Africans in the Diaspora return to their home countries for various reasons: nostalgia, a sense of responsibility, opportunity, family ties, love, familiarity, curiosity, optimism, reconnecting with one’s roots, and so on. What propelled me to return to Africa in 2010 was a mix of a sense of responsibility, optimism and a burning desire to help create impact on the continent. Although I began my returnee journey in 2010, it wasn’t until 2015 that I actually repatriated to my home country Ghana. Returning to Ghana was a gradual process for me; I didn’t just up and leave. I tested the waters. And yet, it still had and has its challenges. I have moments when I ask myself whether I made the right decision returning to Ghana. In many ways, I am relearning my country and my place in it. This article is to share my returnee story, relocation insights I’ve garnered along the way, and what I wish I had known before starting my relocation. It is the second in a three-part article series on Ghanaian and African returnees. Planning on returning to Ghana? I hope you find this useful."I have moments when I ask myself whether I made the right decision returning to Ghana. In many ways, I am relearning my country and my place in it." – @jabdulai #GhanaReturnees Click To Tweet
2015: Returning to Ghana, With A Plan
Compared to accounts I’ve heard from other returnees, my relocation to Ghana in 2015 was well-thought out, even if I didn’t know it at the time. As part of my preparations for leaving my 9-to-5 in Abidjan, I had been saving and doing research into Ghana’s entrepreneur landscape. I’d had numerous candid conversations with folks back home and other Ghanaian returnees, especially those who were running their own projects or businesses. September 2015 happened to be the height of Ghana’s ‘dumsor’ energy crisis. Many Ghanaians were struggling with running brick and mortar businesses which required electricity; restaurant owners and food entrepreneurs for instance. At the time, my intention was to experiment and explore what I could make of Circumspecte (this platform). Electricity would not only be necessary, but crucial for building my blog into a digital platform. Through conversations with a long-time friend and recent returnee, I discovered that the power outages were relatively limited in some parts of Accra; neighbourhoods preferred by expats. The electricity rarely went off and even when it did, it was usually short-lived. There was also easy access to Accra’s coffee shops, restaurants and hotels – many with generators.
Rental prices in affluent neighbourhoods in Accra could be comparable to rentals in some key cities in the Diaspora, but I had already saved funds and budgeted for the next two years based on my then-expat lifestyle in Abidjan. My friend had recently secured a new apartment and was looking for one more person to move in and split the rent three-ways. The more we talked; the more viable a move to Accra seemed for me. Yes, I would be in the Ghanaian capital at the height of an energy crisis, while experimenting with my “digital project’ and no active salary. But I had already done many of the things needed to make an informed decision on a relocation: I had savings; understood the economic, career, and business prospects; I was very much abreast with current affairs in Ghana; and I had visited many times before. I also had support and essential resources to draw on: a family I could turn to if my plans fell through; a strong network spanning primary school until present day; and an experience-packed CV to help me secure a job if necessary.
Having spent the past three years working across Africa and visiting Ghana a few times, I was also clear on what to expect in terms of infrastructure and socio-cultural dynamics. My rose-colored glasses had been off a long time ago. And so, in October 2015, a decade after I first left the shores of Ghana for academic pursuits in the Diaspora, I returned home to make Ghana my mothership. Accra became the springboard from which I would launch my digital startup and (attempt to) freelance. Perhaps, most important was the fact that I wasn’t returning to Ghana because I felt compelled to, but rather because I wanted to. I had learned a lot from my first attempt at moving home.
2011: Unprepared, Returnee Culture Shock
2011. The year I returned to Ghana after completing my Bachelor’s degree in the United States. My first move home after six years away. I had visited a year prior for about two weeks; a quick stop to see family before taking up a non-profit job in Senegal. That year, I left Dakar earlier than I had planned, shielding myself both from a devastating betrayal of trust and an ongoing energy crisis. In Senegal, I was an expat with the luxury of choice: I left because I could. Returning to Ghana without much savings or a job in hand unnerved me, but I had a Plan B: a job interview with an agriculture technology firm was lined up alongside three graduate school offers. Depending on how fundraising for graduate school went, I expected to be in Ghana for six months to a year. Enough time to catch up with family and friends, and reacquaint myself.
Moving to a new country can be a stressful and disorienting experience. The ‘culture shock’ that comes with doing so is well-documented and researched, and also applies to people returning to their home country (reverse culture shock). Generally speaking, there are five classic stages of culture shock: the honeymoon stage with its excitement, positivity and idealisation; the distress stage with its isolation, confusion, apparent differences and/or changes; the re-integration stage with its frustrations, comparisons, desire to leave or go back; the autonomy stage with its acceptance, willingness to explore realistically; and finally, the independence stage with its strong sense of self, appreciation and realism.
The Returnee Honeymoon Stage
During my honeymoon stage, I was fuelled by positivity and optimism. I joined various youth projects to help create impact in Ghana and network. For about two months, I succumbed to nostalgia and immersed myself in opportunities to reconnect with friends I hadn’t seen in years. It was also an opportunity to meet some of Circumspecte’s readers and mingle in Ghana’s then-fledgling blogging community. I wielded the relative autonomy my parents gave me at home, to come and go as I had done while abroad. There were perks to being a Ghanaian returnee with a ‘foreign accent’ – and I soaked it all up. I thoroughly enjoyed the royal treatment and hospitality Ghana is so famous for. Considered to be a guest or visitor, I was excused from house chores, was served meals at the table, and always had a bottle of mineral water. All I had to do was ask and my wish was granted. I made up for lost time in eating Ghanaian food: waakye, fufu, khebab, koko – what didn’t I eat? When out with friends, they would pay for my meals and were eager to hear what I had to say about my experiences abroad and while traveling.
The Returnee Distress Stage
Then one day, I woke up and there was no hot water waiting for me in the bathroom. I had to do my own laundry (by hand), fetch my own food from the pot, and follow my unofficial 8pm curfew. My friends and family would change the subject or roll their eyes whenever I would reference “America” or “France” – they were no longer interested in my stories and were off living their own lives. I found some of the things they fussed about tiresome: who cares if you wore the prescribed colour to her wedding or not? Shouldn’t simply being present count? Unbeknownst to me, I had just entered the distress stage of reverse culture shock. Where the term “Americana” used to be offered up to me with some element of awe, it now held a tinge of resentment and pity: it seemed I had been corrupted, spoke my mind too much and had lost my ‘Ghanaian values’ and culture.
I still had happy moments with photos as proof. But when the curtain was drawn, I grappled with my conscience and questioned both myself and God. I may have relocated physically, but mentally and emotionally, I was all over the place. Needless to say, many returnees struggle with depression and other mental health issues. Often times, one may not even recognise what is going on, much more confide in their family, friends or colleagues. Sometimes, it becomes too late.
One thing I had looked forward to while abroad was finally being able to attend social events, to be present with my “friends” as they turned the pages on various stages of life, to undo all those episodes of ‘fear of missing out’ I had endured while abroad. Yet, aside from a handful of wedding invitations, I still largely witnessed those life-changing moments through the screen of my internet-enabled device. My relationships with most of my high school friends especially had changed; I was not enough of a ‘current friend’ to be worthy of an invitation. When I did attend marriage ceremonies, often family related, I was barraged with questions about what I was waiting for; as though one can map out their own love story and marriage down to the last detail. Those societal expectations eventually found fertile soil in the vestiges of my mind.
The Returnee Reintegration Stage
I started edging into the reintegration stage of reverse culture shock with its comparisons. I felt out of place and all over the place with my emotions – what was it that I really wanted? I started comparing myself to my peers and musing about how less complex my life might have been if I had never left Ghana. At the same time, I longed to be anywhere but Ghana. Queuing for a trotro at Circle made me miss the convenience of living abroad; the easy transport, fast internet, and being spoilt for choice on how to spend my weekends and leisure hours. I also missed some of the people I had ‘left behind’ in America – the friends turned family members in some ways. I missed being able to speak French whenever I wanted; to immerse myself in economic speak with my classmates."Home no longer felt like home and nobody seemed to understand. I was “in-between”; not quite in Ghana, not quite Diaspora – all the while, navigating most of it alone." – @jabdulai #GhanaReturnees Click To Tweet
By now, I did have to explain myself to my parents, to ask permission each time I wanted to go out. I was no longer a ‘guest’. It made me feel like a child and not a 20-something year old. I was also working with the technology firm I had interviewed with. I was part of their international team, made up primarily of expats and returnees like myself. But my professional encounters with other Ghanaians left me wondering about my own ‘Ghanaian-ness’. Home no longer felt like home and nobody seemed to understand. I was “in-between”; not quite in Ghana, not quite Diaspora – all the while, navigating most of it alone. As fate would have it, my school plans materialised. Six months after I returned home, I left once more for academic pursuits and just before I was full-fledged in my Ghana re-integration process.
What You Need To Know About Returning to Ghana
Over the years I’ve come to realise that there are many parallel realities playing out in a country like Ghana in any given moment. The question is, which of those realities will you find yourself dealing with as a returnee? Can you live in Ghana? Certainly. But whether you are surviving, coasting through or thriving will depend largely on five things: Money. Connections. Information. Time. You.
Many Africans in the Diaspora move home because they consciously or unconsciously feel a sense of responsibility to their home country, family, the people they have “left behind” in Africa. Indeed, many of our conversations around the role of the Diaspora in African nations like Ghana fuel this dynamic: we expect Diasporans to come and invest; to be on the ground. And yet, what do our countries offer in return? When we ask our nationals in the Diaspora to return home, what tools and resources do we offer them? Do we guide potential returnees through their relocation process? Like Rwanda, do we recruit them because we see them playing very specific roles in the blueprint of our country’s development? Or do we simply want them to come with money to spend? To join the millions of others who have had to become mini-nations unto themselves? Many Africans expect their loved ones in the Diaspora to send money down or come bearing gifts when they visit. The latter stops many African Diasporans from even visiting their countries; because the truth is, the grass isn’t necessarily greener in the Diaspora either. Not being able to visit and feeling compelled to match the persona, ideas and expectations many of us have of African Diasporans ends up being a disservice on so many fronts. There is a vicious cycle of (trying to match) unrealistic and often unspoken expectations on both ends. Managing those expectations is a large part of being a returnee.
There are many things I wish I had known before I left Ghana the first time. Chief among them is impact it would have on relationships – past, present and even future. Relationships shift and change over time, even longstanding ones with family. But the winds of change seem a bit kinder when you’re breathing the same air with your loved ones. It’s like a gradual dislodging of arms clasped around each other in a hug; you don’t notice it as much. Leave for two, five or more years – even with frequent phone calls – return, and you may as well be two strangers encountering each other for the very first time. Despite your best intentions and attempts, your relationships will change. Some may even die, although that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It just means you’ll have to put in the work to re-establish them – ideally before you move back – to re-introduce yourself in all your novelty to those you deem worthy of such a reintroduction. One of the things I cherish is those few, enduring friendships I have from my high school days. We may not see each other often, although we are in the same city or country, but we often pick up right where we left off. That to me, is priceless.
When it comes to building new relationships, many returnees find themselves struggling – especially women. Conversations with other black women returnees had me wondering if a handbook on being a woman in Ghana might be necessary – the accounts of assault, inappropriate sexual propositions, and outright disrespect were too many to count. Here too, it seemed there were largely unspoken expectations and rules at play. One expat confided in me: “It is hard to build relationships in Ghana”. I found it a bit surprising, but thinking back to similar accounts from expats in Dakar, I decided to ask around. Consistently, expats – both African and otherwise – said the same thing in response. Curiously, many returnees spoke of the same struggle, although most of them didn’t have a strong network or base in Ghana to begin with. Ultimately, you will have to be conscientious about building relationships as a returnee as people often have their own intentions and expectations for being “friends”."Despite your best intentions and attempts, your relationships will change…You will have to be conscientious about building relationships as a returnee as people often have their own intentions and expectations." – @jabdulai… Click To Tweet
Being ‘In-Between’ & Feeling Misunderstood
The other thing I wish I knew before leaving Ghana was that I would be an ‘inbetween-er’ for a long while to come. Neither here, neither there, and not quite in-between. Move to and live in another country and you unwittingly develop a new layer of self. Live in seven countries and travel across countless others and you become a mishmash of selves. All it takes is one extended trip and you’re already edging your way into the zone of the in-between. As humans, we like to place labels on people and if possible, place people in boxes. Once done, we lock those categories away in our minds for the next decade or so. It’s easier that way. And here you come with your inbetween-er self, certainly not American or British but not quite Ghanaian, thinking you can change things? As an inbetween-er, you’re a misnomer to many and probably misunderstood. What this means is you will likely have to explain yourself. A lot. It also means that you may need to expand your ideas on who ‘your people’ are or may be. To build a new tribe and find a safe haven, a home away from home, probably among other in-betweeners. That said, no one tribe or set of relationships will be more important than another. With time, you may also come to realise that you cannot thrust your human expectations and desires to connect on any one individual or set of individuals. The good news is your time away has probably prepared you to build and nurture interpersonal relations with inbetween-ers and non inbetween-ers alike.
My interview with BBC’s Focus on Africa on Returning to Ghana
If you are planning on moving back to Ghana, it is best that you plan before your move, precisely because you can never fully prepare for a country like Ghana. The element of surprise is a fact of life. Like discovering just how stressful apartment hunting in Accra can be, especially when you still have a tinge of accents from the Diaspora. Living with friends when I first moved meant that I could pay them back monthly. Election year meant that our landlord increased rent by almost 20% and we eventually had to go our separate ways. I doled out 13 months’ rent for a new place, consoling myself that although it was on the outskirts, it was considerably cheaper than what I had been paying. Later, when I paid two years rent upfront, I joined the chorus of “adulting is a scam”. I can still hear the shriek of my bank account as I scraped it clean of all I had. Apartments in Accra may offer more space than those in New York City, but the standard of living leaves much to be desired. You pay a lot for poor quality, and any savings you think you may have made, eventually evaporate in the lure of miscellaneous – read, unexpected – expenditure.
Returning to Ghana: The ‘System’
But at least you are healthy. I often comfort myself with the knowledge that things could be worse. Like most Ghanaians, I don’t have viable health insurance. I rely mostly on my generally healthy disposition, being conscientious about my fitness, and God’s grace. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about many people I know with recurring or chronic ailments. They, like it or not, find themselves in and out of clinics and dealing with the scary realities of a health system which haemorrhages patience of even the most considerate person. I was astounded at just how much a family has to provide for a family member on admission at a public hospital. Besides the dire state of many health facilities, the inadequate doctor to patient ratio leaves many health professionals overworked and stressed. The WHO recommends no more than 1,000 patients per doctor, yet Ghana’s doctor to patient ratio in 2017 stood at 1 doctor to 8,000 patients. In some parts of Ghana, that number is a doctor to over 14,000 patients. Yet, Ghana’s health professionals are renowned for their excellence in many parts of the Diaspora. But that is what a broken system does. It breaks things, even the best. In a broken system with limited resources, the casualties, margins of oversight and error tend to be high. And this goes beyond just health care: dealing with police, hailing an Uber ride, you name it. If it is in Ghana, it is probably done differently from what you may read or be accustomed to. Then again, a broken system offers many opportunities to plug in and create impact.
Present Day: Finding My Stride
Although I experienced bits and pieces of my returnee journey across West Africa, in many ways I still completed the reverse culture shock cycle. Senegal cushioned my honeymoon stage, and so despite my personal struggles, it continues to hold a special place in my travellers’ heart with largely positive memories of the country. Tunisia spat most of my expectations out of the door, right at the height of my distress stage, leaving me wildly out of my comfort zone. By the time I got to Abidjan, I was re-integrating to West Africa’s landscape and nursing desires to ‘leave’, which eventually found me back in Ghana – and not the Diaspora – for reasons already explained. October 2019 will be my fourth year back home in Ghana, the second time around. These days, I flutter between the autonomy and independence stages. There are many things I have accepted about Ghana; where we currently stand in our road to development, when we may actualise the dreams of our forefathers, and how we may birth ourselves from the potential within us. There are other things I still grapple with, which leave me wondering why at all I returned. But with all its struggles, I remain hopeful.
In many ways, I have become a realist, in other ways, a cynic. Time and experience have tempered the hot passionate coals and fervour of my youth. And yet, there are moments when I still glimpse the wilful, younger me; the Jemi who dares to not only dream despite the odds, but to swing forth from the ideals of a utopia yet to materialise. I am both optimistic and cautious. I both celebrate and criticise. Thanks to work, I still get to go and come. It helps reset me. Yet despite all the challenges, all the stresses, my returnee journey has largely been good. I haven’t had any major crises. I haven’t hit rock bottom. My support systems are still very much intact. I like to think I’m doing more than merely surviving. I have been blessed with multiple opportunities to help create impact. If I had to I would probably do it all over again. Because much like Ghana, I am a living testament to the contradictions that exist in development contexts. Much like Ghana, I am still in progress and finding my way. Home.
In the final segment of this series, I hope to share some tips and resources to help you plan and prepare for your own journey home. Recently returned with stories to share? Leave a comment below or send an email.
Jemila Abdulai is the founding editor and creative director of Circumspecte. Follow her African returnee insights and exploits: Twitter / Instagram / Facebook. This article was originally published on Circumspecte.com
Jemila Abdulai is the creative director, editor and founder of the award-winning website Circumspecte.com. A media and international development professional and economist by training, she combines her business, communications and project management expertise with her strong passion for Africa. Besides writing and reading, she enjoys travel, global cuisine, movies, and good design.