ACCRA, Ghana— Dining in East Legon at the popular eatery Living Room with Ghanaian-American filmmaker, writer and social impact activist Kuukua Eshun is an awe-inspiring event in itself.
Between bites of banku –a delicious corn and cassava dough formed in single-serving balls – and whole-grilled, freshwater tilapia seasoned with a traditional blend of aromatic herbs and spices, Eshun shares the story of her upbringing in Ohio until her repatriation to Ghana in 2018.
Her decision to return home has certainly bore fruit: partnerships with Facebook, Huawei, The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and co-founding two non-profit initiatives only scratch the surface of success for this genius storyteller.
As we chat, many colleagues, supporters and passers-by warmly stop to greet her. She graciously welcomes spirited but brief conversations with her peers while giving me a sincerely apologetic look.”It’s been a while since I’ve been out and about, and it feels good to see my people. Ghana’s energy around this time is on another level,” she admits with a brilliant smile.
The award-winning creative exudes humility and grace, despite her impressive professional portfolio and having worked with some of the top names in the entertainment business – such as actress Michaela Coel and rapper Vic Mensa and co-directed a short film with Nigerian superstar Wizkid, for his critically-acclaimed and Grammy-nominated Made In Lagos deluxe album.
“Filmmaking is my God-given vehicle to amplify my social activism work,” she tells ESSENCE. For many, Eshun is one among a promising new era of African cultural diplomats: an exemplary crop of inspiring thought-leaders and global industry players who are bravely forging a path of diaspora unity, raising the stakes and challenging social conversations and consciousness around what it means to be young, gifted and Black.
She was recently selected as a Rise global ambassador to scout innovative youth talent in a billion-dollar project with former Google CEO Eric Schmidt. She wants to encourage African storytelling to raise awareness of social and mental health challenges. “Globally, African countries have been underrepresented in creative communities, so the work that we do right now as leaders can change the trajectory for the better for future generations,” she adds.
Abdul Karim Abdullah, Co-Founder and CEO of the world-renowned Afrochella Festival, agrees that there is a vastly untapped audience for cross-continental collaboration within the recent boom of inbound travel.
“Travelers that come from across the Diaspora finally get to see themselves in a country where everyone looks like them. People that come to Ghana for Afrochella tend to go home, share their experience and influence at least one person to attend the following year,” he says.
Afrochella embodies the essence of Akwaaba, or ‘Welcome Home’: it is a celebration of Africa’s diverse culture and the vibrant work of Africa’s brightest and best on the creative and entrepreneurial scene. Designed to elevate and highlight millennial talent on the continent, Afrochella’s interactive experience serves as a high point for thousands of attendees seeking to be educated, elevated and explorative of various cultures through music, cuisine and multimedia.
Abdullah, who is also a US-based ambassador for tourism for the government of Ghana and a beloved cultural diplomat, is proud of his team’s work and has no intentions of slowing down. “My dream was to create an ecosystem where we can all see each other – our shared stories, abilities, and power. I knew with the right team, we would be able to create opportunities and build sustainable growth for the future of the Diaspora.”
Through Ghana’s Year of Return and Beyond The Return tourism initiatives in 2019 and 2020, other African countries have been given a platform for exploring their own relationships with the Diaspora and establishing connections with their brothers and sisters abroad through a public-private partnership framework.
For example, Senegal has deepened the cultural, spiritual and business ties for African-Americans by hosting The Return – a seven-day Juneteenth experience in the nation’s vibrant capital of Dakar.
In Liberia, the Year of The Diaspora reunion initiative in 2021 and 2022 celebrated 200 years of resettlement on the African continent and welcomed thousands of visitors. A series of activities showcased a diverse mix of live events, awards celebrations, as well as insightful and educational tours. There are also impact-related projects extending beyond the year-long marker, such as the first annual Agricultural Expo hosted by the Liberian Diaspora Agriculture Group. The country, which was founded by formerly enslaved people from the United States, is known for many historic firsts: including being the first African nation to give voting rights to women and the first to elect a female Head of State, former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
The path that African women in leadership positions bravely chart is a necessary turning point of visibility in many industries, particularly those primarily dominated by men. It has made prioritizing socio-economic development a key focus for Eshun, whose latest experimental film, Born Of The Earth, takes viewers on a journey of what it means to explore freedom and acceptance in the beauty industry. The film has already screened to rave reviews in Senegal, Chicago, Detroit, New York and most recently, her homeland of Ghana.
“After being told for so long that we are not enough, Born Of The Earth is about African identity being reliable, truthful, warrior-like and mighty… exploring freedom, joy and acceptance as Black people,” she shares. With this introspective on-screen intervention making waves overseas, Eshun also signals her intention to work with more organizations to show the film in various parts of the diaspora community, including the Caribbean.
As someone who is proud of her Jamaican and Ghanaian heritage, Founder of WOODXWATTA Festival, Lakeshia Ford has long been an advocate of fostering meaningful relationships between Ghana and the African Diaspora. “WOODXWATTA was designed to explore interests, investments and innovation between Jamaica and Ghana. My hope is that the Caribbean and Africa can identify synergies, collaborate and work in harmony in areas such as culture, technology, real estate, trade and business,” she explains.
The seasoned communicator, whose agency, Ford Communications, is based in Accra, hopes to leverage cultural diplomacy to deepen relations between both spaces and to encourage more collaborative efforts. “For example, we hosted Dancehall icon Stonebwoy and culture writer Ivie Anie to hold space on day one of our festival to talk about using music to bridge the gap between both Ghana and the Caribbean. Together with top industry visionaries from the Diaspora like Benewaah Boateng from Spotify, Surf Ghana’s CEO Sandy Alibo and Ray Klien from Republic Bank, who also participated in our panels, we’re having these conversations, looking at the challenges in both regions from various angles so that the solutions can take a layered approach.”
The domino effect of reconnecting with one’s African roots through culture and the arts is also an indispensable theme for Abdul Abdullah, Co-Founder Ken Agyapong and their team, who are closing the chapter on the Afrochella experience in Ghana after six years – news that certainly took supporters by surprise. Culture Management Group, the parent company for Afrochella, says it’s now proudly opening the doors for the next era of the brand, which has evolved and will now be known as Afrofuture.
This transition from Afrochella, which was shockingly announced on the final night of this year’s festival, exemplifies the collaborations fostered globally over the last six years. But, it has not been without controversy. In 2022, the former brand faced a copyright infringement lawsuit from California-based Coachella Festival and its parent company, Goldenvoice. The matter is still pending in court, and both parties remain tight-lipped on the procedural details.
However, as his team continues to raise interest and investments, a resolute Abdullah says they are stepping into a new level of existence with Afrofuture. “I feel a sense of relief and freedom – more than anything. We are restarting with no limitation and it feels amazing. We will take everything we learned over the years, reimagine the future of Africa and take this new venture worldwide.”
He also strongly hints at doing more in other locations and with other demographics, such as the Caribbean region. “We know that there’s an appetite to connect the African Diaspora to the Caribbean and vice versa. We’ve always had an interest to expand to other countries and have a few opportunities in the works with Caribbean entities.”
For these African cultural diplomats, limits simply don’t exist. Taking risks is the name of the game as all three continue to work in their respective fields alongside Ghanaian-based and international stakeholders to create more programs and opportunities to educate African people.
Noting that there is more work to be done to improve local communities and establish long-term growth, especially in the service industry, Abdullah emphasizes that Afrofuture’s focus will be “to build stronger relationships across the diaspora and further unveil all that Africa has to offer.”
Ford intends to continue WOODXWATTA Festival’s collaborations with the Ghanaian government’s Office of Diaspora Affairs year-round to bridge the gap between West Africa and the Caribbean, which she hopes will fuel a blossoming ecosystem worthy of investment to reimagine new futures for both communities.
Eshun remains steeped in her Christian faith and laser-focused on centering much-needed resources from global entities to fund and funnel sustainable opportunities for African Youth and entrepreneurship. “I said on Twitter a few days ago that ‘Your success and prosperity must reflect in the lives of others.’ This is the time for Africa, and we will become the fullness of who God calls us to be.”
About Tenille Clarke:
Tenille Clarke is an avid storyteller, seasoned publicist and cultural enthusiast from Trinidad and Tobago who often pens about her ongoing love affair with travel, entertainment and culture through a Caribbean lens. Follow her digital journey @tenilleclarke1 on Instagram and Twitter.