Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Tror Na Foe
(troh- na- fway) Is a phrase in the Ewe language (the people from whom our family sprang in the southeastern corner of Ghana) which means, roughly, "to come back and retrieve something that one has lost."

May The Circle Be Unbroken
Since I began sharing the story of how we have managed to find and connect with one of the African families from whom our ancestors were separated during slavery, many people have peppered me with questions about we did it.

That's me (left), with cousin Lawrence Agbemabiese and family in Paris,
summer, 2006. Left to right, son Marc, Lawrence, wife Caroline, son Carl.
(photo, Celeste Grant)

In last week's inaugural installment of this blog, I promised to use the next two installments to write about how it all came together, and what it felt like for members of our families to meet, face to face, for the first time.

Finding One Another
Celeste and I have two adult children, Malaika and Amahl, and they teamed up to give us DNA kits from the National Genographic Project for Christmas last year. "Yep, it's the gift that keeps on giving," our daughter said with a smile. She knew that the information the test results would yield will ultimately mean just as much to her and her brother and their children as they do to Celeste and I.

What they are about at National Genographic is collecting as diverse a sampling of human DNA as they can, in an effort to map out in detail the history of humankind's dispersion from its African cradle, so that we may begin to understand more than we ever have before about, in their own words, "who we are, where we came from, and how we relate as members of one extended family."

You can connect with this worthy effort at http://www.nationalgeographic.com/genographic

The kit includes some excellent printed information on genetics and the story of how humankind spread out to cover the planet in ancient times, as well as a great National Geographic documentary on DVD about the genesis of project leader Dr. Spencer Wells' and his colleagues' groundbreaking work in this area.

Participating is a simple process. You use the soft, serrated swab and the sterile lab vials provided by the kit to collect cells from the inside of your cheeks; you pop both vials into the mailer pouch, and send it off to them. Their labs use those cells to isolate a good sample of your DNA (the X-Chromosome, if you're a woman; the Y-Chromosome if you're a male). The tests take weeks, but eventually, they'll get back to you via mail, or e-mail (your choice). If you've had your X-Chromosome tested, the information they share with you about your genetic heritage will pertain only to your female line - and this is very important to understand - which means strictly mother to daughter to mother to daughter, on back into deep antiquity. In other words, none of the genetic heritage of any female ancestor's father ever comes into play. Same thing with your Y-Chromosome. It's strictly your paternal line - father to son, to father to son - all the way back. The results that return tell you to which "haplogroup", or specific branch of the human family tree, you belong.

For me, there were some surprises right away. Like many African Americans, some of my ancestry is European. That's one of the legacies of what they used to call, "the peculiar institution." Slave-owning men had endless, easy access to the women they owned as slaves, and this resulted in the births of huge numbers of so-called "mulatto" children. We own a photograph of the four Sams in our family: brother, father, grandfather; great-grandfather. Now, great-grandfather Sam is a very light-skinned man. So I had always assumed, given the history of slavery, that even though there was no oral history to back this up, he must have been the son, or at least the grandson of our family's slave master, or perhaps, overseer. I thought it pretty likely that when I got my DNA results back, the story they told would really be about his European ancestors, whoever they were, all the way back.

Surprise! The sample came back listing me as a member of the large African haplogroup E3(a). This is the haplogroup to which most west Africans belong. Great-grandfather Sam's father was a veteran of the civil war, and when I found the records of his unit, I found him clearly listed - twice - as black. Census and other records back then made a clear distinction between "black" and "mulatto," even though the decision about which of these catagories you'd fit into was based on the highly subjective judgement of whatever white person was doing the counting! But what this means is that my great-great grandmother, the woman he married and with whom he had his children, must have been very, very light skinned, indeed. The story of her father and mother remain a mystery for now. But the DNA results now clearly showed that my great-great grandfather and his father before him, going back to that first African ancestor brought here in chains, are connected to each other in a line leading straight back to Africa.

Now, for most of us African Americans, this is where we hit a huge dead end. Your sample shows you're E3(a)... but now, what?

The lab which sub-contracted with National Genographic to perform the isolation and identification of my DNA sample was Family Tree DNA, http://www.familytreedna.com in Houston, Texas. They'll get in touch with you after your results are in, and ask if you would like to - 1) have them perform additional testing, based on the tissue sample they already have from you (ie; if you're male, upgrading the standard twelve marker Y-Chromosome test to include more genetic markers, or adding an X-Chromosome test to examine your mother's line; 2) join, at no charge, the large and growing international databases managed by organizations called Y-Search and Mito-Search ("mito" is a reference to mitochondrial DNA, which is another way of describing the heritage carried by the female X-Chromosome).

It's a great offer. You sign up; you upload the results of your sample, and instantly, you have a tool for comparing your DNA to samples from tens of thousands of participants worldwide. You will almost certainly find at least several people who match you exactly, or who are one or two "markers" distant. In the case of the Y-Chromosome, an exact match on the standard twelve marker test means that, in all probability, you and the match you've found share a common male ancestor somewhere within the last three to seven generations. In the case of a person who's got a one-marker variation from your sample (ie; say, at the eleventh alelle of your DNA strand, he's a 27, and you're a 28), that common male ancestor probably lived in the last seven to twelve generations.

The problem for African American geneaology researchers is that the overwhelming majority of these database participants, so far, have their roots primarily in Europe, the near east, and the Indian sub-continent. If your heritage is strongly linked to these parts of the world, you're in luck. But if it's connections with a sub-Saharan African heritage you're searching for, the going gets tough. Very tough.

The original homes of the vast majority of the slaves brought to these shores were in west and central Africa, and so far, the number of African participants in the big DNA databases from these areas is very, very small. That's no surprise. These are parts of the world saddled with great poverty, and participation in such studies requires 1) money;2) some free time; 3) ready access to a computer, and an e-mail address. Thousands of Africans have been sampled for DNA, but as members of groups for the purpose of academic study, not as individuals. Dr. Kittles of Howard University and his company, African Ancestry.com, http://www.africanancestry.com have been sampling in west Africa for years, searching for and identifying patterns of DNA markers that can help African American geneaology researchers find a specific ethnicity ("tribe") to whom they are related, or at least narrow down their ancestral origins to a tightly-defined geographic area. The ability to get that close to nailing down the specifics of our African heritage has been a deeply cherished dream for so many of us!

But it's at this point that my story diverges from most others. In my case, there was, indeed, an African whose sample is a very close match to mine - that one west African in a million who had participated in the National Genographic Project (at the urging, it turned out, of a fellow scientist at the U.N. offices in Paris) and had then taken the next step of signing on with Y-Search.

Y-Search issues code numbers so that if someone in the database desires to contact a user who proves to be a match, or near match, a user's real identity remains hidden unless he or she chooses to reveal it - a protection for the privacy of everybody involved. Particpants are asked to list a "country of origin" for the most distant ancestor they know of. Many African Americans choose to list a country of origin in Africa based on some nugget of family oral history that's been passed down in their families. Sometimes that information will turn out to have a basis in fact; but more often, not. So, it was with great initial caution that I reached out to someone on my one-marker variation list who identified his country of origin as Ghana.

"... At first glance," my e-note read, "It certainly appears that we may, in the not very distant past, share a common male ancestor... Were you born in Ghana, or are you, like me, a U.S.- born descendant of African slaves?"

"What a nice surprise! Yep, I am from Ghana," his note began, and suddenly, we found ourselves launched on a voyage of discovery that has already yielded new knowledge and surprises far beyond any expectations I ever had about what might come of taking that initial cheek swab!

Coming Up Next Week

The story of how that respondent, Lawrence Agbemabiese, and I developed a profound connection through internet correspondence, and before long, had our first meeting, face to face. I'll also talk about beginning to parse out the story of who that first common ancestor may have been, and how we have begun the process of connecting our families on both sides of the Atlantic.

And speaking of that growing connection, here's a post-script

Cousin Lawrencia Agbenyefia (his sister) runs a primary school near Kumasi. I have offered to take some supplies to her, but you know how restrictive the airline luggage allowances are these days. So, I'd like to enlist your aid on her (and the childrens') behalf. She says they need math and science texts and workbooks, appropriate for the early elementary grades; educational games, toys and puzzles; age appropriate books for the library; computer CDs and DVDs; etc. Lightly used items will be fine, but brand new is ideal. If you can help, you may send items in care of her church at:

Mrs. Lawrencia Agbenyefia

Deeper Christian Ministry

P.O. Box 539

Obuasi, Ashanti Region,


Many thanks! See you next week!!


Larry said...

"Another outstanding piece, David! For the record, however, it was not a "fellow scientist at the UN" who encouraged me to take the test. The fact is: i took the test after reading an interesting article in New Scientist magazine titled "Gene project will map humans' global spread," dated April 13, 2005. i was especially intrigued by the following: "The Genographic Project aims to collect DNA from hundreds of thousands of people around the world over the next five years, including indigenous peoples...By analysing the DNA, the researchers hope to trace past migrations and create a family tree for humanity. Data from the project will be made freely available to other researchers at the end of the project, and a 'virtual museum' of human history will also be established." So i followed a link to the site https://www3.nationalgeographic.com/genographic/index.html, where i purchased the Participation Kit for $100. Later, i mentioned this project to a few friends at work. Two of them--one from Barbados, the other from Azerbaijan--promptly bought kits and took the test as well."

Rayna said...

David - this is fascinating!! Like reading a mystery I can't put down. Cannot wait to get to the next installment. And it makes me want to check out the DNA testing. Despite the fact that most of my family in Europe was lost in the Holocaust, there must still be people wandering this earth to whom I am related and don't know it. Thanks for sharing this.

Em said...

Hello Larry,
I'm Emery Graham and I too have a link to Lawrence through the maternal DNA assessment. I attended the University of Delaware with Lawrence and through the DNA test found that Lawrence and I share the same mTDNA. We had a reunion at the U of D when Lawrence returned as the honored graduate and gave a lecture. I'll have to find the pictures that I took at the event. Please contact me at 610-570-2125 when you can. I'm located in Norristown, PA at 1952 Yorktown South; zipcode 19403.
I have another close friend, Barry Williams, who travels to Ghana and does a lot of photography. I'm getting him to do the DNA assessment to find if we are related. Our families were very close while we were growing up.
Best regards,
Emery Graham