When Reggie Yates was four years old, his parents split up. “My father has been a very small part of my adult life,” says the actor, DJ and TV presenter. “It sounds really ridiculous and actually kind of sad, but I’ve never met my grandparents. I don’t know whether they’re alive.”
To fill in the gaps, Reggie begins by going to meet his father, Reginald ‘Jojo’ Yates, who makes traditional West African instruments. Jojo shows Reggie a picture of his own father, Reggie’s grandfather, Harry Yates. It shows a man who, in Reggie’s words, is “every bit the proud African father” as he stands with his family, yet looks very European. Harry, Reggie discovers, died in his sleep in 2000.
To learn more about Jojo’s side of the family, Reggie heads for the country where his parents were born, Ghana, and the city of Sekondi. Reggie carries a file of memorabilia given to him by his father, including documents relating to a legal battle Jojo fought with the UK immigration authorities in order to be allowed to stay in the country. These show Harry’s father, George Yates, was British and entered what was called a “customary marriage” with his Ghanian wife.
In Sekondi, Reggie first goes to see his family’s home, where he meets JB, Harry’s adopted son. Harry, a larger-than-life character, had 16 children in total. Here, Reggie sees the precise spot where a picture of his great-grandmother, Dorothy Lloyd, was taken. Like Harry, she too is partly of European lineage.
A meeting with historian Carina Ray helps Reggie trace his European forebears. His great-grandfather, George Yates, worked in the mining industry. The 1911 census shows he had a wife and family in Middlesex, but they didn’t accompany him to what was then a British colony, the Gold Coast, probably because it was notorious for tropical diseases such as malaria.
Indeed, George himself got ill and left. While there’s evidence he returned and wanted to provide for Harry, Reggie still sees a family pattern in the lack of connection between father and son.
Next, Reggie wants to know more about his great-great grandmother, Sarah. This involves a memorable encounter with a tribal chief, the formidable Nana Kobina Nketsia V, who sees Reggie as “an African with an English head” but also says, “You’ve come home.”
Sarah lived in Tarkwa, a town that grew prosperous because it was a stop on a railway line linking a mining area to the coast. She had a relationship with an Englishman, AG Lloyd, who worked in the colonial service.
Reggie also learns more about Dorothy, who turns out to have been a trader, “a very formidable person”. He gets a flavour of Ghanian attitudes to customary marriages too. “According to English law, we are all bastards,” thunders Nana Kobina Nketsia, and adds, “Your great-grandmother was well married.”
Reggie has one last visit to pay, to the town of Dixcove, where he meets members of his great-grandfather’s extended family. Sarah and Dorothy, he learns, were close and worked together.
Reggie is delighted with what he’s discovered. “It’s an amazing feeling to know where that European part of my lineage came from,” he says. He feels more connected to both his own father and his wider family: “I feel like I’m part of something, and being here and learning about our history has made that even more real.”