My Year of Return: Reflections on Memory and Healing

Article author Marwa Eltahir

The year 2019 marked 400 years since European colonizers landed on the shores of West Africa and stole the first captives to establish their initial colony in Virginia in 1619. Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo coined 2019 as the Year of Return, marking this anniversary as an opportunity for people of African descent to discover their ancestral roots and as an endorsement for growth of Ghana’s tourism economy. Around 800,000 visas were issued to Ghana in 2019, and the Ghanaian government opened the option of visa on arrival for many international citizens.

Ghana and other African nations, such as Ethiopia, have coupled relaxed visa restrictions with increased flight connectivity to facilitate access to their major cities and to boost tourism. These reforms have resulted in nearly a 6% rise in African tourism—the second-fastest growing region for global tourism. From Nigeria to Ethiopia to South Africa, a collective call brought the African diasporic community from across the world flocking to the warm corners of the continent in 2019.

I joined this wave and returned to the rich, sand-covered lands of northern Sudan this winter. As I stepped into the humble home of my grandparents in Omdurman, I felt awash in nostalgia that transported me to my nine-year-old self. Memories of racing to the corner store with my cousins, the smell of fresh kisra cooking, and the familiar grunts of my grandfather clicking through Indian soap operas flooded my mental landscape. Family and guests whirled in and out of our festooned living room to welcome me back. Vaguely familiar faces beaming with smiles kissed me on each cheek, their warm eyes reassuring yet expectant.

After 15 years away from my home and extended family, this trip provided a sobering view of my complicated love affair with Africa. In my absence, time had aged my aunt and uncles. My grandparents had been laid to rest. Old shops closed down, and a new government scrambled to find its identity. In between sips of tea and biscuits, I chewed on the fact that my return marked a significant moment in time—not just for me but for all those I returned to. My coming back had opened the channel for sticky memories and old family wounds.

That first night the jet-lag kept me cradled in bed wide awake and wondering just where my nine-year-old self called home. What am I returning to? Like many other first-generation immigrants caught between East and West, I held lofty expectations for my return to Sudan. I sought a connection with my ancestors in their land and through their tongue—beyond the limitations of colonialism. But I soon realized that before I could understand or connect with my ancestors, I’d have to begin with healing in my immediate family.

My return to Sudan coincided with the post-revolutionary trauma that we, Sudanese people, sought healing from, after thirty years of tyrannical dictatorship and its violent legacies. This pain, deep and resonant, reared its ugly head in the crude misogyny of young boys, exorbitant inflation of currency, and lingering surveillance of military personnel. I found myself frustrated and confused at policies and social practices that I deemed archaic and patriarchal. As an outspoken New Yorker, many moments in Sudan starkly highlighted the benefits of my accent, passport, and experiences. My return had unexpectedly offered me a bird’s eye view of the many privileges I often take for granted.

Article author Marwa Altahir in Sudan

In between sweet moments of braiding my little cousin’s hair and peeling mangoes in the kitchen, I wrestled with notions of forgiveness and solidarity. How can we break cycles of silence around emotional trauma? What does healing look like for the women in my family? How do I fit into this narrative? Just as I began to spiral into a pit of endless questions, a warm Nile breeze swirled inland and reminded me that our healing is incremental and non-linear. And, like any fresh wound, time and care will slowly restore it.

Collectively and individually, memory lives in the body. I carry the memories of those before me as I work to slowly build healthier foundations for myself, my family, and my community. I am grateful to know and have access to the lands my ancestors inhabited. Ultimately—perhaps especially—in bittersweet moments, my year of return instilled hope. Hope in our resilience, hope in our future, and hope in our home.

I returned to a tense and cold New York in the throes of its winter isolation. I returned to my routine. But as I walk to the train, to work, to the gym…my spirit feels caught between worlds. Vibrant and visceral details from Sudan now linger in clear images in my memory. I return to my Brooklyn apartment, light some sandalwood, and hang up an old picture of my parents. My body aches for those I left behind, but I find comfort in knowing I have more than one place to call home.