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Genes tell a tale as big as Africa

Courtesy of William Holland

William Holland, a family researcher from Georgia, tours a village in the Oku region of Cameroon.

Over the past year, William Holland's African-American family tale has grown in the telling, thanks to genetic testing and a whole lot of trans-Atlantic travel. The latest twist is a doozy: The Georgia resident has turned his research into a story that goes back to the seventh century.

Holland says he has found links to ancestors who lived in the Cameroonian region of Oku, who were captured by neighboring tribes and taken as slaves in Virginia. His story illustrates how the descendants of slaves can go beyond a painful chapter of American history and find their place in the broader sweep of world history. But the outcome isn't as precise as a paternity test.

"You have to put together the science and the history to make sense of it," he told me after his latest trips to West Africa. "To be honest, this is not an easy thing to do. You have to understand history, you have to understand migration patterns, you also have to understand culture. Most people would say, 'This is too much, because it's too complicated.' I would say this is a master's degree-level task."

Real families, real feelings
And it's not just an academic exercise. We're talking real families here. A year ago, Holland thought the genetic linkages showed a strong tie to royalty in a Cameroonian region known as Mankon. But after additional genetic tests and consultations with historians in Africa — including Samuel N. Wambeng, Nji Oumarou Nchare and Aboubakar Mgbekoum — he has focused on Oku instead. In fact, some of the people living around Mankon just might be the descendants of tribes that were involved in the slave trade.

"In Mankon, there were people who were dealers in trading people," Holland said. "They didn't trade their own people, but they were trading people from outside their community. So now it makes sense that I was not directly related to the palace in Mankon. Did my people come from there? No. Did they pass through there? Yes."

Even though the abduction from Africa happened in the 1770s, that part of the story has sparked bad feelings between Holland and some of the Cameroonians he came to know. "I didn't speak to them for a month," Holland told me. "It's still painful. ... Have you ever had a bad dream about being chained up in the bottom of a ship?"

Solving family mysteries
Unraveling history can leave scars, but it can also solve family mysteries. For example, the historians told Holland something that meshed with his memory of his sister's nickname. "Her name is Delores, but we always call her 'Nene,'" he said. "In Oku, 'Nene' basically means 'Mother.' That name was given to her by my father. These are very old names."

The DNA tests that Holland has taken mark marked the beginning of Holland's story, not the end. Most recently, Holland took a Y-chromosome test from Ancestry.com that looked at 46 genetic markers, and then he plugged the results into a database on the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation website. In some cases, comparisons with African test subjects in the database produced 33 matches out of 36 common markers.

"Normally they'll say, 'We're not related to someone,'" Holland observed. "Now the results show that, guess what, something must have occurred in those days for them to have nearly the same DNA as myself. Thirty-three out of 36 is pretty high."

Holland followed up by contacting the likeliest candidates for his kin.

"Genetics will only get you to the airport, but now where do you go?" he said. "You have to really find all the links. I'm lucky to have the information to find the links to the old names. With the names, people in Africa can say, 'This person was from this kingdom.' It's just like when people decide to go back to Scotland or Ireland, depending on whether your name begins with an 'M-A-C' or an 'M-C.'"

I can relate to that: I took a Y-chromosome test a decade ago in hopes of tracing my genetic roots in Ireland. I still haven't found a match close enough to confirm family ties in the old country, but the historical record provides enough information to make for a good tale about my great-grandfather's escape from western County Clare in 1847, during the Great Famine.

From Arabia to Virginia
Here's Holland's story, based on his visits to Ghana and Cameroon as well as the genetic results and the reports from the historians:

"We left Saudi Arabia around 622 when the time of Prophet Mohammed was implementing Islam.  A war ensued, and the Mboum people left and went to Egypt, then to the Sudan, then in the Tigray area of Ethiopia.  The city was in a town called Axum. Please note the Tigray province and the current tribal name of Tikar/Tikari.  From Ethiopia, the Mboum people went to the valley in Lake Chad in the north of Cameroon and arrived finally in 933 in the Adamawa region. The village that was set up in the Adamawa region was called Ngan-Ha, and Nya Sana was the first Fon [king]. The story told to me was that he (Nya Sana) was the youngest of the leaders that arrived from Ethiopia, but became the king because he retrieved the most powerful idol that fell from the sky.  There were a total of four leaders that came from Ethiopia, and all got their hands on one of the idols that fell from the sky.  These idols were in Mecca (Makah) in Arabia that flew from there and headed to Egypt then to the Sudan, Ethiopia and finally to Ngan-Ha.

"Took Gokor ruled from 1186 to 1217, as he was a direct descendant from Nya Sana. Princess Wouten (Wou-Ten or Betaka) ruled around 1201-1246, during which she founded the Tinkala kingdom. So the tribal name change was from Mboum to Tinkala and finally to Tikari/Tikar. The Tikar kingdom was created around 1300.  The migration pattern was from Ngan-Ha to Tibati, Ina and finally Bankim or Kimi.  Kimi and Bankim are names that are used interchangeably when referring to this ancient area of various tribes in Cameroon. Around 1387, Fon Mbe left Bankim due to chieftancy disputes, and also he did not want to be killed while ruling. Nchare Yen supposedly had the right to become the next Fon, but was passed over by his half brother. Mbe, Ngonnso and Nchare Yen were siblings from the same mother and father. They left in fear, founding the kingdoms of Bankim, Foumban and Banso.  Ngonnso founded Banso, while Nchare Yen founded Foumban.  Nchare was the youngest of the siblings.

"I believe my common ancestor [linked to the royalty] lived around 1550, during the time when Fon Ngang was on the throne.  He ruled from 1540 to 1588.  According to the SMGF DNA results, the time period for the common ancestor was about 440 years ago. Also, there is a possibility that it could have been in Foumban. The eighth Fon of Foumban founded Banka, and his name was Ngapna (1590-1629).  The familes that are in Banka and Bafang must have descended from the Prince of Ngapna. 

"The Wambeng family of Oku descends from the third Fon, who was named Ney. Oku was founded around 1650, so the third Fon would be close to accurate for the 1770s time period. The people of Bali were hired by the coastal slavers, who gave them guns to capture individuals for the Virginia plantation owners. Bali is not too far away from Mankon.  I asked the elder about this whole scenario, and he told me the year adds up to when Ney was ruling.  Those who were captured, including my ancestor, were guards of the palace.

"The Bali people came with guns and created quite a scene, resulting in the capture of my ancestor. They were taken to the coast, and the rest is history.  Meanwhile, in Foumban, the 11th Fon also lost children due to the fighting that was going on at the same time.  It's very possible that when all of them arrived in Bimbia, they knew they were the same people, but spoke different languages and could not communicate with each other.  I was told that the slavers arranged things intentionally so that you would be separated if you spoke the same language/dialect, to prevent insurrection on the ship. 
"Because of Ngonnso, the kingdoms of Oku, Banso (Kumbo) and Mbiame are related, and also Kom would have to be included.  There is a good relationship between all of them today, and who knows? Maybe a big party would happen if we all go back to meet the family in Oku."

So now what? Holland is still working on the later chapters of his family's story — the part that includes his slave ancestors in Virginia, including one ancestor who was taken into the Confederate Army for a time. But the chapters that excite Holland the most are the ones that go way back into the past.

"I guess I'll always have a curious gene in there, a gene that makes me want to find out," he told me. "Will I stop after this? Hopefully there's be a different thing to work on. I'd like to go to the east — to Egypt, and Ethiopia."

Earlier chapters in the African-American saga:

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