Homeward bound: In Ghana, diaspora 'returnees' straddle two worlds

Ghana’s long history of pan-Africanism and a 'right of abode' law for anyone with African heritage have attracted some 3000 African-Americans and Afro-Caribbeans looking for a sense of home.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
American-born Beatrice Siaw poses in the doorway of one of the hotels she owns, on November 14, 2015 in Accra, Ghana. Siaw's parents were Ghanaian but moved to the US in the 1970's. She came 'home' to Ghana with her father when he was ill and never left. She has lived here five years and now owns two hotels in Accra. Many African Americans are moving to Ghana to return to their roots.

For Nicole Amarteifio, the creative breakthrough of her career happened at an unexpected moment – reclined on her couch, midway through another rerun of Sex and the City. 

As Carrie Bradshaw’s voice floated through her apartment in a suburb of Ghana’s capital city a few years ago, she had a thought: Why was no one making a show like this set in West Africa? And then another one: Why couldn’t she?

For years, Ms. Amarteifio had watched with exhaustion as Western audiences absorbed a seemingly never-ending stream of news about desperate migrants fleeing Africa to make new lives in the United States and Europe. Where, she wondered, were the stories of those – herself included – who had gone the other way?  

With that, An African City was born. Over the course of 2014, the show’s 10 episodes – a high-gloss tale of five ambitious “returnees” navigating life in the glitzy suburbs of Accra – racked up nearly two million views on YouTube, and Amarteifio realized she had touched a nerve. 

“A lot of people have had this experience: When you look at the African diaspora, you see it happening all over – many people are returning home,” says Amarteifio, who was born in Ghana but lived in the US and Europe for most of her childhood and early adult life.  

But it isn’t just Africans living abroad who are making the trip. Beckoned by Ghana’s long history of pan-Africanism, and enticed by a law promising “right of abode” for anyone with African heritage, some 3,000 African-Americans and Afro-Caribbeans have also settled in the country in recent years. Drawn by work, charity, heritage, or just the chance to retire in the tropical sunshine, Ghana’s returnees have diverse motives for coming “home.” But many agree that their presence sends a signal: Africa isn’t just a place that history snatched them away from. It’s also very much there in the present, if one chooses to see it. 

“A lot of people want to reconnect with their roots, but more than that even, I think they’re often just tired of living in a racist society – of feeling like a foreigner in their own country,” says Brenda Joyce, president of the African-American Association of Ghana. “It’s only when we come to Africa that we start to realize just how American we really are.”

Penetrating a new home

For Beatrice Siaw, that realization was especially surprising, given that she had been raised in the US by Ghanaian parents who spoke to her in Twi, a local dialect, and told her stories of their own West African childhoods.

Even still, when she moved to Accra five years ago, she says the differences from life in the States quickly stacked up, catching her off guard. Electricity, even in the fanciest of Accra neighborhoods, flickered on and off at will, and every cab ride was a bone-crunching jolt over pothole-cratered roads. Despite her background, cab drivers and shopkeepers seemed to know before she opened her mouth that she was American, and tried to dupe her into paying obroni – white person – prices. A crowd once gathered in the street to watch her clean her gutter, she remembers, gawking in disbelief that a woman with her own house would do her own yard work. 

In An African City, too, the “returnees” find themselves straddling two worlds – stumbling over greetings in local languages and addressing waiters with accents steeped unmistakably in foreign suburbs, all the while giddy with the possibilities of building their lives in a country still very much building itself.  

“It’s exciting and it’s scary at the same time,” one of the characters – a young journalist – quips in the show’s first episode of returning to Accra from New York. “Scary because I don’t know how I’m going to survive without Starbucks for the rest of my life.”

“In America many of us are conditioned by experience to see ourselves as African first and American second – and here they see us exactly the opposite way around,” says Ms. Joyce, who moved here three years ago to start up her own mining company.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
A vendor walks in front of the W. E. B. DuBois house, now a museum, on November 14, 2015 in Accra, Ghana. DuBois, an African American philosopher and writer, settled in Ghana in the 1960's as a special guest of President Kwame Nkrumah and soon became a citizen of Ghana. For more than half a century, William Edward Burghardt DuBois was a monumental and often controversial, leader of Black thought. During his later years, he was active in many left-wing and Communist activities.

From expatriate to repatriate

Despite the difficulties of penetrating Ghanaian society, however, black expatriates have long enjoyed a warm official welcome here. The country’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, was a fervent pan-Africanist who encouraged African-American migration, beckoning the likes of Maya Angelou, W.E.B. DuBois, and civil rights lawyer Pauli Murray, among others, to Accra in the years after independence. 

For many, the experience upended their lives, providing an escape from the American racial hierarchies that had long dictated how they lived.

“It sounds obvious but I had never really seen officials in uniform – immigration authorities, police, customs officers – with black skin,” wrote Afua Hirsch, a British-Ghanaian journalist and human rights activist, of her own return to Ghana in the 1990s. “I don't think I had realized that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” 

Visiting Washington in the 1990s, then-President Jerry Rawlings revived the call for African-Americans to migrate to Ghana, announcing on the steps of the White House in 1999, “you’re our kith and kin … is there any reason why you should not have the right to enjoy the citizenship of where you come from?"

Finally, in 2001, reform caught up, with Ghana’s “Right of Abode” law, formally granting long-term residency to any “person of African descent in the Diaspora.”  

But expats say that, practically speaking, that “right” has been extremely difficult to access, often-times due to bureaucracy, and most have sought residency through other channels.

Ms. Siaw, for her part, attained dual citizenship on account of her parents, and is now married to a Ghanaian man with whom she owns two hotels. Despite these deepening ties to Ghana, however, she says she always feels a bit like she is tiptoeing across the surface of Ghanaian society – never allowed all the way in. 

“I always considered myself both Ghanaian and American, but here everyone sees me as a foreigner,” she says. “I’m getting used to surprising people."

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