Finding Me, an account of a genetic journey to Afrika by Beaula McCalla.
Finding Me, an account of a genetic journey to Afrika is the story of how one woman found her African roots. Beaula McCalla volunteered for a television programme that was trying to link people to their roots through DNA. The following is her own account of the incredible journey she made to meet her family.
“A people without a history is like a tree without roots”, Marcus Garvey
I will be found by you
and bring you back from your captivity.
I will gather you from all the Nations,
from all the places where I have driven you.
And I will bring you to the place from which I caused you to be carried away captive.
From Jeremiah 29:10 – 14
“In spelling Afrika I use ‘k’ rather than a ‘c’ because for many activists the ‘k’ represents an acknowledgement that ‘Africa’ is not the true name of that vast continent. When I speak of Afrika I’m bringing an Afrikan-centred view to my meaning. Therefore, the Afrika spelled with a ‘k’ represents a defined and potentially different Afrika, and also it symbolises for me a coming back together of Afrikan people world-wide. Let it be understood that when I speak of Afrika and when most others speak of ‘Africa’, we are coming from two different worldviews.”
H. Madhubuti, in Black Men: Obsolete, Single, Dangerous? Published 1990
Identity is so important to people. From birth and the beginning of the socialization process we begin to ask, who am I? Where do I come from? And where am I going? My reasons for finding my ancestral home and culture after at least 400 years of dislocation were spiritual and a necessity for me to know who I am today. It was a matter of identity. I needed to know of my pre-slavery roots if this was at all possible.
Between 1451 and 1870, 12 million Afrikans were shipped into slavery. This process obliterated our ancestry, most of the slaves and their descendants lost knowledge of who they were, and from where they originally came.
I came into this world in 1965. I grew up in the suburbs of Bristol, unaware of the horrific crimes of slavery and the port’s involvement in the slave trade. I did know, however, that I was a descendant of slaves.
My parents were born on the Caribbean island of Jamaica, so were their parents and grandparents. They were not natives to the island, so they must have been brought there as part of the slave trade.
In 1472 Portuguese soldiers reached the Bight of Benin in the Gulf of Guinea on the west coast of Afrika. Direct trade involving exchange in gold, ivory, spices, manufactured goods and copper, ensued between the two countries. Portuguese bases were built on the Islands of Sao Tome and Fernado Po (Bioko), from where trade with the interior of mainland Congo was conducted. Sugar plantations were also established on the islands.
At this point the Portuguese started to engage in the transatlantic slave trade , transporting slaves to the islands to work on the plantations.
I was informed by the local inhabitants in Ureka on the island of Bioko, that stories had been handed down through the generations of mostly young girls and women going ‘missing’ from the coast. The Bubi people who lived there had sought refuge from captors, in the equatorial forest in the hills. The villagers would travel down to the coast to fish and collect fruits and it would have been on one of these occasions that possibly one of my distant relatives was captured and sold into the transatlantic slave trade. The local people settled forming a tiny village, Ureka, which to this day has no main road leading to it. People travel by foot, trekking through the forest or by boat around the island. I spent some 12 hours trekking from Moka to Ureka. The experience was exhilarating and tiring at the same time. It was here in the Bubi heartland that I felt strangely close in a spiritual way to my ancestors. I was also told of how the Bubi people originally came from Cameroon, to escape capture they fled to the island.
The British education system taught me all about the European-centred view of the transatlantic slave trade and the justification of such a crime. Our culture, our family name, in essence our identity had been erased from us, in return for wealth for the oppressors.
In my teens I watched the television series Roots based on the book by Alex Haley. I never understood the feelings stirred within me, feelings of deep shame and embarrassment. Later in life I watched the film Amistad (about the transatlantic slave trade and the experience of enslaved Afrikans, and the legal arguments about freedom and slavery in America in 1740). The film made me cry, because I felt it was about me, the same mother clutching her baby on the side of the ship and ready to die. It could have been me, one of the sick and diseased Afrikans who was thrown overboard. But no! The reality is that I survived, endured rape, separation from my family, given a new name, branded and scarred. The impact of the Afrikan Holocaust, the Maafa, the greatest forced migration in history, leaves mental, physical and socio-economical effects. But I survived.
In my early thirties, to ease the pain of a lost past, I dreamed of the Afrika of the ancient Kings and Queens of Alkebulan. The Kingdom of Nubia, Empires of Ghana, Mali, Benin. Of times when our civilisations thrived and was highly regarded by the rest of the world.
I never dreamed that one day I would rediscover my lost roots. There was no known history for us in the Diaspora. No story to tell. Until…
It was a wet dreary day in August year 2000. I sluggishly arrived at work and to the main office to collect my messages. There in my drop was a leaflet with the words ‘Are You Interested In your Ancestry?’ written across it. I was intrigued and of course interested. I had to investigate further and decided to give the organisation a call to satisfy my curiosity.
Tracing your ancestors back to Afrika using the science of DNA analysis? Not knowing what to expect or the full extent of what was to follow, I went through the procedure to donate a sample of my DNA and have the profile on the maternal line of my family, compared to those on an international database. The aim was to find some evidence of my ethnic origin and locate geographically where in the world that particular tribe live today. (DNA is a chemical which is found in cells. It is unique to an individual but it carries genetic information which can tell us about where we are from in the world as well as about what we have inherited from our parents and grandparents. Mitochondrial DNA, the part of DNA used in this project, comes through the female line and is often called the ‘motherline’)
The journey then became incredible.
Along with 228 other Afrikan-Caribbean Britons, whose criteria for selection was that we should have four grandparents of Caribbean extraction, I took part in an unprecedented genetic experiment. A documentary for the BBC was to be made following the project.
It took the scientists in Cambridge a few months to analyse my DNA swab sample. On the 14th February 2001, I went to meet scientist Peter Forster in Cambridge so he could tell me from which tribe in Afrika I originated.
The red dot on this map of Afrika indicates where Bioko is.
Through all my studying of Afrika, I had never heard of Bioko, the Bubi people or even the country of Equatorial Guinea. I had some research to do. I soon discovered that Equatorial Guinea was a former Spanish colony and gained their independence in 1968. October 12th is Equatorial Guinea’s Independent Day.
Formerly known as Fernando Po, the Island of Bioko was settled by the Bubi people in the 13th century. They came from the mainland. In 1472, the Portuguese ‘discovered’ the island and claimed it for Portugal. Portuguese settlers moved to the island. In 1778, the Portuguese surrendered the island to the Spanish, who ruled the island until Independence in 1968. In the 19th century, Britain used the island as a base for the Navy’s anti-slavery patrols. Many enslaved Africans rescued from slaving ships were resettled on Bioko. Their descendants are known as ‘Fernandinos’.
Prior to travelling to meet the ancestors, I watched the television series Roots by Alex Haley again. The images were still very powerful and conjured up deep emotions since seeing the same film some 20 years earlier. Up until that point, the film along with Amistad were the only and closest source to what may have happened in my lineage.
I read up on the geography, politics and history of the Island of Bioko. I raided the Internet for useful web sites in an attempt to find out as much as I could about this indigenous tribe, the Bubi. This was the beginning of me reclaiming my true heritage and culture.