Real Talk: You Need More Than Optimism to be An African Returnee
There comes a time in an African Diasporan’s life when you have to choose: to stay or to go. For many, relocating can be a nerve-wracking and paradigm-shifting decision – and indeed, it is. You are literally uprooting yourself and setting up shop elsewhere. It may be ‘home’, your country of origin, or birth, but it is often a landscape vastly different from what you may have become accustomed to. With the roar of slogans like “Africa Rising” or “Year of Return”, a feeling of optimism can propel one to take those steps. And why not? African countries like Ghana hold much promise and have made important headways towards development over the past few decades. But as many African returnees like myself soon find out, an optimistic slogan or fervent call to return home does not entirely guarantee a viable relocation. Instead, it takes careful thought, preparation, and a willingness to relearn one’s country and one’s place in it.
Relocating to Africa
Relocating and making a permanent move back to Africa requires adaptation. Many African countries lack the systems and social safety nets that are synonymous with the West. You may have lived in a (semi)functional system, but you could possibly find yourself returning to a broken system or one still finding its feet. Where you may have had reliable basic amenities and structures, you could find your country sorely lacking in the efficiency department. All this contributes to an emotional and mental burden that is often unaccounted for and which many recent African returnees are yet to fully comprehend, much more talk about. In countries like Ghana, you may have to become a mini-nation unto yourself; providing private solutions to public problems for yourself and/or your family. Being your own social safety net.
Some of the problems you encounter may be the very things you barely gave a second thought to while abroad: getting a generator due to unreliable electricity; inefficient internet services; a complicated healthcare system; requests for “gifts” in order to guarantee or speed up services you’ve already paid for; paying two-years rent upfront before moving in; finding out the house you thought you were building doesn’t exist and so much more. Deciding on ‘returning home’ is only one step in a very long and involved process of relocating. Sure, you may “know” your home country. You may have even taken your first breath or spent your childhood or adolescence in that country. Your family and friends may still live there. But much like people, countries, and societies change. Add your own changed self and you have a different equation altogether. All that before the reverse culture shock you are likely to experience. Yes, it is a thing.
But what about the positives – don’t they exist? The delicious food, breathtaking landscapes, feet thumping music, creativity, and smiles? How about the entrepreneurial people coming up with creative solutions and businesses, the policies that sound so great? What of the beautiful photos on Instagram that depict the ‘Africa they never show you? And let’s not forget the economic indices which clearly put your country on a growth trajectory and maybe even ahead of the very Diasporan country you’re thinking of leaving? What about that? As one who has spent over a decade documenting some of Ghana’s positive narratives, and helping equip Africans with digital skills to share their inspiring stories and groundbreaking ideas, I can assure you that the positives certainly exist. More importantly, there’s a resilience unparalleled in African countries like Ghana, where people persist and strive despite the many odds and systemic inefficiencies. Every day, millions of Ghanaians and Africans create magic from next to nothing. That, more than anything else, makes me hopeful for Africa’s future: we don’t give up.
Relocation versus Visiting
Each African country has its positives and problems; just like every other nation on the face of the earth. If you’re visiting Ghana on vacation or for a short business trip, we will envelop you in our hospitality and smiles. We will convince you that the stench from the open gutter is exactly why your waakye tastes so good; that the dirt and grime make the glory. Those streets you’re walking on? Africa’s greats, and more recently Hollywood stars, have trod similar paths. Our ability to laugh off our issues will have you thinking we haven’t a care in the world. The changing urban landscape and high-rise buildings of cities like Accra will make you believe we are truly beyond aid and anything is possible. About that AC to AC life? We’ll deliver winter fronts in our various hotels and conference halls that will leave the North Pole jealous. Now that we have joined the league of world-class coffee shops, you won’t even remember you’re not in the Diaspora. You’ll stay in Accra without venturing to Ghana’s other cities or regions, except maybe Cape Coast. Nostalgia and regret are useful in weaving together your entire experience. Give us two weeks, or even a week. By the time we are done with you, the notion that Accra is Ghana will be unconsciously rooted in your psyche, you won’t want to leave. Keep your trip short and sweet and there is no way you won’t succumb to the notions we have invested so much in: Ghana – or rather, Accra – is the best there is.
But stay beyond two weeks or a month – three to six months if you so dare – and we will eventually unveil our many faces to you. The contradictory realities of life and living in Ghana will awaken you to a very simple fact: there are many universes, many versions of Ghana; each existing in parallel. The everyday hardships can, and have, driven many African returnees into depression; leaving them grappling with loneliness, even heartbreak with no real support systems or recourse for treatment. Visiting Ghana is not the same as relocating and moving your entire life to Ghana. By all means, visit Ghana. Come and see what we have to offer. Learn about the small but meaningful steps we have taken towards progress. Partake in the Year of Return festivities and indulge in the “December in Ghana” experience. But if you’re planning on relocation, do yourself a huge favor and press pause. Research, plan and prepare before you move. Do this, set realistic expectations and make informed choices, and your return home could end up being one of the best life decisions you have ever made. Not sure where to start? Well, that’s what this ‘African Returnees’ series is about. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. Let me take you back to 2010 when I started my own African returnee journey.
Jemila Abdulai is a multiple award-winning Ghanaian writers, economist, and the founding editor of Circumspecte; a digital platform focused on sharing new perspectives on, for, by, and from Africa(ns). Follow her African returnee insights and travel exploits on Twitter and Instagram.