Gateway to West Africa ? by Stacey Barney

Early in 2001 Ghana's government was poised to pass new legislation that would grant Ghanaian's living abroad dual citizenship that included the right to vote. This was a move designed to woo the skill, talent, education, and money of many of Ghana's expatriates back to the country in efforts to help aid the waning economy. Now, with the help of bi-partisan support, Ghana's Parliament moved a step closer to passing the new Citizenship Bill with an additional provision that would allow Africans within the Diaspora "the right to abode" - the very same right to abode promised to African Americans by former Ghanaian President Jerry Rawlings in 1999 during a visit to the United States.

For Ghana the right to abode clearly represents a hoped for boost to the economy with American dollars, but for African Americans, and other members of the African Diaspora, this "right to abode" would undoubtedly mean the ability to live and work in Ghana without having to renew costly and inconvenient visas and work permits; although the right to participate in politics and the right to vote seem to be altogether another matter. But certainly for the thousand or so African Americans already living in Ghana this "right to abode" or "right to return," as Ghana's Minority House Leader, Mr. J.H. Mensah, calls it, is a welcome step in the direction of full-fledged citizenship, and a de facto dual citizenship status for those who may not be verifiably Ghanaian, but are certainly visibly of African descent.

If passed, Ghana would be the first and only African nation to provide the right to return to Africans in the Diaspora. Furthermore, if passed this could also be a significant first step in fulfilling W.E.B. Dubois's dream of true Pan-Africanism, with Ghana, the very country in which Dubois spent the last years of his life, leading the way. It could mean this if Ghanaians and African Americans could find a way to accept one another as brother and sister related first and foremost by the shared color of skin, and it could mean this if, and only if, African Americans are truly ready to reconnect with their point of origin.

In addition to approximately 1,000 African Americans currently living and working in Ghana's capitol city of Accra, the number of African American visitors to Ghana is close to 10,000 each year. Furthermore, in comparison to other African nations, Ghana attracts far more African Americans than any other nation on the continent. This is due primarily to mild weather, beaches, a low cost of living, and the sense that Ghana could be a spiritual homeland for many African Americans.

However, Ghana also has at least one very big detracting attribute - an apparent intolerance for African Americans. While it is true that many African Americans have had much success in making a home of Ghana via fulfilling employment or entrepreneurship opportunities, and especially marriage to Ghanaian citizens (as is the case in the U.S. for many Africans living and working here), and many more describe their visits to Ghana as a reconnection to the mother land, there are others who have been deterred by a Ghanaian regard for African Americans as obruni, the Twi word for White or foreigner, as well as societal treatment that includes such norms as the denial of government jobs, the right to vote, and higher costs for hospital visits.

These conditions make some African Americans, who go to Ghana seeking the spiritual home that cannot be attained in the United States, feel as little more than an American dollar sign.
This is a depiction of Ghanaian attitudes towards African Americans that the Ghanaian government and the African American Association of Ghana (AAAG) vehemently reject.

Wall Street Journal reporter G. Pascal Zachary experienced this first-hand in regards to his 2001 article titled, "Tangled Roots, for African-Americans in Ghana, the Grass Isn't Always Greener." In this article Zachary spoke of the mistreatment African Americans living in Ghana receive at the hands of Ghanaian citizens. The AAAG condemned the article as derogatory, and accused Zachary of threatening, not only a 42-year relationship between Ghana and African Americans, but also tourist revenue (hmm.), and at the worst possible time - a time when many African American tourists were preparing to attend the Pan-African Festival.

"Americans are terrified by anything that takes their comfort away," said Mr. Akbar Muhammed, spokesperson for the AAAG. Muhammed, according to the Ghanaian News Agency (GNA), also asserted, "the...reason for the article was to discourage...40 million African Americans...[from shifting] a large chunk of their over 500 billion dollar annual investments in the U.S. to Africa."

But, despite the AAAG's denial of the claims Zachary made in his 2001 article or the supposed motivations behind Zachary writing his account of African American experiences in Ghana, it isn't hard to imagine African-Americans feeling unwelcome in an African nation.

Think of the perceptions that many African Americans have of Africans. Think of the ignorance many African Americans still have of the African continent. Think of Eddie Murphy's joke that African's "ride around butt-naked on a zebra." Think of Will Smith's recent statement that he didn't know Africa had beautiful women until he'd gone there. Think of the treatment many Africans receive from African Americans right here in the United States.

Tracie Reddick reported for The Tampa Tribune on the treatment Anthony Eromosele Oigbokie, a Nigerian business owner in Tampa, Florida received at the historically Black college, Tuskegee University in her article "African vs. African-American: A Shared Complexion Does Not Guarantee Racial Solidarity": "Just because African Americans wear Kente cloth does not mean they embrace everything that is African. I caught hell from the frat boys. They were always trying to play with my intelligence. This was [at] a time when folks were shouting, 'Say it loud, I'm Black and I'm proud.'...If they saw me with a girl, they would yell to her, 'What are you doing with that African?'"

Thirty years later, Africans and African Americans still do not form easy bonds or relationships. African American women who marry African men often find they have difficulty contending with strict patriarchal expectations of womanhood, while Africans find themselves in awe of African Americans who have the tendency to blame the White man for everything, and at the same time do not take advantage of the opportunities the United States has to offer.

Kofi Glover, a native of Ghana and a political science professor at the University of South Florida told Reddick, "Whether we like it or not, Africans and African Americans have two very different and very distinct cultures."

Glover goes on to describe slavery as a divisive bond between Ghanaians and African Americans that could perhaps prohibit African Americans from ever establishing a permanent homestead in Ghana - right to abode or no right to abode. "[Ghanaians] did not experience White domination like the Africans in Kenya, Zimbabwe, or South Africa. We do not understand the whole concept of slavery, or its effect on the attitude of a lot of African Americans, mainly because we were not exposed to it."

For many African Americans who are still living with the brutal consequences of slavery, this is a hard truth to face - that one who is also Black does not identify with the pain of slavery. Think of the relationship African Americans have with the term Uncle Tom.

The treatment that Zachary speaks of in his article may be uncomfortable - as uncomfortable as any discussion on the psychological bones hanging in one's closets; nevertheless it has brought to the foreground the question of how Africans and African Americans perceive one another - a question the prospect of dual citizenship exacerbates. In the best circumstances, Africans and African Americans see one another as family, an extension of the other. However, the experiences of Oigbokie and African Americans who have lived in Ghana only to return to the U.S. disillusioned suggest that this is not always the case, nor does everyone agree it should be.

Glover says the perceptions that Africans and African Americans hold of one another stem from "all the negative things we've been taught about each other. A lot of African Americans were taught that Africa was nothing more than just a primitive, backward jungle from whence they came, [while Ghanaian] perceptions of African Americans is that they are a race of people who carry guns and are very violent."

What if anything can help Africans and African Americans traverse this rift, making Ghana's right to return more than a token reconciliation? Perhaps remembering that we are, in fact, first and foremost bound by skin color. The differences between Africans and African Americans as observed by Omali Yeshitela, former president of St. Petersburg's National People's Democratic Uhuru Movement, are false. She says, "Most of the friction between African people centers around the class issue. I don't like the artificial separations that won't allow the two of us to get together. It is not in our best interest to always be at each other's throat."

But what is in our best interest? Unlearning damaging ideas about ourselves, and those who look like us? Yes. Embracing the differences in faith of a larger similarity? Yes. Ghanaian citizenship? Are we even ready for the right to return? Kente cloth and Kwanza is one thing, but moving to another continent is quite another.

Ghanaian citizenship for Americanized Africans is a frightening prospect. To embrace Ghanaian citizenship requires African Americans to embrace the paradox of both what is foreign and what is not. Africans are supposed to be those backwards, Black jungle bunnies-everything that White society has told us that we are, and everything that we have told White society we are not. How do we put aside this fear and ignorance in order to know ourselves?

How do Ghanaians put aside all that they know of us - guns, drugs, violence, and money to burn - to embrace brethren that could well be family?

It seems clear that in order for Ghana's Citizenship Bill to have the effects W.E.B. Dubois might have liked to see, false sensibilities need to be disarmed. Furthermore, along with the realization of citizenship - a right to return, there must be a realization that the problems of Black peoples are the problems of all Black peoples. A realization wherein we refuse to see them as those foreign Africans and they refuse to see us as those foreign Americans. Until then, dual citizenship represents just two words put together to make it easier on visitors to Ghana who have traditionally had to spend too much time filling out paperwork for visas and work permits. Words that for Ghana lend a needed boost to the economy of a country whose people welcome the obruni dollars if not the obruni themselves.

That's a sad reason to return home.

Stacey Barney is an editorial page writer for Ms Barney can be reached via e-mail at

Stacey Barney

Tuesday, March 26, 2002