Africa: Cultural Custodian – Separating Africa’s Myth From Its Reality

The UN designated the International Decade for People of African Descent, from 2015 to 2024, to promote the recognition, justice, and development of African descendants worldwide. Through various programs, events, and awareness campaigns, the Decade seeks to create a platform for dialogue, understanding, and positive change in the lives of people in the diaspora. Africa Renewal will highlight the journeys African Americans are taking to reconnect with Africa – the continent their ancestors called home. The third piece in this four-part series highlights the journey of one African American woman who uncovered the true identity of Africa while researching her own:

I want to share my stories, my pictures and my videos,” she said. “I want to tell everyone about the richness of the culture and the kindness of the people. I want to pass on everything I have learned.Kennedy S. JohnsonFounder and CEO, Green Book Travel There is a version of Africa romanticized as a place with lush landscapes and rich resources ruled by kings and queens. African Americans dream of going there and receiving a warm welcome home.

Then there is the other version.

“I grew up in the era of ‘feed the children’ campaigns, which showed Africa with a lot of poverty and blight,” Ms. Kennedy S. Johnson told Africa Renewal in an interview. “I wanted to go there and see it with my own eyes.”

When Ms. Johnson placed her feet on African soil, she knew it would be her first of many adventures on the continent.

A transformational trip to Kenya in East Africa had Ms. Johnson looking to her future while examining her past. “As I got older and started travelling the world, I wanted to understand myself and my identity.”

Identity was always a question for the Detroit native. Her family dynamics were constantly shifting: she had never met her father, and her mother could not care for her. After her grandmother died, she lived with a string of relatives before being orphaned.

With 50 countries already stamped in her passport, Ms. Johnson embarked on a new journey –to discover her heritage. When she received her DNA results from Ancestry.com in 2016, her itinerary — and her life — changed.

“I rerouted my journey to all the countries that had my ethnicity markers: Ghana, Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal and the Gambia,” said the travel enthusiast. “I wanted to see the similarities in our traits, customs and traditions.

Honorary title

On one of Ms. Johnson’s many trips, she found an early investor to launch her Green Book Travel agency, and Forbes recognized her on its 2021 Next 1000 list.

Named after the Negro Motorist Green Book that helped Black travellers find welcoming services and accommodations in America’s segregated South, her agency offers ancestry, birthright and heritage tours for the African diaspora.

Ms. Johnson’s objective for Green Book Travel was to steer away from the colonial mindset and support descendants in tracing their ancestral footprints by visiting all the places that slave ships docked.

“The transatlantic slave trade stripped us of our names, our culture, our traditions and our religion. It cut us off from our origins,” she said. “By going back, African Americans can restore their identities.”

Ms. Johnson traced her ancestry to Ghana. There, she received her African name, which came with a royal title — Queen Zosimli Naa — a distinction bestowed on her through the enskinment ceremony where a candidate sits on an animal skin. Naa Fusheini Bawa, chief of Tamale in the Dagbon Kingdom of Ghana, enskinned Ms. Johnson.

According to the Ghana News Agency, Chief Fusheini Bawa said that he intended the title “to strengthen the bilateral relations [between Ghana and the United States], especially in the areas of culture and tourism.”

In her role , Ms. Johnson has supported clean water initiatives, provided shoes to school children and hosted economic development workshops.

She even employed local talent and paid them fair wages through Social Fabrik, her sustainable fashion line with ethically sourced materials.

Her position, she said, includes a cultural custodianship tasked with making public appearances.

Ms. Johnson was spotted in a photograph at a royal ceremony for fellow African American travel entrepreneur Diallo Sumbry, who sat on a traditional stool to receive his new title.

“Yes, she attended my enstoolment. I invited the entire community,” said Mr. Sumbry, honoured for his work as co-architect of Ghana’s Year of Return and as author of A Smart Ghana Repatriation Guide. Mr. Sumbry was named Nkosuohene, fittingly, chief of development.

Ms. Johnson chuckles when people ask about her royal roots, which she explains as an honorary distinction reserved for a few prominent individuals throughout the diaspora. “The positions help to reintegrate African Americans into the African family.”

African ambassador

Through her business ventures, Ms. Johnson has had opportunities to help others take their own journeys back to Africa through cultural tours.

She sees herself as a conduit for her American brothers and sisters to come to the continent as tourists, investors or returnees.

The tours offer descendants a historical connection, Ms. Johnson said. “I get emotional visiting traditional kingdoms and meeting with the elders, experiencing those places where my ancestors took their last bath, tracing their footsteps through the Door of No Return.”

The Door of No Return refers to the exit at the dungeons in Cape Coast, Ghana, where millions of Africans were detained before being forced onto ships and sold into slavery. According to the Ghana Tourism Authority, the Cape Coast Castle is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a museum honouring the ancestors.