In the twenty-plus years that I have been in the US, one of the most common things I hear among my fellow neo-Africa diasporans is the notion of wanting to move back to Africa. Typically, it is a question of “WHEN”, not “IF”. Most immigrants seem to operate with the assumption that one day, they will be moving back to Africa. I have to say that when I came to this country, this was my mentality as well but as time goes by, the outlook is less clear. As my thinking has evolved, I find there is a high possibility that I may not be moving back to Africa as envisioned. If I do, the idea of moving back will not be a clear-cut process but rather a complicated journey that may find me going back and forth between my adopted home and my country of origin. I am sure I am not the only one who has gone through this evolution of thought. Over the past few years, I am encountering more and more immigrants like me who live somewhat in limbo, torn and uncertain whether they will ever move back to Africa..
Neither Here nor There
Whether we move back or not in itself is not an immediate problem, the issue I find is how the mentality of “moving back” affects the way we establish our lives here and the approach we take in maintaining linkages with our country of origin as transnationals. We end up being neither here nor there. The idea that we will eventually move back is often driven by nostalgia for childhood aspirations but it also reflects a lack of serious consideration about what life might be like twenty or twenty-five years down the road when we retire. Often, we embrace a romanticized vision where we see ourselves as retired in a sunny and warm place, with servants at our disposal and where the cost of living is so low that you can generally get by with just your Social Security check.
Most of us fear ending up in a nursing home. They don’t have nursing homes in Africa because the family takes care of the elderly which we imagine is better than the nightmare of being in a nursing home. There is also the idea that if you can invest back home, you will be able to retire and live large off the revenue from your rental properties. This all sounds good but I don’t find too many examples of people who have successfully made such a transition. There are a few people who’ve moved back and a vast majority of people are still here with no sign that they will be moving back anytime soon.
There are many factors that determine whether someone in Africa sees immigrating to the West as a possibility. A lot of it depends on your socioeconomic status, exposure, and linkages to people and institutions in Western countries. If migrating to settle in the West is a possibility, there are also a variety of factors that determine the pathway you choose in realizing the dream. Most Africans move to the West in search of higher education, others move as a result of forced migration e.g. resettled refugees coming from war-torn countries. A minority of Africans move to take on jobs where demand is high. Still, others move by pure luck if, for example, they were beneficiaries of the green card lottery system in the US. How you move to the West determines how you settle.
While no one knows exactly how the future will play out, reflecting on current trends can give us some indication. Most of us are more established here than we are back in Africa. We’ve integrated into the American society having established a career path, bought homes, and even built a community around us. Most importantly, we have kids who are first-generation Americans and whose allegiance understandably leans entirely towards the country they were born and raised in.
The roots we have established here make it harder for us to resettle in another country even if it is where we were born. I find that my friends in Kenya have moved on and we no longer have as much in common due to the fact that our contexts are different. It would be harder to develop the kind of deep relationships we have in our current community with people with who we’ve barely spent time with for decades. While it may sound good to imagine that we will move back to our tropical refuge in our retirement, chances are the more we are established in the US, the harder it is going to be to live in Africa. Furthermore, the older you get, your ability to deal with major life changes tends to decline. This begs the question, if moving back is not a guarantee, what are the other likely scenarios?
My guess is that most of us will end up going back and forth between Africa and the US when we retire. We may make longer trips to Africa but we cannot afford to not have a home in America. This would mean maintaining two homes which can be expensive. Even this scenario raises a lot of critical issues. For example, what will happen to all the properties you’ve invested in back in Africa? Normally, you’d pass them on to your children but what if the children are not interested in living in Africa? How easy is it going to be to dispose of the properties and repatriate the sales revenue back to the US?.
Health Comes First
Another important factor to consider is access to healthcare. This is one of the most important aspects of retirement. In the US, you’ll have access to Medicare if all else fails. Hopefully, we are healthy and all we need is regular check-ups, but if we have major health issues that need more sophisticated care, we may not be able to rely on the health care one would find in Africa. Perhaps things would have changed by then and healthcare may have improved enough that it is reliable, but that’s a big IF. Even if we spend most of our time in Africa, we will need to come back to the US for medical care. We may be able to stay with our kids or have money to do short-term rentals which can be expensive.
I also imagine our kids would want us around. Families who are there for each other do better. We would definitely want to see our grandchildren as often as possible, which may not be possible if we are living in Africa. Beyond our kids, we would also want to spend time with friends that we’ve made over the years and even with our immigrant circles, not everyone will move back. And this is assuming we can retire and have income security. This may be the case for some but not for all people and there will definitely be people who will need to work or want to work into their 70s and 80s so they have a steady income or just to keep themselves occupied.
Security is another concern. If you move back to Africa, how do you ensure that you are living in a safe neighborhood or that you will be protected from violence and crime? These are some of the reasons that made us move in the first place and unless there is a transformation, insecurity will remain a concern in most African countries. As someone who has lived overseas for a long time, you may be more vulnerable to exhortation. You may not know how to navigate the system e.g. may not be used to paying bribes to secure your rights. You may also find yourself in the crosshairs of dirty politics. It would be hard not to be an active participant in political discourse and that may create enemies who can target you as a newcomer. Your ability to reside may also depend on whether you are a dual citizen. If not, you may need to choose one country as your home and most people I know would not give up their ability to live in the US if they had to make that choice.
So where does this leave us? For me, it means I have to carefully consider what I will need when I am older and make sure I invest wisely. There is no point in building properties in Africa if you will not eventually move back. Managing the properties might just end up being more of a headache than you want to deal with at old age. If the US is my primary home, I definitely should be investing in my retirement here, and the sooner I let go of the illusion of moving back to Africa, the more serious I will be about figuring out what I need to comfortably retire in this country. If we have properties in Africa, we may need to think of a strategic disposal plan. It is not always easy to move money from Africa to America. We may need to discuss these complications with our kids in case they have to help us manage things when we are older. It is important that they understand what investments we have in Africa and have mechanisms to step in our stead when needed. They also need to understand the context and build relationships with people they can rely on to manage properties and other issues back in Africa when they are based in the US. It will help if they understand a bit of the language.
It will be interesting to observe what happens with African immigrant communities from different backgrounds. Some countries have been sending people to the US longer than others e.g. Nigerians and Ghanaians. We should monitor the trends to see what happens with transnational immigrants over time and how they handle their retirement years. For governments that rely on remittances, there is a need to consider how to accommodate transnationals to ensure a win-win, this may require creating certain legal protections and incentives for those investing in Africa but needing to repatriate revenue.
Regardless, this is a conversation we need to be having more. I would be very interested in hearing how other immigrants view this issue. Do you find that the idea of going back to Africa is realistic? Do you have a plan on how you are going to manage your retirement as a transnational? What concerns do you have and what resources do you rely on for guiding your future plans? We welcome your comments and thoughts on this.
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