Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Thoughts of a Ghanaian Abroad

Written by: Mad Lion

Consider this: I attended some of the best schools in Ghana. I’ve studied in Europe. I live and work in the U.S. as a Project Manager with a software development company.

Now, looking at where I currently am, should I leave the U.S. and relocate to Ghana?

I think not. I’ve convinced myself that I may not find a job at home that will pay me what I’m worth. And what am I worth? I ask myself: if I’m sitting at a table somewhere in Sikaman, with a group of my peers who are equally trained and skilled, albeit in Sikaman, working on a project that will generate value for our common employer, why do I expect to be paid more than them? What gives me the right to expect more pay?

I believe it’s a question of opportunity. I am the one who made it abroad, against “all” the odds. I’m the one who is automatically expected to be successful by virtue of my esteemed journey. I’m the one who is expected to have something to show for the opportunity given me (in my case, I’m expected to be thrice as successful, having been to Germany and the U.K., and finally dropped in the Land of Opportunity). Imagine this: On one of my trips home to Sikaman, I chanced upon my Science teacher from elementary school. Amid the barrage of “Where is Kofi Mensa? Where is Kofi Mensa?” questions he asked – Kofi Mensa being my genius brother – was the question of where I currently live, and what I’m currently doing. “I live in Europe,” I say proudly, “studying engineering in Europe” His response?

“Oh, Europe? Then you have no problem!”

Think about that for a moment. I hope you feel the extent of the expectation. And it doesn’t end with my Science teacher. I speak with many of my friends who live in Ghana and have never travelled abroad, and their common prescription to my relocation ailment?

“Don’t come home – life in Ghana is difficult!”

I’m expected to succeed in life before returning home. And what does it mean to succeed in life? It’s not spoken out loud, and there’s no definitive list of possessions to acquire in order to move from the “Yet-to-be” column to the “Has been” column. And yet I’m expected to succeed before returning home to Sikaman. At the very least, I’m expected to have something to show for the opportunity given me, being the one who made it abroad.

Subconsciously, we’ve created a story in our minds of the journey abroad. It’s complete with characters (ourselves, admissions officers, connection men, “Nkrataa wives,” etc), a plot (the struggle to make it abroad, the finally arrive, settling, the first Western Union Money transfer, making money, more Western Unions, building a posh house in Sikaman, coming home, living the good life), vivid scenes (skyscrapers in New York, gardens in New Jersey, fountains and sausages in Hamburg, and snow… You couldn’t have gone abroad if you don’t have pictures of yourself in the snow; people will assume you hitch-hiked to Sogakope and hid in a hut for 2 years, pretending to be abroad).

I like to think of it this way: we view the trip abroad as an opportunity for a man to leave his village and travel many miles to a town where gold is mined. Let’s call it Mining Town. It’s a place where people make their fortunes. The journey is tough and expensive, but the returns justify the hardship. Once a man struggles and gets to Mining Town, and once he settles, the people in his village (and, many times, he himself) begin imagining his pile of gold growing. The longer he stays (should he be hardworking) the more gold he should have. Now, why would such a young man in his rightful mind want to leave such a place without enough gold and return to his village, given the opportunities that Mining Town presents? Worse still, how can such a young man arrive home, after, say 10 years, with no gold to show? Surely, he must have squandered his fortune on young women and strong drink?! In short, “W’ambo bra!”

I met a Ghanaian man in Duesseldorf once. He'd been in Germano for 7 years. Prior to that, he’d been an Engineering student at Tech (the Kwame Nkruman University of Science and Technology in Kumasi). When the chance arrived for him to study in Germany, all his friends at Tech thought he was marvelously blessed; the guy was actually going to Germany! He got to Duesseldorf, took a full year to learn and sprechen Deutsch, started school, struggled a lot with school and work and life abroad, couldn't quite find a job after school. In his 7th year he decided to visit Sikaman, carrying with him his only suitcase and a small piece of cloth he’d bought for his ageing mother. In the meantime, many of his friends from Tech were married, some had built their houses and populated them with lovely children, most had good jobs and were eating fattened Tilapia for lunch, etc. Upon seeing the dejected figure he cut, his elder brother posed the dreaded question: "Boga, so, after 7 years abroad, is that all you have to show?"

After 7 years abroad…


As I sit here today today, I’m a young man 7 years into my journey to the Promised Land (6 of which, mind you, were spent in school). I’ve been in the mines proper (the workforce) for a full year, and although I do have some gold dust to show for my efforts, it’ll fit in the palm of one hand. The winds of responsibility are also not helping matters much, regularly blowing away my dust particles. In fact, should I catch a cold and sneeze heavily, the gale will blow my small fortune away. So how different am I from my Boga friend? What do I have to show for my trip to Mining Town, and how long will it take me to feel confident that I’ve succeeded in life?

The starting point of my journey was the hustle to make it to Mining Town. The widely accepted endpoint, regardless of how long it takes, should be the triumphant entry into Sikaman someday, to cut the sod to my American House and live the good life.

Let’s return to the table at which we begun.

What could entice me to leave Mining Town now and sit at this table with my peers? In my mind, I could return from the U.S. to sit at this table if I’ll be paid the amount of money (or similar, in real terms) that I would have received in a comparable job here in the U.S. It’s not that I’m better or smarter than my equally-qualified peers at the table – far from it, and I wouldn’t be as ignorant as to think that way (if there’s one thing Sikaman has no shortage of, it’s smart, capable people). However, I feel that I’m the one who made it to Mining Town and had all the opportunities in the world. I’m the one who had the chance to mine real gold. And if I should leave that opportunity and return home, then I should have as much opportunity (in fiscal terms) as I “could” here. That’s in purely economic terms; life’s a lot more than economics. However, that’s part of the reason why I find it difficult to relocate to Sikaman. There are others (some incomparable to money).

Let’s look at the distribution of opportunities. In Mining Town, should I lose my job, I’ll have the opportunity to find an equally good one (although this logic may not quite hold in these trying economic times where H-1B visas are the order of the day, and one has 10 days to find another job if laid off). Should I find a good job in Sikaman, however, what’s the chance that I’ll find an equally good one if the company goes under, or if I lose my job? There aren’t many of such good opportunities in Sikaman. Likewise, at the back of my mind, I’m expecting an equally comfortable lifestyle in Sikaman as the one I have here (although I live in a one-bedroom apartment). I’m expecting to have a nice car in Sikaman (although I drive a wreck). I’m expecting to be able to save as much money (in real terms) if I moved to Sikaman as I’d be able to save here in Mining Town (although my fast-dwindling gold dust can hardly be called savings). The list goes on. At its core is the expectation that I should have the American Dream in Sikaman if I were to move back.

Many will wonder whether this expectation is realistic. In my view, to answer this question is to think about where one expects to end up in life, if he/she stayed in the U.S. We expect to live comfortably and have money. Granted – few of us can be said to live comfortably now, and most of us have less than $10,000 in our bank accounts. But the key point is that we expect to have much more within the next few years of work, realistically or otherwise. We expect to have the American Dream if we keep at it. With our families and friends in Sikaman warning us not to return, one can be pardoned to assume that there’s no such thing as a Ghanaian Dream. But there is a Ghanaian Dream – one that many of us know. It’s of the triumphant return to the land of our birth, after years abroad, bearing riches with which to build lavish houses, live a lavish life, and bask in the admiration of our peers. We’d be described as having come “from outside.” We’ll be called “Akatakyie.” That’s the Ghanaian Dream that many of us know, and it’s often the sequel (Part 2) to the American/European Dream that we crave.

So is there a Ghanaian Dream that occurs entirely in Ghana? Let’s call this The Domestication Dream. I know many who have lived the Part 2 Ghanaian Dream (from Sikaman to America/Europe and back to Sikaman with means). They are the ones we commonly look at and consider to have succeeded. Look at where all the big business people – all the people who live in East Legon and these other posh neighbourhoods, and drive all the big cars – spent the first 10 to 15 years of their working lives. Look at many of the top politicians who have money. Look at many of the young people working in Sikaman for their wealthy parents. We consider many of them to be the new young professional elite in Sikaman, working and making their dreams come true in Ghana. But who are they working for? Where did these employers spend the first 15 years of their working lives?

I’m not saying that every productive/successful business in Sikaman was started by people who came “from outside.” That would be somewhat ignorant and rather uninformed. What I’m trying to communicate is that there is indeed a Domestication Dream (take Domod, for example, and Darko Farms, and Christo Asafo, etc), but it’s far less common than the Part 2 Ghanaian Dream that we know so well. And you will often find that a good number of people who start companies to make the Domestication Dream possible for many other Ghanaians came home “from abroad.” That’s why so many of us cling to the idea of the Part 2 Ghanaian Dream. Many Ghanaians living abroad hope to come home someday to live Part 2 of their dream, and we view Part 2 as being near-impossible without Part 1.

The Domestication Dream is possible. However, the opportunities available to live this dream, though clearly existent, are few. If we all come from abroad today, many are they who will find that these opportunities have been exhausted, and who might feel they missed out on Part 1 of the dream. And once Part 1 is missed out on, going back to America/Europe to re-live it is extremely difficult, as those of us who have experienced multiple visa rejections (not to mention the arrogance of characters such as Bra George at the German Embassy in Accra) will tell you.

But this is not to discourage anyone from the pursuit of the Domestication Dream, for I know a number of people who are living it to the max. There are opportunities in Ghana, and they’re worth looking for. True – they’re few. But they’re not as far between as we may think, and once they’re found, they tend to be very rewarding. Increasingly, these opportunities are becoming more numerous, and from what I hear, they pay quite well.

Should I leave the U.S. and return home, though? I don’t think I’m much closer to an answer now than I was when I first picked up my pen. I’m a step closer to accepting that the Domestication Dream is possible. I’ve also started seeking out some of the opportunities that could make this dream possible. And since I have huge interests in Ghana and know that there’s a chance I could be paid as well as I think I’m worth, I think it might be worth taking the chance “at the right time.”


  1. You raise good issues. As a Ghanaian living in Ghana,with educational background similar to yours, I just want to let you know that you're not entirely right in thinking that opportunities are few in Sikaman. You ask "should I find a good job in Sikaman, however, what’s the chance that I’ll find an equally good one if the company goes under, or if I lose my job?

    My answer is you will.

    And as for saying that there aren’t many of such good opportunities in Sikaman, you couldn't be farther from the truth. I've had opportunities to do things here in Ghana that I'm not sure i'd have gotten to do in the US. If only you're willing to try things, u will find more opportunities here than u can handle. Personally, after living here a year, my problem is more to do with deciding which of the opportunities to give up. I'm swamped with various income generating opportunities and my headache is to decide which of them I want.

    If all the qualified people came home, maybe they could clear some of these out of my inbox. It would be difficult for you to see the opportunities here since you're not on the ground.

    And as for what people say, for every Ghanaian you find who says don't come because it is hard, u will find another who says you should come because it joms. But it's not up to these people to decide your future. It's up to you to decide which of the stories you tune in to.Or rather to weigh both equally instead of living in this fear that you won't find work. You can't be as qualified and as forceful as you are and not find work in 6 mths. I promise you that.

    Also, keep in mind that whatever money you bring from abroad will not be enough to take care of you till you die. Which means that money will need to be multiplied. It means u'll have to generate wealth in Ghana when u arrive 20 yrs from now. If u agree with this, then fundamentally, you agree that wealth can be created in Ghana.

    And as for me, that's all the convincing I need to tell me that the domestication dream is possible for me.

    i.e. As long as i know wealth can be created in Ghana, all i need to do is be able to create it. You seem like someone who has the tools. You're just plagued with doubt.

    And oh..since u talk like an economist, u're probably going to say it takes wealth to create wealth...and to that i say, yes, but not tens of thousands of dollars. If you started with $5000 in 2009 and kept reinvesting it in a business that was profitable, you may be better off that someone who starts a business 20 years later with $20,000. Think compound interest....if u stay abroad, u save more money...but u miss out on seeing the power of compounding profits in ur business, no?
    Economists, let me know if i got this wrong.

  2. Hmm..I like the write. I have not travelled outside the borders of Ghana before, I have an MPhil in Agric Econs, almost all my friends whom I completed the first degree with are in Europe or America, am I making it? Trying to...but have not given up.

  3. I think if our secondary schools (esp elite schools)and universities heavily emphasize on creativity, innovation, business ownership/entrepreneurship and the need to be active in local govt instead of just getting As,Bs, 1st class,2nd class etc, Ghana would be a better place. There would be more jobs created and more opportunities.

  4. Having lived abroad for most of my life with my whole family, I have a different perspective but the same difficulties facing most Ghanaians kids. Maybe I can write about it someday. Summary: I am 31 years old, finished form 5 in Ghana and continued from the 10th grade in the U.S. I have my bachelors and had some of the best jobs a grad could have as seen through the eyes of the Ghanaian community. I quit my corporate "career" a year ago in the midst of the economic crisis ignoring all the comments and ridicule from the shadows dictating my life. The shadows are still around but I am not deterred in struggling to find myself.

  5. Esi well said... the opportunities to generate income whilst doing what I love, whilst trying new things (be they companies or professions or activities), whilst doing things that matter (sorry but being a small cog in the corporate machinery of a prestigious American company is not my idea of a career) and the chance to do them in a place where there I have peace of mind, good food, family and a sense of belonging are more important to me than a $70,000 job.

    its about priorities..Frankly.

    Ghana has never been "a difficult" to me just as America or Abrokyire has never been "the land of opportunities" for me. I guess it is what I heard and saw growing up... Smart and hard working Ghanaians succeeding everyday.

    I went to College in the US.. worked for a year.. decided I would much rather be at home.. and I moved.

    Its not for everyone and really if all I have to complain about in Ghana is traffic and the occasional light off and the absence of netflix then I think I am blessed as are many of my friends.

  6. Mad Lion,

    Nice piece. I like the part about the higher expected standard of living when one returns to Ghana. ie. A big fancy house, when you currently live in a tiny dingy apartment; a nice care, when you currently drive a wreck or take the bus/subway/tube, etc.

    My own father enjoys telling a story involving a certain former minister of finance, a friend of his, who returned from America with the same dusty suitcase he left with about 10 years prior. "He couldn't make it in the states so he came home and joined [political party name witheld]...and now he's rich"....hmmm

  7. I think there's a bit of a divide between those who've relocated to Ghana and those of us who remain abroad. Esi and BrownAngel, being on the ground, clearly believe that there are many opportunities available in Ghana to the avid seeker. Although a good number of us who remain abroad don't doubt this, we wonder about the accessibility and distribution of these opportunities, and, indeed, about their sustainability. You're almost looking at 2 schools of thought by virtue of this divide. There are a number things that I think can bridge this gap, among them an avenue through which both parties can share information regarding potential opportunities in Ghana. To this end, I'd like to share 2 interesting websites that I came across recently:

    The former is a conference being organized in December of this year, having as its aim a presentation of the opportunities that Ghana has to offer Ghanaians who move back home. The latter is a website run by a dedicated group of our peers on a continuous basis, once again with the aim of highlighting domestic opportunities to the non-resident Ghanaian. The more people become aware of - and comfortable with - the idea that the good life can be lived fully in Ghana, the more we'll see non-resident Ghanaians considering the idea of returning home more seriously.

    As always, nothing good comes easily. As such, it'll take a lot of personal effort on the part of the Ghanaian abroad to seek out opportunities at home (should he/she be considering relocating). Information sources like Akwaaba Expo and Ghana Opportunity can help in this regard.

    -Mad Lion

  8. Interesting conversation. Let me add that someone once told me "the dog that is chasing you will determine the speed at which you run." Most of us who visit blogs like these and end up in schools abroad are not the kind who went to "Ajalolo Block JSS." In other words we come from "middle class Ghana"- our parents took us to schools like SOS, Morning Star, Alsyd, Christ the King etc, sure we wouldn't consider our parents wealthy, but they had somewhat of a stable income generating job (especially to be able to afford the fees at those schools.) I went to Morning Star, Akosombo then came abroad. Most of my friends in this "tier" ended up attending Legon- now that they've graduated, some have jobs and some dont and it is interesting to note who has a job and who doesnt. Those who have jobs are those who were in the "upper tier" or our "middle class income tier." The kids with jobs are the kids whose parents were ALREADY wealthy and established with contacts in Ghana. I mean I'm talking kids whose parents own newspapers, publishing companies, pharmaceuticals, kids whose parents manage Ghana Aviation Authority, whose parents are famous architects in Ghana. For me, I was one of those kids who had parents with hard eyes (omo ani ye den) they never had, they constantly borrowed to put me in the best schools, they were constantly insulted by the long line of debtors who were not paid on time. So, income-wise, I belonged on the "lower-tier" end of the "middle-income-tier" at my school. Now back to the quote I mentioned earlier. Coming from such a background and having a close-knit family means I have about 7-10 cousins in secondary school or hoping to start university whose parents(never finished high school) find it hard to make ends meet(their parents are for eg: a bursar/secretary at a school, one is a single woman who sells kenkey at home). School fees season is a constant struggle, so the ones who have made it abroad all chip in to keep everyone in school back home. How does somebody like me go home? To do what? To what connections,esp. coming from that lower-tier and in the face of such real needs? I have a brother in Ghana who has completed two degrees in anthropology and still cannot find a job. I know a lot of Ghanaians who went to "Ajalolo JSS block" (not meant as an insult) and are struggling to make ends meet. Where are the opportunities, especially if you dont belong in the elite/semi-elite Ghanaian circle. And especially if you studied "non-practical" subjects like English, history , politics, anthropology. The jobs are for the wealthy, the jobs are for the well-connected. And this is not to say there aren't poorer Ghanains who have made it, I'm just saying it is a whole lot tougher. If you have parents who are "upper middle" with some form of a stable income back home, then you can afford to go back home and kind of live off them for a while until you break into the Ghanaian market. If you don't, then you have to take the Ghanaian dream 2 road that the author mentioned and do what you can to get something before you go home. Then someday your kids will be able to make a more meaningful choice for themselves on where to live(as the upper-middle kids have). So I think those who support Ghanaian Dream 1 are second generation "upper tier middle income kids" and those who are staunch supporters of Ghanaian dream two are from the poorer end. None of us is wrong, but a one size shoe definitely cannot fit us all.
    I hope this makes some sense!!!

  9. Interesting read here.

    I will agree with Esi.. there are lots of opportunities in Ghana more than there are qualified people in Ghana. I am not exaggerating... go to any of the expat hangout in Ghana and you will see a lot of young professionals around. These expats are not only white/ or westerners- now a days there are expats from Uganda, Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria and others. They wouldn’t be in Ghana if there was nothing no opportunity.

    This points to the fact that there is a vacuum waiting to be filled.

    Ghanaians abroad get 2 answers when they ask of coming home.
    1. Don’t go, there is nothing for you in Ghana
    2. You can make it. although it is not easy.

    Depending on who you talk to, you would end up with any of the above, with number 1 in the majority of responses. This is because a lot of the people who respond with Number 1, could be put as those who do not have any practical skills to bring to Ghana. E.g. Someone in the asset protection business (security) who has risen through the ranks to a respectable position earning . Such a person would advise you based on their experience/perspective.

    You would get response Number 2 if you were to ask a person who has transferrable skills to bring to Ghana.

    I must admit that currently the opportunities in Ghana are skewed towards the law, accountancy, architects, pharma and the like more than in the engineering side. However most of the expats in Ghana can be found the in the engineering side and senior management roles suggesting that there a Ghanaian dearth in this sector.

    It is difficult but the opportunities are there. In some cases your dollars can go further in Ghana