold Coast, served as a transit point during the transatlantic slave trade. Several castles and forts still dotted across the country continue to serve as tourist destinations for diasporans who want to learn more about the places their captured ancestors were held and the conditions they had to endure before they were forcibly transported across the Atlantic to work as slaves between 1515 and the mid-19th Century.

Outside tourism, the West African nation has in recent times become the destination for diasporans who want to relocate. Some have even settled in well, started businesses, and formed their own groups. And besides reconnecting with their roots, some are also giving back to the communities they find themselves in by way of education. It is in this regard that Los Angeles native Jerry Johnson and his Ghanaian wife founded the African Ancestral Wall.

The conspicuous wall, which is located in the town of Prampram, features 92 large portraits of notable people such as Asa Hilliard, Yaa Asantewaa, Malcolm X, Menelik II, Samuel Mahahero, Fred Hampton, Muhammad Ali, Qalidurat, Winnie Mandela, Bob Marley, and Kwame Nkrumah. 

An event is held annually to celebrate the ancestors on the wall. In an interview with Face2Face Africa, Johnson said the yearly event is held because “we like for our children to be able to showcase what they’ve been learning” over the year.

“We started this African Ancestral Wall because we were not satisfied with the African history that we were seeing in the local schools. We see a lot of colonial history, we see a lot of European history [but very little African history],” Johnson said. “So our children come through the wall by the hundreds now. We’ve probably had several thousands through here, and we get a chance to take them through, explain, help to build their knowledge and confidence of self.”

Johnson said that they go ahead to annually showcase what the children have been doing to the public, other students, and anyone who is interested “so they know this is the kind of youngsters that we are developing.”

“As we always say we have to develop the Africans we need to solve the problems that we have, and we know that’s our children,” he added.

Johnson also said the activities at the venue include excursions for any school that is interested in coming over. “It’s free of charge,” he said. “All you have to do is get here and we go through the 92 large portraits of African men and women in history so our children get good insight into what their potential really is because they get good insight into what their history really is.”

He continued: “I think the significance now is giving young people and even their parents and older people a place to come to not only learn the history but to meet other people who come here too. And I really think sometimes, that’s becoming the most powerful thing about it.”

It is about the people who are meeting each other here, and of course, the students who are impressing their parents and teachers and friends here. So I think it’s becoming a point where people can come together [and not only] learn history but also learn from each other [and] develop relationships so hopefully, we can build some pan-Africanism that actually represents power.”

On the selection process for the portraits, Johnson said he made a long list of characteristics and attributes that he wanted the students to learn. He said they use descriptions such as “courage, leadership, warriorship, and creativity” to find and match ancestors in history that possess any of these characteristics.

“So sometimes you’ll see Africans on the wall who you’ve never heard of, but they really have an attribute that I want the children to know about. And sometimes you won’t see people you expect to see because we already have several people that are demonstrating that attribute or that characteristic to the students,” he explained.

“But the main thing is we want to have a full range of African talents [and] characters available for the children to learn and to see and hopefully begin to internalize it themselves.”

Johnson said his decision to relocate to Ghana was not an American thing but an African condition that people like us find ourselves in.

“African people don’t have any power in the U.S.,” the Los Angeles native said. “You see people on TV who made some money and this kind of thing but that should never be confused with power.”

Johnson cited Kanye West’s current predicaments, saying if his billionaire status could be taken away from him in a matter of days, that means Black people never had that power in the first place.

“So we don’t have power,” he added. “We have some people with money as long as they are behaving. So those are my experiences. Living through that in the U.S., watching as I travel around the world [and] finding that African people are on the bottom in places like Brazil and South America – and even in certain respects on the bottom here in our own countries.

So we have a lot of work to do, and it’s not an American thing that drove me here. It’s an African condition that we find ourselves in around the world that drove me here because I know that this is the place that we’re going to have to be to bring it all together and bring our sovereign power back.”

Johnson also said it took a while for him to understand the potential of the African continent. He explained that was because people like him were taught that the best thing that happened to Black Americans was being brought to the country as slaves

“Now a lot of people here in Africa think that was a good thing to happen to us,” he said. “Because they don’t know what the common African people in the U.S. deal with.”

“So we have a lot to do.”

And though he said he did not have any big surprises when he moved to Ghana, he said he was taken aback by how bad the country’s education curriculum was and how it heavily featured the European narrative of history and social order.

“They [the Europeans] really, really, have control of that,” Johnson continued. “I thought we had a little bit more control internally than we do. But it seems we don’t, so we are working to change that too.”

He urged Africans in the diaspora to look for engaging activities that can empower young people to know who they are. “Start putting Africa at the center of your future plans. If it’s not your personal future plans, then the future plans of your children and grandchildren because at the end of the day, this is the only thing that we have,” he said. “This is the only thing that we will ever have, so let’s get busy making it what we want it to be.”

The coastal town of Prampram is less than an hour away from the capital city of Accra. Make it a point to visit the African Ancestral Wall any time you are in town. 

Watch Face2Face Africa visit to the Ancestral Wall:

Last Edited by:iboateng Updated: December 13, 2022


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