Musings From Abroad: No Turning Back?

As mentioned in my first installment of Musings from Abroad: Africans and Faith, I recently visited Nigeria, my country of birth. I realized some things that may rock the average African parent’s mind. The chasm between the African parent that emigrates to America and their children they bring is far too great. When I returned home to America, the question of whether I’d return to Nigeria to visit, or even to live, kept being asked by different people. At first I thought, they’re just asking me to make conversation. But at some point, I realized, no, ‘they’re asking because they want to know if my generation (African kids raised abroad) would ever want to return to their country of origin. It seemed to me there was a concern from Nigerian immigrant parents about their heritage; they’re almost afraid that “these children” will not go back to Nigeria.

I realized there is a major disconnect between how African immigrant parents see their purpose of emigrating and how first generation African kids see their presence in a “foreign land”.  Of course, this may not be the case for every African kid that comes to America at a young age with their parents. Perhaps there are parents out there that were wise enough to lay the plan out for their children before leaving Africa: ‘We are going to America so you can get as many degrees as you can and make as much money as you can so you can bring us back to Africa to build us as many houses and buy as many cars as you can and so we can show you off to our friends and family and make them feel bad in comparison to us.’ I mean, who knows??! Maybe some kids are aware of this plan and are like, ‘Copy. It’s a go!’ But the majority of African children that came/come to America at a young age have no plans to return to Africa. And some even ask, ‘why should I? What’s there for me?’ So, is the fear of African parents warranted? Perhaps, but it begs the question, why emigrate in the first place??

The Kennedys

On my way back from Nigeria, I watched a documentary that covered the life and trials of the Kennedy family. Amazingly, it opened my eyes to seeing a stark contrast to the life of the Nigerian (more generally, African) immigrant. The documentary discussed the first generation of the Kennedys to migrate to America from Ireland. It highlighted how the Kennedy patriarch came to America with the intention of leaving “the old country” behind for good and creating a new life for himself and his family in America. He had no intentions of returning to Ireland. He left having the mindset to come to America and have his family become prosperous and influential in America. He even had it in mind for his family to become a part of the political scheme in America. And in fact, he did not return to the old country. As we know, the Kennedys are well revered in American culture for their dedication to public service but also for their influence and ever proliferating family.

I realized that perhaps cutting those connections to the old country is the key to succeeding for the immigrant in America. But there is no old country for Africans; it’s called “back home”. I look at so many Nigerians around me and how they are living, or at least attempting to live, in two countries at the same time, but can barely afford to comfortably live in one or the other. I see Nigerians who spend hours on the phone talking with people “back home”. All that comes out of it are stories of people who are suffering and unable to take care of themselves in some village somewhere and how money is needed to care of some distant relative or stories of how the richest guy in the town has built his second home for his second wife while the person in America is managing their two-bedroom apartment. All this does is one of two things:

  1. It will make the one in America feel sad, or even guilty, and they will feel they have an obligation to care for those they have left behind. This then creates dependence on the one in America, thereby creating more stress and more responsibilities that are miles and miles away.
  2. It will make the one in America feel like they have something to prove to those they have left behind and cause them to compete by maintaining a pretentious lifestyle back there by building houses or starting businesses there or visiting frequently, while also having to maintain the lifestyle they created for themselves in America.

These situations work to drain the Nigerian-American of their energy and resources and removes their attention from building a stable life here in America. By splitting their attention between two countries they are playing a never-ending game of catch-up, where they are trying to catch up with the American way but also catch-up to a nation they are absent from. It won’t work in their favor. It doesn’t work!

Often immigrants are behind the curve when they emigrate to America because, as most immigrants now know, America will level you and strip you of whatever title or degree it is you thought was going to open amazing doors for you, and I dare say, especially if you are black and have an accent. It’s hard enough for American college students who were brought up in America to find jobs, talk less of immigrants who are not accustomed to the culture and ways of America. The learning curve is quite big, especially for black immigrants. I am convinced that the American dream is not meant for the immigrant, and if it was, it was meant to be attained through blood, sweat, and tears. Why do I say that? The average American brought up in America is generally familiar with the idea that the best time to invest in a house is between the ages of 27 to 37. That average American is also aware of about how long it would take to pay off the house. That average American may also have parents who have a house of their own and may not even be interested in purchasing a house, or that average American has parents that are willing AND able to gift a house to them or give them money towards purchasing the house. The average American also plans for retirement or inherits money from someone as a wedding or graduation gift or from a will.

The Story of African

To make my point a little more potent, let’s look at the story of the average African that comes to America. His name is…well, African. African emigrates to America, say, at the age of 30. African then has to attend college or get a GED or start off his working years in America. African is already behind the curve mentioned above. It is very likely African doesn’t know about all of those aforementioned things that the average American knows about. African spends the first seven years settling in America with his academics and work. By then he is 37. Before finishing school, he decided he had to get married because his parents were pressuring him, and all his friends here and back home were married. So, he marries a girl from Africa. He has to bring her to America. He pays for the process. African has to help the girl transition to America with her education,   career, and finances.

At the same time, African decides he wants to look into buying a house because well, all his mates back home and in America are getting houses and he too wants something to show for his coming to America. African may not thoroughly do research into understanding all that goes into buying a house though. African just started working a job that provides good retirement benefits and social security at age 37. But to African’s detriment, he has not put together a plan for retirement. He doesn’t even know there’s such a thing as a retirement plan, nor does he think there’s a need for that. African works paycheck to paycheck at two jobs.

Let’s say by the time he feels ready to purchase a house he is 42. African buys the house without realizing he will be paying for the house for about 20-30 years, putting him at around 62 or 72 by the time he completes the payments…if he does complete the payments. African purchases the house of his dreams, one that rivals any his friends own back home. He knows, because they share photos on WhatsApp.  But five years into living in the house, African realizes that he’s in over his head. His parents, siblings, and cousins back home ask him for money every other month. As a good son and brother, he sends them $1,000 when they ask. His water and electricity bills are through the roof. His Mercedes and BMW car notes are pricey. His children’s private school is expensive and so is his fancy wife’s taste in fashion.

But his people back home are telling him he needs to build a house in Africa. So, he spends a few years sending money back home to build a house in his father’s village. Upon its completion, his cousins move into the house. He travels to see it and stays there for one week. This was the first time he’d been back home. While there, he sees the three houses his friends have built: one for their mother in her village, one for their father in his village, and one for themselves in the city. He’s impressed. Even challenged. African returns to America, where he lives, and tells his wife of all he saw. She then says she too must build a house for her parents. So, she too sends money to her family to build their homes, in addition to the money they need every other month. They also start two more projects building a business and a house in the city that will be lived in and operated by African’s step cousin-in-law’s son.

At 58, African finally visits a financial advisor and comes to the sad reality that if he were to keep his house and retire at 65, he would not be able to afford the mortgage payments and would be left with no money to pass on to his children. African realizes in trying to meet his needs here and back home, he has lost a great chunk of money that he could have saved towards retirement. He realizes he cannot pay for all four of the quadruplet’s college education. Or maybe he can, at the expense of something else. And so, he and his wife work tirelessly to get their children through college, keep up with their bills, send money to Africa, build houses in Africa that they only sleep in for three weeks out of the year, and keep up appearances here in America at the lavish African parties they attend every month. But he thinks to himself, ‘that’s okay, I’ll work until I’m 80. Better yet, my children, 1st generation quadruplets, will take care of me. After all, I paid for them to go to college and it is now time for them to take care of me. Even better, maybe I’ll do both!’

The children, who must become a doctor, lawyer, engineer, or pilot, by cultural right, spend years in school and are in debt because they could not get as many scholarships as their 1st generation peers (apparently, they had two heads). The children eventually become what they become but must take care of their parents. They pick up from where their parents left off because that is what every good African kid does. And so, the cycle continues. Now imagine this story for someone who comes to America at 35, 40, 45, 50, or even 55! Just imagine how stressful that would be! (I have no idea how to explain the “two heads” thing that Nigerian parents say, but I hope this meme helps! lol.)


Solution

Some may say, ‘Hold on there, little Americanized girl. That’s a harsh thing to say! That’s an over exaggeration. Does it mean we should forget our family back home?’ What I am saying is, pick a home! The way to avoid reliving this Story of African is to think critically about the purpose of emigrating. And for those who have already emigrated, it is not too late to reflect on this. In fact, it may be necessary to reconsider some lifestyle decisions. Think about the effect emigrating will have (has) on your immediate family and the children you will have (already have). Think about where you want to be decades after you’ve emigrated. Leaving the struggle of one country just to struggle even more in another country is not a sign of progress; it’s a sign of lack of planning. It is best for immigrants to concentrate their attention, energy, and resources on stabilizing themselves in their new country before engaging with people in the old country that may require their attention, energy, and resources. Two people struggling doesn’t make sense. Two people struggling thousands of miles away makes even less sense. If Africans can spend their time and attention on where they presently live and become stable in their finances and careers, then it would make perfect sense to look back to the old country and offer a helping hand, knowing that the helping hand does not also need a helping hand.

As for us first-generation Africans, there’s hope for us yet. We love our African heritage and yearn to see our countries be better. Some (probably most) of us just don’t seek to do so by repeating the mistakes of our parents. Perhaps our influences and service as change agents will have to come from abroad rather than from within our African countries. That is still yet to be determined, as there are more articles featuring African entrepreneurs in Africa than there are about Africans outside of Africa. Still, there is evidence of a positive side to our being away from home. For more information on this, check out the resources and articles below.

Africa’s Secret Weapon: The Diaspora
The Africa-America Institute
Cultural Diplomacy in Africa
Why ‘Brain Drain’ Can Actually Benefit African Countries
Benefiting from Africa’s Brain Migration

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5 thoughts on “Musings From Abroad: No Turning Back?

  1. Joanne says:

    You speak the truth. I had never thought of it in this way before. What you say makes absolute sense. There is no logical reason for trying to keep up with both the Joneses and the Aderemis.

    Like

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