It’s been a year since I “moved back” to Africa.
I kept telling friends and family that I wanted to leave Washington DC after my fellowship in Tanzania. It felt like the right time to return to the continent I left at 15 to attend boarding school in Wales then college and graduate school in the United States. I had achieved what I had to achieve “abroad” and wanted to “go home.”
Most of my acquaintances, friends and family supported this decision. They helped me identify opportunities and introduced me to people with whom I talked about working in Nigeria or elsewhere on the continent. Some did not. Undeterred, I revised my resume a few times, submitted numerous cover letters, sent multiple networking emails and met some people. I also applied to jobs and internships in the United States “just in case.” Then I took a leap of faith.
Last November, I arrived in Lagos with all my spring and summer clothes but without a job offer. Today I work in Dakar. My 13-month journey as a “returnee” includes many trials and lows to complement all the achievements and highs. I share five things I learned or realized in the process in this post.
5 Things I Have Learned or Realized Since I Returned To Africa
It is home… and it is not
Although we repatriates call our return to the continent a trip home, the cities and countries we find are not always home. Many countries and societies are not what they were 10, 7, 5 or even 2 years ago. Similarly, we are not the same people we were when we left. In Africa I am comfortable primarily because I am part of the majority, not a minority group, here. With that said, I also feel like an outsider in many settings because my life experience in Europe and North America differentiates me from peers who did not leave Africa. I picked up certain behaviors, beliefs, sayings, and understandings on certain topics or situations overseas. Sometimes I even disagree with the views of family members who returned to the continent before me.
Further, while Lagos is “home” today, I was mostly raised in Abidjan, Yaounde and Tunis. My memories of life in Africa include people, places, words and situations that fellow Nigerian returnees cannot relate to. Likewise, some references to life in Nigeria in the late 1990s and early 2000s mean nothing to me. That is why moving to Nigeria presented an opportunity to discover how to make it feel more familiar. I got to know people, cities and cultures that were unfamiliar despite my regular trips to Nigeria over the years.
There is more to learn than teach or do (initially)
I came back with a desire to help make a difference. Career-wise, I want to contribute to Africa’s development and help improve the lives of Africans. I knew, but was quickly reminded, that it will take time to achieve this objective because I have more to learn than teach or do – especially initially. There is more listening and note-taking than loud speaking and opinion-writing to do. The experience, skills and knowledge we returnees acquired overseas are as valuable and important as those of the people we meet who, for all sorts of reasons, did not study or work outside Africa.
The reality that even well-intentioned, hard-working and dedicated people may not achieve 10% of what they plan to do should not escape us either. Besides bureaucracy and inefficiencies, shortages of human resources are hindrances to rapid progress and development in Africa that cannot be addressed simply with goodwill or experience overseas. I have become more humble since I arrived here from DC partly because I learned to accept these realities.
It helps to have clear, realistic reasons and objectives for the return
I believe it helps to have clear and realistic reasons and objectives for a return to Africa – especially when it is a deliberate choice. Besides trying to create impact professionally, I suggest identifying personal objectives to pursue during the transition from life overseas to life on the continent. Mine helped me stay focused and persevere when things were uncertain professionally. Indeed, in addition to career goals, I returned to gain more life and travel experience here. With this objective in mind, I found the fun in unemployment. I learned about myself and my surroundings as I discovered different parts of Lagos, spent time with loved ones, and embraced other interests when I was not worried about improving my resume or acquiring marketable skills.
Living in Africa is stressful, inconvenient, unsafe and expensive (sometimes)
Life here is as stressful, inconvenient, unsafe and expensive as what those who returned before me told me. There are power outages even in upscale neighborhoods. Security can be a concern even during the day, even in gated communities. Good customer service seems to be a foreign concept in many businesses and companies. Besides road traffic, poor infrastructure and recurring shortages, rude and/or incompetent civil servants expect the same treatment as dignitaries. It can take hours to open a bank account or find an ATM with cash in it. Salaries are lower but goods can cost twice as much as their equivalent in Europe or North America. I could go on but I think you get the point: it takes planning, savings, patience and grace to adapt to life in Africa after living abroad.
Adulting in Africa is unlike adulting elsewhere
Returnees often abandon plans to live alone when we decide to return to Africa. We move in with family, friends or strangers because the cost of living in many cities is high (read: ridiculous). The transition from being independent to being dependent on others is necessary to have an acceptable quality of life.
In Lagos I answer questions about my social circle and outings (#NigerianFamiliesBeLike) like a teenager again. In Dakar I worry about having enough cash to pay rent in addition to other expenses. I asked the security guard in my building to help me change the cooking gas cylinder in my kitchen when it ran out as I was making dinner after a long day of fasting. Once I blew the fuses when I turned on the washing machine, water heater, microwave and AC at the same time (#RookieMistake). The task to buy groceries is back on my weekly to-do list. I write it above or below the task to call the taxi driver who helps carry heavy items up to my apartment if I add 500F to his fare. Though I experienced interesting situations in DC as well, I am confident that being an adult in Africa is a different experience.
I do not recommend “moving back” to every African in the diaspora. It is no easy feat and a decision that should not be taken lightly. For some, it turns out to be a mistake. For others, it is a wonderful experience. Personally, I do not regret coming back. I am thankful for the opportunity to live a life I chose where I want to be.
Are you an African in the diaspora considering a return to the continent? What are you most concerned about regarding this move?
Alternatively – Did you return to Africa after living, working or studying abroad for some time? What did you learn since your return?