A few weeks ago, I received the results of my DNA test back from African Ancestry, Inc. I had wanted to receive the results in time for a DNA reveal ceremony at the Leon H. Sullivan Foundation Africa Policy forum in Atlanta, Georgia, in September. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the materials to the company in time. That may have been best, though, since I wasn’t really sure how I felt about the results, and receiving them in private has given me time to think about it out of the spotlight.
I am not saying I am disappointed, because I’m not at all. The test results reveal that I am descended from the Tikar, Hausa and Fulani people now in Cameroon. I say now in Cameroon because no one can say with certainty where my ancestors were when they were kidnapped from Africa. This is where they are today. That’s close enough for me.
Unlike some who have gotten their DNA results and been disappointed because it wasn’t what they thought it would be, I had no results I was hoping to receive. Actor/Africa activist Isaiah Washington, whose DNA linked him to the Mende and Temne people of Sierra Leone, says that DNA has memory and once asked me and some other people where we felt most connected on the continent. My immediate answer was Kenya because of the work I have done there and the many friends I have. Also, I have been asked by Africans elsewhere on the continent whether I was Kenyan.
Of course, I also have been asked if I was Nigerian, and for awhile I did wonder if I was Yoruba like so many Nigerians I know. Upon further reflection, it occurred to me that I have done a lot of work on Angola and that I might be Umbundu because I have a connection to Angola. Talking to Isaiah, I once wondered if my results would lead to Sierra Leone, as they have for so many of us in the African Diaspora.
Learning that I am of Cameroonian heritage has been a revelation and a relief. It is a revelation because I didn’t expect it, and research shows that my people (at least the Tikar and Hausa part) migrated from Sudan long ago. So I am connected to a land on which I have spent much time helping to develop and implement policy.
These two groups are Bantu, while the Fulani are Nilotic. Thus, I am linked to the two major African ethnic ancestral groups.
It is a relief because I am adopted and always wanted to know about my heritage. However, I had no one who could tell me since my natural mother is deceased. I met my natural mother, but at the time it did not occur to me to ask her about our family history. I was nine years old at the time. Still, she did tell me in a way because I used the matrilineal test to find my path back to Africa. As African Ancestry officials will tell you, going through your mother’s line has a greater than 90% chance of leading back to the continent, while going through your father’s line has only a 65% chance of doing so. There are many reasons for this disparity that I will not go into at this time.
This 65% chance means that many who trace their heritage through their father’s line (only men can do this by the way) find that it often leads to Europe. This is what happened in Atlanta when Martin Luther King III and Dr. Julius Garvey (Marcus Garvey’s son) had their DNA tested. Their matrilineal tests led to Africa – King to the Mende people in Sierra Leone and Garvey to Fulanis with traces from various countries. But their patrilineal tests both led to Europe. Martin Luther King Jr.’s line led to Portugal, while Marcus Garvey’s led to Spain.
For some, this news about Diaspora heroes was deflating. There was concern that it could discredit the tests in the sense that many Diasporans would be discouraged from taking it. Had we known earlier, certainly we could have located a female relative of King and Garvey to test their matrilineal lineages. In future, this will be the prudent course for celebrities when we are trying to determine their parents’ lineage.
Nevertheless, any member of the Diaspora who finds a link to Spain or Portugal quite possibly is linked to the Moors, the Africans who conquered and ruled the Iberian Peninsula for centuries. Even so, we in the Diaspora have to acknowledge that most of us have European heritage as well as African. We should let no one tell us we should be more proud of the European linkage or more ashamed of it either. It is what it is. We determine ultimately who we are – not our ancestors. They and our parents give us the building blocks on which we construct our lives.
Whether we fail or succeed is mostly up to us. People have succeeded with problematic genetics and/or troubled upbringings. I hope that I have used well the genetics my birth mother gave me and the lessons my adopted mother provided.
So I am pleased to finally have my link definitively established to Africa. Knowing that you have African heritage generally is not the same as knowing specifically where your people are on the continent. Being a member of the African Diaspora feels more tangible to me now. I am proud to be of Cameroonian descent, although I feel no different today about championing the cause of Africa as a whole. I will continue to write about and advocate for Africa generally, as well as Cameroon specifically.
I guess that’s just the way I am.