Blaxit: Tired of racism, Black Americans try life in Africa

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*A naming ceremony organized by Black & Abroad in Yamoransa, Ghana, in 2019. Courtesy of Black & Abroad.

Colette Coleman

Jes’ka Washington lives in a six-bedroom house on a hill with avocado trees and a spectacular view, not far from the rabbit farm she runs. For less than $50,000, Shoshana Kirya-Ziraba and her husband built a four-bedroom, two-bathroom house on family farmland with goats, turkeys and about 1,000 chickens. Mark and Marlene Bradley now call themselves islanders and the owners of three homes cooled by ocean breezes.

All of them are Black Americans who found their new homes in Africa. They are enjoying the substantially lower cost of living and, more important, they said, the absence of the racism and discrimination they experienced in the United States.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the racial reckoning in the wake of the murder of George Floyd led some Black Americans to seek a different way of life abroad. It’s a movement that some are calling Blaxit.

Those moving to Africa are also looking for an ancestral connection. Their migration is less about money and more about acceptance, a path that many intellectuals and artists have taken before.

Today, a new life in Africa is open to people of varied professions who can work remotely. Immigration has been fueled by vocal proponents on social media and by government programs like Sierra Leone’s path to citizenship and Ghana’s Beyond the Return campaign. According to the Diaspora Affairs Office of Ghana, at least 1,500 African Americans moved to the country between 2019 and 2023. Despite the potential concerns for newcomers — including a wave of extreme anti-LGBTQ policies across the continent — Black Americans are still making the trip.

Washington, 46, of Houston, relocated to Rwanda in 2020. Kirya-Ziraba, 40, moved to Uganda from Texas in 2021. The Bradleys, who are in their 60s, settled in Zanzibar in 2022.

Ashley Cleveland, 39, a mother of two who runs a company that helps foreigners invest in and grow their businesses in Africa, relocated from Atlanta to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in 2020 and is now based in South Africa. She said she appreciates that in much of Africa, race is “an abstract concept.”

“Seeing Black African people on the money, on the billboards, you immediately eliminate your Blackness,” she said. She welcomed this change for her children, who were 9 and 2 when they left the United States. Her older daughter, whose skin tone is deep brown, was no longer “bullied because of her complexion.”

‘We’re at Home’

The Exodus Club has been helping people in the African diaspora move to the continent since 2017. R.J. Mahdi, 38, a consultant for the group, moved from Ohio to Senegal 10 years ago.

Mahdi said he had seen an increase in the number of Black Americans relocating to Africa in the past several years.

“There are 10 times as many coming now as there were five or six years ago,” he said. By his estimate, demand for the Exodus Club’s services has grown at least 20% every year since its founding, when it had about 30 clients.

Becoming a “repat” felt empowering to Mahdi as a Black Muslim, he said. In the United States, about 14% of the population is Black, and just 2% of Black Americans are Muslim. In Senegal, however, nearly everyone is Black and Muslim.

“For more reasons than one, we’re at home,” he said.

Kirya-Ziraba, who is Jewish, said that when she moved to Uganda to join her husband, Israel Kirya, she went from being “a minority within a minority” to being surrounded by those who share her race and faith. Kirya-Ziraba, who worked for a commercial real estate company in Texas, now runs the Tikvah Chadasha Foundation, a nonprofit supporting Ugandan women and disabled children. She and her husband live in Mbale, a small city that is home to the Abayudaya Jewish community, which has about 2,000 members.

In the United States, Kirya-Ziraba said, her identity came with qualifications: “Other Black people try to qualify my Blackness because I’m Jewish, and other Jews try to qualify my Judaism because I’m Black.”

In Uganda, she no longer faces “a thousand cuts” of racism, she said. For years she had made accommodations, big and small, to try to control other people’s perceptions: smiling to appear nonthreatening, buying nicer clothes to avoid being mistaken for a domestic worker, and straightening her hair to be seen as more professional. She knew she had been acquiescing, but, she said, “I didn’t know the extent until I didn’t have to do any of that.”

Kirya-Ziraba also went from a one-bedroom apartment in the States to a 2-acre family compound in Uganda. Her home is a stone’s throw from the homes of her parents-in-law and her sister-in-law and the large chicken coop. Her in-laws helped her husband build their house.

“It’s just so nice having all of this additional family support,” she said.

Africa isn’t a refuge for all, though. Anti-LGBTQ sentiment is sweeping across the continent. In Uganda, the Anti-Homosexuality Act enacted last year punishes gay sex with life imprisonment and in some cases death. Similar bills have been introduced in other African countries, such as Ghana and Kenya.

Some LGBTQ people interviewed countered that the United States is no safe haven either. They pointed to violence against transgender people, a growing number of anti-LGBTQ bills and the Human Rights Campaign’s declaration of a “state of emergency for LGBTQ+ Americans.” These interviewees said that depending on what a person was looking for, and with discernment, Africa could still be a good option for LGBTQ people.

Davis Mac-Iyalla, 52, an LGBTQ rights activist and the executive director of the Interfaith Diversity Network of West Africa, suggested that instead of deterring immigration, the grim trends could drive it, “if our African brothers and sisters are coming knowing the challenge and want to join us in the struggle.” Just as international volunteers headed to Ukraine to offer support, he imagined, Black Americans might feel called to help in the fight for LGBTQ equality.

Feeling relieved

Many people make the trans-Atlantic exodus to stop fighting. Mark Bradley, 63, who moved with his wife, Marlene, 69, from Los Angeles to Rwanda in 2021 before settling in Zanzibar, said that arriving in Kigali felt like “a load off my shoulders.”

Bradley, who noted that he and two of his four sons had experienced fraught encounters with police in the United States, said he would never forget the “lighthearted feeling” he had when approaching an armed officer in Kigali to ask for directions. The officer greeted him with a smile.

Marlene Bradley also felt relieved and safer in Africa. “You don’t feel like you’re looking over your shoulder,” she said.

The Bradleys, who have retirement visas and live on retirement income, now reside in a new planned community on the island of Zanzibar, about two hours by ferry from Dar es Salaam. Most residents of their development were not born in the country.

The community’s homes range from $70,000 for a 430-square-foot one-bedroom to $750,000 for a 3,000-square-foot oceanfront villa. With the money the Bradleys would have spent on one home in Los Angeles, they were able to buy their three-bedroom, two-bath town house; an investment property; and a home for two of their sons to eventually live in.

Washington is still in awe of her new life in Rwanda. She works as an online teacher with students in South Carolina and has an agricultural visa that allows her to run a rabbit farm near her home outside Kigali.

She shares her six-bedroom house with her 76-year-old mother.

“I just never thought that a single woman with a teaching salary would be able to live in a space like this,” she said.

Her home on 1 acre with avocado trees costs $500 a month and required an initial six-month payment. Stipulations for upfront rental payments of several months, a year or even longer are common.

The move has given Washington more room, physically and emotionally.

“One of the things I wanted to get away from for just a little while was being a Black woman,” she said. The expectation that she be strong — “because in America, Black women are supposed to be strong” — exhausted her. “I just wanted a space to be me.”

While in the United States $500 rent may seem cheap, in Rwanda it is a significant amount. In some cases, the large wealth gap between American immigrants and most Africans leads to friction, but in other cases, locals embrace the infusion of cash. Many governments court the diaspora for this exact purpose.

Justin Ngoga, 39, the founder of Impact Route, a company in Kigali that offers relocation services, said there is little tension between expatriates like Washington and locals. Unlike Portugal and Ghana, where an influx of foreigners drove up costs, Rwanda does not have enough newcomers to produce such a negative economic impact, Ngoga said.

“We are still, I think, at the stage where we need more people to come,” he said. “We need people to come and do active retirement here. We need investors. We need talents.”

Rashad McCrorey, 44, acknowledged that he left his humble beginnings in the Polo Grounds Towers, a New York City public housing complex, far behind when he moved from Harlem to Ghana in 2020.

“Here, we’re rich,” said McCrorey, who published a guidebook for people moving to Africa. He said he tries to give back: He started a scholarship fund and built a soccer field for neighborhood children.

Standing on his balcony in Elmina, Ghana, McCrorey recalled the injustices he said he experienced in New York that spurred him to leave. Top of mind were the frequent stop-and-frisks, he said, which felt like the police groping and violating him and sometimes left him in tears.

“I’d rather have the moral dilemma of being in a higher class in the system of classism, rather than being marginalized in the system of oppression and racism,” he said.

Not for everybody

Some Black Americans who move to Africa never get the resolution they sought. Adwoa Yeboah Asantewaa Davis, 52, a therapist who moved from Washington, D.C., to Accra, Ghana, in 2020, said Black Americans considering the move to escape racism should try therapy first — because the trauma of years of discrimination will not disappear with a change of setting, and may even resurface when they are foreigners in Africa.

“You’re coming here and you’re expecting that everybody’s Black, so I’m going to be OK,” Davis said. “But then you get here and then you’re being ‘othered’” — viewed as different and separate.

The “othering” goes both ways. Some Ghanaians feel discrimination from Black Americans, said Ekua Otoo, 36, a Ghanaian in Accra. Black American communities there can be insular, she said, and their businesses often prefer to hire Black Americans, or Indians and Lebanese, for senior positions, while qualified Ghanaians are excluded or underpaid.

“If you’re leaving the U.S. to come to Ghana thinking about ‘I’m coming to the motherland,’ at least treat us right,” Otoo said.

And then there’s the exodus back to the United States.

Despite big plans for new homes and businesses, many Black Americans who move to Africa do not stay.

Omosede Eholor, 31, moved to Ghana in 2015 after becoming enamored of Accra while studying abroad there. But she decided to leave in 2020 because she felt she was missing out on life back home in New York and the big events of family and friends. And she began to feel that the daily stresses around frequent power outages and cultural differences were changing her for the worse, making her quick to anger.

“How much of yourself are you losing in the process of trying to adapt to a culture?” Eholor said. Ghana was not going to adapt to her.

Erieka Bennett, 73, the founder of the nonprofit Diaspora African Forum, said Black Americans came to Ghana “in droves” in 2020 — and they are still coming. But Bennett, who has lived in Africa for 40 years, said that many Americans are not cut out for life in Africa, and she urged those considering the move to visit first.

“Africa is not for everybody,” she said.

BBC