Published in Detroit Free Press, May 8, 2015
By Niraj Warikoo
Inspired by the social movements at the time, Jeannette Salters of Detroit got involved in the early 1970s with African-American and feminist causes, helping lead a black women’s group.
That led her to discover her roots in west Africa, where she eventually settled in Ghana, changing her name to Mamelena Diop. Her journey to Africa was part of a movement of Detroiters who sought to reclaim their ancestral roots during a revival of black nationalist movements.
Diop loved it there, say friends and family. But this week, her body, along with that of her sister, Nzinga Janna, was found near their home in Ghana in what may been killings in a dispute over land. She was 75 and her sister was 60 at the time of death, according to reports in a Ghanian online news site and family members. Two men have been arrested, according to the Ghanian news report and family members.
“I feel terrible about what happened,” said her son, Greg Salters of Detroit. “It’s a tragedy. Words can’t even explain how I feel about my mom being taken away from her home, murdered and put in a shallow grave 300 feet from her home.”
Salters said his mother and aunt were killed by people who wanted land she had legally acquired from the government in Ghana.
“Some locals decided they wanted to take the land from them,” he said. “My mom went to court over that” and won.
“I guess the locals decided they were going to take matters into their own hands,” he said. “And they decided to abduct and murder them.”
A report on MyJoyOnline.Com said the sisters “had gone missing and a search in their room Tuesday afternoon revealed blood on the floor and a bloodstained cudgel, believed to have been used to hit them.”
Her dogs had been poisoned several weeks ago, said family members and the media report.
The report said the dispute also may have been over who has the authority to be a chief, with others trying to say that the sisters could not legally be chiefs. But family members in metro Detroit say that story doesn’t add up since the sisters could not be chiefs in that area because they were women.
Friends and family of Diop mourned her loss, saying it was a tragedy for her to die in a land she loved so much. Diop had moved back and forth between Detroit and Ghana over the years and was a dual citizen of the U.S. and Ghana. She was last in Detroit two years ago for the funeral of a relative.
“She loved that place,” said Diop’s daughter Cheryl Salters. “She loved Africa. The people were nice.”
A family member or friend of Janna could not be reached for comment.
Diop’s close friend, Thea Simmons of Grosse Pointe Park, was in shock when she heard about the deaths.
“My mind went blank … I shed some tears,” she said. “It’s beyond a travesty that she should lose her life in her adopted homeland. She loved Ghana. And she loved the Ghanian people.”
Family are now trying to get her body back into the U.S. The U.S. Embassy has contacted them to notify them of the deaths of the sisters, said family members.
The family is trying to raise money through GoFundMe to ship the sisters’ remains back to Detroit.
Diop was originally from Cleveland, but moved to Detroit as a young woman, said Simmons. She “became involved in radical politics … social movements” in African-American and women’s movements.
In 1973, she helped set up the Detroit chapter of the now-defunct National Black Feminist Organization. She was also a social worker and counselor, said family members.
Several years later, she traveled to west African countries, the land of her origins. She settled in Ghana, getting involved with helping people, said family members. She was also into eating organic and using natural herbs.
“My mother was very articulate, very into herbs and holistic medicine, eating natural,” said Cheryl Salters.
A grandson, James Salters, said that Diop was involved with helping Ghanians with education, water systems and affordable housing.
He said: “I feel sad that someone would actually target an older woman when she’s over there trying to do good for that country.”
Contact Niraj Warikoo: email@example.com or 313-223-4792. Follow him on Twitter @nwarikoo.