Surprising American cousins through my mother’s ancestry

My fascination with and curiosity about America started at the inchoate stage of my educational career. The elementary and high schools I attended were established by American Baptist missionaries. And in my first semesterof elementary school at age 5 in my hometown in Kwara State, I had an American Baptist missionary kid by the name of David Burkwall in my class. He later left for Jos.

But I had not the foggiest inkling that I would have hundreds of blood relatives in America, relatives that I’ll probably never meet physically until I die, courtesy of my mother.

My serendipitous discovery of my American cousins (most of whom are Black, a few of whom are white) came about because I did an ancestry DNA test for my mother who visited me here between 2017 and 2018. I did the test not to fish for American relatives (whom I’d never have guessed I had in my wildest dreams) but to resolve a longstanding argument she and I had had about her distant Malian ancestry.

I had told her that based on the patronyms her parents bore—which are Manneh and Toure—her ancestors were most likely originally Mandinka from the ancient Mali Empire.

The Mandinka, also known by several names in West Africa such as Mandingo, Malinke, Soninke, Wangara, Dioula, Bambara, etc. (who belong to what linguists call the Mande language group), are West Africa’s second most widely dispersed ethnic group after the Fulani.

They are found in large numbers in such countries as modern Mali, Senegal, the Gambia, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Liberia, Ghana, Mauritania, etc. They are also found in (northern and western) Nigeria (and are credited with being the most important proselytizers of Islam in these parts), Benin Republic, and Niger Republic, but they’ve lost their language and identity in these places.

In both Nigerian and Beninese Borgu, the Mandinka/Wangara still identify with their patronyms such as Manneh, Toure, Cissey, Taruwere (Traore), Fafana (Fofana), and Daabu (Darboe) even though they neither speak the language nor identify with the ethnic group.

Because Manneh and Toure are well-known patronyms among the Mandinka, I told my mother that her family couldn’t possibly be identified with the namesby accident, more so that her family has centuries-old historical association with Islamic proselytization, which the Mandinkas are identified with.

My mother disputed my suggestion that some of her ancestral roots are traceable to Mali, insisting that her grandparents never once mentioned that to her. She had never even heard of Mandinka—or any of the other names by which the people are known.

As I pointed out in my August 7, 2009 column titled “In Search of My Maternal Roots in Parakou, Benin Republic,” even my mother’s maternal relatives in Benin Republic trace descent from Borno and Katsina.

“My maternal grandmother, for instance, always told us she was part Katsina and part Kanuri (or Baribari, as she often said) …,” I wrote. “My mom’s cousin in whose house we stayed told me exactly the same thing. He said the traditions of their origins are handed down to them through a folk song, which he sang for me—in Dendi, which I don’t understand for the life of me. The only words that were intelligible to me in the song were ‘Katsina’ and ‘Borno.’”

However, some years ago, I read an interesting journal article by Andreas W. Massingtitled “The Wangara, an Old Soninke Diaspora in West Africa?” in the bilingual French journal Cahiers d’Étudesafricainesthat resolved this issue for me. Using various primary and secondary historical sources, Massing showed that the Wangara migrated from Mali to Songhai (in present-day Niger Republic), abandoned their language, adopted the Dendi language (a dialect of Zarma), and moved further south to Borno, Hausaland, and Borgu as Dendi people.

Apparently, the folk memory that my mother’s grandparents had of their ancestry stopped at the time they came to Borno and Katsina, which makes sense because they had renounced their language, which is an important receptacle of identity. However, they retained their Wangara/Mandinka names.

To test this, I bought an Ancestry DNA kit for my mother and me. We spat into it and sent it off. The results came back a month later and showed that my hunch wasn’t groundless: we both have significant Malian bloodline even though our Nigerian ancestry is the predominant one. My mother was shocked.

She was even more shocked to discover that she—and I—also had some Asante ancestry. I got to know this because Ancestry DNA matched her with a fourth cousin whose last name is Acheampong. I reached out to him and found that he is a Ghanaian from Accra who lives in New York. No one had ever told my mother that she had any consanguineal affiliation to the Asante.

But the most shocking surprise for us was that AncestryDNA’s database matched us with hundreds of cousins who turned out to be mostly Black Americans—and a few white Americans.

In the case of my mother, she had up to five fourth cousins who are Black Americans. That means she shares the same great-great-great grandparents with them. That touched her noticeably. She would look at their photos on Ancestry DNA’s database and get misty-eyed.

Not being literate, she hadn’t known, until I told her, that Black people had been enslaved in America centuries ago. She had thought that every Black person in America was a recent immigrant like me. Before taking the ancestry DNA test, and after learning about the enslavement of Black people in America, she would always ask me if certain Black people we saw when I took her out were from “home” or “my mother’s children.”

“My mother’s children” was how she called Black Americans. One day I got curious and asked why she called Black Americans her “mother’s children.” She said it was just her visceral feeling.

After the Ancestry DNA results showed that she had hundreds of 5th through 8th cousins—and five fourth cousins—among Black Americans, she reminded me that she was probably referring to these relationships without realizing it.

But more was to come. As we went through the photos of hundreds of distant cousins that Ancestry DNA’s matches showed, she was struck with astonishment to find lily white people as her eight cousins. She asked how that was possible. I explained to her that in the American South, where most Black people were enslaved, a lot of hanky-panky happened between the enslavers and the enslaved, which DNA results are now revealing.

As an example, the professor who supervised my master’s thesis—with whom I’ve become family friends—found out that he has up to 5 percent bloodline from Mali when he took an ancestry DNA test years back. And he doesn’t have the slightest phenotypic Black African feature.

After he shared his Ancestry DNA results with me, I jocularly said to him, “Hi bro!” and he responded, “Hello blood!” It was his lighthearted way of acknowledging that more connects us than we realize and admit. We might not be mere“brothers”in the non-familial sense of the word; we could very well be distant cousins for all you know.

I didn’t prepare for what awaited me after letting my— and my mother’s—DNA be part of Ancestry DNA’s database. Several of our Black American cousins sent me private messages asking to know what our ethnic groups were so they could determine from us what West African ethnic groups they might be descended from since Ancestry DNA only shows estimates based on modern countries.

Well, my mother and I, we discovered, embody multiplicities of West African ethnicities, and it would be inaccurate to claim just one ethnic identity as our authentic ancestral provenance. The language we speak and the ethnic group we identify with is Baatonu/Bariba found in Nigeria’s Kwara State and Benin Republic’s Borgou, Alibori, and Donga provinces.

And several of my mother’s Black American cousins share a common Malian ancestry with her, but she didn’t know she was even remotely Malian, which I suspect is Mandinka/Wangara based on the names of her ancestors. So how could I possibly help my cousins without misleading them?

Whatever it is, my discovery of my distant American relatives—and my knowledge that their ancestors helped to build America with free, forced labor—deepened my emotional investment in my American citizenship.



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