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A West African’s Heritage Journey: “The Seeds They Sow Become Family Trees”

A Journey

A West African’s Heritage Journey: “The Seeds They Sow Become Family Trees”

According to a Toronto Statistics Professor and the Coefficient of Relationship theory, you inherit 25% of your genetic makeup from each of your 4 Grandparents, 12.5% from your 8 Great-Grandparents, 6.25% from your 16 Great-Great Grandparents, 3.25% from your 32 Great-Great-Great Grandparents, and 1.56% from your 64 Great-Great-Great-Great Grandparents.

There’s so much that can be gained from taking an interest in your family tree, especially for young black millennials.

There was a good friend over the years who devoted a lot of time working on his family tree. I consider him a genius at the craft because he literally seemed to have a photographic memory for genealogy, a very in-depth knowledge of history and meticulous record keeping. I credit him for helping me understand how to navigate the various dynamics of researching my family tree and locating a lot of the family data I’ve gathered so far. Ultimately though, I had to find resolve in knowing that connecting the dots in my family tree was subsequent to the depth and distance I was personally willing to make. For me to embrace the fullness of my identity as a black African Immigrant in America and what each of those layers mean for me, I needed to know more about those who sowed their seeds for me to get here.

South Carolina native, Thomalind Polite , with the help of trained researchers traced her roots up to 250 years ago for at least one of her parental lineages. She is one of the few African Americans able to trace a direct lineage to an African Ancestor through documents and records.  Her 7th generation African Grandmother, Priscilla arrived in South Carolina, enslaved on a ship from Sierra Leone in 1756.

Nigerian, Ade Omole pursued his maternal Grandmother’s assertion that family from long ago were taken from there and never returned. Omole took a dna ancestry test, through which he found new living African American relatives with some from the Caribbean.

You get a better grasp of history seeing it through the eyes of your ancestors and learning how they lived and reacted to the issues of their time. African American Author, Alex Haley took America and the world through a remarkable story of an American family’s saga over 7 generations, starting in the Gambia.

Grandpa Tommy was a Sierra Leonean Playwright, Poet, & Journalist born in Lagos, Nigeria in 1916. One of his pioneering work was the establishment of a writing system for the Krio language, the lingua franca of Sierra Leone and translating Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar into Krio during the 1930s.

I started looking up Grandpa Tommy about 10 years ago. I had never met him but the little bit I knew about him gave me life. Growing up in Freetown, I remember reading a small book of his, filled with an array of African folktales and short stories. “Tales of the Forest” was one of the first books I encountered intimately as a child. Grandpa’s animated characters of Bra Tortoise, Bra Rabbit and all of its other 26 stories of African parable and wit always felt more authentic to me in the way a little West African boy would appreciate. I left the book in Freetown when I relocated to the U.S. but I always had Grandpa Tommy in mind ever since. It was always evident to me that if I ever wanted to learn more about the family, I would start with him.

My research started out as a basic google search for the book I had left in Freetown typing in his name, Thomas Decker, and the title of his book. I wasn’t sure what I’d find, but I was hoping that it would lead me somewhere. I was stunned at the search results, which turned out to be way more than I expected. The more I learned about him, the more I learned about Freetown and each road would lead me to new discoveries of other family ancestors I never knew or heard of.

If you are from a large African family, chances are that the oral tradition is strong with many of the older relatives doing all they can to pass on the family history to the next generation. For young African immigrants, it gets difficult to retain these traditions overseas as Grandparents especially, usually choose to remain back home. Sometimes the best time to explore the tree with them is when you travel back. I took that opportunity to speak with a Grand-Aunt while on a trip to Sierra Leone in 2010. I cherished every little information she provided about some of my ancestors and plugged them away into my notebook filled with scribbles and diagrams. Over the years, I googled, sorted through archives, visited libraries, and I’ve come to know Grandmothers I never knew of, and Great Grandfathers I’d never heard of.

Family trees mean different things to different people. Some see it as a path to understanding themselves a little better, others see it as a legacy to pass down to children and grandchildren. For some, it’s just an intriguing reminder of the timeless and priceless value of family. It has been all of these for me.

By the time undergrads are finishing up college or starting families, the thought starts settling in to look up the family history. Chances are, the thought begins to get sidetracked as you start to realize that there is so much about the family tree that you don’t know. You really don’t have to be a genealogist or hire one to get started. There are hundreds of tree-building platforms online with tools to start building your family tree. Certain Universities and Research Centers also offer large databases of digitized records going back hundreds of years that you may find useful, and yes there are records there for African American and African families. Local libraries, historical archives, and institutions such as the Library of Congress are also great places to check for family records and anything at all that may give you a bit of insight into your family’s heritage. You just never know where the road will lead you but start somewhere even if all you have is a name.

Think about it, going back just 6 generations of ancestors, you have at least 124 Grandparents who are part of your ‘identity village’. The delight, in knowing more about the seeds each of them have sown into the ground towards your own Family Tree.

The Journey continues…

(Freetown Landing Pier, 1870) In 1854, German Linguist Sigismund Koelle published “Polyglotta Africana”, which listed vocabulary he had identified from over 100 languages spoken in Freetown at the time. By the 1850s Freetown had already become the new settlement for freed slaves from North America, several Jamaican Maroons, and thousands of West Africans freed from slave ships on the Atlantic.


German-Nigerian Singer, Nneka “Africans”

Akindele Decker is a Sierra Leonean poet and writer with ancestral links across West Africa and the other side of the Atlantic. He resides in Maryland, USA with his family.

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