Coming Home To Africa
African-Americans are resettling in ancestral lands, embracing a heritage and looking to the continent's potential as a way to fulfill dreams.
By Ann M. Simmons,
LATimes Staff Writer
DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania - Two years ago, David Robinson caved in and bought a television set. A telephone followed shortly after. But Robinson still lives in a backwater where solar electricity is the norm, public transport is limited and cell phones don't work. Walking, sometimes for up to three hours, is often the only way to get a message to someone.
The son of baseball legend Jackie Robinson regards the sacrifice of a few modern conveniences as worthwhile. His dream, ever since setting foot in Africa as a tourist in 1967, was to settle down, connect with his cultural heritage and help develop the continent's economic potential.
In 1986, Robinson put down roots in Tanzania. He says he has never looked back. "It has exceeded any expectations that I had," said Robinson, 50. "One could never know the opportunities, the beauty, the pleasure of living here until one does live here."
Robinson is just one among a stream of African-Americans who have come to Africa to exercise what many consider an ancestral right: To make the continent their permanent home. Many are attracted by the ideal of solidarity and the prospect of being part of the racial majority. Others seek business opportunities that will both contribute to Africa's development and lead to personal gain. Still others want their children to appreciate their cultural heritage and to grow up in communities where their role models are people of color. Some come to retire.
Some newcomers have African spouses who can help ease them into their new environment. Many have both the education and money - along with the patience - to make their dreams of a new life on a new continent come true. In the process, these Americans believe they can help shape Africa's future. "Logically, the African-American tribes outside of Africa have something to offer and can play a role in Africa's global development," said Robinson, a onetime fisherman and exporter of African art who has been a coffee farmer for the last decade.
There are no concrete statistics on the number of African-Americans who have decided to settle in Africa. U.S. embassies do not register Americans living in individual countries by race. However, Tanzania, Ghana, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Ethiopia and South Africa are among the countries that have welcomed African-Americans.
Estimates by those who count themselves among this new breed of settler range from as few as 15 permanent African-American residents in Tanzania to more than 1,000 in South Africa. For many, the transition has had bumps. In many African countries, communications and roads are poor. Public services are often unreliable. Tardiness and other annoying work habits frustrate many newcomers.
Such challenges did not deter the Connecticut-born Robinson. For him, moving to Tanzania felt natural. He was inspired, he said, by the example of his father, who broke major league baseball's color barrier in 1947. "When you are faced with the negatives of racism, to be supported by the personal courage and success of one's parent is a tremendous barrier against the negative attitudes of society," Robinson said.
Robinson, who married a Tanzanian woman after he arrived in Africa and is father of nine children, owns a 120-acre farm in the northern mountains, about 550 miles from Dar es Salaam, the capital. Called "Sweet Unity Farms," it is part of a 350-farm cooperative, of which Robinson is director of marketing and finance.
To buy his land, Robinson had to state his case to regional officials and village committees. In the end, he played the race card - in keeping with the views of Tanzania's revered founding father, Julius K. Nyerere, who preached unity and welcomed Blacks born outside Africa. "My ultimate presentation was that I was a Black person who had lost my nationalistic and tribal ties (to Africa) and I wanted to come back," recalled Robinson, who now speaks fluent Kiswahili, Tanzania's official language.
He was offered as much land as he could clear and use. A novice, Robinson relied heavily on his neighbors to learn farming. Today, he exports coffee beans to the United States. Tanzanian coffee is considered to be among the best in the world, and the beans fetch a premium price.
Robinson maintains that such success would have been harder to achieve in the United States. "I still believe the psychological barriers and calluses and bruises that we sustained throughout our American experience continues to block us from taking advantage of the opportunities that we can have," said Robinson, who retains a U.S. passport but expects to become a Tanzanian citizen. "We are not the normal American immigrant but the descendants of slaves. We have to recognize that."
It was business as well as the prospect of helping to develop a country governed by Black people that led Victoria Cooper in 1993 to the West African country of Ghana, across the continent from Robinson. "Growing up as an American, I would be doing a disservice if I came to Ghana and didn't share my talents and experiences gained in America with Ghanaians," said Cooper, 46, a St. Louis native.
A former partner in the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, she left in July 2001 to launch a consulting firm that advises governments on public sector reform and provides foreign investor services in West Africa. Cooper says that Ghana has untold potential. "The current administration has a focus on business, and one can feel the commitment," said Cooper, who is also president of the American Chamber of Commerce, Ghana. "Although they have an uphill battle, they recognize what that battle is."
The African-American Assn. in Ghana has about 50 dues-paying members, but many others regularly come to meetings, said Cooper, who presides over the group. During the last two years, several dozen African-Americans have arrived - some to pursue business, others to retire, she said.
Since becoming the first African colony to gain independence from Britain in 1957, Ghana has held a special appeal to African-Americans. U.S.-educated Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana's first president, was a proponent of repatriation to Africa. Hundreds heeded his call, and in the 1960s the nascent democracy became a popular destination for African-American activists, academics and professionals, including scholar W.E.B. DuBois and writer Maya Angelou.
The trend waned after Nkrumah was ousted in 1966, but it regained momentum while Jerry J. Rawlings, a former Ghanaian flight lieutenant, was in power. At a rally in Harlem in 1995, Rawlings announced plans to offer automatic Ghanaian citizenship to African-Americans. He urged them to invest their savings in Africa's future.
The offer of citizenship has since been modified to the right of abode, and legal details are still being ironed out, much to the frustration of some African-Americans. "Just taking him at his word, they packed up and came over expecting to get work permits," Cooper recalled. "It was easier said than done. Many have been disappointed that it has not happened sooner. But they are not totally discouraged."
In a way, Michael Giles was pursuing the American dream when he moved to South Africa in 1993. Giles said that despite having degrees from Harvard and Columbia Law School, he felt that obstacles including institutionalized racism would prevent him from reaching his full professional potential. "I thought I really can't take the risk of spending the years when you have the energy and the drive to do something exciting, squandering it in a place that is not going to be receptive," said Giles, 43, who is from Newark, NJ. "The tragedy is, race has blemished the opportunity for African-Americans to achieve the American dream."
Giles, who met his South African wife, Bernadette, at Harvard, gave up a career in corporate law to launch a chain of laundromats in South Africa. They later started a tourism company, Heritage Africa, in Johannesburg. "This place represents an opportunity," Giles said. "To be here now and involved in tourism is like being at the epicenter of what's going to be the future of South Africa - jobs, economic opportunities for Black people, growth of the economy."
Hundreds of African-Americans flocked to South Africa after Nelson Mandela led the country's first Black-majority government into power in 1994. Although the stream has slowed in recent years, South Africa still is considered the main hub of African-American resettlement. "It can lead the way for the rest of Africa," said Gayla Cook-Mohajane, 52, director of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Johannesburg-based American think-tank. She has lived in South Africa for 12 years. "For people looking for a place with energy, this is it. It is a very international place, a crossroads of culture."
South Africa may be especially attractive to African-Americans because of the problems elsewhere on the continent: political upheaval, dictatorship, rough living conditions, and language barriers. "South Africa, ironically, became the 'Great White Hope' of the Black diaspora," John Matshikiza, a respected South African columnist and university research fellow, wrote recently in the weekly Mail & Guardian newspaper.
"People speak comprehensible English here. Telephones work," he said. "There's a Black president, a largely Black Cabinet, Black empowerment and a Black economic elite that, even though they may show signs of moral confusion and fallibility, nevertheless symbolize a significant advance in the worldwide profile of the Black world."
*Coming To Africa (Part II)
Skin color does not always guarantee acceptance. Some South Africans found Americans who arrived soon after the transition to Black majority rule to be patronizing, cliquish and arrogant about the role they played in the struggle against apartheid. Others saw them as unwanted competition. Companies tried to meet affirmative action quotas by hiring African-Americans rather than South Africans.
"On the whole, the perception people had was that they came in with an attitude, that they wanted to teach these backward Africans a thing or two, that they were the better Africans," said Mzimkulu Malungu, projects manager for the Business Day and Financial Mail newspaper group. "People did not take too kindly to that."
Detroit native Francis Kornegay, a program coordinator in an international relations program at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, said South Africans still are adjusting to seeing Blacks from other African countries as well as from the United States. In recent years, South Africa has seen a flood of would-be immigrants from other parts of the continent. "When it comes to African-Americans, (their) attitude may be affected by their attitude of ambivalence to the U.S. in general," he said. "And most Black South Africans are quite ignorant about the anti-apartheid history in the U.S." African-Americans helped lead America's economic embargo against apartheid-era South Africa.
The Pan-African spirit that exists elsewhere, particularly in West Africa, the ancestral home of most African-Americans, is absent in South Africa, said Kornegay, who has lived there since 1994. Supporters of the Black Americans' endeavors in South Africa dismiss the issue of jobs as a smokescreen for petty jealousies. "We are not in direct competition with many South Africans, because most of us who come create our own jobs, and jobs for South Africans, or bring our own jobs with us," said Jerelyn Eddings, executive director of the Foundation for African Media Excellence, which promotes quality journalism in Africa.
On the whole, however, African-Americans say they have been made to feel welcome in Africa, sometimes moreso than in America. Race has been the major factor. "I feel comfortable because I am a person of color," said Cooper, the business consultant in Ghana. "It makes entrance easier. It breaks down some barriers that would immediately go up if I were not a person of color."
That feeling has been one of the best aspects of living in Africa for Robi Machaba, who was known as "Irving Robinson" back home in Columbus, Ga. The Waikoma ethnic group of Tanzania, among whom he has lived since 1985, gave Machaba his new name. A former development consultant, Machaba was given land in 1990 and now grows avocados and passion fruit near the shores of Lake Victoria. "Here I have land, whereas America has never given me my 40 acres and a mule," said Machaba, 59. He said he gives back by helping to curate an annual sculpture exhibit to raise funds for a bush basketball team he helps run.
Like most expatriates in Africa, African-Americans typically live comfortable lives. Many can afford nice homes and, when necessary, electrical generators, water storage tanks, and housekeeping and gardening services that help make up for the lack of infrastructure. Expatriates contrast their lives with African-Americans who have fallen prey to crime and drugs. Some of them believe social problems were intentionally planted in African-American communities to ensure their demise.
"One needs only to look at the American prisons, American substance abuse programs and the number of premature deaths, and you can see that society is successfully eliminating the African-American male," said David Robinson. "It is hard for a Black man in America, and in particular for a Black man with self-respect."
Ensuring that her son, Selasi, now 10, would grow up in an environment where his skin color would not be an obstacle was a key factor in Mona Boyd's decision to move to her husband's native Ghana in 1994. "I really wanted to give him the opportunity to grow into a confident man, without being marginalized in any way," said Boyd, 52, who owns the Avis car rental franchise in Accra, Ghana's capital, and a successful tour company. "I felt Ghana could do that for him."
She also wanted him to be surrounded by Black role models. Cooper felt the same way about her teenage daughters, both of whom grew up in Ghana. "They don't have to have any insecurity about who they are," Cooper said. "They can have a very high sense of self-esteem, because people they see doing big things – doctors, lawyers, engineers, even presidents – look like them. They can aspire to anything."
Cooper and Boyd both said exposing their children to their heritage was also important. "I was keenly aware that my heritage was very short," said Boyd, who can trace her family tree back 100 or so years to a farming community in Turrell, Arkansas. "We can only go back so far. I felt something was missing. My husband, being Ghanaian with a family history of a thousand years, I felt the best gift we could give Selasi was a part of this."
Even though such opportunities have made it easier for these Americans to leave the country of their birth, the United States remains a land that, ironically, receives thousands of applications every year from would-be African immigrants. "I like America, but I've decided not to be part of the finale," Machaba said. "I've found a place to die. It's just that simple. I am free here."