I recently did a DNA test with 23andMe and then travelled to Senegal, West Africa based on the results. If you’re thinking of doing a DNA test, this is my experience.
“Your reports are ready”.
My heart skipped at the sight of the four bolded words in the subject line of my email inbox. I hurriedly moved my fingers across the trackpad of my laptop, then double-clicked the message to open it.
What stared me in the face was an icon of an open envelope. A sheet of paper emblazoned with the 23andMe logo stuck out of its top flap.
“ONEIKA,” the letter read, “welcome to you.”
I smiled at the screen. My results were in, and, as the message continued, a world of DNA discovery– my DNA discovery– awaited me. I took a deep breath, clicked the link urging me to view my data, and braced myself for what was next…
Who am I? Navigating identity and ancestry through DNA analysis
As a traveller, educator, and journalist, I’ve always been naturally curious about history, culture, and the way people live in their diverse corners of the world. But lately, exploring my own unique story and identity had been at the forefront of my mind.
So when 23andMe first approached me to take one of their home DNA tests and share the results with you all, I was elated. The timing couldn’t have been better– analyzing my DNA had been on my mental to-do list for at least 6 months prior.
Because, who was I, really? Born in Canada to Jamaican parents, I had proudly adopted the cultural and linguistic markers of my mother and father’s homeland in my youth. To this day I feel strongly connected to Jamaica, “the land of wood and water”.
But travelling around the world– and continually seeing myself in the faces of others– had made me question my identity beyond my ties to the Caribbean.
“Where else am I from?” I wondered. “What other blood courses through my veins?”
Every trip brought on additional questions.
“What other countries, regions, and people had played a role in my ancestry? Into the woman I am today?”
Thankfully, some insights lay in the DNA test I was about to complete, and I couldn’t wait to find them out.
How do DNA Ancestry tests work? The 23andMe experience
As a completely newbie to the world of genetic testing, I must admit that I had no idea what of taking a DNA test would entail. With that said, I was both surprised and impressed with the ease of submitting my genetic material for 23andMe’s home DNA kit. The process is extremely easy, and involves three steps:
Ordering a test on 23andMe.com. The test typically arrives in 3 to 5 business days and can be expedited if you wish— I put a rush order on mine and had it delivered within 2 days.
Providing a saliva sample. A big plus about this test is that it doesn’t require blood or needles. I simply followed the instructions provided with the home DNA kit by spitting into the saliva collection tube and registering it online.
Mailing it back to the lab. Sending the sample back is also easy. When I was done, I put the tube back into the packaging in which it came and dropped it into the mail (the package is pre-paid). You can expect an email notifying you that your results are ready in about 6-8 weeks.
Now, all there was left to do was wait. The anticipation was palpable.
Receiving my DNA results from 23andMe
And then, I got the email: “Your reports are ready”.
After years of wondering about my identity, I excitedly logged into my 23andMe account and clicked on the “Ancestry” tab located on the left hand of the screen.
My computer’s hard drive hummed in the seconds it took to load the page and I tapped my feet in nervous accompaniment. I giggled when I page came up and I saw the results:
Immediately I was reminded of this famous quote by Ghanaian leader Kwame Nkrumah that goes, “I am an African, not because I was born in Africa, but because Africa was born in me”.
The test confirmed what I’ve always known: that I’m overwhelmingly African. But upon further inspection, I saw something that surprised me. Of that roughly 86%, 84.2% of my DNA makeup came from West Africa, and only 1.2% from East Africa! I had assumed that way more of my genetic makeup came from other parts of the continent, so that was a huge revelation.
I was also 12.4% European (of which 7.3% was British & Irish). This was totally unexpected.
Taking a look at the Ancestry Timeline yielded some other surprising info. For example, according to my reports, I most likely had a great-grandparent who was 100% West African.
Given that I don’t know much about my family’s background beyond my paternal and maternal grandparents (who were all born and raised in Jamaica), this information was extremely interesting.
Another very cool feature on the 23andMe site is the ability to opt-in to connecting with relatives who share similar DNA with you. According to the site, I have 1000 DNA relatives who live in 32 US states and 3 countries.
My mind buzzed as I dug through the website, checking my data in all the reports available to me. I couldn’t wait to take this information and embark on a journey of discovering more about my ancestors.
Traveling the world based on your DNA: Finding my roots in West Africa
Why do you travel? Many people journey to certain destinations because they’re budget-friendly, convenient, or otherwise on their bucket list (because of a particular tourist attraction, archaeological site, etc.)
But what about travelling to a place where you have a genetic connection? As I mentioned above, accessing your DNA test results allows you to explore regions you have an ancestral tie to.
I absolutely love the idea of doing this— after travelling to over 100 countries, visiting a place to which I have a deeper, more personal connection gives a new purpose and meaning to my travels.
I was thus extremely excited to travel to the West African nation of Senegal to connect more deeply with the region literally ingrained in my DNA.
Travelling based on your DNA is another way to help you learn more about yourself and gives you a compelling reason to dive into the local culture you find yourself in.
Connecting with my ancestors in Senegal
From the moment I touched down in Senegal, I felt like I belonged, and like I could stay for a while. While this was due in part to Senegalese hospitality– known as teranga– it was also because most people thought I was a local– until I opened my mouth, that is.
With only 4 days to glean important insights, I based myself in Dakar, Senegal’s busy, capital city. My first day in town, I hit Ngor Beach, and, while gazing at the colourful fishing boats known as pirogues, immediately stumbled upon a bunch of young fisherman.
“Salaamaalekum!” one of them greeted me, then fired off a bunch of words in Wolof I didn’t understand.
I switched to French, one of Senegal’s official languages. “Excusez-moi, mais je ne parle pas le wolof…” Him and his friends laughed, convinced that I was lying about not speaking the local language.
“Mais vraiment, vous n’êtes pas Sénégalaise?” He asked incredulously when I shook my head and told him about my Jamaican-Canadian roots.
Being mistaken for a local would happen at least four more times over the course of my trip.
But perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised. When I visited Gorée Island the following day, I learned about its role in the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
The pretty colonial structures on Gorée belie the human atrocities that occured therein: enslaved Africans were jailed and tortured here before being transported to the Americas. It is entirely possible that one of my ancestors was kept here before being sent to Jamaica.
Visiting Dakar felt familiar, not least because a lot of the food closely resembled the Jamaican cuisine I was raised on. I realized that bissap, a popular national drink made of hibiscus, was basically the Senegalese version of the sorrel that Jamaicans chiefly drink during holidays.
Going “home” to the Ouakam community in Senegal
My last morning in Senegal, I found myself meandering through the area known as Ouakam. Home to the Lebu ethnic group and located on the beach, it boasts a large fishing community and a beautiful mosque known as the Mosquee de la Divinite.
As soon as I arrived, I was greeted by Moussa, the head of the community. Like many others, he addressed me first in Wolof; surprised I wasn’t Senegalese, he switched to French.
“Vous êtes la bienvenue,” he replied with a smile when I told him what had brought me to me Senegal. “Welcome!”
After I took a half hour to capture some images of the mosque solo, he took me around and introduced me to members of his tribe.
During our impromptu tour, Moussa took great care to explain the commune’s way of life. Fishing is their primary livelihood; family and a respect for elders are at the core of their belief system.
90 minutes later, it was time for me to depart. When I thanked Moussa profusely for being so open and welcoming, he laughed and shook his head.
“No, the pleasure was all mine,” he told me in French. “You are home… and we can’t wait for you to come back”.
Neither could I.
Should you do a DNA test?
In my personal opinion, the answer is a resounding yes. Whether you’ve had a long-standing curiosity or just a casual interest in finding out this information, one thing’s for sure: learning more about your genetic makeup can furnish an important piece of the puzzle to who you are.
Have you ever done a DNA analysis or genetic test? What were your results? And if you haven’t, would you be interested in doing one? Why or why not?