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by Reginald Smith

It is a sad testament to the state of current education and global awareness that more people think of Africa as a country than a continent. When people see the wars in the Congo or HIV in southern Africa they have an image cast in their mind that unfortunately does not anticipate such countries as Ghana which have never had an internal conflict in modern history, nor Senegal, which through proactive health care policies has kept the HIV infection rate of its population consistently under 2%. However, among many people with only an even cursory knowledge of Africa, Ghana holds an important place.

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ghana_map3toneGhana, the first African country to emerge from colonialism in 1957, has represented the aspirations and challenges of Africans and their diaspora. Its independence was greeted with wide commendations and the ceremony attended by both the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. As a standard bearer, Ghana attracted many intellectuals from the US, Africa, and the Caribbean to participate in the experience of the first independent African nation. Among the more famous expatriates were the civil rights icon W.E.B. DuBois, who died there, author Richard Wright, who wrote about his travels and nationalism in Ghana in a 1954 book entitled “Black Power”, which actually preceded the usage of the term in the US, reporter Julian Mayfield, and Trinidadian intellectual George Padmore. A fascinating story of their experiences and lives is given in American Africans in Ghana by Kevin Kelly Gaines.

Though many of the earlier expatriates were typically political activists or those with political leanings, many people continue to move and live there for other mundane purposes such as finding a new home, starting a business, or participating in charity such as missionary work. So many African-Americans live in Ghana in fact, that there exists a social and community organization dedicated to their cause: The African-American Association of Ghana (AAAG). In his book Relations Between Africans and African Americans, Godfrey Mwakikagile says that US officials estimate there are 1,000 African-American expatriates in Ghana with 10,000 others visiting annually. In a 2006 interview with Time Magazine, then AAAG president Valerie Papaya Mann quoted a higher count of 5,000 expats (“Ghana’s New Money”, Time, Ta-Nehisi Paul Coates, August 21, 2006). This is second in Africa only to Liberia (though perhaps South Africa has overtaken either or both in the last several years). In this interview, we talk to Elimisha Jaliwa, the current secretary of the AAAG about her experience and the experience of other Black Expats in Ghana.

elimishaportraitElimisha originally hails from the city of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia, and lived in the US for 47 years before eventually emigrating to Ghana with her daughter where she has now lived for almost ten years. Her first trip to Ghana was in 1998. Elimisha ran an independent Afrocentric school in the US when her friend, Rod Chavis, challenged her, saying “Elimisha, you run an independent Pan-African school and you’ve never been to Africa?” Chavis was bringing a group to Ghana to distribute medical supplies, so he suggested Elimisha join them and bring school supplies.

Elimisha was particularly touched by an episode towards the end of the trip when they gave the rest of their supplies, pencils, to a small school in Aburi, Ghana. “The headmistress of the school sent us a group picture all the students, each holding a pencil high! Since then she has cried every time she tells the story. She also met her future husband in a junior high school classroom in a small village where we took more supplies where he taught physics. They became pen-pals and eventually developed a romance that became a marriage. After a second visit in 1999, Elimisha decided to move to Ghana permanently.

“I never felt that I belonged in America, but I didn’t think of actually leaving until after my second visit in the summer of 1999. By then, I knew Africa was where I wanted and needed to be; it was my natural habitat. Simplicity, humane people, low crime, less stress, relaxed rules, temperate weather, cultural norms, better diet, natural lifestyle; all of these and more, just calling my name. Also, I felt my calling as a community organizer and educator would be more needed and better appreciated in Africa.”

Upon moving to Africa, for six years she had a rewarding and disheartening job working in refugee assistance for a Western non-governmental organization (NGO). Rewarding because she was helping many in need “I was exposed to a variety of multicultural co-workers and that taught me to understand, respect, and even appreciate, cultural diversity…that experience also took me to several countries in West Africa, and to Ethiopia and Kenya. I was exposed to the various cultures of the host countries and the displaced Africans that I interviewed. I became familiar with different geographies, languages, food, religious and cultural practices, hairstyles and dress, etc. I adopted some people, and some people adopted me. I discovered that we Africans are pretty much alike, everywhere. And it reinforced my pride of being African and the love of my people and Motherland.”

Ghana's 52nd Independence Day celebration in Accra

52nd anniversary Independence Day celebrations held in Accra, Ghana's capital

However, it was also an extremely disheartening in light of what she saw as blatant hyprocrisy, double standards, and even bigotry by some in the organization meant to help Africans. “First of all, I was working for an American based, non-governmental organization (NGO), which makes its money off of the suffering of my people. It started out with a mixed race administration, and gradually, under the direction of a racist British woman, it became all White, except for one African American man. It was a refugee family reunification program; we assisted in the process of reuniting the displaced Africans with their relatives in America. There was the contradiction of staying in 5 star hotels, while the displaced Africans we were there to ‘help’ were staying in the horrific conditions called camps. Our interpreters and drivers stayed in lesser rated hotels.

There were many discriminatory distinctions between the American citizens staff and the local staff, such as salary, medical benefits, and chances for advancement. There was also discriminatory distinctions between White and African Americans; such as hiring practices, Whites mentoring Whites, salary issues, chances for travel, chances for advancement, and special job assignments. There were a lot of special privileges for the supervisors and directors, such as generous rental expenses, vehicle privileges, day care to exclusive international schools, etc. It was the closest contact I ever had with corporate America… in addition, I gained an insight on wars instigated, financed, and sometimes fought, by foreigners, to allow invasion and takeover of our [Africa’s] land and resources by the same foreigners”

She later returned to Ghana as the Secretary of the AAAG whose primary task is helping provide a community and social network and find housing for African-Americans who are new to Ghana through its network of social contacts. This job, which requires meeting and interacting with new people each and every day is a position that Elimisha enjoys immensely making connections with new arrivals and community leaders in her area. Her transition to Ghana and life in Africa has been rewarding. She emphasizes that new expats or “returnees” in her parlance, understand the local culture and standards and adjust their expectations.

Fishing boats in Elmina

Fishing boats in Elmina

“Just like anywhere else, you look around until you find the environment you like. Some come and find land by the ocean, some favour the mountains. Some like the excitement of the city. I fell in love with Elmina because of the ocean and the simplicity of the small town. I bought land there, which is the site of my personal residence and the Know thyself Community Freedom Center that I am currently building… Some Black people from America can’t adjust, because they have too many western expectations, or are not able to give up some of the comforts of a technologically developed country. The discrimination [in Ghana] comes in the form of the government not accepting us as citizens, only residents, so we don’t get the privileges of citizens: voting, government offices, some jobs, etc.”

She also notices the composition of expats has changed over time. “There used to be a lot of older, retired folks repatriating. They run the gamut of labourers, educators, medical workers, builders, the social servers etc. Lately there has been an influx of younger people, wanting to come to live. No longer the children of hippies, these are probably the children of Black Power movement. They are economists, researchers, etc. This is an area that is still ripe for research.”

Makola Circle in Accra

Makola Circle in Accra

Valerie Papaya Mann, now back in the US who ran a travel agency in Ghana, also states that many come to Ghana for entrepreneurial ventures. Many also seem to focus on tourism or hospitality. Covered in the previously mentioned Time article, which focused on business, was Mona Boyd of Boston who has made $1.3M in her tourism business with her husband and works to help other Blacks do business in Africa. A Black New York rabbi Kohain Halevi and his Ghanian wife run a hotel (serving fried chicken of course!) Many of the Black Expat businesses tend to be clustered in Accra and nearby industrial Tema. Businesses are not limited to hospitality with those such as Tennessee native Dahveed Jawara doing organic farming, Cliff Daniels’ $1.8M company Ghanian Feed Farms that exports agricultural and irrigation equipment to Africa, and father/son team Ron and Andre Jewell who own African-American Trading Company Inc. which exports spices and pharmaceutical ingredients to the US and Europe (1). The writer also knows Daryl Boone who is currently a Christian missionary in Tema near the capital Accra.

(1) Article – “Back to Our Roots”, March 6, 2009, available to view on Georgia Online News Service; http://www.theatlantavoice.com/AV_news.htm

The Aburi Hills

Also, Elimisha says it is important to understand the ‘African temperment‘. “To actually listen to a person, and understand their motive, before reacting. To know that the African’s personality is generally peaceful, and to not bring Western aggressiveness into play. And I have learned to seduce and have fun with my femininity, because African women know how to make a man feel like a man. Nuff said!” She still feels some separation though since although English is Ghana’s official language, she does not speak much the most common local language, Twi. “My brothers and sisters laugh when I speak Twi or Hausa, and they affectionately say that I’m trying. They think it is disrespectful to not know any of the words. It promotes friendship and harmony when I try to fit in. I don’t know too much past greetings, transportation, and market terms, but that gets me over.” Her daughter who has been in Ghana for 14 years, however, can speak both Twi and Hausa fluently and has the mannerisms and expressions down pat. Elimisha believes that expats who have families will eventually close the gap when their children can interact as locals.

Elimisha still keeps in contact with her mother, son, daughter, and grandchildren in the US and has kept many American customs such as holiday cookouts. She sees her move to Ghana as permanent. “I feel like I am the same person, only more developed. I am calmer, happier, and more productive. I am more in tune with nature; understanding my relationship to it, sharpening my intuitive skills, and practicing my psychology skills. I move slower, talk to people more, and I’m more patient. My diet is great, and my blood sugar has come down about a hundred and fifty points. I feel like only my environment is what has changed.”

Some Black Expats find an unexpected experience of being regarded as just another foreigner by local Ghanians and called ‘obruni’ a traditional term for Whites (Time article; “Ghana’s Uneasy Embrace of Slavery’s Diaspora”, New York Times, December 27, 2005; “Tangled Roots for African-Americans in Ghana, the Grass isn’t Always Greener”, Wall Street Journal, March 14, 2001). However, the AAAG has also fought these descriptions saying that while Black Expats should not be naïve about immediate acceptance, relationships between native Ghanians and expats is frequently harmonious and not necessarily acrimonious (see the rejoinder here: www.modernghana.com/news/109708/1/a-rejoinder-to-the-wsj-article.html).

The Slave Castle in Elmina

St. George's Castle or Elmina Slave Castle, located near Cape Coast in Elmina

As investing and growth in Africa continues apace, hopefully in spite of the global economic downturn, stable and accessible countries like Ghana will continue to be popular with newcomers. Whether for business or leisure it is best to learn the culture, take the advice given here, and open yourself up for a wonderful, new experience.

The African American Association of Ghana (AAAG)
Meetings held at the W. E. B. Du Bois Centre the third Saturday of each month at 2:00pm.
Cantonments, Accra
Sat: 2pm (Third Sat of the month)
T (021)785438
E sankofaaaag@yahoo.com

Living & Spending in Elmina

At the end of this section you will find a global Currency Converter to calculate costs.

Monthly rent:
My rent is $150 monthly for a 3 bedroom enclosed one-story house with large front and back yard, and car park, in a developing residential and business area with the same type of houses.

Cost for meals:
– Box of oats, $1; soy milk, 50 cents a gallon; gallon of juice $3; eggs 20 cent each; lunch: brown rice, greens, fish, 70 cents; wheat bread $1.20 a loaf. Restaurant food starts around $3. My daughter sells spring rolls for 10 cents, and meat pies for 20 cents.

Transportation costs:
shared van, 10 miles 60 cents; shared taxi, 10 miles, $2; private taxi 10 miles, $5.

Compared to your home country are most things cheap/same/expensive?
Local made / grown are much less expensive. Imported items are very expensive. Prices are starting to become comparable to America.

Recommended monthly living budget:
For me, my daughter and adopted Ghanaian son, about $400. We live very simply, and grow some of our own food. I have a car, big house. Electric bills are about $8 monthly. Cooking gas is about $10 every 6 weeks.

How modern are basic amenities/infrastructure?
You can get everything you need in the city. You may pay more, if it is imported, but it’s there. Main roads are fine, they will take you all over Ghana.

Any legal hurdles all foreigners have to face to live there?
I don’t know about foreigners, but African repatriates mainly have to deal with residency and land issues.

Top 3 things you would recommend someone to bring when they come:
Medicine (because outdated medicine is dumped in Africa) electronics (because imported electronics are expensive) Black dolls and educational toys.

Top 3 things you would recommend for someone visiting or living here to do:
Travel around and get to know the place. Volunteer to work in an institution, or join a progressive organization. Relax and enjoy living in a different environment; live among the people, get to know the culture.

Top hangout places:
the beach.

A view of the ocean from the coastal town of Osu

A view of the ocean from the coastal town of Osu

Photo credits: Portrait of Elimisha Jaliwa – her own, images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, wikimedia.org: St. George’s Castle in Elmina & Aburi Hills – user David Ley, Makola Circle in Accra – user Magnus Mankse, Osu from the air – user Fogster, Ghana map & 52nd Independence Day celebrations photos from www.ghana.gov

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10 Responses to “Reverse Migration: Black Expats in Ghana”

  1. misshowardugrad says:

    I am a 26 year old African American female and you don't understand how wonderful this reading this article has been for me. I can completely identify with everything Elimisha said about never feeling like I belong in America. I experienced the same feelings of “home” and “at ease” when I visited the nation of Barbados for the first time as an adult, where my mother's family hails from.

    I particularly found your story about working for the NGO to be interesting. My friends and I often feel frustrated because we do not want to work for the “establishment” in Africa, and encounter the same issues that we do in the U.S. in Africa. But sometimes it seems as if White America has the non-profit industry under control, and that the only in, is through them. Yet, this serves as more reason to work to start our own establishments!

    The financial figures that you placed at the bottom were extremely helpful as well. Thank you and I hope to meet you one day in Africa!

  2. Afrounion002 says:

    sister i thought you are an african born i live in USA but u made me feel great, i am west african i came to usa for school but it is hard here too, i just want to finish and go back to africa , i hope more black people will learn , but western media is killing africa image and it scare people here

  3. Jkjackson44 says:

    Peace,
    Sister I was a friend of Rod’s when I lived in Philadelphia. He encouraged me to visit Africa and I had hoped to travel with him before his untimely death. I have finally made arrangements to visit Ghana and would like to honor his memory by trying to organize a small gift for the school he spoke so highly of. Can you help me locate them? I would appreciate it greatly.
    jkjackson44@msn.com

  4. Nafisa says:

    great article! i am also considering repatriating somewhewre else. preferably on the continent. like Elmisha, i have never truly felt “home” here. although i was born and raised here . i am from the south and now living in nyc. stress no matter where you go. racism rears its ugly head everywhere as people of a certain hue and background are still looked upon with disdain. I am not going to try and glamorize Africa as a continent, and i don’t know much about Ghana. but i feel like i cou ld be happy anywhere wher i am treated with decency and my rights are  there, good infrastructure and quality of life. as we all know, America is not what it used to be an ddoes not appear to be evolving out of its state of  violence, corruption , corporate greed and partisanship.  Ghana is definitely one of the places i am researching to go  and I am  getting feedback from Ghanian friends.

    I don’t feel it would be easy, but I have a feeling it would be worth it. 

  5. Good luck with your decision Nafisa!

  6. Did you make your trip to Ghana?

  7. I hope you find your place in the non-profit world be it in the US, Barbados or Africa!

  8. Reggie says:

    Wherever you go in the world do your research and visit first. I would recommend reading the articles from Fall 2011 from Dennison and Arlene about the ups and downs of living abroad.

  9. Tribute2tm says:

    Good luck, I hope you find a TRUE home!

  10. Lue Blacknell says:

    I I am curiou to

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