African-Americans Find Roots in Benin

By Gabi Menezes
02 August 2005

Benin's President Mathieu  is hosting a week-long Gospel and Roots festival which focuses on reuniting what he calls the "long-lost brothers and sisters of Africa," or African Americans, with their roots in his country. The festival brings together pastors, singers and businessmen from all over the world.

Choirs from Congo and America participated in the fourth International Gospel and Roots Festival in Benin's capital, Cotonou.

The festival began in 1999 with President Kerekou's wish to encourage African Americans, many of whose ancestors were sent to America on slave ships, to come back to what he calls the Motherland.

At the opening ceremony Sunday, the president apologized for his country's role in slavery 150 years ago.

The spokesman of the Diaspora from Los Angeles, Mike Sare, said coming to Benin was for him an emotional experience, and that there is a real connection between the Diaspora and the continent.

"The privilege of having been able to come and then to have the government recognize me as someone who is sincerely interested in both the cultural aspect as well as the economic aspect, but if I may add, the spiritual aspect of it. For me it is a God thing," he said.

A delegation of African-Americans living in Japan is also expected to participate later in the festival.

Part of the festival will promote investment and development opportunities between the American state of Alabama and Benin. The Secretary General of the Alabama-Benin Economic Forum, John Alford Senior, said at the festival that Benin shares a special relationship with Alabama because the last slave ship to dock in Alabama came from Benin.

"We have received several visitors from Benin who have come to the great state of Alabama to discuss business opportunities and new marketing opportunities," he said.

The theme of this years festival is Brazil, and Brazilian musicians played samba music for audiences. Although football legend Pele was named Godfather of the Festival, he did not attend.