A Grandmother's Journey

"We’ve been searching for so long! My mother told me to never give up."

Those were the words I heard over the phone, punctuated with sobs that she was trying to choke back. The words of a grandmother who had been desperately trying to connect her granddaughter with a father she has never known. The sobs resulted from tears of both joy and relief. She had just sent me a screenshot of the paternity results confirming that we had found the biological father of her granddaughter.

Just over four months ago, she reached out to me via Facebook Messenger… 

Likely spurred by ancestry DNA commercials or reports that others in the same predicament were turning to consumer ancestry DNA testing for answers, she had her granddaughter do a test in 2014. What she didn’t realize is that not many Africans were testing at the time, so the test would not provide immediate answers for them, it took an agonizing 9 long years to conclude her journey for answers. 

On a side note, the common response I get when I ask Africans to test is that they don’t need to because they already know their ethnic group and ancestors. My response is that their test will provide answers to others who are searching for those same ethnic groups and ancestors. So for anyone who thinks they don’t need to test (not just Africans), please reconsider. More folks should test, not only to break down their own brick walls but to help others as well. And don’t put it off for another day. Your test may just provide the answer that someone is desperately waiting on.

Back in 2017, devastated by her granddaughter's tears that they still didn’t have answers, she became desperate and turned to Facebook to make a public plea to find her granddaughter’s father.  

Fast forward to 2023, her reaching out to me was a long shot, the test I managed was an incredibly distant match to her granddaughter. She could see that we both belonged to the same DNA Facebook group and sought out advice on how or if to reach out to me. (For future reference, if I manage a test that one of your tests matches, please feel free to reach out. You can even reach out on more than one platform or repeatedly in case I’m buried and not responsive right away. I manage a lot of tests and it’s hard to juggle at times. But I digress…)

To her credit, the grandmother never gave up and in the end, she persevered and got the reunion she was seeking for her granddaughter. To his credit, once the biological father was contacted, was incredibly gracious and wanted an answer as well. He paid for an expedited paternity test and the results were back in less than 1 week.

I won’t cover the genetic genealogy work and methods in this post. But to those of you who are helping others, I will say that the closest match on her father's side appeared to only be 66 cMs on the AncestryDNA site, in reality, that person actually shared 170 cM with her, it was only by uploading both tests to a site with better comparison tools that we could see the true amount of DNA shared. It was due to that DNA match and just one other that triangulated to a known ancestor that we were able to find and identify her father.

From the time I was contacted, finding him took about 4 months and several things occurred to make it happen:

  1. Me mentioning the name of the closest match to just the right person who was able to help me identify who that person was. I then worked with his wife to regain access to the ancestry account that their teenage daughter had created for him (and then promptly forgotten about) when she activated the ancestry test she bought for him as a Christmas gift. Once we had access to his test and were able to upload it to the Gedmatch website, I could see the actual amount of DNA that was shared between them. I then identified that their kinship was closer and that she was likely the daughter of a cousin known to him. Not the child of someone connected to him via a more distant ancestor.

  2. An incredibly receptive South Sudanese community who remains very much in contact with each other even while they are dispersed throughout the world. Members in this community also have a great desire for their kids and even their DNA matches to know who they are and where they come from.

  3. Those who tested shared their matches aided me with information to build their trees and uploaded their tests to the other sites.

  4. Someone (myself in this case but there are many others out there doing the same work) who is passionate about genetic genealogy and crazy enough to pester many people to test and who is constantly trying to learn about the evolving science of it all. Someone who knows how important it is to get your test on the other sites to fully understand and see the shared DNA between individuals.

Lessons I’ve learned from all of this that I feel I need to shout from the rooftop for all to hear…

If you haven’t yet taken an ancestry test, please take one. More people need to test. Your test may just provide the answer that someone is desperately waiting on, even if you’re not an immediate family member of the person who is seeking answers. The best time to test is during the frequent sales throughout the year when the tests are discounted.

Keep or regain access to your ancestry test. If you have taken a DNA test and forgotten all about it, or forgotten your password, or forgotten the email you used, or any number of things. Please call the company and work with them on how to regain access to your account. The company will work with you. The same goes for gaining access to a test of a loved one who has passed away. You may be able to gain access to their account depending on your relation to the person.

You DO NOT need a paid or trial subscription to access your test results or your matches on any of the testing sites. You paid for your test once, you will always have access to it provided you remember the login or share it with others. The paid/trial subscription (specifically on ancestry.com) was only for you to view the ancestry databases on records for things such as censuses or birth indexes. NOT for your matches. If you don’t log in or have lost the password, you are sadly missing out on new matches, messages from matches, and even new DNA tools and ethnicity updates rolled out by the testing companies. Please log back in and check all of those things!

Do not be afraid to try and find your matches on other platforms (social media, email, etc), especially due to the reasons I’ve listed above. They may not respond to you on the testing site due to any number of reasons. Sadly, a few unkind responses have many people hesitant to reach out to others. If your DNA match is listed with the same name and possibly even the same profile photo that they use on social media, chances are that they are open to others finding them and reaching out. And if you’ve ever received an unkind response from someone for reaching out. Try not to sweat it. If you’re doing it politely and for the right reasons (i.e. trying to provide much-needed answers for yourself or others), that’s all that matters.

Don’t be misled or discouraged by misinformation. In this case, some of the details on the father weren’t remembered quite right, also the ethnicities of her granddaughter changed from the time she initially did the test from Nigerian ethnicity to Nilotic ethnicity (attributed to ethnic groups who reside along the Nile branches in Africa). This isn’t because these tests are wrong, the change is due to a refinement in the population reference that ancestry.com was using as well as more people from those population groups independently testing on their own. Back in 2013/14 when she first tested they may not have had a Nilotic population sample. Once they did the ethnicities were updated and obviously much more accurate. Keep an open mind that some of the details may not fit.

Trust that this process works. There is a process and methodology that can lead to incredibly accurate findings for people seeking answers. This is a groundbreaking new technology that is more powerful than paternity DNA testing.

Don’t give up. The grandmother on this journey did not. She did need to set it down for a while, then during that hiatus, others tested and even the tools on the sites got better.

Do not leave your test languishing on only one site. Each site offers different tools and also other DNA matches for you to connect with. You are sadly missing out if your test is only on one of the sites. I have advised many others to upload to other sites and as soon as they have done so they have found immediate family members tested there and nowhere else (siblings, aunts/uncles, grandparents, parents/children, 1st cousins). 

This test is powerful! In a similar fashion to how the smartphone disrupted the digital camera market, this little consumer ancestry DNA test is a game changer. I've been asked by family members who I've identified in other cases how I've identified them if they haven't tested. The answer is that there is a proven methodology where you can reverse engineer a family tree for someone based on DNA matches alone. I have seen it work time and time again and this isn't the first paternity test performed after the fact that proves that this methodology works.

In conclusion, this is the end of a journey for one grandmother and the beginning of a new journey for her granddaughter. She not only gets to begin the process of getting to know her father. She also has a huge community that will embrace her as well.

I wish all folks were as receptive as the ones on this journey. That is definitely not always the case. I’ve helped others whose stories don’t have such a happy ending. Eventually, I’ll tell those stories too. 

In the meantime, I’m still on the journey for others where we’ve identified close family yet still have roadblocks. There are family members who are being hurtful in a number of ways (whether intentional or not). They are causing people pain, perhaps by not being cognizant of the seriousness and importance of this journey for those who are seeking answers. Too many people lean on the excuse of not wanting to rock the boat. But what they fail to realize is that doesn’t change what is true and that inevitably the truth always comes to light. My hope is that they will eventually do the right thing and bring closure not only to the people who are searching but closure and catharsis to their own immediate circles as well,