Photo by George J. Tanber
Letter from Ghana
Embraces Move to West Africa
ACCRA, Ghana – He remembers the day he walked out of Accra’s international airport and into a crush of humanity.
All of them had a single thing in common. They were black. Like him.
“It was,” says American Tony Jones, “the first time in my life I did not feel like a Black man. No one cared about my color.”
And so began an odyssey that eventually brought Tony, 52; his wife Ayo, 46; and their sons, Luke, 13, and Leo, 7, from a comfortable but troubling life in the U.S. to their West Africa motherland.
They are not alone. Unofficial estimates peg the number of African Americans calling Ghana home at around 3,000, with the majority of them moving here since 2019.
Their reasons vary. Some want to see the Africa of their ancestors – most of whom were sold into slavery. Others want to escape the racism they believe is inherent in American culture. And some believe they can live cheaply in a warm climate and enjoy the Ghanaian experience.
The Joneses, who moved here in 2020, had somewhat similar motives. They also had an advantage. Ayo’s father, a Ghanaian native, retired here after working for years in the U.S. So, they had experienced life in Ghana having visited here on a number of occasions.
The Joneses are telling me their story as we sit in the living room of a four-bedroom, leased home they have turned into a rental property for visitors to Accra, the capital. The spacious, immaculate home, located in an affluent, northern suburb, is elegantly furnished, inviting and comfortable.
“It’s all Tony,” says Ayo.
She’s a stunning woman with a warm, infectious smile. It’s clear she thinks before she speaks. The result is a confident, intelligent discourse on the topic at hand. I’m not surprised when I later find out she’s a teacher.
With a thick neck, graying goatee and shaved head, Tony looks like a brawler. He’s nothing of the sort. A former cop, his intelligence comes from the street rather than the classroom. Like his wife, he’s friendly and straight talking, perhaps attributed in part to their Midwestern roots.
Ayo grew up in Madison, Wis. Her Ghanaian father, Dr. Olu Akinshemoyin, a chiropractor, had met her mother, who is White, while in school there in the 60's. They had four children.
After graduating from the University of Wisconsin, Ayo found a job as a special education teacher in Milwaukee, Tony’s home town. They met in 2005. By then, Tony, the grandson of Louisiana sharecroppers with some Ghanaian roots, had moved on from law enforcement and into home construction after giving real estate a shot. They moved to Houston in 2007 and married the following year.
Ayo’s father, divorced from her mother, sold his practice and returned in 2000 to Ghana, where he remarried and fathered two children. The Ghana part always had been his plan as he could not tolerate Wisconsin winters and the tug of his homeland remained strong.
Her father’s return to Ghana sent Ayo there to visit several times. While there, she felt the initial pull of something more permanent. But she and Tony were just beginning their family and she knew her husband had zero interest in Africa.
“He never considered coming here in those days,” she says.
Tony explains: “I had those typical, ignorant thoughts about Africa being underdeveloped and people living in the bush.”
First trip to Ghana
In summer 2016, the year after Leo was born, Ayo’s father asked the family to visit him so he could see his new grandson. Tony agreed to join Ayo and the boys. They negotiated the trip’s length.
“She wanted to come for six weeks,” says Tony. “I said two. We settled on three.”
It only took one day after his experience of walking out of the airport and into a world of blackness for Tony to alter his opinion.
“I was like - wow! - I wished we had booked for six weeks. Because I realized there was so much here, I couldn’t take it all in in 3 weeks.”
Three years later, the family returned to Ghana. This time the script was different. Tony stayed for eight weeks, while Ayo left after six for her teaching job in Houston.
I ask Tony: “What changed?”
“In the U.S.,” he says, “all eyes are on me. Here, I’m just accepted as a man, not a Black man that carries himself well. I couldn’t get enough of that feeling.”
By then, the family was seriously considering moving to Ghana. Ayo’s father’s health was declining, and she wanted her children and her to spend more time with him as well as learn about their heritage.
Tony also was motivated to move but for a different reason.
“I had a calling to get out of the States,” he says. “I needed something better than what I had.”
The calling to leave was motivated by two events.
In 2017, the family had just moved into an upscale suburban Houston neighborhood with few minorities when Hurricane Harvey struck. Their home quickly flooded and the family, which included her visiting father, his children and Ayo’s brother, had to flee. It was almost midnight. Amid the raging storm, they knocked on one neighbor’s door and then another. Lights went on. Then off. Finally, at the third house, they were given shelter but had to remain in the garage. It was only when their hosts discovered Ayo was a teacher in the local school system that they were allowed into the house.
The following year, Tony was leaving one of his construction projects – also in a toney development – when he was pulled over by police. As a former cop he knew he had done nothing wrong and that all his papers were in order, which he told the officer. That earned him a trip to jail. In reviewing the video footage, it was clear Tony had been profiled. He filed a complaint. The case disappeared.
Tony: “That incident reminded me that at any time I could be treated like some sort of lower human life form all because of my dark skin. I realized that…if that’s something I need to worry about then I need to be in a place where my skin color is not going to be an issue.”
Ayo: “The bigger piece of it is, there are things happening in your life and you say, ‘Oh, that’s not right.’ But you’re living it. And accepting it as if there’s no alternative. And you just accept it. And accept it.”
The Joneses, delayed a year because of the pandemic, left for Ghana in September 2020.
Ayo had prepared, career-wise, in advance for the move. She became a teacher trainer, which pays more and allows her to work virtually all over the U.S. from Ghana.
Initially, Tony considered continuing his construction career. But after examining a few job sites he quickly realized the standards here were different and subpar.
As they prepared to leave Houston the Joneses’ friends expressed concern about their well-being.
“You should have seen the look on their faces,” Ayo recalls. “It was like we were about to die.”
Tony and Ayo decided to create a YouTube channel to document their experience. They called it “Expat Life Ghana.” Over time, as they began hearing from others wanting to move here, they shifted some of their videos to self-help themes, such as “Renting a House in Ghana,” “Healthcare in Ghana” and “Jobs in Ghana.” Initially, they had no intention of earning income from their channel. But as their subscriptions grew – they’re at over 50,000 today – they attracted advertisers.
Meanwhile, Tony started getting phone calls from people traveling to Ghana asking about rides into town from the airport.
“I told them I’d pick them up if they needed help.”
He declined to charge them. Soon it got so busy he recruited a friend to join him.
His passengers began asking about traveling around Ghana. Tony bought a van and jumped into the tour business.
“I’m the driver,” he says, “but not the guide.”
The final piece in Tony’s new venture is the vacation rental I’m visiting. Overall, the income is OK but coupled with Ayo’s work they’re getting by just fine.
Work aside, the Joneses appear to have adjusted well to their new home. Ayo had hoped to spend more time with her father but he died shortly after their arrival. She remains close to his widow and her two, young step-siblings.
Luke, with an engaging personality, is doing well. Leo is struggling a bit. He missed his initial years of schooling because of the pandemic so he lacks his brother’s social skills. Initially, Ayo homeschooled her boys. That proved difficult so they now have their own tutor.
Unlike in the U.S., where the Joneses would never consider letting their boys walk anywhere by themselves, Ayo has no problem sending Leo down the street to the neighborhood store for a carton of milk.
“It’s very safe here,” she says.
On the downside, the Ghanaian bureaucracy, the accepted prevalence of bribes for services, and the high cost of amenities taken for granted in the U.S. present unexpected challenges to the unanointed.
Through their interaction with African Americans – and others – who have moved here, the Joneses have witnessed a number of departures by those who couldn’t hack it.
As a fair warning to the unprepared, one of their YouTube videos is titled “Don’t Move to Ghana.”
Says Tony: “The biggest issue is financial because if you try and live here like you do in the States you’ll go broke really fast.”
As for the family's future here, the initial plan was to stay for a few years and return to the U.S. That idea appears to be on hold.
Tony’s best friends here are Ghanaian men who lived in the U.S. and returned home – so their mentalities are more closely aligned.
“For now, I’m just going to enjoy this. I’m very comfortable here.”
Ayo’s answer is more complex, but equally clear. When she and her sons visited her mother in suburban Madison, they went from a Black culture to one that is almost 100 percent White.
“I felt like we were under a microscope everywhere we went. I had to be a good Black.”
After I left Tony and Ayo I tried to relate to their lives and that of other African Americans moving here for similar reasons. It was a futile exercise. Although I’m an Arab-American and have lived in my grandmother’s village in Lebanon, it’s not an apt comparison.
I’ll leave it to John Howard Griffin to explain. A white Texan, he changed his skin color to black in 1959 and moved to New Orleans. He later chronicled the experience in “Black Like Me.”
“When all the talk, all the propaganda has been cut away, the criterion is nothing but the color of skin. My experience proved that. They judged me by no quality. My skin was dark.”
Editor’s note: Fifth in a series of articles from a reporting trip to Ghana Sept. 15-22, 2022
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