It’s a question that haunts many Ghanaian immigrants at one time or another during our stay in our adopted lands. No matter where in the world you live—America, the UK, South Africa, or Germany—and no matter how long you’ve been living there or how content you imagine yourself to be, the call of home will inevitably find you. Ghana, and all that she has ever been to you, will beckon.
First, that call will reveal itself as nostalgia, an inexplicable yearning for halcyon days long gone. You’ll develop a deep hunger for the people, places and foods of your past. Next, you’ll spend half of your disposable income on Africa phone cards that never seem to deliver the full number of minutes promised.
Or you’ll find yourself wasting hours poring over old picture albums instead of tending to the more productive tasks that await you in your Western-world life, like raking leaves, shoveling snow, sorting through the mountain of bills on your dining table. Then one day you’ll think, Enough’s enough! I’m going home, and you’ll begin making plans.
I’ve seen it happen over a dozen times. I’ve watched as friends and acquaintances have saved in earnest for years, slowly filling suitcase after suitcase with enough bed linen, kitchenware, towels, toiletries, dry foodstuff and personal care products to carry them through at least two natural disasters, if not two lifetimes.
Half of them never went anywhere: they squandered their savings, or became overwhelmed by the financial, logistical and emotional complexity of returning to a place from which they’d been absent for 10, 20 and in some cases even 30 or more years.
It is because of those particular complexities that a number of repatriates, within a year of relocating, end up leaving and going back to their adopted lands. They realize that the Ghana they remembered, the one that beckoned, was not at all the Ghana that greeted them upon their return.
That new Ghana, the one in which they found themselves, was more expensive, its roadways congested with traffic and hawkers; it was full of red tape, closed doors, incompetence and inefficiency.
“How is it,” asked a friend who’d recently come back to the US after a failed attempt at repatriation, “that you, of all people, managed to live in Ghana and like it enough to go back?” I shrugged then laughed.
“Ironic, isn’t it?” I asked.
The reason my friend said of all people is that unlike him and the various other Ghanaian immigrants we knew in common in the Los Angeles area, I spent all of my adolescent and young adult years in America.
I was born in Ghana, at Korle-bu, and spent the first 6 years of my life in Accra. I moved to the Washington, DC Metropolitan Area to join my parents—my mother had been living there for three years already, and my father had recently immigrated there. So Washington and its suburbs became home. 24 years would pass before I’d set foot in Ghana again. By then, I was a grown woman, had already made a home for myself in Los Angeles—and my own daughter was not much older than I was when I immigrated.
When people learn all this, they tend to write me off as completely American, someone with only a passing ancestral connection to this country. I find that quite humorous because the home I grew up in was so passionately insular it felt as though we were our own little territory, permanently tethered to Ghana. We didn’t speak English at home and we didn’t eat hot dogs or apple pie or pizza or frozen dinners. Much to my chagrin, my mother would even serve fish with the head still attached, thus frightening away my few friends who dared to enter our African home.
So when people, fooled perhaps by the American accent, stare at me as I enjoy my fufu with aponkyenkrakra or abunuabunu and ask, “Eh, Nana-Ama, you know how to eat this?” all I can do is shrug then laugh.
“Ironic, isn’t it?” I ask them.
That first time I came to Ghana after 24 years of having been gone, I fell in love with the country immediately. I felt a sense of comfort, joy, and belonging that I’d never felt anywhere else. It was a brief visit, too brief. My grandmother, with whom I’d been close my entire childhood, the one who’d accompanied me on that initial flight to America and who regularly returned to stay with us for years at a time, was in her final days. I’d wanted to see her one last time and thank her for bringing such grace and light and love to my life.
After that visit I was inconsolable, partly because of my grandmother’s death, which had happened just days after my departure and partly because of my departure. I hadn’t wanted to leave. In fact, while I was there, I’d applied for a position as a Visiting Scholar with the School of Communication Studies. When my application was accepted, I was ecstatic. I completed the one-year stint then returned to the United States, more determined than ever to find a way to repatriate for good.
A few years later, I returned to the University of Ghana as a full-time lecturer in the Department of English, but I knew that it would most likely not be a permanent situation. We’d planned for my daughter to attend secondary school in the United States, and I did not want to live so far away from her. I stayed for as long as I possibly could and then I left—still determined to return, and remain.
So I’m here once more; this time, with every intention of settling. My vehicle and all my belongings are in a 40-foot container on a ship headed for Tema. And I’m frightened because already this feels different than the other times. Already I’m wondering if within a year I’ll end up running back to the US like my other friends, frustrated, depressed and disillusioned. It can be difficult to negotiate a system, a culture, a land that is at once both familiar and foreign. I know; it’s a balancing act that I’ve perfected over the course of my life as an immigrant. I’ve been a stranger, it seems, just about everywhere. In a way, I believe that might make my return easier.
Because I wasn’t raised here, I am not as beholden to nostalgia. The memories I have are unreliable; they are those of a small girl. They’re of disembodied moments, snapshots without context or chronology, blurred at the edges, like a dream that has already started to slip away in the light of day.
My relationship with Ghana is in the now. Its seed may have been planted at my birth and nurtured throughout my youth; it may have finally and formally taken root during my various brief visits and wondrous sojourns, but only now will it go from bud to bloom. Only now will the petals unfold and the beauty of that birthright reveal itself.
This article was published in Ghana’s Daily Graphic on Friday, 18th of March, 2011