ACCRA, GHANA — Growing up in South Carolina during the 1930s, Robert Lee never felt any connection to Africa, much less considered it a place that he, a black man, might ever call home.
Then Dr. Lee went off to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and made his first African friend, future revolutionary Kwame Nkrumah. Mr. Nkrumah had come from the British colony of the Gold Coast to study religion, and he used to practice his sermons on campus. "His talking was not about Jesus Christ at all; it was about the British empire," Lee remembers.
After college, the two men went their separate ways. But Lee followed media accounts of Nkrumah's anticolonial struggle and eventual success in 1957, when the Gold Coast became the first sub-Saharan country to gain independence, and Nkrumah became its first president.
By the time he renamed the country Ghana and appealed to African descendants everywhere to come and help build the young nation, Lee and his wife were already packing up their New York City dental practice to move to Accra, Ghana's capital.
"Some of us Africans from America, who had these advanced skills, thought that instead of parking yourself on Fulton Street in Brooklyn, you [could] come and park yourself on High Street in Accra and be of more use," Lee says.
Soon after Lee moved to Ghana in 1957, other Lincoln University classmates followed, setting up shop as insurance agents and plumbers.
For a time, well-known African-Americans moved to Ghana as well, including historian W.E.B. DuBois and writer Maya Angelou. It was a center for African-American political activism. Even celebrities like Muhammad Ali would pass through on publicity tours.
Much of that ended in 1966, when an increasingly authoritarian Nkrumah was overthrown by his military, and most African-Americans went back home.
Yet Lee stayed, refusing to become cynical, even as more coups followed.
Today he uses the same bulky white equipment he brought with him. On his office wall hangs his framed New York dental license, good from 1954 to 1956. The lapse has not dissuaded clients, and Lee is proud of the contribution he and his wife have made to the profession here.
When he came, only one other dentist was in town, and he wasn't African. "He was Lebanese," Lee recalls. During the past 40 years, Lee says, 50 Africans have set up shop. Half are women, something he attributes to the presence of his wife, also a dentist, as a role model.
Lee says people expect too much too quickly from Africa and overlook what's already been achieved. As an example, he points to Ghana's educational development.
"Accra was just a village when I came here. There were hardly any schools, but now there are 50," he says.
In recent years, Ghana has again begun attracting African-Americans. Some 200 live here, mostly investors and retirees, according to the African-American association in Accra.
Lee welcomes the newcomers and says that even more expertise is needed. He only regrets that more Africans are not eager to help develop Ghana.
"A young African gets trained in something, and immediately he's off to England or Chicago, so you see it all gets confused," he says.
"The African goes to America, and the American wants to come here."