REPATRIATION. Angela Glover Blackwell in conversation with Renee Neblett and Tanya C. "Sista Yaa" Saafir-Ankomah
Since becoming the first Sub-Saharan African country to win independence from a colonial power, Ghana has been an inspiration to Black Americans to return to Africa. For many, it's a brief journey. We're changed by what we learn about the culture and our collective past. And that informs our lives and our work when we return home. But other people stay. They make vital contributions to the culture, the economy, and the nation's future.
We hear from two Black women -- Renee Neblett the Founding Director of the Kokrobitey Institute and Tonya C. Saafir-Ankomah, Esq. (aka Sista Yaa) Founder of the Sankofa Repatriation Assistance Program and African Diaspora 126+ -- who repatriated to Ghana to start better lives for themselves and help pave the road for others in the Diaspora wishing to do the same.
(pictured l-r: Angela Glover Blackwell, Tanya C. Saafir Ankomah (aka Sista Yaa), Renee Neblett)
Angela Glover Blackwell (00:06):
Welcome to the Radical Imagination podcast, where we dive into the stories and solutions that are fueling change. I'm your host, Angela Glover Blackwell.
Angela Glover Blackwell (00:16):
Since becoming the first Sub-Saharan African country to win independence from a colonial power, Ghana has been an inspiration to Black Americans to return to Africa. The pan-African movement encouraged many prominent African Americans to repatriate. And the treatment of Black people has caused many more to seek a better life outside the racism that permeates American society. Now, another movement is underway. An estimated 1.5 million people visited Ghana in 2019. More than $1 billion dollars in revenue was poured into the economy and the wake of Beyond the Return, which was sparked by the Year of Return– a back to Africa movement marking 400 years since enslaved Africans arrived in the US. Today, we hear from two Black women who repatriated to Ghana to start better lives for themselves and help pave the road for other Black Americans wishing to do the same. We are first joined by Renee Neblett. She is the founder of the Kokrobitey Institute, a campus that holds projects that combine art, culture, design, and sustainable development. She's with us to talk about her work and her 30 year relationship with Ghana, Renee. Welcome to Radical Imagination.
Renée Neblett (01:34):
Thank you. Happy to be here.
Angela Glover Blackwell (01:37):
I understand that before you moved to Ghana, you had the experience of growing up in Boston, Massachusetts, and you lived in Germany before you took your first trip to Ghana. Tell about your background and how your education and artistic initiatives have guided you.
Renée Neblett (01:51):
I was raised in, uh, Boston, Massachusetts in Roxbury, a small African American community. You know, I came to age during the civil rights movement. I was very active as were my parents and my grandparents. I was a community activist. I eventually joined the Panther party. I had a cousin that had moved to Germany. She encouraged me to, to come to Germany. I went to the Künst Akademie there. I was the only African American at the academy, and there was only one other person of African descent. I was there during the anti-apartheid movement. So, you know, I shifted my creative energies to creating protest art. But one of the most significant experiences I had probably on the surface would seem like the most benign. And that was the experience of having people always ask me, where do you come from? That question of 'Where do you come from?' was striking to me. You know, it suggested to me that my physical presence suggested that I came from someplace worth knowing about. That was empowering.
Angela Glover Blackwell (03:02):
I wanted to go back to hear more about a time when you were the artist in residence at the Milton academy. Tell us a little more about all of that.
Renée Neblett (03:10):
I was first in Africa, 1971. I returned to Ghana in 1989. When I came to Ghana, the second time to Africa, it was from the platform of being an artist in residence at Milton academy. I had vowed to myself when I left Germany that I was never gonna have my life consumed and protest again. And what I did alternatively, was to start an African American history and culture club. I decided to see if I could provide a short term study in West Africa. And I had a great contact with the African Academy of Music and Arts that had been started by Mo of us Tedi and his German partner. And so for a couple of years, they, they entertained that thought and provided me the space. And then one day they said to me, 'well, look, why don't you just build your own space if you gotta come back so often.'
Renée Neblett (04:08):
And they literally took me to the chief and the chief walked me up and down this narrow road where there was bush, nothing but bush and said, show us where you'd like some land. I really wanted these kids to realize that they came from some place worth knowing about. And my goal was to create this program and eventually have the scholarship, follow the student and be able to take those kids to Africa, understand that Africa was an old world to the Americas and understand the incredible that Africans, okay, that the presence of Africa in America was pivotal in building that economy, refining that democracy, and distinguishing that culture. And what was stunning about that was to watch the impact of that experience on the Anglo-American student, everything they had been taught about blackness was disproved. They realized that blackness didn't identify anybody. They came to Ghana and they met awes and Ashantis, they met intelligent people, as I said, that had a breadth of knowledge they didn't know.
Angela Glover Blackwell (05:14):
Could you talk about the Kokrobitey Institute, paint us a picture of what the grounds look like.
Renée Neblett (05:20):
The original Kokrobitey Institute was built in a series of courtyards. It was about 10 years ago. As I said, with this being confronted with the excess waste that was taking place that I decided to expand. And I bought property across the road and decided to build a design center. I met Aero Olympia and she said, 'Well, you know what? We should build a natural materials.' We produced our own bricks and we used all local materials. We were served as our own contractors. All the stone, the aggregates, the wood were locally produced. The stones and the rocks were carried on the heads of local women and head pans. It's a beautiful place. And we planted orange trees, mango trees, coconut trees, and, aloe vera, lemon grass. That sloping piece of land, we cut it down and created a series of courtyards. The idea of building around a courtyard is echoing the social sensibilities of Ashanti people that say, you know, if you live in a courtyard, when you come out of your room, you're obliged to greet your neighbor.
Angela Glover Blackwell (06:36):
Can you talk about the evolution of the Institute as an eco paradise?
Renée Neblett (06:41):
The first part of Kokrobitey was really offering short term learning programs, using the arts to discover the history and culture of another society. And after doing that for a while, what I responded to was what's so-called development. And so I thought to myself, you know, I live in Ghana. I have an obligation to live in my community, looking at the, what was happening to the environment, knowing that I wanted to do something to create jobs and thinking, 'okay, how can I build on traditional skills? I mean, people are very good with their hands. People are very adept.' And I think I traveled to Europe and I actually saw a model called the fry to bag, which a Swiss company, a young group was making out of the canvas on the big trailer trucks. And they started taking that those old canvases and making messenger bags. And that made me think, wow, I wonder if I could use the advertising banners that had replaced all the hand painted signs, if that waste product, which also was being, you know, after was used for advertising, then it was all folded up and littering the landscape. If I could use that to make a school bag.
Angela Glover Blackwell (07:54):
And how did you get focused on the discarded clothing and where is that taking you?
Renée Neblett (07:59):
So we started exploring recycling across the board, not just with making the Ghana school bag. And as I said, we made this Ghana school bag because we realized that the basis of everything we're doing, our creed is education. And so we not only produced the bags, but we produced a series of educational flashcards around the environment – from A to Z. A is for Africa. B is for breathing. C is for climate. D is for development. E is for education. We took glass bottles and cut and polished them and made glasses and lamps and carafes and started giving courses. And, and also decided that we were gonna raise funds and build a design center that could be a hub for creative innovation and to bring together a consortium of like-minded people.
Angela Glover Blackwell (08:47):
What's next for Kokrobitey.
Renée Neblett (08:49):
The future is, I hope, being at the front of an African Renaissance. And when I say Renaissance, I simply mean at the front of encouraging Africa to remember the intelligence behind the traditional culture, if we could ever remember that intelligence is a blueprint for sustainable development, as the world goes forward. An African Renaissance, for me, means assuming the responsibility, this perspective, this social cultural perspective has with the world. That we would add to that landscape of information that would not allow one culture to dictate the model for the entire world.
Angela Glover Blackwell (09:43):
My last question for you, because you have been on and continue to be on quite a journey. What advice would you give your younger self?
Renée Neblett (09:54):
My younger self, I would've said 'to thine own self be true. Judge and be not judged. And give the greatest thing you can give another human being is benefit of the doubt.
Angela Glover Blackwell (10:06):
Thank you. That was beautiful.
Renée Neblett (10:09):
Thank you for bringing us together.
Angela Glover Blackwell (10:14):
Renee Neblett she's the founder of the Kokrobitey Institute – a campus that holds projects that combine art culture design and sustainable development.
Angela Glover Blackwell (10:43):
Welcome back to Radical Imagination. Joining us is Sister Yaa, who after repatriating to Ghana launched African Diaspora 126+ to create policy that would help others do the same. Sister Yaa, welcome to Radical Imagination.
Sista Yaa (10:58):
Thank you for having me.
Angela Glover Blackwell (10:59):
It says online that the Sankofa Repatriation Assistance Program focuses on the increased desire of the diaspora community to establish itself in Ghana and make the country home. Is this desire of African Americans wanting to repatriate to Ghana a growing trend?
Sista Yaa (11:18):
It's been something that has been happening for more than a century, but there is lately – I would say in the last 10 years or so – an increased amount of interest and desire to move, not just to Ghana, but back to the continent. And so we have a large community of people coming from north America, from south America, from the Caribbean, from Europe, who are descendants of the kidnapped and enslaved Africans who were forcibly removed. And now their descendants are deciding that they want to come back.
Angela Glover Blackwell (12:06):
I wonder what's happening now because certainly as Africans were being kidnapped and brought to the US, there was a desire to return. We had the Marcus Garvey movement, which really built it up as a major conversation and activity. But I wonder what's happened recently to revive this effort to move back.
Sista Yaa (12:30):
Well, I think it has a lot to do with the, you know, um, the police brutality, you know, the constant bombardment of images of Black bodies being abused, the injustice and the criminal justice system and seeing police officers get off time and time again. Discrimination, and housing, and banking and all those things that always existed. But I think on top of all of that frustration, the President of Ghana came out and said, you know, come back, come back home. That was the little light bulb that came on for people like, 'oh, we have options.'
Speaker 4 (13:10):
Ladies and gentlemen easily. The most ambitious program we in Ghana have mounted in our dealings with the African diaspora was the organization of the Year of Return in 2019, which was a major landmark spiritual and birthright journey, inviting the global African family – home and abroad – to celebrate the cumulative resilience of all victims of the transatlantic Slave Trade.
Sista Yaa (13:37):
The spark for me was practicing law and in the criminal justice system and becoming very disillusioned with what I was seeing and how African American people treated. The disparity in the system and feeling helpless. Feeling like I wanted to do something to help my people. So I needed to still work. And so, but I wanted to leave the United States. I was just disgusted with the United States to, for lack of a better term. So I decided to, to go to the islands. But I went to US Virgin islands because that is a colony. A lot of people don't like that word, but that's what it is. It's a colony of the United States. And I could still practice with my license there. So I packed up everything and took my children and moved to St. Croix. That's how badly I wanted to get out of the United States. So I went there and I was a prosecutor, assistant attorney general for seven years until I was able to see a way for me to go the rest of the way and get to Africa.
Angela Glover Blackwell (14:54):
Thank you for sharing that story. Can you talk a little bit about the Year of Return? Explain what that is to the audience and place it in the context of our historic example of talking about repatriation?
Sista Yaa (15:11):
Well, the official story is that the first enslaved African arrived in Jamestown in 1619, and so 400 years later, 2019, it was a commemoration and a call to the African descendants to return to their homelands. But if I'm to be quite honest, which I try to be, I'm of the opinion and so are a lot of us who are here, it was commercialized. It was about coming here, tourism. Bringing our, our money here and spending our money here. Not really about 'come home' because there was no policy really put in place to facilitate our return. So now we are here and that's what we're working on now, trying to get the government to fulfill its promise to return and put what's in place so that when we get here, we're not treated like foreigners.
Angela Glover Blackwell (16:08):
And that's exactly what your work is focused on. Isn't it? How would you describe your personal connection to your work and what exactly are you doing?
Sista Yaa (16:17):
Well, my personal connection is that I'm married to a Ghanaian. I have business here. I own land here currently in the middle of building what I call my forever home here. And I've been coming here for over a decade and I've seen so many of our people come and things not work out and they would have to leave and go back, not wanting to, but because you know, funds would run out, they need to go back to America or to Europe or to where wherever they had been, to try to gather more resources and try to come back and make it again. So the retirement community are faring pretty well, but the younger people who are still having young families and trying to start families and trying to start businesses and things like that, they are really struggling. They are still struggling. And so I say, you know, surely there has to be something that can be done and I am of the mindset that we're never gonna get reparations.
Sista Yaa (17:18):
I don't think there's ever any real intent to give us what's due, what's owed. So we need to come up with something to repatriate ourselves. And we do that by pulling our resources and acting as a collective. That is the idea behind Sankofa Repatriation Assistance Program is that if we all just give a little bit into a, a big pot and then we can fund our own repatriation. We can give those who want to come the startup capital, you know, to start businesses and just to give them the support that they need. And then once we get, you know, some people set up, then those people are now in a position to help the next one to come.
Angela Glover Blackwell (18:11):
Let's talk about the work that you're doing, assisting people who want to repatriate to integrate into all aspects of Ghanaian society. Could you lay out the process of doing that?
Sista Yaa (18:24):
The idea is to be an incubator, a business incubator, to give people the resources they need to start businesses, and then help them with learning the language which I do do. I do provide free classes to anybody from the diaspora who wants to learn Twi, which is one of the indigenous languages here in Ghana to find adopted families for, lack of a better term, to attach them to, because part of a successful repatriation is not to be isolated, but to fully integrate, you need a family that will show you, be with you. You can be a part of cultural celebrations and holidays, and they will celebrate you and your achievements. And so that you become part of a family unit. So the idea is to attach every repatriate with a family here.
Angela Glover Blackwell (19:17):
The things that you've described really do sound like they are challenges that have to be overcome. So clearly there are difficulties in repatriating African Americans in Ghana. Tell us about some of those difficulties, and what is African Diaspora 126+ and how does it relate to addressing some of those challenges?
Sista Yaa (19:35):
The African Diaspora 126+ is a lobbying group that we formed and registered here in Ghana to lobby the government for specific policies that relate to us. To basically not have us treated as foreigners, because we are a special class of people as the descendant of kidnapped and enslaved Africans who were removed from the continent against their will. And now as their descendants who are choosing to come back and we do not want to come back and then when we attempt to do business or do anything, we're treated as any other foreigner. The right to return, which a lot of people don't know, is rooted in an established in international law by the United Nations. So we do have a legal right to return. We want a more streamlined and easier pathway to residency and citizenship. There are certain jobs that are reserved just for Ghanaians, so that they don't have competition. So that is why we created and organized ourselves as the African Diaspora 126+. And that name comes from the fact that in 2019, there were a total of 230 something odd number of people who were supposed to be given their citizenship, but that 126 remaining people were knocked off and did not get their citizenship. So the name is 126. So those people need to get their citizenship and the plus means there's more of us here that need our citizenship and there's more of us in the diaspora who are coming
Angela Glover Blackwell (21:26):
Sista Yaa, your story about what you're doing is really uplifting and inspiring. I wonder, at this point in your journey, what would you tell your younger self?
Sista Yaa (21:41):
I think about that all the time. I would tell my younger self to have come earlier, to start this work earlier. So that by now we wouldn't be still having this issue. <laugh> and by the 21st century, we would've been rolling. But you know, as my father from Mississippi would say, 'better late than never!'
Angela Glover Blackwell (22:00):
Absolutely. Sista Yaa, thank you for talking with us.
Sista Yaa (22:04):
Thank you for having me. It's been a pleasure.
Angela Glover Blackwell (22:09):
Sista Yaa is the co-founder of Sankofa Institute. After repatriating to Ghana, she launched African Diaspora 126 plus to help create policy that would help others to do the same.
Angela Glover Blackwell (22:26):
African Americas have been making our way to Ghana for decades. For many of us, it's a brief journey. We're changed by what we learn about the culture and our collective past. And that informs our lives and our work when we return home. But other people stay. They make vital contributions to the culture, the economy, and the nation's vibrant, sustainable future. And some people, like Sister Yaa, seize an unprecedented moment, an invitation to return, to hold leaders accountable for aligning their policies and practices with the principles they espouse. It takes radical imagination to go to another country and push leaders to deliver on their promises. And it takes radical imagination to do it in the US, and from west Oakland to Harlem, and countless communities in between. We see it in action every day. Radical Imagination was produced for PolicyLink by Futuro Studios. The Futuro team includes Marlon Bishop, Andreas Caballero, Joaquin Cotler, Stephanie Lebow, Juan Diego Ramirez, Liliana Ruiz, Sophia Lowe, Susanna Kemp and Andy Bosnack. The PolicyLink team includes Glenda Johnson, Vanice Dunn, Ferchil Ramos, Fran Smith, Loren Madden, Perfecta Oxholm and Eugene Chan. Our theme music was composed by Taka Yusuzawa and Alex Sugira. I'm your host, Angela Glover Blackwell.
Angela Glover Blackwell (24:10):
Join us again next time. And in the meantime, you can find us at radicalimagination.us. Remember to subscribe and share.
Angela Glover Blackwell (24:26):
Next time on Radical Imagination, one California tribe gets their stolen land back.
Speaker 5 (24:32):
Working with Placer Land Trust has been so amazing for us, because it's an agency that recognizes us as a tribe in the tribal community.
Angela Glover Blackwell (24:40):
That's next time on Radical Imagination.
Renée C. Neblett is the Founding Director of the Kokrobitey Institute in Ghana. A former Bunting Fellow at Radcliffe College, and a Visiting Scholar at the Graduate School of Education, Harvard University; she holds a BFA from the Künst Akademie, Düsseldorf and an M.Ed from Goddard College. After years of teaching in both public and private secondary and tertiary institutions in the U.S, Europe, the Caribbean, and Africa, she has dedicated the last 30 years of her life to establishing the Kokrobitey. Institute.
The Institute is a dynamic inter-cultural learning space in Ghana dedicated to celebrating the intelligence of traditional Ghanaian culture as they relate to education, environmental sustainability, resourceful design, and social entrepreneurship.
The recently constructed Alero Olympio Design Center has become an international hub of creative enterprise where local people work with an inter-cultural community of artists, artisans, environmentalists, designers, and educators to build sustainable social entrepreneurship models. The Institute has just launched 'Wote K.I Design', a sustainable fashion label featured in the December issue of Vogue.
She has made presentations on national and international platforms and across various subjects such as fashion, sustainability, Pan Africanism etc. Some of these events include the Future of Fashion by Fashion Connect Africa, the Ghana SME Training Programme by COGNOS International, Sustainable Fashion and its benefits by Odina Couture, Sustainable Wellbeing by Omek etc. Ms Renée C. Neblett is the Keynote Speaker for The Sustainable Fashion Awards by Twyg in November 2022.
Tonya C. Saafir-Ankomah, Esq.(aka Sista Yaa), was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, USA. She attended Austin Peay State University, in Clarksville, Tennessee, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in political science with a minor in general business. She then attended the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, where she earned her Juris Doctor in law.
Immediately after receiving her law license, she served as a Shelby County Public Defender in Shelby County Tennessee. She then went on to open her own private law office where she practiced criminal defense law, bankruptcy law and family law for a number of years before accepting a position as an Assistant Attorney General for the U.S. Virgin Islands.
She is the founder and CEO of the non-profit organization Sankofa Repatriation Assistance Program, Inc. and the Vice President of the Ankomah Premium Company Limited, a Ghana based company she founded with her husband. Ankomah Premium Company Ltd offers services in the area of construction, importation of cars and land acquisition in Ghana amongst other things.
She is a partner in Prestige Herbal Clinic which has branches located in Amasaman, Greater Accra Region Ghana and Berekum, Bono Region, providing natural herbs and homeopathic treatment to local population.
Saafir-Ankomah also serves as the phylacter for the Gamma Alpha Sigma Zeta chapter of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Incorporated which provides a number of social service projects throughout Ghana.