Gate of no return

Why I founded the Djimon Hounsou Foundation

November 10, 2020

Actor & humanitarian Djimon Hounsou explains his motivation for establishing his own nonprofit.

Photo by Kwaku Alston

 

I feel this compelling need … this inherent obligation to give back to my continent, to my people, and to champion the idea of reconciliation and reconnection.

As a young boy from Cotonou, Benin, I used to walk the dusty streets and sandy beaches of West Africa, not knowing who had walked there before me. Western schools taught me what to think, the church told me what to believe. And like many other children born into economic hardship, I dreamt of making an imprint FAR AWAY from where I came from.

At the age of 13, I left Africa for France with high hopes and empty pockets. There, I soon dropped out of school, hopeful to choose my own path. Yet, little did I know what a rocky path of detours that would be. I ended up as a homeless teenager searching out nothing more than the daily necessities of a meager existence. Lacking the warm clothes to sustain myself during wintertime, I was often sent to stay overnight at a juvenile prison.

Yet, as luck would have it, my life took a turn 3-4 years later when a photographer discovered me on the streets of Paris. He introduced me to fashion designer Thierry Mugler, who encouraged me to pursue a a career in modeling. So I did, and slowly but surely a whole new world opened up for me.

A few years later, I packed my bags and left Paris for Los Angeles. And once again, fortune smiled upon me. Hollywood opened its doors and invited me to become a member of its club. Ironically, Hollywood also opened my eyes to who I really am, and where I come from.

When Stephen Spielberg cast me in the role of Cinqué for his movie Amistad, I was given a shocking glimpse into the dark history of slavery that began at the very shores of my homeland, Benin. In this cinematic mirror, I saw the reflection of my ancestors who went to the New World under very different circumstances …  chained together inside the galleys of slave ships.

It is estimated that about 10-12 million Africans were shipped into slavery during the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Today, many Afro-descendants living abroad are related to former slaves in one way or another. Yet, most of us seem to be completely unaware of that fact. I therefore ask myself: “How can Afro-descendants ever relate to their heritage when people like me, who have been born in Africa, often feel disconnected from their roots themselves?”

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One of the aftereffects of the Transatlantic Slave Trade was the loss of knowledge about families, origins and ancestry.

I also had another thought: “While the slave trade is a root cause of our lack of identity and belonging, we like to think of slavery as a relic of the past.” Unfortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Today, four times as many people live in modern-day slavery than during the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Over 40 million people! That’s outrageous and completely unacceptable.

I hence feel this compelling need to do my part to combat modern-day slavery and human trafficking. Besides, I am eager to give back to my people and to champion the idea of reconciliation and reconnection through the Djimon Hounsou Foundation. I hope that you will join our cultural movement and become one of the many Voices for Africa who reclaim our narrative and help us shape a brighter future. It’s about time!