A cotton swab to the cheek. That's how the destination for this journey to Africa, nearly a decade in the making, was chosen.
It would be the first trip to the continent for our family, and we wanted to have a connection to our location, beyond a vague voyage to the so-called motherland. Unlike many Americans, those of us with ties to Africa often have little to go on in tracing our ancestry beyond U.S. shores.
Sure, we could have gone to obvious locales, such as tourist-friendly South Africa or the increasingly trendy Ethiopia. We wanted to make an informed decision, though. We wanted to go to a place where we had a bloodline.
The one-page form that came back said the DNA sample my father provided matched with the Fulani people in Niger.
My dad, Astrid K. Mack, a retired geneticist and the family historian who drew by hand our family tree, had finally discovered its deepest root. After years of consideration, we decided it was time to make the trip.
In creating our itinerary, we turned to travel guidebooks and relied on the advice of friends, including one who is a former tour guide. We determined it wasn't safe to travel to Niger, a landlocked nation about which the U.S. State Department has cautioned visitors on terrorist activity and the stern government backlash against it. With that off the table, we chose to stay in the West African region, where most of the slave trade took place. Ghana, just southwest of Niger, had a particular lure because of the "slave castles," an odd and off-putting name for the places where millions of people were held captive in dungeons.
Ghana came highly recommended and often is referred to as "Africa for starters."
Once we chose our destination, we made our travel arrangements. My dad flew from Miami and I from Chicago, connecting in London for the second of the two seven- to eight-hour legs of our trip to Accra, Ghana.
It helped that many Ghanaians speak English and that most signs are in English. From the billboards to the "no stopping" street signs, it was easy to at least become familiar with your surroundings.
Ghana doesn't have traditional winter, spring, summer and fall seasons. There's the wet season and the dry. We were there during the dry season in August.
"Dry" is a relative term, however. The humidity is so thick, it hangs in the air like mist. What feels like light rain is really the moisture in the air. Everything stays wet. I hung up a bathing suit to dry overnight; the next morning it was still soaked. Books I left on nightstand were warped by the time we left.
During our first few days in the capital of Accra, we ventured out on our own, starting with Black Star Square, which commemorates Ghana's 1957 independence from the United Kingdom. It was a quick walk to Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park, where the remains of the first president of Ghana are enshrined in Italian marble in a tomb designed by Chinese architects, according to our tour guide.
It's easy to overlook the open-air arts market, which is discernible only by the onslaught of traders who approach you when you walk by. Venture inside and vendors will beckon you: "Oh, you stopped there, now you must come here," one said. "Please, just come and look," said another. We fell for it on Day 1 and walked into nearly every stall in what amounted to little more than a shantytown.
Having no sense of what their paintings, hand-carved masks, unity bowls or jewelry should cost, we went for what we liked. Everything looked like a one-of-a-kind work. There were no prices on anything. I'm sure we got swindled. (They were hawking a set of carved giraffes for 120 cedis, or about $48. I saw the set a few days later in Kumasi for less than a third of that.) But that's part of the game, and it was fun playing.
"You look like a Ghana woman," said the ringleader of the bunch. "When you come back next week, you'll be Ghanaian, and then we can negotiate."
Everything is negotiable in Ghana. Cab fare is, and certainly souvenirs are. A friend suggested taking the quoted price and countering with half. Ghanaians will feign disgust, but they also know that the first offer is an opening bid.
This even extended to prices for rides arranged through hotels, apparently. Though I was warned that hotel prices are fixed, the price for a hotel driver was flexible in one case, when the price we were quoted dropped dramatically from one day to the next. What started out as a chauffeured ride for $35 an hour was $20 an hour the next day. At least it was moving in the right direction.
When we connected with our driver for the second and third legs of our trip, to Elmina and Kumasi, we already had agreed to the rate for a small car, but in our good fortune, we ended up with a four-wheel-drive at the cheaper rate.
For a place that relies largely on street commerce, with the sale of goods ranging from homemade plantain chips to bootleg DVDs and curbside manicures and pedicures, there is a startling degree of corporate sponsorship of independent business. Whether by choice or circumstance, the cellphone company Glo appears to have paid for more than half the market stalls in the region, with the stalls bearing its signature chartreuse color, and police checkpoints are brought to drivers courtesy of the mattress company Latex Foam.
Religion also is omnipresent. If the American standard is a church on every corner, in Ghana it can be said that there is one every 300 feet. Christianity predominates, but there are several variations represented, including Pentecostal, Seventh-day Adventist and Charismatic churches. And it doesn't stop with places of worship; the Lord's name is used on schools, businesses and stenciled in gothic letters on the backs of cabs. Among the reminders that God is always with you were the Lord Needs Me School, the Jesus is the Answer Herbal Shop and "In Him is Life" etched on one cab's hatchback.
Our main destination on our 12-day trip was the Elmina Castle.
The castle was the first fortified European trading post in sub-Saharan Africa, according to our tour guide and museum literature. It started as a place to trade gold and guns, then eventually people.
It's estimated that 12 million to 25 million people were sold there. Sold! Beween 1620 and 1860, roughly 2 million ended up on U.S. soil. Because slavery maintains such a strong place in American history and the American psyche, it's a story we all think we know well. But until you stand in the dungeons where people were shackled and held in dark, dank, overcrowded and unsanitary conditions — and until you walk through what is now called the "door or no return" — you can't truly understand.
What struck me was that for my ancestors to have made it to America — having endured not only the castles but the hellish trip aboard floating coffins, all the while chained together and stacked like books on shelves — meant that their constitutions were steel strong. Those are my people. That is the stock from which I came. There is pride in that.
Off the beaten path, in the tiny town of Assin Manso, is the former Slave River and marketplace. It served as a final transit point for enslaved Africans. We almost passed this one up because no one was there to greet us.
A tour guide showed up on his bike moments later and opened the gate, eager to greet us and show us around. Perhaps more so than at the castles, being able to take the same walk that slaves did, running my hands through the Slave River water where they took their last baths, was the highlight of the trip.
At dinner that night, as my dad ate a bowl of fufu, he said, "I feel like I'm home."
Kristen Mack is a former Tribune reporter and now a spokeswoman for Cook County government.
If you go
Getting there: I flew American Airlines from Chicago to London, then British Airways to Accra. The cheapest round-trip flights from Chicago for August are running about $2,000, unless you travel at midweek, which is a bit cheaper.
Staying there: Hotels in Accra generally range from higher end at $350 a night to as low as $60 for budget accommodations.
Information: Visit ghana.travel.
Testing: The genetic test used by Astrid Mack was the MatriClan Kit, which tests maternal bloodlines. It currently lists for $270 through African Ancestry at africanancestry.com.