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-wrecking 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.

“As many African returnees soon find out, an optimistic slogan or a fervent call to return home does not entirely make for a viable relocation.” – @jabdulai #GhanaReturnees Click To Tweet

Relocating to Africa

Relocating and making a permanent move back to Africa requires adaptation. Many African countries lack the systems and social safety nets which 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 which 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.

“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.” – @jabdulai #GhanaReturnees Click To Tweet

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.

Visiting Maison des Esclaves on Gorée Island, Senegal // Credit: Circumspecte.com

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 envelope 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 every day 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 favour 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.

My African Returnee Experience

“You know what we have invested. Don’t waste this opportunity.” My father’s words. It was a warm August 2005 evening at Kotoka International Airport and I was preparing to take my first solo travel outside Ghana. I was about to start my undergraduate career at Mount Holyoke College. Fast forward five years later, and I had a dual Bachelors’ degree in Economics and French in hand, coupled with a ton of optimism for the future as well as two-years of combined work experience in various internships and as an international development correspondent. I was at a crossroads; one many Africans in the Diaspora face: to return home or figure out a way to stay in the Diaspora. My father’s words been a guiding rudder for me throughout my time in school. Those words – along with the optimism around ‘Africa Rising’ – were a big factor in my eventual decision to return to West Africa. Like many before me, I wanted to contribute my quota in helping build Africa, to make good on the investment, to make my college education count for more than a desk in corporate America. I wanted to help Africa rise.

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.”

Jemila Abdulai

African returnees – expatriates and repatriates – may share common experiences, but there are fundamental differences between being an expat (foreigner in a country) or a repat (national returning home) in an African country. Some of these include the different emotional and familial ties, the different yet parallel systems of privilege and access, the subtle nuances in how each may be received and/or treated by locals, the range of choices and responsibilities which exist. I have had the opportunity to experience both in different countries and contexts since my relocation back to Africa almost 10 years ago.

African Expat in Dakar, Senegal

It had been five years since I had seen my family in person, so I made a stop in Accra to spend some time. My final destination however was Dakar, Senegal. There, I had my first experience of the African expatriate life. Granted, I was earning less than half what I might have, had I found a similar job in the US, but all in all, my life was comfortable: Senegalese culture was largely familiar. I was earning way more than my Senegalese counterparts and shared a three-bedroom apartment with a Zimbabwean colleague in Dakar. I could afford to eat out many times in the week and spent many a weekend lounging on the beach or by a pool somewhere in the Senegalese capital or Gorée Island. To this day, I have fond memories of my time in Dakar. It is easily my favourite African country – besides Ghana – and I always encourage people to visit Senegal if they can. But despite my appreciation for the country and although I have numerous Senegalese friends and have been mistaken for being Senegalese myself numerous times, the truth is, Senegal wasn’t my country.

Celebrating Eid 2010 in Dakar – Senegalese style // Credit: Jemila Abdulai

In many ways, I was a shape shifter, floating between the various realities and versions of the country. There was an unspoken privilege in being able to zone out on issues; to stand on the sidelines and observe the locals as they protested and rallied against high energy prices, corruption, poor leadership – even as I empathised with them. As an expat, I could always remind myself that I had somewhere else to go. My entire livelihood, survival or ability to thrive wasn’t tied to Senegal’s prosperity. So even as I listened to my Senegalese colleagues and friends bemoan the state of their country, I took comfort in knowing I had an escape. I could leave if I so chose. Senegal was not my country. The weight of responsibility I felt in Dakar was way less than what I feel by simply being in Accra. The sense of responsibility you feel in your home country can add an emotional and mental toll which will influence one’s overall African returnee experience.

African Expat in Tunis, Tunisia

As an expat living and working in Tunisia from 2013-14, I was able to tap into its luxuries – a lovely yet moderately priced apartment; variety of Mediterranean and European food, vegetables and fruits; reliable internet; great healthcare, good infrastructure coupled with the air of European efficiency, easy travel to Europe and other African countries, the opportunity to work and interact with some of the brightest young professionals in Africa and from across the world. Although I spoke French and some Arabic, I didn’t have the chance to immerse myself in the local community as I had in Senegal. The country was recovering from the throes of the Arab Spring and being a black expat with a well-known institution came with its own troubles. Many Tunisians­­­­ resented the fact that black Africans had relatively better livelihoods than they did – understandable, inequalities exist – but some were not afraid to express that resentment. Long story short, Tunisia gave me a masterclass in racism and xenophobia. Once again, I took solace in the fact that I could leave: Tunisia was not my country.

“Relocating to a country – even your own – is an investment on so many levels…Every country or city can be glorious on a vacation; but there are no such guarantees as a Ghanaian or African returnee in your own country.” – @jabdulai… Click To Tweet

African Expat in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire

Being black and having a job with a highly respected
institution became a shield against the harsh truths of living in Abidjan from
2014-15. The country was in post-conflict recovery mode and many Ivorians I spoke
to expressed optimism about their future. Yet, the realities of a broken system
and raging economic inequalities still held true. My colleagues and I received
security alerts and guidance for living in Abidjan and not sticking out like a
sore thumb. I spoke French and could easily pass for an Ivorian, so the
transition on that front was relatively easier for me. The main difference
between my expat experience in Cote d’Ivoire and Senegal was my work and income
situation. I was consulting for one of the most recognizable organizations in
the country and continent. Although I wasn’t a full-time staff, it still came
with some measure of respect, access and resources – medical services, a
diplomatic passport to all 54 African countries, the ability to eat at a
restaurant without needing to see the menu prices.

To survive in Tunis, I had learned to build and nurture my own tribe; largely colleagues or other expats who shared my experiences or had similar perspectives and interests. Although I had the opportunity to interact more locally, I largely maintained that tribe in Abidjan and didn’t really build new relationships for one simple reason: my experience in Tunis had worn me out and I was in recovery mode. Beyond my Ivorian colleagues, landlord, seamstress, favourite maki (chop bar), laundry lady, and Ivorian bloggers I had known before my move, I didn’t interact much with the local community. Sure, I would get the occasional glimpse at the everyday lives of Ivorians while sitting in a taxi or traffic, but that just emphasised how much of a spectator I was. On weekends, I would hang at the usual expat spots: hotels, restaurants, the beach, each other’s homes. For someone working in an organisation dedicated to ‘development’, I had become increasingly disconnected. I had zoned out – and I still had elsewhere to go if I needed to. Perhaps here, more than anywhere else, I truly embodied the expat experience. With its attendant privileges, I didn’t even try to play shape shifter – to even attempt a really honest look at the varied realities of living in the Ivorian capital. Perhaps if I had stayed in Abidjan after I left my 9-to-5, I would have gotten such opportunities – or been forced – to reach out to and connect with more Ivorians. But by then, I was yearning for something more familiar; I was yearning for home: Ghana.

African Returnees: Being An Expat Versus Repat

Beyond my own experiences as an expat and repat in Africa, I have had countless conversations with African returnees both in Ghana and elsewhere on the continent. In 2018, I hosted a Cirqmixer in Washington, DC in collaboration with YAP and Dine Diaspora to share insights about the realities of relocating or moving back to Africa. I have coached numerous Ghanaians and Africans about to start their returnee journeys or newly arrived in Accra. As a member of Ahaspora – a great network of African returnees in Ghana – I have the opportunity to learn from other returnees, while contributing to Ghana. All this to say: I don’t take this lightly nor do I speak about returnee experiences in a vacuum. I have been reflecting on and exploring these questions for years – both alone and with other African and Ghanaian returnees. I believe it is important to share the harsh truths and realities in order to enable other potential returnees make informed decisions. To provide the kind of information I wish I had when starting my own returnee journey to the continent almost 10 years ago.

CirqMixer DC on Working, Living & Creating Across Africa // Credit: Circumspecte

Granted, no two African returnee experiences are exactly the same, however there are many parallels. The bottomline: relocating to a country – even your own – is an investment on so many levels: financial, mental, emotional, social. Every country or city can be glorious on a vacation; but there are no such guarantees as a Ghanaian or African returnee in your own country. This investment is easily missed, ironically by some who have not actually had a returnee experience or locals who advocate for African returnees to come home and ‘invest’.

“Visiting Ghana is not the same as relocating and moving your entire life to Ghana. By all means, visit #Ghana… but if you’re planning on relocation, please press pause, plan and prepare before moving.” – @jabdulai #GhanaReturnees Click To Tweet

When I started tweeting some real-life experiences on being a Ghanaian returnee, many people responded in agreement, even sharing their own examples and thoughts as recent African returnees. Many people – Ghanaians especially – also questioned my intent; some went as far as labelling me as unpatriotic and criticised me for talking about the “negatives” – for “airing Ghana’s dirty laundry in public.” Others concluded that I was telling Ghanaians and other Africans in the Diaspora not to return to Ghana at all. Far from it. If anything, I highly encourage a visit to Ghana to test the waters before moving. What I don’t recommend however is moving one’s entire life to Ghana without doing your due diligence and having a good sense of the realities on the ground, beyond the headlines and propaganda.

A few people pointed out that there are numerous expats who are not only living in Ghana, but thriving. True, there are similarities in being an expat (non-national) and repat (national) in a country like Ghana – having access, enjoying the privilege of coming from abroad, and the shared experience of facing some degree of resentment from locals. It is also true that the experiences of expats and repats in Ghana are not entirely the same. For one thing, many foreign-owned businesses enjoy special considerations that local businesses may not. The level of attentiveness and seriousness afforded to initiatives by foreigners is one many Ghanaians can only dream of. Furthermore, the social rights and responsibilities that come with being a Ghanaian returnee differ on so many levels. The resources and tools available to each either through their governments as in Rwanda’s case, or through their jobs, may also differ. As already highlighted in my African expat experiences in Dakar, Tunis and Abidjan, expats are largely excluded from the social, emotional and mental responsibilities that repats shoulder. They are less likely to deal with those stresses, if at all.

In part two of this series, I hope to share some of my experiences, insights and lessons from being a repat in Ghana: an African returnee, living in my home country Ghana. Recently returned to Africa or your home country? Feel free to share your experiences in a comment.


Jemila Abdulai is the founding editor and creative director of Circumspecte. Follow her African returnee insights and other exploits: Instagram / Facebook / Twitter.

This article was originally published at Circumspecte.com

source: https://circumspecte.com/2019/08/african-returnee-relocating-versus-visiting/

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