The Ga people of Ghana, West Africa, begin a celebration in August that continues as a month-long thanksgiving known as Ga Homowo – the Harvest Festival. Many ethnic groups in Ghana and all over Africa have similar traditions.
Ceremonies and rituals vary, but the purpose is the same – remembering lean times, being thankful for present blessings, and praying for future abundance.
There are no written documents to account for the origin of Homowo. But, according to traditional stories, the Ga people emigrated from the Middle East and descended throughout the Sahara to Benin City in Nigeria. They settled there for a time before relocating to Accra, some time between the 14th and 16th centuries.
Legends say the Ga had only a bit of corn and palm oil when they landed, which women ground and mixed together to make kpokpoi. After the men caught fish, the clan enjoyed their first meal after landing – kpokpoi and fish soup.
The immigrants planted millet and corn seeds they had brought with them. Then, they endured a long, lean waiting period while crops matured. When the harvest came, the Ga held a feast and gave thanks to their gods. The first celebration became the Hom Yi Womo, meaning a “hooting at hunger.”
Thanksgiving began in the United States in the 17th century as a celebration, a friendly coming-together of European settlers and the indigenous people of North America. The Native Americans had welcomed the Pilgrims to this land and shared the vast knowledge they had about the continent’s flora and fauna. They explained planting corn and plowing and taught the newcomers trapping and fishing.
According to tradition, both peoples slaughtered turkeys and made dressing and had a version of cranberry sauce at the first Thanksgiving. They feasted together. During those tough early days for the newcomers, Native Americans extended their hands and opened their hearts. Their hospitality and support helped Europeans survive in an unfamiliar land.
We know of the bitter and bloody relationship that developed when conquest and colonization replaced the spirit of sharing and cooperation. The vicious assault on Native Americans is not widely discussed anymore. The holiday has come to mean turkey and the trimmings, pre-Christmas sales and football. The history of the brutal process used by Europeans to dispossess Native Americans of their land is not pretty. And now it is almost completely ignored.
In Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad had Marlowe define the “conquest of the Earth” as “taking from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves.”
In both sub-Saharan Africa and North America, the native people were mostly cooperative in the early days of European arrival. Nevertheless, conquest and colonization ensued later on both sides of the Atlantic.
Although some of us of African descent in this country now enjoy modest affluence, the overall status of our people must be defined largely in terms of the less fortunate.
For those without jobs, without hope or dignity in the ghettos of St. Louis or the squalor of Soweto or Port-au-Prince, Thanksgiving can be meaningless as a holiday. It can be mostly a grim reminder of misery and powerlessness.
African Americans should not forget the early occasion that brought this particular holiday into existence in this country. We must dedicate ourselves to remember the “least along us” in a society that has effectively shut out so many of our people. Indeed, we are especially obligated to support policies and initiatives that strengthen family life and enable the poor to share in the nation’s bounty.
That is more true than ever, with a U.S. racist, misogynist, hate-mongering president who frequently stands with white nationalists and white supremacists, not to mention hostile foreign powers, while undermining and abandoning many of this nation’s strongest, most productive and protective alliances.
Let us all give thanks for what blessings we have – and commit ourselves to resisting resurgent white nationalism and white male supremacy and working toward a future with greater racial equity, where blessings are more equitably shared.