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29.10.2010 Feature Article

Life Lessons from Ghana - Lesson 1

Life Lessons from Ghana - Lesson 1
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It's been a year and a half since I moved to Ghana. In that time, I've learned a few things about life which I'm going to share with you. This being the first day, I should give you some background before launching into lesson number 1.

On 31st August 2008 when I got on the one-way flight to Ghana from the US, I had less than $50 to my name. I had no work experience. Or a family name or connections. All I had was a job I was excited about, a family I hoped to finally get to know, and the most supportive boyfriend in the world.

And friends.
Some of whom confused me. By saying the things I wanted to hear yet practicing the exact opposite, it left me a bit confused. For example I wondered how they could push me toward a choice they were themselves not yet willing to make. How could they encourage me to move to Ghana without work experience when they themselves found it expedient to gain experience first? How could they ask me to go with only $50 in my pocket when they were themselves saving up towards the same trip? Maybe they were trying to be supportive but weren't friends supposed to first tell you if they thought you were doing the right thing but at the wrong time, and then be supportive if you insisted on leaving? Maybe they believed in the move but didn't think it should be made without ample preparation? And if so, why wouldn't they say that?

Yet I moved.
And in doing so, learned my first lesson about life. It's not about your friends. You don't let anyone tell you how to live your life. They're also just trying to figure it out. They don't know any better than you. So lesson one is...

1. Do it for you - aka live your life!
I could give you many reasons why it was good for me to move. In the last 18 months, whenever people have asked me why I moved, I've given reasons like my dream job was here, I wanted to contribute towards national development, I wanted spend more time with my family and so on. And all these are true but by themselves, they were not reason enough to compel me to move. Don't get me wrong, I probably wouldn't have moved if I hadn't found the job that I did. I probably wouldn't have moved if I wasn't so concerned about national development or if I didn't have siblings so much younger than me. But they were not sufficient reason to move.

Whilst these reasons sound altruistic and good, the thing that clinched it for me was purely selfish; I wanted to live my life now and I could see no way to live it in the US. That's it.

Grad school was life-changing for me. It taught me that I needed to live my dreams and I needed to live them now. Not tomorrow, not ten years later. But now. And everything I wanted to do with my life, was in Ghana. I also wanted to be a pioneer of some sort. I'd come out of college feeling that I could do anything. Be anything I wanted to be. By the time I finished grad school, I'd learned that I had to make my own path. You don't get training to be Bill Gates or Mahatma Ghandi or Kwame Nkrumah. Truly great people go where no one has gone and leave a trail. This for me shot down the whole argument about needing US training or work experience or whatever. I felt that I was never going to need that experience.

I realized that not everyone shared my new found belief that everyday of one's life had to be lived and lived hard. Not everyone rejected the idea of working on things they didn't necessarily care about if it meant they could save some money and gain work experience. Basically some people had a higher tolerance for pain. They could endure an unexciting job if it in some way gave them a means to a better tomorrow. I could not. I needed everyday to be meaningful, stimulating, action-packed and fun! These were my needs.

It's not everyone who has these needs. It's not everybody who is not happy with life abroad. Some people actually love it there, and for them, it makes no sense to leave a life they love to move to Ghana. Asking that of them would be like asking me now to move to America. Why would you ever do that to someone?

So yes, lesson number one. Do it for you. Ask yourself what you want out of life and then align your decisions to achieve that end. If you're happy where you are and with what you're doing, stay put.

For me, I expected life to happen now. I needed to be stoked. I wanted to be happy. I knew my life could end anytime and so I wanted to make the most of now. And so I chose the path that satisfied that personal need.

Also, I read up on how businesses like Databank begun and realised you can achieve success even if you start small. That in fact, starting small allowed you to make mistakes that would not be financially crippling. So by the time you had actually made a million dollars, you'd know where to invest it, and who you could trust with it. Additionally, I'd become a full believer in self-reliance and felt that starting a business with money from abroad defeated the whole argument that Ghanaians could do it in Ghana. So it was also a bit of foolish but fun challenge to myself to answer the question. Can you come to Ghana with nothing, and in say 20 years build a global business?

Is it possible?
And if it is, then that would be a really inspiring story for the millions of young people in Ghana. I still don't know the answer to that, but my suspicion is that it can be done. These were my beliefs, so my decisions will be based on those beliefs. Not everyone believes these things. There are some people who will say they do, but when they have to act on it, they realise it's not really something they're convinced about. So the lesson there is, live your life. Do things according to your beliefs. If someone is able to convince you to share their beliefs, then you can do as they tell you. Until then, ask yourself what you want. What do you believe? What kind of life do you want? Do you want to be an entrepreneur? Do you want to be CEO of Google? For me, what helps is that I have this nasty habit of constantly asking myself why? why do we do the things we do and is there a way to get to the same destination without doing what you're doing now? It helps me keep things in perspective.

For example one of my friends, a Wharton MBA once told me on his visit to Ghana, look at me working so hard, trying to get into Wharton, doing this, doing that, trying to make money because I want to move to Ghana to start a business. Then I come home and find students from Ashesi who starting with nothing, are running their own businesses, and gaining first hand experience doing the exact same thing I'm still prepping to be able to do and I ask: What's the point of the MBA when someone who doesn't have it is doing it and I still don't have the confidence to throw off my crutches and begin?

Good point.
But in the end, if what you're doing feels right. If you're doing it for you.If you're living the life you want, then I think you're cool. For me, moving back was a first step in living in the now and not postponing the life I actually wanted. I wanted to be here, live here, build businesses here, have babies here...hehe. For me, moving to Ghana was not a sacrifice. It was a gain. It has to be, for it to be worthwhile for you.

Sometimes people say all sorts of things to make it seem like they're sacrificing when they move home. I used to think this too, but that's not actually true. It is never a sacrifice or you wouldn't be moving. And I'm going to get into trouble for saying this but nobody loves Ghana that much. Let me break it down for you.

People move for all sorts of reasons. They move because they're unhappy with their lives there and want a better life in Ghana. How is that a sacrifice? It isn't. You're actually gaining. People move because they've made enough money but don't want to keep living the life of work work work. They're now ready to settle down and make a family and they wish to do it in Ghana. Please...that's not a sacrifice. You're gaining. Then there are people who move to pursue business opportunities in Ghana. Yes, I sacrificed a pay-cut when I came home, but I only did that because I think the sum total of everything being in Ghana gives me is worth more to me than the money I'd be making. Infact, if you look at it critically and account for cost of living, you may well find that the pay-cut isn't all that much. So how am I sacrificing? I'm not.

When people talk of moving home as a sacrifice, it perpetuates the image of a poor Africa in need of help, but that's not actually the reality. Just like people move to America in search of opportunity, Africa's children who move back home are doing it because they see opportunities here you do not yet see. People keep saying Dr. Frimpong-Boateng and Prof. Akosa sacrificed a paycut when they moved home, and that is true, but what they forget to say is that they gained so much more. Prof. Frimpong-Boateng capitalised on an opportunity to be the guy to set up Ghana's first cardio Korle-Bu Cardio-thoracic centre and now instead of just being another rich Ghanaian doctor in Germany, he's a celebrated son of Ghana. How is that a sacrifice? He chose significance over money but I'm sure he gets paid enough even in Ghana.

I'll be doing a separate blog post about this because I think BBC and other news channels that seem so surprised that Africans move back home have gotten it twisted. They focus too much on the fact that people are coming home to contribute, but it's actually more a case of coming home to seize opportunities. The brain gain discussion often leaves out this fact! There's not that much I bring to Ghana. Ghana gives me opportunities which I can seize to do big things that are not possible for me in America. When I move to Ghana from America, I'm declaring that Ghana has more to offer me than America.

We don't always recognise this truth, and so we talk about our move home the only way we know how, we talk about sacrifice and contributing to build Africa, but actually, those who come based on their own convictions, come because Ghana is offering more than America. Sometimes Ghana offers a chance to be great in addition to building wealth. And people like Patrick Awuah, and Dr. Frimpong Manso are smart for recognising and choosing the possibility of greatness/relevance and wealth that Ghana offers over mere wealth that the West offers.

Wow, long post :-)
I looove talking about Ghana and life. lol.
But I'll end here. Just remember lesson number 1. It's not about other people. You can ask for advice, and opinions, but in the end, you will have to make the best decision for you. Sometimes Ghana offers more than America. In that case, chose the better offer. Choose the offer that allows you to live the life you want, and do it for you.

That's lesson 1.
So what kind of life do you want? What would it take to live your best life now? Is the path you're currently on the only way to get there? Really? Do you seriously need the money? Why do you keep postponing to live the life you want? What would it take to live it now? Why not now? Now I sound like a motivational speaker so I'll end now:) hehe.

Lesson 1: Live your life now.
Watch out for lesson 2.
Esi Cleland runs the AfroChic clothing store. Read more of her articles, at

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