Have you ever felt that returning Ghanaian diasporans seem fake?
They come from their great jobs or excellent schools, handling the latest and most expensive gadgets, speaking wonderful English with such exquisite accents, drinking bottled water instead of sachet water and commuting in costlier taxis instead of our beloved trotros. Those who come down to Ghana for a short visit may have the opportunity to beat a local drum at a festival, dance to highlife music at expensive restaurants or hotels, eat “our” food and exclaim at its spice, wear kente and speak a few words of any of the local languages and suddenly proclaim their Africanness or Ghanaianness, confident they have a clue what Africa is about. Those who decide to stay for longer or even relocate back to Ghana talk with much fervor about the opportunities Ghana provides. They talk passionately about wanting to help develop Ghana, empower Ghanaians and about how Ghana offers much more freedom to pursue one’s dreams. It seems easy for them to talk about opportunities and investments, doesn’t it, especially when they do not exactly return as paupers and they usually manage to snag the best jobs around when they return.
Have you ever asked what Ghanaian diasporans know of the other part of being Ghanaian?
What do they know of being passed around numerous relatives because one’s parents are so poor or hawking sachet water on busy streets on hot, sunny days but forbidden from satisfying one’s thirst? What did they know of sharing a public toilet with a community of hundreds, fighting tooth and nail to board the last trotro available to your destination, going late to school because you had to help your parents out in the farm in the morning first or ending your academic pursuits prematurely because you can’t afford a few hundred Ghana cedis? I used to have these thoughts too. I have felt that they could never understand what it meant to be truly African and their attempts to try to feel African were inadequate and insincere. I was smugly content in my own Africanness. That was until a very good friend of mine unwittingly cast some of those assertions I had about diasporans back at me.
It started unremarkably when we were having a discussion about EL, Ghana’s artiste of the year. My friend mentioned that he didn’t like EL because he felt EL was betraying his roots. When we further discussed this, he mentioned that EL, who’s originally from the Ewe tribe in Ghana, was betraying his roots by singing and rapping mostly in Ga, the language of the Ga tribe of Ghana, never mind the fact that the title of his latest album, ELOM, must have been in recognition of his Ewe roots (Elom is an Ewe name). I was flummoxed at this reasoning especially as EL apparently grew up in Ga land, it wasn’t unreasonable to expect that he must have been influenced by the Ga community he grew up in rather than the Ewe culture he belonged to by birth. My friend was ready with a rebuttal however, claiming that EL couldn’t use his upbringing as an excuse, further claiming that a true Ewe would make the effort to learn his language, his roots and represent them.
This made me uncomfortable. While the conversation was about EL, some of the circumstances also apply to me. My parents are Ewes from two different countries but I was born in a Yoruba state in Nigeria. I had most of my education in Hausa territory, another of the tribes in Nigeria and I understand Twi (a different Ghanaian language to Ewe and Ga) and Yoruba, but just a smattering of Ewe. I know my Nigerian history but very little about my Ghanaian history and almost nothing about my “Ewe roots”. These do not stop me however from revelling in my Eweness or Ghanaianness. Personally, I take all these – Ghanaian, Nigerian, Ewe, Ga, Hausa etc – as just labels which I dislike and which we can definitely do without. We have more in common with each other, whether Ga or Yoruba, than differences. While I find tribal disagreements and negative stereotypes as baseless nonsense, I have learned to be proud of being an Ewe. My favorite of my myriad English, Christian, Nigerian, Muslim and Ghanaian names is my Ewe name, Senam, and I always introduce myself informally to everyone as Senam. I would probably appreciate my roots better if I knew the culture, the language and its history, but I do not feel less Ewe than my friend just as I wouldn’t feel less Nigerian or Togolese than anybody who was born and bred in those countries. It was after this that my hypocrisy became clear to me. I felt alright in claiming to be Ghanaian or Ewe when I barely had any idea about most of what it truly meant but I was equally hostile, in thoughts at least, to diasporans who tried to reconnect with their Ghanaian roots. Further self reflection and a particularly telling event helped me reconsider my earlier reasoning, especially when it tackled some of the advantages that I felt returning diasporans had on local residents. The panelists didn’t try to deny these advantages, instead, they offered different perspectives.
The event, Ahaspora vs Diaspora, one of a series of week-long programs organised by TedxAccra, was a discussion among panelists and the audience about the different perspectives local residents and returnees had about each other. Kobina Aidoo, a panelist at the program and an ‘Aha’sporan – a term used to refer to Ghanaians who were born or resided abroad but have resettled in Ghana – made a telling contribution when he pointed out the benefits ‘Ahas’ – local residents – have of building friendships and networks. He especially pointed out the importance of senior high schools in the socialization process and its importance in creating lifelong partnerships (Ghanaians are CRAZY about their Senior High Schools). Another significant advantage is a knowledge of the system. The Ghanaian system is flawed: rules are lax, corruption is rife and nothing – or everything, depending on which side of the glass you are looking at – seems to work in Ghana. Then again, who knows the system and is better able to leverage it than local Ghanaians? Perhaps most important of all is the fact that local Ghanaians, by virtue of their proximity to the actual problems Ghana and Ghanaians face are able to see and seize the opportunity to proffer solutions to these problems and by extension, develop themselves and the nation. Most importantly, however, the panelists, in their different ways, helped me to understand that diasporans or returnees can not change the circumstances they were born or bred in. In fact, contrary to popular belief, they didn’t all grow up in rosy surroundings. Some faced prejudice and racism for being Ghanaian, for being black. That is a reasoning I can understand. In Nigeria, I was made, at times, to feel too Ghanaian to be Nigerian and sometimes here in Ghana, I am made to feel like I’m too Nigerian to be Ghanaian. I can understand the search for an identity or for roots – I am still searching for mine – and I also understand better that in trying to reconnect with one’s roots, one may not go through the same processes or circumstances that locals may have gone through. It doesn’t make my experiences less real or original; the paths we take may be different but I can not honestly claim that my feeling of Africanness or Ghanaianness is necessarily greater than someone else’s because of our different methods of experiencing Africa. In this my opinion, the average Ghanaian is uncomfortable around the average diasporan. It manifests itself in an unnatural meekness, undue deference to diasporans and the feeling that anything foreign is better. Maybe, looking at them as fake and their actions as contrived is an easier way of dealing with that discomfort. The reality is that whether we are ‘aha’ or ‘sporan’, we all have sets of circumstances we all need to make the best of. It would be naïve to deny the benefits that come with being a diasporan or an ahasporan but we must also recognize that being a local resident is a unique experience that has its own advantages. Most importantly however, we all need to realise that we are not more African, Ghanaian or Ewe than others. Prejudice by one people against another is probably the cause of some of the biggest disagreements and wars this world has experienced. ~ Senam