During one of my recent visits to Ghana, a friend of mine who has never been to America asked me what I thought about the decision of an African-American gentleman to permanently relocate to Ghana. Given the large number of Ghanaians who have moved to America in search of greener pastures, and the millions more who, given the chance, would readily follow suit, he was astonished that someone would choose to make the reverse journey.
According to him, the gentleman had told him that his relocation decision had been driven by a desire to live in a place where he would be free from the myriad racially motivated injustices that blacks continue to suffer in America. I have since learned that there are many African Americans who hold such romantic views of Africa, although not many have actually made the move to live there. It remains to be seen whether those numbers will increase over time.
I grew up in Ghana and later made—in my friend’s view—the “more normal” journey to live in America. In my nearly three decades here, I’ve had ample opportunity to learn about, and can appreciate some of the many grievances that people of color have in this country. As a result, I have a reasonably good ability to understand both perspectives—my friend’s, and that of the African-American gentleman.
One of the major drivers of emigration from Africa is ethnic conflict. People from Africa’s numerous tribes don’t always get along very well, and tribal tensions have led to long-running wars and other man-made catastrophes. Someone trying to escape the pernicious effects of racial divisions in America might, ironically, end up living with the consequences of similar forms of tensions elsewhere.
By far, however, it is extreme poverty, lack of opportunity, dilapidated or non-existent infrastructure, and generally poor living conditions—all direct results of official mismanagement and rampant corruption—that trigger the mass exodus from Africa. Even for well-to-do African Americans who relocate to Africa, these are inescapable conditions.
Ghanaians of all stripes have been frustrated over the last several years by incessant blackouts, poorly functioning water-supply systems, and bad roads. Public institutions barely serve people’s needs. Well-resourced families build private systems to provide their own electricity and water, but they have to live with the inconvenience of operating and maintaining those systems. Because owning private roads is not a practical option, both rich and poor travel on motorways filled with giant potholes. The well-off try to compensate by buying four-wheel drive vehicles, but even those are often no match for the notoriously bad roads.
Out of curiosity, I recently asked my friend to find out what the gentleman thought about Ghana after living there for a few years. He came back with a response that I expected. Life in Africa had not been as rosy as anticipated for the gentleman and others he knew who had also moved there. Although there were disappointments, none of them regretted their relocation decisions. What led them there was a yearning for dignity, something that, for most humans, is priceless.
For most African immigrants, the move to America tends to be motivated predominantly by a search for opportunities. The vast majority of us finds the grass not as green as we expected when we arrive at our destination, as is the case with our African-American cousins who relocate to Africa. Because we are mostly used to seeing glamorous pictures of America on television in our home countries, we are often shocked and disappointed by conditions in the poor sections of urban areas where most of us live in the beginning.
The harsh reality is that in those environments, we are confronted with the same conditions that make everyday life difficult for many African Americans—and indeed for socio-economically disadvantaged people from other racial groups. When we venture into the broader society, because we don’t look any different from African Americans, we are often subjected to the same racial prejudices.
There are observable differences, however, in how we react to those conditions and treatments. It is understandable that African immigrants tend to take a more optimistic view of American society. Because we have not had to live directly with the legacy of slavery and persistent racial discrimination from birth, we do not carry many of the mental burdens that African Americans do. That is a significant advantage, one that makes it a bit easier for us to navigate American society.
Nevertheless, this fact shouldn’t lead anyone to think that African immigrants have no mental burdens of their own. In many African countries, societies tend to be hierarchical. There is often a minority elite group, with large segments of populations belonging to the underclasses. The downtrodden are treated like second-class citizens in their own homelands. Living in crushing poverty, under highly corrupt and brutal dictatorships that deprive citizens of most of the basic rights that Americans take for granted, are not exactly the types of environments that nurture self-confidence in anyone.
The sense that things could be a lot worse, which we carry with us at all times in those initial months and years after arrival in America, is what motivates us to take advantage of every opportunity we find. Even with all of its imperfections, America is a highly functional society. The electricity grids and water-supply systems work to provide those essential services. The poor in America have access to many of the same beautiful highways that rich people drive on. The Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency work to ensure that the foods and medicines that Americans consume are safe, and that the air they breathe and the water they drink are clean. These are things that anyone who has ever lived in a dysfunctional society will never take for granted.
Africans and our African American cousins travel in opposite directions in search of the elusive greener pasture. Even in our disappointment, we both ultimately find something to cheer about in our new environments. These similar sentiments derive from the vastly different perspectives that we bring on our journeys.