Liberia Will Host Its First 'Journey Home' Festival in Honor of Juneteenth — Here's What That Means

This year's Journey Home Festival coincides with the bicentennial anniversary of the first free Black Americans coming to Liberia.

Views of Liberia from Ducor Hotel
Photo: Courtesy of Journey Home Festival

In recent years, Black Americans have flocked to West Africa in larger numbers — some guided by ancestry-tracing DNA test results hoping to explore their roots on the continent. Senegal and Ghana have become hot spots for these often culturally minded travelers, but entrepreneurs Saqar Ahhah Ahershu and Den Tut Rayay say a major player is missing from the conversation: Liberia.

Saqar and Den Tut, the founders of Journey Home Festival
Courtesy of Journey Home Festival

Now, this pair of entrepreneurs is working to change that by hosting the first-ever Journey Home Festival (JHF) in Liberia. Taking place June 17-26, 2022, the festival not only invites travelers to celebrate Juneteenth in a meaningful way, but also commemorates the bicentennial anniversary of when free-born and formerly enslaved Black Americans first landed on the shores of Liberia's Providence Island.

"What better place to celebrate the freedom of slaves than in a country founded by freed slaves?" Ahershu said to Travel + Leisure, adding that Liberia's history offers a particularly strong sense of connection for Black Americans.

How Liberia Became the 'Land of the Return'

Pioneers Monument in Liberia
Courtesy of Journey Home Festival

On Jan. 7, 1822, the first group of Black American settlers arrived in present day Monrovia, Liberia's capital, as part of a scheme by the American Colonization Society (ACS). Motivated by racism and fear of the growing number of free Black people in the U.S., members of ACS formed the colony of Liberia and sent roughly 16,000 Black Americans there throughout the 19th century.

Eventually, Liberians began governing themselves, and in 1847, became the world's second Black republic (after Haiti) and the first republic in Africa. With their independence also came the world's first African American president, Joseph Jenkins Roberts. Throughout the Journey Home Festival, attendees will learn all about this unique history that earned Liberia its moniker as the "Land of the Return."

"When African Americans go to Ghana, Goree Island, or Senegal, they're mostly visiting the Gate of No Return, the Door of No Return," Ahershu said, referring to commonly visited historical sites, where enslaved Africans were once held captive before being shipped overseas, never to return to home. "Liberia's narrative is almost the opposite of that," he concluded.

What to Expect at This Year's Journey Home Festival

As part of the festival programming, attendees will visit Providence Island, the JJ Roberts Monument, and Demen Village, where they'll meet the Gola Tribe, Liberia's oldest Indigenous people.

Ceremony in Demen Village of Liberia
Courtesy of Journey Home Festival

"There's a growing interest in lost Black culture, and there's no better place to find that and fill that void than Liberia," Ahershu said.

They'll also have the opportunity to attend a film festival featuring Liberian-made movies from some of the country's top producers, actors, and directors.

Beyond the historical and cultural activities, Ahershu said he's excited for participants to experience the incredible hospitality of the Liberian people and explore the country's natural beauty with visits to Blue Lake, Kpatawee Waterfalls, and Cape Mount, with its top-notch surfing.

Creating Opportunities in Liberia

While fun and enriching experiences are par for the course, the Journey Home Festival also aims to showcase opportunities for entrepreneurs to invest in Liberia. Day five of the 10-day event will include a Business Exchange, where attendees can network with a variety of Liberian government officials and business leaders.

According to Ahershu, "business people, contractors, philanthropists, investors, visionaries — people with that kind of growth mindset" will especially appreciate the opportunities presented by the Business Exchange. The exchange will also feature guest speakers, a luncheon, and plenty of honest discourse about the pros, cons, and challenges of living, working, and investing in Liberia.

"We have specific conversations that deal with the hard questions and answers about Liberia and how we can create solutions and sustainability for this country," said Ahershu, an American who has spent the last four years living in Liberia. "We want [festival goers] to walk away knowing that they have options to visit or actually live in Liberia. They call Liberia 'Little America,' so this truly could be your new home away from home."

The Future of the Journey Home Festival

Blue Lake in Bomi County, Liberia
Courtesy of Journey Home Festival

With the Journey Home Festival around the corner, Ahershu and fellow JHF cofounder Rayay are already looking ahead with plans to host this multi-day event three times per year starting in 2023.

The festivities next year will start in February to mark U.S. Black History Month with an itinerary centered around Liberia's culture and history. Next up will be another June iteration of JHF, welcoming all travelers, but especially Black Americans, to once again celebrate Juneteenth with a meaningful trip to West Africa. Organizers will end the year strong with a final Journey Home Festival in December that will focus on entertainment during a time when much of the Liberian diaspora returns to celebrate the holidays. December festival goers will get a taste of Liberia's dry season with its summer-like atmosphere offering plenty of events, beach trips, large parties, and lively concerts.

Through its varied programming, the ultimate vision of JHF is clear:

"What we hope travelers get out of the trip is to feel a sense of liberation, a sense of freedom that they may have not felt before," Ahershu said. "We hope that the festival dismisses much of the misinformation about Liberia and that it creates sustainable relationships between Liberians, African Americans, and other tourists interested in visiting the country."

Rates for this year's Journey Home Festival start at $4,999 per person, including flights from the U.S., accommodations, transportation, all activities, and most meals. For more information about this festival and the upcoming 2023 festivals, visit the official JHF website here.

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