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African Americans travel to Cameroon to discover their origins

posted 7 Jan 2011, 06:14 by Sam Mbale   [ updated 7 Jan 2011, 06:17 ]

Africans from the diaspora come back to Africa to check on their origins. Not just culturally. These days, DNA testing will pinpoint where your really come from.

At Cameroon's slave trade museum in Bimbia, groups of chained men and women re-enact scenes from the slave trade for African American visitors who have come to learn more about their heritage.

Chained together and tied to trees, the actors graphically demonstrate what the visitors' ancestors may have experienced as slaves.

The visitors are part of a wave of African diaspora coming from all over the world to places like Bimbara, a key outpost on the European slave trade route, to re-connect with their roots and understand more about what their ancestors went through.

"Bimbia happens to be one of those areas in West Africa that had an early touch with the Portuguese, the Spanish and even the British people who were trading with Western Europe. So that's how they came here. When they came here they lured our chiefs, brought in items to deceive our chiefs," says Ekwalla, a local chieftain who speaks to visitors at the Slave Trade Village about the history of slavery in Cameroon.

Talks given by staff at the centre offer visitors the opportunity to track the history of slavery back to their family's origins. For many, the experience is an emotional one.

"It strengthens me to know that we went through that and made it. And I just feel so sad for all those that didn't, and I will never forget this," said Regina Jackson, an American visitor whose ancestors came from Bambira.

Jackson is part of a group of 50 Americans who recently came to the country as a delegation after discovering through a new DNA database study in the States that they have roots in Cameroon.

The American DNA Company, set up by a pair of geneticists uses advanced DNA technology to look at cheek cells to see what DNA has been maternally and paternally inherited.

As well as visiting the slave trade centre, Jackson and her group were treated to an evening performance by local dancers and musicians where they met with elders from the communities their ancestors are thought to have come from.

The American DNA Company has so far matched over 6,000 African Americans to Cameroonian heritage.

Co-founder of the organisation Gina Paige, says the discovery is one step in what they hope to be a much larger study linking diaspora all over the world to their African roots.

"My co-founder in African Ancestry is an African-American geneticist called Dr Rick Kittle, he is currently at the University of Illinois. He spent 12 years compiling a database of indigenous African DNA lineage. So we have a database of 25.000 DNA samples, if you will from all over the continent of Africa," said Paige.

Since the project started the American researchers have been working increasingly closely with slave trade heritage sights in Cameroon and elsewhere in West Africa to help encourage a cultural exchange. This year they plan to build a base in Cameroon to broaden the reach of the DNA database and encourage more Africans living on the continent and abroad to investigate their ancestral origins.