Wed, 14 Mar 2001 General News

For African-Americans in Ghana, The Grass Isn't Always Greener

By Wall Street Journal -By G. PASCAL ZACHARY
For African-Americans in Ghana, The Grass Isn't Always Greener

ACCRA, Ghana -- Kwaku Sintim-Misa, a popular comedian here, likes to tell a joke about the African-American who emigrates to Ghana.

"Brother, I've found my roots!" the African-American crows. A local shakes his head, wondering why anyone with a coveted United States passport would choose to move to Ghana. "Move to the Motherland?" the Ghanaian cries, "I want to escape the Motherland."

Mr. Sintim-Misa's story gets laughs because it rings true. Last year, the number of Ghanaians applying to legally enter the U.S. tripled. In the same year, Ghana's currency lost nearly two-thirds of its value against the dollar. So many skilled and educated Ghanaians have fled that Mr. Sintim-Misa has the impression that "nobody wants to live in Ghana anymore."

Nobody, that is, except African-Americans. Promised Land U.S. officials estimate that 1,000 African-Americans live in Ghana, mostly in its capital, Accra, and that an additional 10,000 visit as tourists each year. By many accounts the country attracts more black Americans than any other in Africa, and by a wide margin. In recent years, hundreds have decided to relocate, drawn by beautiful beaches, a tropical climate, low living costs and, most of all, a sense that this historic heart of the slave trade is an ancestral homeland.

Mona Boyd, an Arkansas native married to a Ghanaian, runs a car-rental agency in Accra. Ada Willoughby, a retiree from Tennessee who moved here in 1995, remains even after her husband's death from cerebral malaria. Michael Williams was the head of the African Studies program at Simmons College in Boston when he came here looking for a wife. He married a Ghanaian woman, Afua, in 1995 and stayed on to run an exchange program for U.S. students. Another professor, Lisa Aubrey, bought a house and, keeping her post at Ohio University, teaches part of the year at Ghana's leading university.

The country's appeal is not always obvious. Electricity and water supplies are often interrupted. Malaria is rampant. Wages are meager by U.S. standards. Given the number of people leaving, the arrival of enthusiastic African-Americans might be expected to delight Ghanaians.

It doesn't. Far from seeing African-Americans as kin, most Ghanaians lump them together with other Americans, calling the whole lot obruni, which in the local Twi language means "white" or foreigner. With better education and deeper pockets, African-Americans strike many Ghanaians as arrogant. "When they get into any situation they want to take over, and we are not like that," says R. William Hrisir-Quaye, an official with Ghana's commission on culture.

Indeed, many black Americans living in Ghana find they aren't particularly welcome -- and wonder whether they need a new civil rights movement to secure a place in their adopted home. Ghana forbids American residents from taking most government jobs. Hospitals charge them higher fees. Americans can't vote in elections or participate in local politics. It is virtually impossible for them to obtain citizenship, or permanent "right of abode," even after marrying a Ghanaian. The infamous slave castles along Ghana's coastline impose entrance fees on Americans that are 30 times as high as those paid by locals.

All this annoys Yvetta Shipman, who moved here from Atlanta five years ago with her husband, gave birth to a child, named FreeSoul, and started a business exporting locally made clothes. The 37-year-old Ms. Shipman realized a longtime dream by moving to Ghana and connecting with her heritage. In Ghana, she made friends and gradually learned local ways, but still felt like an outsider, she says. After three years, she tired of Ghanaians seeing her "not as a black sister, but as a dollar sign," and moved back to the U.S.

The gulf between Ghanaians and African-Americans seemed to narrow a bit two years ago when Ghana's President Jerry Rawlings stood alongside President Bill Clinton during a visit to the U.S. and declared that any black American who wished to live in Ghana was welcome and eligible for citizenship.

Mr. Rawlings's declaration -- his way of demonstrating solidarity with American blacks -- was widely reported at the time, igniting a record level of interest in Ghana among African-Americans. But Mr. Rawlings failed to make good on his promise of citizenship. Neither he nor John A. Kufuor, who succeeded him as president in January, will talk about the possibility of giving citizenship to African-Americans. The required legislation failed to win approval under Mr. Rawlings and is now considered dead. "We feel very betrayed," says Victoria Cooper, who heads the African-American Association of Ghana and is a partner in the Accra office of PricewaterhouseCoopers. "It's like we've been hoodwinked. Ghanaians want our money, but they don't want us." Frustration Bubbles Up One February afternoon, frustration erupted. The U.S. ambassador, Kathryn B. Robinson, drove nearly three hours on a crumbling, pot-holed road in order to address the African-Americans who live in the historic slave-trading communities of Cape Coast and Elmina. While the gathering was billed as an annual visit to report on Ghana, Ms. Robinson's actual purpose was to meet the vocal African-Americans here. In an outdoor restaurant, called Mable's Table, set against a breathtaking stretch of rocky Atlantic coast, the ambassador peered out at 30 residents, all but four of whom were black.

The crowd at Mable's was diverse. Nathaniel Ha'levi, from Mount Vernon, N.Y., owns the restaurant with his Ghanaian wife and is a self-styled Black Hebrew who counts among his ancestors an ancient tribe of African Jews. John Childs is a retired teacher from Philadelphia who lives here year round but admits that "without my pension I'd be on the next plane out." Imahkus Robinson, dressed in a headscarf and an African dress, stages re-enactments of slaves being sent to the New World for African-American tourists. Gladys Rice, a nurse from Detroit, runs a health clinic, supported by her U.S. church. All share a belief that Ghana is a special place for African-Americans and that this is where they belong.

The ambassador and her two aides steered the discussion away from emotional issues, but Ms. Robinson's husband, Okofo, a retired New York firefighter, complained about his humiliating experiences trying to renew his visa. Ghanaians have threatened him with "deportation," he insisted, perhaps as a way of getting him to pay a bribe. Since he considers himself "a surviving descendant of Africa," why can't he be a citizen of Ghana?

Others agreed that the visa process is unfair and that citizenship is overdue. The ambassador was sympathetic but said this was a matter for Ghanaians to decide. And that's a problem since most Ghanaians feel they owe nothing to African-Americans, seeing slavery as the legacy of Europeans and Americans, not Africans.

"The African role in the slave trade is not an issue in Ghana," says Audrey Gadzekpo, a newspaper columnist in Accra. "People here are totally detached from any guilt or responsibility for their ancestors selling other Africans into slavery. It's like there's some collective amnesia."

Some African-Americans are determined to end this amnesia. In eastern Ghana, Kwadwo O. Akpan, who moved from Detroit here with his wife and two children a decade ago, sits under a straw gazebo, watching three men saw a piece of wood. One holds the wood, the other saws, and the third watches. From his seat, Mr. Akpan, who is 56 years old and has taken a local name, can see a banana plantation and the man-made Volta Lake below.

He calls this spot Rosa Park Lake View, in honor of the African-American civil rights pioneer. Around him, seven houses are going up slowly. Mr. Akpan wants to build a total of 50 homes by the end of the year. "This is a personal quest," he says. The homes are to be sold to African-Americans and other descendants of Africa. Prices, ranging from $19,000 to $30,000, are low because Mr. Akpan has persuaded local leaders to give him a tract of land as compensation for the misdeeds of African slave traders hundreds of years ago. Unprecedented Gesture In all of West Africa, the gesture accorded to Mr. Akpan is apparently unprecedented. In the village Akwamufie, a short drive from where he sits, a council of chiefs granted him use of this land. One chief, Nana Darko II, who is Mr. Akpan's closest ally, says his presence represents "a revisitation of our people who left these shores. Why not accept our own people back?"

When Mr. Akpan first approached him six years ago about creating an African-American community amid rural poverty, Mr. Darko replied, "Everyone wants to go to the U.S. Why do you want to come here?" Mr. Akpan explained that for some African-Americans Ghana is a spiritual home, preferable to the U.S.

Mr. Darko appreciates Mr. Akpan's aims and effort but admits, "this is still very difficult for me to understand."

As difficult to fathom is the pace of work set by Mr. Akpan. In blazing midday heat, he issues a fresh batch of complaints to Mr. Darko, who supervises the local construction workers. Mr. Darko shrugs. "African-Americans expect us to have the same output as them," he says, yet pay scales are vastly different, with Americans accustomed to earning in an hour what Africans earn in a day or a week.

Mr. Akpan, meanwhile, must keep expectations from running out of control. The locals, who are normally limited to such jobs as harvesting bananas for a dollar a day, hope he will be followed by hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of well-heeled African-Americans. Prosperity should come in their wake, they think. Yet such a torrent seems unlikely given the remote location of Mr. Akpan's settlement, 90 miles over poor roads from Accra.

Still, Mr. Darko hopes his community will benefit from African-American interest, though how this will happen remains a mystery. "We've never done anything like this," he says, "so we don't know how it goes."

Persuading Ghanaians to experiment may be the best hope for African-Americans. In Elmina, the seaside town where the ambassador spoke, Eric Thompson produces vegetarian foods, prodding Ghanaians to diversify their starch- and meat-heavy diets. In a rented bungalow a hundred yards from the ocean, he and several Ghanaian women every morning whip up an array of yam balls, fruit cakes, banana breads and ginger-laced soy milk -- a menu that was never seen in these parts before his arrival. The food is sold to businesses and restaurants along the coast.

The 40-year-old Mr. Thompson, who goes by the name of Shabazz, wears his hair in dreadlocks and sports a small tattoo above the bridge of his nose. He moved here four years ago from Atlanta, where he ran a record store in a neighborhood so rough that he never worked without a handgun. When a friend was gunned down, he decided to leave for Ghana, where he hoped to find tranquility as well as roots. Way With the Locals Mr. Thompson has proven adept at winning over locals, making common cause with the leading physician in town and even some village herbalists who dispense drinkable "bitters" that help with a variety of ailments. And he is preparing to build a small school in Elmina where he plans to teach local children about nutrition.

One recent morning, he pulled his pickup truck into the University of Cape Coast, parking near a student cafeteria. The manager was a recent convert to vegetarianism, and Mr. Thompson plied him with his latest culinary creations. "Try these," he said, handing the manager a bag.

Mr. Thompson wants to turn the campus bus stop into an open-air cafe where commuters could munch on his vegetarian goodies while waiting for a bus. Nowhere in Ghana is this done, and the cafeteria manager, a small smiling man named Freddie, knows that a higher-up must make this revolutionary decision. He agreed to make the case to his boss. Mr. Thompson flashed a big smile and hit him with a high-five rather than Ghana's traditional finger-snap handshake. "I'm counting on you Uncle Freddie," he said.

This is a rare moment of delight for Mr. Thompson, who still anguishes over his decision not to follow his wife, Ms. Shipman, back to the U.S. two years ago. He wants to visit his wife and their son this spring, but he now has a problem. Having returned to the motherland, he is legally unable to leave. His last visa to live in Ghana expired a year ago. Until he normalizes his status by paying a fine or giving additional explanations for his visa violation, Ghanaian authorities won't let him leave the country.

Mr. Thompson is struck by the oddity of this situation, as he considers Ghana his home. "I have a lot left to do here," he says. "It isn't always easy, and I wonder why I stay sometimes. But I am building a community and I want it to last."

Write to G. Pascal Zachary at [email protected]