In 2009, after I had completed my Master’s degree in Toronto, I set out on a journey that had been 22 years in the making: I ‘returned’ to the country of my birth to piece together what had been lost through migration. I wanted to see if I could build a life for myself in Ghana, a place where I thought I could be free from Canada’s polite racism and unforgiving weather. I wanted to make sense of what being Ghanaian meant to a second-generation immigrant kid like me. And I wanted to make a difference on the continent I had come to identify with so strongly.
Now, eight years, a few trips back and forth, several heartbreaks and too much education later, I have finally made the move that I hope will be more permanent than my previous attempts at relocating. I returned to Ghana in February 2017 to complete my PhD research and work in international development. While many things have been much easier this time around, I am still hyperaware of what it means to be a Diaspora kid stumbling her way back ‘home’.
I wanted to see if I could build a life for myself in Ghana, a place where I thought I could be free from Canada’s polite racism and unforgiving weather.
Unbelonging Becomes Me
I understand the curious stares of folks on the street as they try to make sense of my dirty blonde Afro and strangely melaninated body, not yet sun-kissed but still dry and sunken from years of harsh Canadian weather. I know what it means to struggle through my own loneliness and sense of un-belonging, which often hits me in the most familiar ways and places. How the word ‘Africa’ still sits heavy on my tongue and heart, wrought from all that our histories know and our present demands. I feel deeply what it means to roam the streets of Accra as I attempt to find my own way. I know how poverty chokes us, holds us hostage and how our leaders invest only in ‘unseeing’ us. And most of all, I know that I cannot take my presence on the continent for granted. I cannot take this continent for granted.
Africa is not a place that one desires – it is the place that one leaves, abandons, or mourns in order to chase what they (should) really desire. In my own home, I was taught (often indirectly) that Ghana was not liveable. My family’s own traumatic experience of migration sits heavy on me as I outrageously attempt a life of my own on this continent. The 1980s were unkind to most Africans, with droves of people leaving their countries to escape harsh and unsavoury conditions. Ever since, Africa has seen a series of twists and turns, ups and downs, all culminating in this moment in which Diaspora kids like me are daring to dream about its future.
And all of this ‘finding myself’ has come at a cost.
Not the Original Plan
In many ways, I have diverted from ‘the plan’. My parents’ immigrant dreams of me achieving middle-class status in Canadian society, routinely sending remittances to them in their retirement home in Kumasi, has been interrupted by my own wandering heart, my own urgent need to find home. In other ways, my parents’ hard work and dreaming made it possible for me to return home on my own terms, not as an illegal migrant who had been sent home by an unforgiving Western government or as an unsuccessful migrant forced to return home with nothing in hand.
Still, there really are no blueprints for the type of life I am carving out: I am not a traditional returnee who has friends from secondary school whom I will meet in Ghana’s bustling capital, Accra. We will not reminisce about being flogged by headmasters or boarding school days when we were full of youthful zeal and hunger. Nor am I a typical white Canadian expat living in the ignorant bliss of their privilege on the African continent. That world never fit me either.
My parents’ hard work and dreaming made it possible for me to return home on my own terms
Diaspora Kids Are Outliers
The thing about being a Diaspora kid who returns home is that you learn the art of negotiation. Many of us are seen as mediators between ‘local’ culture and some other aspirational place that is worthy of value and recognition. But really, I am no ‘middle woman’. I have just learnt this negotiated space. I actually exist in my own place; my own biased, positioned, flawed and faulty place. Something totally distinct from, yet inherently part of this dichotomy between ‘home’ and ‘West’. And I am learning to negotiate all of this, with Abena Busia’s aplomb, with something like Tsitsi Dangarembga’s nervous conditioning. The negotiation of all the things I am and am not. The white people’s world(s) was never my own, but village life is some distant ancestral memory pushed way deep into my bones, showing up decades (centuries?) later as mis-belonging and pain.
Diaspora kids know displacement well. Many of us never asked to be this far from our homelands, this fractured and disjointed. Many of us seek some sort of cultural return, but would not even know where to begin. We fear that our Western accents and passports make us unrecognisable to our home and host countries simultaneously. As unbelonging hits us, we still know that Africa is our future. It is engraved on our skin and hangs on our names. Even if Africa cannot comprehend us, we know that it continues to exist through us. We stretch Africa beyond its knowing of itself. We, too, are Africa’s story.
Here we stand.
Teeter-tottering our way into something like struggle, something like war, something like art.
Something like home.