ACCRA, Ghana (Chicago Tribune) - Ever since Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana's first president, invited his classmates from Pennsylvania's Lincoln University to come home with him to help build Africa, African-Americans have been coming to Ghana to visit, work, volunteer, invest or live in what has become the quintessential African homeland.
W.E.B. Du Bois lived here. So did Maya Angelou. Today the country, once at the heart of Africa's slave-trading routes, has the largest community of African-Americans in West Africa, most of whom have come looking for their roots and a sense of purpose.
Now Ghana, a poor country eager for more American tourists, donors and investors, is about to make life even easier for its far-flung black diaspora: It plans to soon offer slave descendants lifetime visas or even dual Ghanaian-U.S. citizenship.
"Who we most want as tourists and investors are our own people who left 200 or 300 years ago," said Jake Otanka Obetsebi-Lamptey, the country's tourism chief, whose department last month was renamed the Ministry for Tourism and Diasporan Relations. "It's not just about blood ties. It's good economic sense."
Lifetime visas should be easy for regular visitors to get. But the new passports - still awaiting approval in Parliament - won't be handed to just anyone, Obetsebi-Lamptey said. African-Americans eager for formal Ghanaian identity will have to commit to invest, help develop or live in Ghana because "citizenship carries some responsibility," he said.
Ghana does not offer any particular tax breaks for investors from the diaspora. But it is eager for help from its relations abroad, be it regular visits from American tourists, donations to development projects or investment in job-creating enterprises it desperately needs, officials said.
Winning such commitment should not be much of a problem if the existing African-American community, which the U.S. Embassy estimates at below 5,000 people, is an indication.
Valerie Papaya Mann, president of the 100-member African American Association of Ghana, for instance, put together $10,000 in donations from Americans to build toilets and a cafeteria for a school in a rural region she has adopted. Villagers in the area have declared the former Washington AIDS expert, who has lived in Ghana three years, their "queen mother of development" and given her a traditional Ghanaian royal name: Nana Ama Jygnewa.
Naima Mateen and her husband, Ron Pickings, came to Ghana four years ago, mainly because "my husband wanted to make a difference," Mateen said. The couple, formerly a university admissions director and a corporate accountant in Ohio, sell solar ovens in the hills an hour's drive from Accra, the capital.
For them - as for many African-American immigrants - adjusting to life in Ghana has been more of a challenge than they anticipated.
"In the U.S., I was very much aware of my African-ness, of being different. I came here thinking I was really in touch with my African-ness," said Mateen, who now wears a traditional Ghanaian robe and headdress. Instead, "I found out how much I was in touch with my American-ness," she said, laughing.
Ghanaians, whom she had hoped would greet her as a lost sister, called her obruni, or "white foreigner," the term used for any foreigner with a lighter skin tone. Giving up her "country club lifestyle" for a house in the sticks wasn't easy either.
She says she still misses being able to buy high-quality things cheaply. And when a Ghanaian acquaintance insisted that her ancestors' being kidnapped into slavery had been God's will and his way of ensuring she wouldn't become Muslim - many slaves were taken from Muslim areas of Africa - Mateen, a convert to Islam, didn't know what to say.
"Here I'm obruni, an American, a foreigner," she said. After years of touting her African roots, "now I think of the U.S. as home," she said.
Mona Boyd, an Arkansas native who moved to Ghana in 1994, also had a rough time at first.
When the former real estate investor opened a tourism agency in Accra, her employees didn't show up when it rained. Other days they insisted they needed time off to attend the funeral of "my uncle's cousin's best friend."
"I'm a typical Type A person, and I was so frustrated I was spitting bullets," she recalled.
But more than a decade later, Boyd has settled in. She's learned a little Ewe, the language of her Ghanaian husband, developed a taste for roasted goat and learned to temper her once "brutal" frankness. Her employees now get days off to accommodate funerals, and when they arrive late on a rainy day, Boyd - who today runs one of Ghana's top tour companies - is philosophical.
"I'm part African, and they're part American," she said with a laugh. "I've changed tremendously. You have to."
While few African-American arrivals in Ghana count their move to the land of their ancestors as a complete success, some come close.
Kohain Halevi, a New York rabbi and part of the U.S. black-consciousness movement, had toyed with the idea of moving to Africa "as long as I can remember." On a first visit to Ghana he "fell in love with the spiritual connection," and in 1994 he left the school he was running in the U.S. to make a permanent jump to West Africa.
More than a decade later, he and his Ghanaian wife, Mabel, run a small hotel and restaurant serving Southern fried chicken.
The move had its rough spots, including new neighbors who expected a "rich" American to solve all their problems.
"It's been a long time since we were together," Halevi said of life with his Ghanaian kinsmen. But now, "I realize how much I have in common with people here." And "it's not many people who can achieve a lifelong dream," he said. "I feel blessed."
Obetsebi-Lamptey, Ghana's tourism minister, said his agency is working hard to make life easier for African-Americans coming to Ghana. Next year, to mark the country's 50th anniversary of independence, it hopes to launch a media campaign to educate Ghanaians about the country's slave-trading past - a topic still largely overlooked in classrooms - and about how to treat visitors.
He wants Ghanaians to stop referring to African-Americans as obruni, for instance, and instead call them awkwaaba anyemi, which roughly means "welcome brother (or sister)."
"They come here, and the first thing they're called is `stranger,'" he said. "It's a real slap in the face. We want them to be called `kin.'"