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A new home for the African diaspora in Ghana stirs tensions

74-year-old Lenval Skiers at his home in Pan-African Village, in Asebu.
Jude Lartey for NPR
74-year-old Lenval Skiers at his home in Pan-African Village, in Asebu.

ASEBU, Ghana — Nestled in the sleepy town of Asebu, a few miles inland from the Atlantic along Ghana's Cape Coast, lies a serene 5,000 acre rural settlement. A mud road at the entrance weaves through a dense, green landscape of dozens of homes and partially built concrete structures, enveloped by miles of farmland and palm trees.

"Nobody's ever lived here before," says 74-year-old Lenval Skiers, from the sun-lit lounge of his six-bedroom home and guesthouse. "It was me alone in the forest. It was idle land, but I braved it." From his wide-set balcony on the second floor, Skiers points to his large garden, full of clusters of cassava, avocado and sugar cane. Beyond lies Pan-African Village, a stretch of land recast as an idyllic haven for settlers from the African diaspora.

Skiers is among a small but growing community of some 30 people, most who've arrived from the United States, Canada and the Caribbean. They regard themselves as the first wave of settlers, among a new African community in Asebu, carving a new life in their ancestral homeland, devoid of racism and repression in the countries their ancestors were forcibly taken to.

They're among the latest in a rich history, where many thousands of foreigners of African heritage have made Ghana their home — a proud legacy championed by independence leader Kwame Nkrumah, and his vision of Ghana as a beacon of African unity. Many are drawn to Ghana as a country cast abroad as a prosperous African nation on the rise. But a wave of returning diaspora, while welcomed, has become more contentious during some of the most trying economic times in decades.

And in Pan-African Village, brewing tensions over ownership and privileged access to the land threaten to unravel its promise. "I was the first to arrive here," Skiers says, beaming. "And many more are coming behind me." He was born in Jamaica but spent most of his life in Canada. He lived there for almost forty years, mainly working in a shipping factory, but it was never his home. "Canada is a country built by white people. And we as blacks and native people are regarded as second-class citizens." When he retired, he was set on leaving and envisioned a life elsewhere.

A road leading to the village.
/ Jude Lartey for NPR
/
Jude Lartey for NPR
A road leading to the village.

Then in 2020, the traditional ruler of Asebu Town, the "paramount chief" of the area offered a golden opportunity. He announced he would set aside 5,000 acres of farmland in his town and offer free plots to anyone in the African heritage diaspora planning to settle there.

On social media, particularly youtube, prominent influencers promoted the settlement as a once in a lifetime opportunity to acquire valuable land in Ghana, a country marketed as a prosperous African nation on the rise. Skiers became immersed in several such videos, and reached out to one influencer, Ekow Simpson, who encouraged him to make the journey. "I thought that was a lot of land and I should be able to get a piece of it," Skiers says.

The settlement was gifted as part of Ghana's 2019 Year of Return, a year-long government campaign calling on people of African heritage to "return" to Ghana. It was cast as a historical turning point, coming 400 years after the first ships took enslaved Africans from ports in West Africa across the Atlantic, to Virginia in the United States. Since then, thousands have arrived, settling in Ghana, and more than 560 people have acquired the land, paying administration fees of $1,000-$1,200 per plot to the paramount chief.

"We've reached a stage now where there is an option to leave these countries," Skiers says, "to find land in countries where you can be totally free. Free from racism, free from unemployment and low wages."

But the settlement has led to bitterness within the local community, despite the rising construction and economic activity the settlement has spurred in Asebu — a breezy, gently buzzing town of largely lower-income farmers, construction workers and businesses reliant on tourism. It has ignited bitter opposition threatening to tip into violence and raised questions on whether Pan-African Village, parts which belonged to a number of local families, should ever have been given away.

"Hunting us from the land"

"We've been farming there for generations," says 59-year-old farmer Kwesi Otu-Bensil. "Now it has been destroyed." Otu-Bensil and a group of farmers and members of his extended family, the Akoa Anona's, sit outside his modest bungalow in Asebu, surrounded by small vegetable patches and cockerels.

Otu-Bensil used to farm yams, coconuts, oranges and several other crops, on 123 acres of his family's farmland, which is now a part of Pan-African Village. But in 2020, the paramount chief seized it and the fields were leveled. The destruction and dispossession of their farmland has had hit the livelihoods of Otu-Bensil and over 150 farmers that relied on it. "If I earned 100 cedis before [$8.33], for example, now I earn 30," he says, describing how he struggles to support his family of five children.

Abusuapanin Kojo Badu, 68, is Otu-Bensil's cousin and the most senior figure in the family. He unfurls a map of the land onto the ground, and a copy of the registration proving his family's ownership of the land, documented in Ghana's land registry. He first heard about the paramount chief's plans for a diaspora settlement in Asebu during the Year of Return. "I said, 'fine, it's a good idea. But the land is owned by my family."

Farmers in Asebu who say their family land was taken from them by the paramount chief, and made a part of Pan-African Village, Left: Samuel Kumi, middle, Kwesi Otu-Bensil, right Daniel Kweku.
/ Jude Lartey for NPR
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Jude Lartey for NPR
Farmers in Asebu who say their family land was taken from them by the paramount chief, and made a part of Pan-African Village, Left: Samuel Kumi, middle, Kwesi Otu-Bensil, right Daniel Kweku.

The paramount chief refused to pay him for it, Badu says, arguing the chief would not be earning any profit as it would be given for free. "We met so many times about this very land and I said, no, you can never tell me it's for free"

Eventually the talks collapsed. The paramount chief declared he had the legal right over the land and seized it. None of the 150 farmers were compensated, Kojo Badu says. Five of Kojo Badu's relatives, including two of his siblings, died over the last two years from illnesses that he claimed were exacerbated when they lost their livelihoods.

The family has taken the paramount chief to court, along with other land agents involved in Pan-African Village. A high court injunction from October 2023 seen by NPR, suspended all construction on the disputed 123 acres of land claimed by the Akoa Anona family. But construction hasn't stopped and the injunction was never enforced by authorities.

Daniel Kweku, a 44-year-old farmer in the family, says when they discovered that new residents in the village were still building on their land, despite the court order, they were incensed. They confronted workers on the construction site, showed them the injunction and ordered them to stop building. When the police arrived, it was Kweku and two other family members that were arrested. Three days later they were released without charges. Since their release, the tensions have only deepened.

When Kweku tried to go back to his family's land, threats of violence made him turn away. "Some of the diasporas told us they have guns," he says, " so if we go there again, they will shoot us."

NPR was unable to verify all the claims but the Akoa Anona family, and two other residents in Asebu town said that gun ownership has become increasingly common in Pan African Village. One resident of the village, who settled there from Chicago, also told NPR that he had purchased a gun, to protect himself.

Kweku said the family were threatened by one resident of the village who hired a security guard armed with a pump-action rifle, stationed outside the compound of his new home — built on Kweku's family's land — and told him to shoot anyone trespassing on the property. "So we have our land and then the diasporas get (the) power to buy a gun, and are hunting us from the land."

The seemingly growing presence of arms, in a largely peaceful town where arms are not prevalent, has fuelled outrage in the Akoa Anona family, and among residents of the town resentful of the settlement. And the legal dispute over the land has also led to mounting frustration, as such cases can often take several years to resolve."

"It was a virgin land, no one occupied it."

The modest palace of Asebu's paramount chief is perched on a hill overlooking the town. "I wanted to show our diaspora brothers and sisters that we care for them," says Amanfi VII, the traditional ruler of Asebu, from his office. "They are from Africa and in Africa everybody is entitled to a piece of land."

For years, international visitors, many from the United States, have been drawn to the former slave ports dotted along Cape Coast, memorializing the horrors of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The challenge, he says, has been how to encourage them to stay. "If we don't tie them down with anything concrete, they will visit the castles, weep a little, and then the next moment they are on the plane back to the U.S." Pan-African Village was his solution, endorsed by Ghana's president, Nana Akufo Addo.

A view of the Cape Coast Castle.
/ Jude Lartey for NPR
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Jude Lartey for NPR
A view of the Cape Coast Castle.

The paramount chief insists he has the legal right over the land, which he describes as "stool land", meaning land under his control. He also insists that no one was displaced from it. "It was a virgin land, no one occupied it." And that only a few people farmed on the land, and were compensated.

Pan African Village is one of a rising number of diaspora settlements in Ghana, many which have emerged since the Year of Return. Another, formerly called Wakanda One City, named after the fictional kingdom in the Marvel comic book and movie Black Panther,is also planned in Cape Coast.

Others founded decades ago provide a more cautionary tale. Fihankra is one of them. The 200-acre development was settled in Ghana's eastern region by a group of African Americans in the mid-90's. Like Pan African Village, it was envisioned as a haven for returning diasporas. But the dream ended in bloodshed. A dispute between locals and the diaspora over ownership of the land, resulted in the murder of two African-American women in 2015. A local man was later convicted and sentenced to death.

"My title is Diaspora Development Queen for all of Ghana."

Sixty-nine-year-old Hoyen Vivalee is Lenval Skiers' neighbor. She arrived from Atlanta, Georgia, in 2022. Her two-story lime-green and orange home, with guest quarters rented to visitors, sits like a colorful dollhouse within the village. While the land dispute by farmers in Asebu continues, her dream of a new life in Pan-African Village goes on untouched.

At the far end of her white living room, she sits on a wooden throne, her feet on a stool, resting on a lion-print rug. Traditional Ghanaian kente fabric is draped over her shoulder. She is now known by her Ghanaian name, Na Bwafwoyena Oyem Mpese Tulu I, and a new title. "My title is Diaspora Development Queen for all of Ghana," she says.

69-year-old Na Bwafwoyena Oyem Mpese Tulu I, formerly known as Hoyen Vivalee. She says she was given a chieftaincy title and made  "Diaspora development queen of Ghana" by ethnic Ga chiefs.
/ Jude Lartey for NPR
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Jude Lartey for NPR
69-year-old Na Bwafwoyena Oyem Mpese Tulu I, formerly known as Hoyen Vivalee. She says she was given a chieftaincy title and made "Diaspora development queen of Ghana" by ethnic Ga chiefs.

Tulu says she was crowned by chiefs from the Ga ethnic group (prevalent in another region of the country) last year, to coordinate the diaspora in Ghana to develop the country. Like Skiers and the other new residents of the village, Mpese Tulus is evangelical about the importance of the diaspora spurring economic prosperity in the town.

"We want to lift people out of poverty, in Asebu and all of Ghana," Tulu says and has proposed investment plans to the paramount chief, currently under consideration. In her plan, the African diaspora to build pay-to-use toilets across the town, to tackle open defecation, and would receive a return on their investment from the fees.

She was born in Jamaica then lived most of her life in the U.S. But her future there began to feel bleak. "I retired and the money that I was gonna get for my social security could not pay a light bill or water rate." Then in 2021, a friend of hers in Atlanta, who'd bought land in Ghana, told her he would finally be traveling there to see it. "He said, 'why don't you come?'" she recalls.

Soon after she arrived, she acquired land in Pan-African Village.. "It was a salvation for me," she says. "I didn't have to pay a mortgage." According to another resident in the village, most of the homes cost $40,000 to $50,000 to build, a small fraction of the cost in the U.S. But while her life has flourished in the village, with new land and status, her disconnect with the community she now lords over grows clear. In explaining how local people live, she repeats a racial, African trope, describing their poverty in glowing terms.

"In Ghana, people are humble. They don't need much to live. Food is the most important to a lot of people. They don't even need a fork, they use their hands. They have no problems sleeping flat on the ground," she says. "I mean, it sounds like poverty, but when you think about it, how much do we really need to survive?"

She says that resentment from some local people around Pan-African Village was partly understandable. "They should have access to land but it's not our fault. We worked for our money and bought the land. Nothing was given to us for free."

An overview of Asebu town.
/ Jude Lartey for NPR
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Jude Lartey for NPR
An overview of Asebu town.

"We're afraid of what will happen."

Since the Year of Return, a new wave of visitors has largely been welcomed. More than 100,000 people visited the country in 2019 compared to the previous year, adding almost $2 billion to Ghana's economy, according to the government. Thousands have arrived and moved to Ghana since then, many drawn to a country marketed as a prosperous West African democracy on the rise.

But the country's growing attraction as a touch-point to the engagement with the continent, has become more controversial, as contrasting visions of Ghana have come to collide. While its international appeal as a haven has flourished, for many in Ghana, the country is in rapid decline. A cost of living crisis has exacerbated poverty, with near-record inflation of over 35% for much of last year. Ghana's currency has experienced a sharp decline and the country has agreed a $3 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund, after defaulting on most of its foreign debt.

Settlements and land transactions have long been a point of tension. While some who've settled in Pan-African Village have taken arms amid disputes, others have handled it differently. Seventy-five-year-old Nana Kofi — as he became re-named in Ghana — first arrived in Ghana from St. Louis in 1997, he explains from the serene compound of a medical clinic he built within his community, offering subsidized health care.

Nana Kofi outside the clinic he built with his daughter.
/ Jude Lartey for NPR
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Jude Lartey for NPR
Nana Kofi outside the clinic he built with his daughter.

In 2010, he moved to Elmina, along Cape Coast and bought plots of land from a local family. After the purchase, a group within the family argued they were not paid and were displaced from their land without compensation.

"It was a mess!" Kofi says, adding African diasporas who'd settled there were often caught in the middle of land disputes. "But I decided to pay them, because the amount they were asking for meant a lot to them, but to me a few hundred dollars for land doesn't hurt as much."

In Asebu, some are increasingly worried about how the rising tensions will end. Ato Wright, 44, owns a small farm there and also works as an agent. He is part of a growing class of middle men, helping foreigners buy land along Cape Coast.

"You cannot come to me and say, 'I want you to move from this land because I want to give it free of charge to your brother in the diaspora.' It will create animosity," Wright says. "Encouraging our African brothers to come to Asebu wasn't a bad idea at all. But let the locals also feel the same sense of belonging. Let us feel that we've also benefited."

Farmer Kwesi Otu Bensil, aggrieved at the loss of his ancestral land, describes the African diasporas in Pan-African Village in conflicting and revealing ways. At times they are his "brothers and sisters," then other times "the whites" who have occupied his land without his consent.

"They've built their houses, their bungalows. They've fenced it," Bensil says. "And now we can't go there. If we do, we're afraid of what will happen."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Emmanuel Akinwotu
Emmanuel Akinwotu is an international correspondent for NPR. He joined NPR in 2022 from The Guardian, where he was West Africa correspondent.