Accra, GHANA – Every year, thousands of blacks, fed up with what they perceive as rampant racism in the United States and being treated as second class citizens, are returning to their native homelands only to find that Africa is not the land of flowing rivers of grape soda and all-you-can eat fried chicken sprouting from the ground. From San Francisco to San Diego, Chicago to Charlotte, New York to New Orleans, these disenfranchised blacks have returned to their ancestral homes in Liberia, Ghana, Botswana and other unpronounceable parts of the African continent, under the belief that their triumphant return will provide them with the recognition and respect they so desperately crave.
Escaping from what they perceive is the incessant racism and prejudice in the United States these blacks are traveling the return journey that their ancestors took hundreds of years ago to places like Senegal and Ghana to The Gambia. Black American communities are emerging all across the dark continent, but despite the grinding poverty, disease and crime, many refuse to admit that it was a mistake and return back to the U.S.
“It’s a matter of pride. We can take what we learned from the U.S. and make Africa great again.”
Brave words from Muhammida el-Muhajir, a black Muslim digital marketer from New York City, who left her job to move to Accra, the capital of Ghana. She gave up her modest apartment in the upscale Soho district in Manhattan for a dimly lit apartment in Accra, where the air conditioner is on the fritz on the day we interview her and even on days when the air conditioning is working, 6-hour rolling blackouts are a way of life.
It is estimated that between 3,000 and 5,000 black Americans live in Accra, working as teachers in small towns in the west or small time businessmen in the capital and say that even though living in Ghana is not always easy, they feel free and safe. That safety is relative according to el-Muhajir. In a city where muggings, rape and violent crime are a way of life, el-Muhajir claims she feels slightly less safe when walking around the city as a single black woman,
“They can tell you’re not exactly local and that makes you a target. So I just take the basic precautions which everyone else knows. Keep your handbag away from the side where vehicles pass (to prevent snatch thieves on motorbikes), limit travel after dark and try to walk around with a male companion if possible.”
Just last month, four Ghanaians gang raped a teenage black girl in a disturbing video that went viral. But that hasn’t made el-Muhajir regret her move from the Big Apple. She claims that in the U.S., despite her education and experience, she was always made to feel like a second-class citizen. Moving was an opportunity to fulfill her potential and avoid being targeted by racial violence she claims. Instead in Ghana, the violence is non-discriminatory, raining down on everyone, regardless of skin color. el-Muhajir adds,
“I grew up in Philadelphia and then New York. I went to Howard, which is a historically black university. I tell people that Ghana is like Howard in real life. It felt like a microcosm of the world. At university, they tell us the world isn’t black, but there are places where this is the real world. Howard prepares you for a world where black people are in charge, which is a completely different experience compared to people who have gone to predominantly white universities.”
But the harsh realities of blacks being in-charge have had real world consequences for el-Muhajir. Corruption in Ghana is not just rampant, it’s a way of life. Bribes are paid for everything from setting up an internet connection to getting things mailed at the post office. Ghana has the dubious honor of being Africa’s second most corrupt nation. In a country where police salaries are low, if they’re ever paid to begin with, corruption is a matter of survival.
Disease and the lack of access to clean water are also a problem. In a country where malaria is one of the top three causes of death, the lack of access to clean water and sewage have also meant that medieval-era diseases such as cholera still occur. As recently as October 2016, Ghana experienced one of its worse cholera outbreaks. But that hasn’t turned el-Muhajir’s stomach, adding,
“Even when you live in a place like New York as a black person, you’re always an outsider.”
“You hear stories about the richest black people, like Oprah Winfrey, getting shut out of a store or Jay-Z not being allowed to buy (an apartment.) Those things happen. It doesn’t matter if you’re a celebrity, you’re a second-class citizen. This was the biggest issue for me.”
“In America, you’re always trying to prove yourself. I don’t need to prove myself to anyone else’s standards here. I’m a champion, I ran track and went to university, and I like to win, so I refuse to be in a situation where I will never win.”
But el-Muhajir reluctantly admits that “winning” in Ghana may not necessarily provide the same sort of satisfaction as “winning” in New York. In a country where cronyism and patronage are entwined into the fabric of society, el-Muhajir is still very much an “outsider.” Excluded from participation in politics or other social issues, her status in Ghana is more a “curiosity” than a game-changing beacon of hope. Daniel Kojo, a principal secretary in Ghana’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs offers a more sanguine assessment,
“Many of these Americans come over and they expect that they can come her and effect change. This is Africa. Their ancestors may have hailed from this land, but that doesn’t mean that they belong here.”
“When you come here, it is you who must adjust to our ways and not the other way round.”
As much as el-Muhajir would prefer not to admit, Ghana has the same class system which exists in the United States and being an ex-American helps el-Muhajir increase her cachet in this stratified society,
“When Ghanaians find out that I live here, they’re usually confused about why I chose to live here as an American. There is definitely certain access and privilege being American here, but it’s great to finally cash in on that because it doesn’t mean anything in America.”
el-Muhajir cautions that blacks thinking of packing their bags and returning to the motherland may want to reconsider.
“I don’t want people to think that Africa is this magic utopia where all your issues will go away. It’s just that some of the things you might face in America as a black person – you won’t have to suffer with those things here.”
“You might not have electricity, but you won’t get killed by the police either.”
The police in Ghana rarely kill suspects because a dead suspect is no good for paying bribes. el-Muhajir adds hopefully,
“I think more will come when they begin to see it as a viable alternative. But it’s not easy and it’s not cheap.”
For now, the numbers of blacks fleeing America to return to their African roots is growing and the latest Marvel movie “Black Panther” will no doubt continue to fuel that exodus to the African “promised land.” Despite all the promise of liberation and relief, countries in Africa suffer from the same problems which they have suffered from for centuries. Kojo adds,
“They (black Americans) come here expecting some kind of African utopia. Just read the news, Africans are crossing the Mediterranean and risking their lives every day in rickety boats just to reach Europe and North America. Do you think they are crazy? Do you think they don’t know what it’s like to live here in Africa?”
For all of el-Muhajir’s optimism, Africa is still a continent very much mired by intractable problems that show no sign of abating. Despite decades of black rule, peace evades the continent. Despite access to global aid to cure the most medieval of diseases, health evades the black people. Despite knowledge of modern systems of government and institutions, corruption and dictatorship remains the default system of governance. Despite technology, advancement evades Africa. Black Americans may think that returning to the land of their ancestors may provide them with the supplication which they seek, only to realize that when their ancestors were brought to the United States all those centuries ago, they were actually doing the future generation of blacks the biggest favor of their lives.