When Lakeshia Ford decided she was going to pack up her life and her budding career and move from New Jersey to Ghana, her family could not understand why she wanted to make the trek to a country thousands of miles from home. Even more surprising, to some, was Ford’s reason: the shooting death of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. The incident, which set off protests across the United States, was a tipping point for the 30-year-old Ford and her relationship with the country of her birth.
“Mike Brown got shot and it just put this huge distaste in my mouth for, like, the country and the flag and what it means to be American and representing the American flag,” Ford says. “I felt very detached from that identity. I felt very excluded.” While that feeling was certainly shared by many across the country, Ford is part of a small but growing group of black Americans who have become so fed up with racism in the United States that they have decided to move to Africa.
“I remember a moment. I remember sitting on my bed and visualizing like … a transition,” Ford recalls. “You know that image of Mike Brown with the blood, and he was just [lying] there [in the street]? The animation in my mind was like he rose with that blood and turned into water, and I floated back. Well, I didn’t float back, but basically I use that blood in the water to get back to Africa.”
Four years later, Ford sits in a trendy hotel bar in Accra, the capital of Ghana, a small coastal nation in West Africa. As dusk settles, she sips water after a long day of work while other patrons laugh and catch up with friends. A communications professional with a background in finance and international relations, Ford once dreamed of serving as a foreign diplomat, but she soured on the idea of representing the United States abroad. Instead, she came here and set up her own business, Ford Communications, a strategic communications and public relations boutique. Ford found a niche servicing Ghana’s booming tech industry.
The daughter of Jamaican immigrants who moved to the United States in the 1980s, Ford spent her formative years in East Orange, New Jersey. Those years were tough but grounded in the American dream. “I never knew we were poor,” she says. “I had everything that I needed.” She excelled at academics, receiving a bachelor’s degree from Spelman College and a master’s from American University. Internships took her to places like China, South Africa and Ghana, which she first visited in 2008.
“I had the time of my life, and I felt more [at] home here than I ever did in the States and Jamaica,” she recalls. “It was just this really weird internal experience that was just like … peace.” She returned in the summer of 2013, during graduate school, to work for the United Nations information center in Accra, and again in 2014, as a Boren Fellow.
The next year, after her vision following the Michael Brown incident, she decided to try moving to Ghana, despite having no job or prospects lined up — a decision that did not sit well with her family.
“Americans, you know how people think about Africa,” she says. “They think it’s all jungles, people living in trees. It’s so crazy how that narrative has survived.”
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Now, Ford works with firms like the financial tech company Mazzuma, which launched a cryptocurrency to make mobile payments easier, and the data mining company Viotech. She works out of a suburban coworking space, and after waking up at 5 a.m. to pray and meditate, she gets her emails done before driving off to meetings. Sometimes she jumps on a motorbike to avoid the snarl of cars that choke the city.
Ford’s move is part of a larger trend of African-Americans and Ghanaian-Americans moving back to the continent and Ghana specifically. Members of the African-American Association of Ghana estimate that about 5,000 African-Americans are currently living in Accra, a sharp increase from about 1,000 a decade ago. The influx of skilled workers is helping to grow several industries in the country, particularly technology.
Nestled between the Ivory Coast and Togo, Ghana has long been a refuge for African-Americans seeking to escape America’s ugly side. In 1962, poet, novelist and civil rights activist Maya Angelou moved here with her son, Guy. She lived in Accra and worked at the University of Ghana for three years. She found a tight-knit community of other African-Americans who had fled the United States to evade Jim Crow and racism and were drawn to the new nation headed by president Kwame Nkrumah, who was educated in America.
Today, Ghana’s capital is bubbling with energy. It is laid-back yet bursting at the seams. Congestion that would test the most patient person is ever-present, yet the people are friendly and peaceful. The city is a mix of cosmopolitan, with impressive architectural offerings like the National Theater, and developing city, with the hustle and bustle of haphazard urban planning. Above all, as one would expect in Ghana, it is a place where black faces are everywhere. The daredevil weaving in and out of traffic on a motorbike: black. The manager in the bank: black. The celebrity on a billboard, trying to persuade you to try her jollof rice: black.
For people like Ford, that blackness, combined with the energy of a booming economy, makes it an attractive place. The country’s gross domestic product grew by 7.4 percent in the third quarter of 2018, and the World Bank projected that the nation would be one of the fastest growing economies that year.
On the tech side, the information technology sector in Ghana grew by double-digits in 2016, outperforming the economy as a whole, according to the Oxford Business Group. The highest rate of mobile penetration in sub-Saharan Africa, and widely available WiFi, contribute to Accra’s appeal as a destination for tech start-ups, luring both African-Americans and Ghanaian-born people who had previously settled in the United States.
Yaa Cuguano, 36, first arrived in the United States at the age of 14. She recalls landing at Kennedy Airport in frigid December weather, wearing a T-shirt and jeans: “My mom’s uncle met us and gave us these windbreaker jackets. It was snowing, and I went right back inside.”
In 2014, after more than 20 years in America, Cuguano moved back to Ghana. Her parents and siblings still live in the United States, but she had tired of the rat race, the explosion of racial issues and the weather. Though Cuguano is a U.S. citizen, her country of birth would provide the consanguinity she needed.
Cugano works at MPharma, an e-health company co-founded by another returned Ghanaian-American, Gregory Rockson, and backed by Silicon Valley venture capital firms. A 2017 report found that African companies received more than $500 million in venture capital, a 53 percent increase from the previous year.
At MPharma’s bungalow-like offices in a suburb of Accra, a hammock sits in the corner of the front yard, and a Maltese-poodle nips at visitors’ heels. Cuguano, who had lived in Washington, Illinois, California and New York, is serene but pointed when she explains the move. Her long, slender hands gesticulate to emphasize.
“So the moment I decided to move to Ghana, it had to do with the Trayvon Martin verdict. I was very affected by that. I was like, ‘What the hell?’ I just saw that things were happening differently than in the America that I had known.”
She says life here is less materialistic. “I feel at peace here,” she says. In the United States, she laments, people “just keep chasing and keep chasing, chasing, chasing.” In Ghana, “I have a lot of work, but I have a lot of time to just think and just be, you know? The way I live here is just very minimal.”
Another major plus is not being judged by her skin color, as she says she often was in America. She had been a team leader at an educational product firm in New York and has degrees from three universities, but she always felt undermined.
“In America, all the places I worked at, I was always the only black woman in my team,” she says. “In New York, one of the places I worked at, it was a very — I would call it a hostile environment. … It was just very hard to work with them because there always was an objection to everything I said or suggested.”
At MPharma, she is spearheading a product that uses mobile technology to enable patients to access medicine more efficiently. And she doesn’t have to worry about people judging her by her skin color, because most people look like her.
While the gravity of race relations and the pull of a friendlier place have attracted people like Ford and Cuguano, Ghana has embarked on a mission to siphon talented individuals.
Akwasi Akua Ababio, director of diaspora relations for the office of the president, believes the political situation in the West could be a boon for countries like Ghana.
“While it is unfortunate that geopolitics in the West has taken an uncomfortably insular turn, personally I consider it an opportunity to attract the energy, skills, and knowledge of people of African descent to the continent,” he says. “It is time for African nations to put measures in place to attract and sustain people of African descent here on the continent.”
At the beginning of 2019, the Ghanaian government rolled out the red carpet for African-Americans and the diaspora under the banner Year of Return. Throughout the year, there’ll be events marking the abolition of 400 years of the slave trade and encouraging people of African descent from all over the world to come to Ghana to network and invest.
David Hutchful, a software designer and an expert in the Ghanaian tech space, says the industry has grown in the past three decades, attracting highly skilled people and investors. He thinks this development has led to more individuals from the United States moving back.
“When I think about technology in Ghana, when I first came it was very different, but I feel like it is now growing, and we are beginning to carve out an identity for ourselves,” he says.
Hutchful, who has worked in tech in the United States and India, says Ghana’s tech space has grown from one that developed mostly software for government systems to one where a start-up and entrepreneurial ecosystem is thriving. Hutchful was born in Ghana and went to school in Zimbabwe and the United States. He thinks the movement of African-Americans and Ghanaian-Americans back to the country bodes well for the continued growth of the tech industry.
“What Africa really needs now are people called links — people who have legs in both places — because there’s a lot of transfer of skills and knowledge and understanding. If I were to think about African-Americans beginning to redefine kind of a new adventure for themselves, I think them serving [as] that link then would be great,” he says.
Ford says she hopes more Africans in the diaspora move back to the continent, or at least travel there.
“Black people need to come to Africa, even if they are visiting,” she says. “I won’t say everybody needs to move back — I don’t think that is a good solution — but it’s a pilgrimage that every black person needs to have.”