Monday, February 26, 2018

A Blog Interview with my African DNA Cousin

Maame Durowah Okai
(Used per permission)

I am elated and honored to feature one of my African DNA cousins, Maame Durowah Okai of Amsterdam, Netherlands, on my blog. If someone had told me five years ago that I will be doing this, I wouldn’t have believed them. DNA technology has allowed many of us to learn something about our African ancestry and connect with African cousins.

Many geneticists recommend that one of the best ways to get a glimpse of our African roots utilizing DNA is through DNA matches to living Africans who have also taken one of the autosomal DNA tests – AncestryDNA, 23andMe, MyHeritage, and Family Tree DNA. Many African Americans and Afro-Caribbeans are matching people from the Motherland, and these matches are celebrated. This is to be expected since we are the descendants of many Africans who were taken from an area of West Africa, stretching from present-day Senegal to Angola, as well as from present-day Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Madagascar. Check out Fonte Felipe’s insightful blog post, “How to find those elusive African DNA matches on Ancestry.”

Maame Durowah Okai’s family roots are from Ghana. Her father is Ashanti and her mother is from the Obo Kwahu people, who descends from the Ashanti Empire. Interestingly, historians believe that Harriet Tubman’s African maternal grandmother, Modesty, descends from the Ashanti people. Cousin Maame Durowah took the AncestryDNA test last year, which identified her as 97% Ivory Coast/Ghana, 2% Benin/Togo, and 1% Mali.

Incredibly, she is a DNA match to both my father and me at 13 cM (centimorgans). According to the International Society of Genetic Genealogy (ISOGG), that amount of DNA is in the range of a fourth cousin or further. My chances of figuring out exactly how Cousin Maame Durowah is related on my father's side is astronomically slim. But that's OK. It doesn't matter. What matters greatly is that we carry an identical strand of DNA that originated from a common African ancestor, who was most probably from the Gold Coast (present-day Ghana).

Cousin Maame Durowah is doing wonderful works in the Netherlands, and I am proud that she is my African cousin. To spotlight her, I asked her the following four questions about herself, her family, and her thoughts about DNA testing. She graciously took time out of her busy schedule to e-mail me the answers to them.

Question 1. What are your current endeavors in Europe?

I was born in the 80s in the Netherlands on a Sunday morning. I was raised in Amsterdam South East by my Ghanaian parents, Nana Yaw Okai & Mercy Ayirebi. I had influences by my Dutch grandma, who is from the Netherlands, named Will Ottens. She lived downstairs and helped my mom out when she rang the bell and when nobody wanted to open the door (due to the Sunday morning). It was only my Dutch grandma that opened the door; this was in the 80's, and knowing the time in the Netherlands with the migrants. My grandma took the chance and helped my mom out and I become part of the family. She had an amazing influence in my life (learning about the Dutch culture up close - best of both worlds). This also gives me the chance to teach and educate people on diversity in the Netherlands; currently writing a project on that.

I am a social worker and a family coach. I have been active in social work and community development. I am the founder and project manager of the Brighter Day Foundation, an international social and community development organization. The Brighter Day Foundation develops creative, social, and community projects to raise awareness, impact, and speak out on social issues.

I am working as a family coach/counselor in a youth team (9-5 job). I don't see it as a 9-5 job. My purpose in being there is to break generational trends by helping people to think beyond the “system” and be self-reliant. My main statement when it comes to my work is, “No one can pay you for the job you do because we give more than we are paid for.’’

In 2018, I will be starting a tour called “The Kingdom Citizen: I Have Never Become Who I Am,” which is based on my book. The aim is to share my story on how I discovered purpose by highlighting different life stories. The teaching element at hand is to show how one can creatively discover purpose through the obstacles in life and maximize their potential by making their “stories” known. This will take place in five major cities in Europe. I am not all knowing, letting one know their Purpose that is in God's hands yet being a tool to discover is a calling. I accepted my calling as a pastor at the age of 30. Before that, I was actively involved in ministry from age 23, becoming serious in the Faith when I was 19. I was raised by a Christian mom; my Dad joined the faith in a later stage.

My faith in God is my foundation and my source of success in life I can proudly proclaim. I travel around as an international speaker, teaching and sharing about the full gospel of Jesus Christ. Kingdom-minded and focused on missions around the world, I mentor the broken and rejected and raise up leaders. I am a woman wearing a mantle of many colors; a signature that reveals myself via my various activities. I am a 'Kingdom' representative breaking the status quo!

(Used per permission)

Question 2.    Why did you take the DNA test and what are your thoughts about it?

On February 15, 2017, I decided to do an Ancestry DNA test just out of curiosity. I saw it several years ago when the African Ancestry DNA stories came out on the internet. My curiosity was about how God can create us with such an amazing DNA and link us to a specific country, yet all being connected some way. I knew I was full Ghanaian, but I was still curious what could come out of it. I had heard about Mali being a part of the history of the Ashanti Empire from my Dad but to know that there is a Mali percentage in my DNA was fascinating!

One thing is for sure, I am a Kingdom Child of God, and I know where I come from. Yet I was given a nation in the land of the living. While sitting on the bus on my way home from London, I received an email with my DNA results. “Well, well,” I exclaimed. This was an interesting combo! Being 97% Ivory Coast/Ghana, 2% Benin/Togo, and 1% Mali was interesting! What made the story more interesting were the 15 people who were directly connected to my DNA, surprisingly.

Question 3.    Tell me something about your family roots in Ghana?

Mercy Ayirebi Kwahu (Obo Kwahu) is my mom’s name. She was born to Mr. Alfred Kofi Ayirebi & Mrs. Alice Abena Owarewah (daughter of Kwaku Nyame Danquah and Akosua Tiwah Donkor). My Dad is Nana Yaw Okai - Ashanti (Bonwire). My Dad’s lineage can be traced to Yaa Asantewaa. (Read more about Yaa Asantewaa here). I was told this as a young girl. Grandpa Afrani, we are still on the trace. Mrs. Yaa Durowah, who I was named after, is the daughter of Mrs. Efua Brempomaa & Nana Kwaku.

I was introduced to Ghana at age 10 and fell in love. I celebrated my 11th birthday in Ghana and the plan was for me to stay in Ghana and go to school. But my parents decided to keep me in the Netherlands. That one trip changed my life – my people, the food, the language. I became more interested about my background. We spoke Dutch, English and Twi at home, but learning my dialect became more of interest when I got to age 15. Forcing my parents to teach me the right way, I got myself into the culture, traditions, languages, food, my tribes…everything. I started going there every year, to even twice a year. The vision of the Brighter Day Foundation was born in Ghana. I lived in Ghana while doing my thesis but I had to come back to the Netherlands to finish school. I made up my mind 4 years ago to move to Ghana for a period of 5 years to build up a youth center, but my ways got an encounter, and I came back to the Netherlands to say yes to my calling.

I don’t have an English name. I was named after my Dad’s mother, Maame Durowah. I was born on Sunday - Akosua. In Ghana, they call me Ako or Akosua Durowah. Maame means lady or mother, so that is a general name before your name, which is Durowah (female) in my case. Durowah means medicine which comes from the word Oduro (male version). I was named after my Dad's mother out of love and respect. Okai is my paternal grandfather’s name. I do a lot of first and second generation analogy at work, but lately I am trying to do one of my own family genealogy, and every time I do it, I get to know more.

Maame Durowah Okai’s paternal ancestor, Queen Mother Nana Yaa Asantewaa

Question 4.    How do you feel knowing that many people of African descent in America are your distant cousins?

It was really surprising when you sent me a private message saying that I was your DNA cousin in America. Even though it’s a small percentage, it is still a match. I have family members by marriage who are African-American, but knowing that, through the DNA test, many others are DNA matches is an eye opener. It opens another chapter of your life; you hear the voices of the unheard and share stories untold.

Maame Durowah Okai in Malta in 2017.

Monday, February 5, 2018

A Genealogy Mishap Case: Discovering the True Paternity with DNA

No matter what the oral history said, DNA can say something differently.
What may seem obvious may not be the truth.

Louisa “Lue” Bobo Danner (1842-1921) of Panola County, Mississippi

Miscegenation during slavery is a situation that many of us African-American researchers are often confronted with in our family histories. My mother’s maternal grandmother’s mother, Louisa “Lue” Bobo Danner, was known to look like a white woman with long straight hair “that reached the floor,” according to family elders. Recently, I discovered that I had the wrong white father attached to her for nearly 20 years! According to her Civil War widow’s pension file, she was born on January 21, 1842 in Union County, South Carolina. Her enslaver, Dr. William J. Bobo, transported her, her mother Clarissa Bobo, and other family members to Mississippi in 1858.

A late family elder remembered her very well. Cousin Robert Danner was 16 years old when his grandmother died in 1921, and he spent a lot of time at her home. From my first interview with him in 1996, until his passing at age 103 in 2008, he shared many details about her. Mississippi to Africa: A Journey of Discovery would not have been possible without his priceless memories. He recalled that a man named Sandy Wilbourn visited his grandmother often. He claimed that Sandy was her white half-brother who acknowledged their family relationship, something that was exceedingly rare at that time. Cousin Robert had proclaimed confidently, “Grandma Lue’s father was a Wilbourn.” I uploaded some of the recordings of my oral history interviews with him in this 2013 blog post.

With that huge clue, I researched the censuses and other records, as well as communicated with Wilbourn descendants, and determined that Sandy Wilbourn was William Sanford Wilbourn (1853-1935). He died in Panola County when Cousin Robert was 28 years old. “Sandy” resided in the area where Grandma Lue lived. His father was Elijah Wilbourn, Jr. (1810-1878), so I concluded that Elijah Jr. was the man who had impregnated Clarissa with Grandma Lue and possibly her “mulatto” brother, Eli Bobo (1844-1918), too. Eli was a shorter name for Elijah, so that naming clue carried a lot of weight, in my opinion.

Elijah Wilbourn, Jr. had settled in Panola County, Mississippi also from Union County, South Carolina around 1840, about two years before Grandma Lue was born in South Carolina. I had theorized that he probably traveled back to South Carolina periodically to visit family, and during one of those trips, he made his way onto his former neighbor Dr. William Bobo’s plantation and impregnated Grandma Clarissa. That was my story, and I was sticking to it. Besides, Cousin Robert’s memory of many other people and events of our family history turned out to be accurate, so I had very little reason to question his recollection of Sandy Wilbourn being Grandma Lue’s half-brother.

Grandma Lue’s death certificate reported “Don’t Know” for her father’s name, so I was extremely grateful that he remembered this piece of history. This was very valuable oral history. I soon made an entry in my family tree, closed that chapter, and didn’t put much more thought to this Wilbourn impregnator. Then, DNA hit the scene nearly twenty years later. It told a different story.

In early 2015, a high DNA match appeared in 23andMe. I’ll call him “Cousin D.” He was sharing 100 cM over 4 segments with my mother (79 cM/3 segments with me), 75 cM over 4 segments with her brother, and 75 cM over 3 segments with her sister. These significant amounts indicate a fairly close relationship, possibly in the third cousin range. I also noticed that he was sharing 20 cM with my mother’s 2nd cousin, Cousin MAJ. To my surprise, Cousin D was 99.9% European. How could my family and I share this much DNA with a white person? This was my first thought.

Interestingly, Cousin D was also sharing DNA on the X chromosome with my aunt and uncle. (See chart below.) My mother, her siblings, and Cousin MAJ are great-grandchildren of Grandma Lue and her husband, Edward Danner. Cousin D soon contacted me, and I expressed to him that he appears to be closely connected to Elijah Wilbourn, Jr. of Panola County, Mississippi. Having African-American relatives piqued his interest. But there was one huge issue.

Because Cousin D was sharing X-DNA with my aunt and uncle, this meant that he’s related to us on his mother’s side. Males inherit one X chromosome from their mothers, while females inherit two X chromosomes, one from their mother and one from their father. His late mother was adopted, and he had no knowledge of her biological family. He then hired a professional genealogist to utilize autosomal DNA to build his mother’s biological family tree. This was indeed a challenging feat, but she had great success after administering autosomal DNA tests to numerous key people.

Cousin D’s genealogist determined that he and my mother are 5th cousins, and no one in his immediate family ever resided in Panola County, Mississippi. This was shocking. William Wilburn (1765-1822) of Union County, S.C., who was Elijah Jr’s uncle, was his 3rd-great-grandfather. However, we both felt that Cousin D shares too much DNA with my mother to be her 5th cousin, so something was not jiving. I didn't know what was aberrant, so I left it alone. I needed something compelling to make it a bigger research priority. Well, that “something” soon came.

Cousin D's maternal 2nd cousin, Cousin E, recently took the FamilyTree DNA (FTDNA) test, and her raw data file was uploaded to She too shares a lot of DNA and X-DNA with my family, including another one of my mother’s 2nd cousins, Cousin ORN (Cousin MAJ’s 1st cousin). See chart below. This was significant because Cousin D and Cousin E share the same great-grandparents, William Ray and Mary Amanda Wilburn (1855-1935) of Union County, S.C. Mary Amanda’s parents were Joshua Wilburn (1805-1887) and Elizabeth Sparks.  

Cousins D and E’s sharing of X-DNA with my family was very revealing. While my family’s matching X chromosome segments with them came from Grandma Lue’s father, their matching X chromosome segments appear to have come from Mary Amanda. But there was a problem. None of Mary Amanda’s X-DNA ancestors matched the maternal ancestors of Elijah Wilbourn, Jr., who was her father’s first cousin. If Elijah Jr. was Grandma Lue’s father, the X-DNA he passed on to her came from his mother, Mary Roundtree. She was not related to Cousin D and Cousin E. Also, the X-DNA that Mary Amanda’s father passed on to her came from his mother, Susannah Gibbs (1781-1814). This was the second red flag.

Elijah Wilbourn, Jr. inherited all of his X chromosome from his mother, Mary Roundtree. She inherited that X-DNA from both of her parents.

50% of Mary Amanda Wilburn’s X-DNA came from her father’s mother, Susannah Gibbs.

Cousin D’s genealogist also observed that my family share DNA with other descendants of Joshua Wilburn – Cousins A, B, and C. See chart above. All of these autosomal DNA findings point to Grandma Lue’s father likely being either Joshua Wilburn or his twin brother, also named Elijah Wilburn (1805-1889), who were the sons of William Wilburn and Susannah Gibbs, and not Elijah Wilbourn, Jr. (son of Elijah Sr./Mary Roundtree) who migrated to Mississippi. Both of the twin brothers lived and died in South Carolina. Fortunately, there was additional evidence.

I performed the “People Who Match One of Both of 2 Kits” option in between Cousin E and Cousin MAJ since they share the largest amount of DNA at 111 cM over 5 segments. The purpose was to see who else shared DNA with both of them. As expected, my family appeared among their mutual matches. I also noticed a DNA match that was among my mother’s DNA matches in FTDNA who attached a family tree to his account. I am calling him “Cousin F.” Being able to view a family tree among shared DNA matches was essential to try to determine a common ancestor. Cousin F’s extensive family tree revealed that he indeed shares common ancestors with Cousins A, B, C, D, and E.  His 3rd-great-grandmother was Elizabeth Gibbs, a sister of Susannah Gibbs’ father, James Gibbs. Elizabeth and James’ parents were John Gibbs (1716-1770) and Susanne Phillipe (1720-1786).

In a process known as manual triangulating, I viewed Cousin F’s “One-to-Many Matches” in I then selected my family and Cousin E and viewed their matching chromosomes on the 2-D chromosome browser. Interestingly, Cousin F shares long overlapping chromosome segments with my family and Cousin E on chromosome 9. See figure below. I verified that they all match each other on chromosome 9. This indicates that everyone descend from a common ancestor.

Cousin F matches family members on overlapping chromosome segments on Chromosome 9

In 23andMe, this section of my mother’s chromosome 9 is identified as Northwestern European.

DNA is indicating that Grandma Lue had Gibbs ancestry. This served as additional DNA evidence that her father was likely Joshua Wilburn or his twin brother, Elijah (1805), sons of Susannah Gibbs. However, if Joshua and his twin brother Elijah (1805) were identical twins, they would share 100% identical DNA with each other. Full siblings and fraternal (non-identical) twins share around 50% of identical DNA. Therefore, Grandma Lue would share DNA with both Joshua and Elijah (1805) in the parent/child range (approx. 3,600 cM) if they were identical twins. If Joshua was the father, then Cousins A, B, C, D, and E are half 3rd cousins to my mother, her siblings, and Cousins MAJ and ORN. However, my speculation now is that they were identical twins, and Elijah Wilburn (1805) was her father. Then, Cousins A, B, C, D, and E are half 4th cousins genealogically but half 3rd cousins genetically. This revelation would have never been discovered had it not been for DNA technology.

This AncestryDNA match shares 34 cM / 1 segment with my mother. Elijah Wilburn (1805) is his 3rd-great-grandfather.

Acknowledgement: Special acknowledgement is given to Clarise Soper, CG for her great work in utilizing DNA to discover Cousin D's maternal ancestors.