Are you sure?
That’s the question they ask when you admit that living in the West may not be for you. It’s the question they ask after they’ve assessed that you mean it – you’re done. You’ve bought the ticket, packed your suitcase and put money on a place with an address that’s impossible to find on Google maps.
For every, “Sis, I understand,” and head nod you get affirming your decision to leave, there are those unsure of the move you intend to take and they let it be known. “Ok, James Baldwin. Go be an expat,” or “Africa? Why?” or “You may very well end up in a ditch, and then what?” Their comments sit somewhere between deeply patronizing at worst and mildly bewildering at best. You realize that the best thing to do is to leave unceremoniously and send a WhatsApp message to anyone that cares a few months later saying, “I’m alive.”
When I decided to stay abroad rather than go back to the U.S., there was a lot of doubt expressed on my behalf. But before I get to this point however, I think it’s necessary to take a step back, as I do not want this to read as a story about who’s right and who’s wrong. The topic of doubt and expatriation goes beyond proving a point. For the Black expat, this journey of leaving the West has a significant historical weight that brings no easy answers.
A Complicated Discussion
I’ll never forget a conversation I had with Kufre. We met on a dating app. I saw he had the name of a distant uncle I knew as a kid. I clicked on his profile largely because of our shared connection and the baseball cap he was wearing. We sat at a bar in Downtown Oakland chatting it up. He ordered a beer and me, being the lightweight I am, ordered crème brulee. We were in a heated debate about the misunderstandings rife between people of the African Diaspora and both of us were bent on proving our point. I guess you could call our conversation a lowkey Diaspora war. It certainly felt like there had to be a winner.
I spoke from my experience as someone born in the American South with little understanding of what life in Nigeria was like. Kufre was born in Nigeria, had lived in Holland, and visited his homeland at least twice a year. I had expressed interest in moving to Nigeria and he quickly shot down any suggestion that an American bred girl like me could truly live and find comfort in Naija. Naturally our conversation touched on many complexities within the Black experience.
“When we watch Black people in the U.S. we really don’t get it. From where we sit, we think you all are wasting opportunities,” he said. “Where we live it can be difficult to find even one opportunity. Nigeria is rough. Do you think you could actually handle sitting with no electricity or running water for a day, or days even? What about dealing with little infrastructure? You couldn’t last there. I was born there, and look at me. My home is now elsewhere.”
We went back and forth for a while because I could not end the conversation with his analysis. It wasn’t wrong, but I wanted us to take an important chat further. He was correct about my naiveté in thinking Nigeria would be any better than America, but now that he was Black in America, I also wanted him to pull his particular blinders off. Our date was around Tamir Rice’s murder. The boy’s death was in the news, on everyone’s social media feed, and if you were Black, you knew. Even if you didn’t want to know, you knew.
“What have you learned about how Blackness works in America?” I asked.
In my catalogue of memories for that night, I remember him ordering another beer while I sat back ready to win this leg of our Diaspora war. He took a sip of his drink and finally admitted that in some way, I wasn’t completely wrong about how I saw things. “Being Black here can be tormenting. But now I’m accustomed to life abroad and there are still more advantages outside of Nigeria. I’ll stay the course.”
We also spoke about our love for Nigeria; his love more tangible, while mine more removed. We spoke happily about Nigeria’s people, her wealth and her immense contributions to the planet and the so-called ‘First World’. We spoke of our nostalgia, everything ranging from our food, our writers, our musicians, our war (namely the Biafran War our parents survived) and how we preserved our identities while living away from the most populous African nation.
When we had met, I was so certain that I’d make it in the U.S. and leaving the country was a hypothetical conversation. Kufre’s doubt did not sting so much because the Bay Area was where I had built a life for seven years. Walking through the park on 10th and MLK to catch the bus, that was me. Going with friends to a food truck festival in Jack London Square, that was me. Ordering McDonald’s from some app to satisfy a 1 AM craving for fries, that was me. What Kufre was describing in Nigeria, a generation that had lived without 24 hour electricity, having to take a bucket bath because the shower wasn’t working (every other day), and having to be even more security conscious than I already was, well… this was not me in the least.
And yet, somehow, I still ended up in Africa…
Choosing to Leave
I had always thought I was coming back, mostly because my friends and family were adamant that I’d be gone for a visit and then get back to the business of American living. I simply wanted to travel to a part of the world I had never really been and it made sense to do it. I had been let go from my job and felt pretty aimless. There’s nothing more interesting than being an aimless Black woman. It opens so much up while simultaneously confusing so many people who expect you to be doing something. It was the first time in my life when I had no plan and I decided to become a human being rather than a human doing.
When I received news that I was accepted for a writing program in Nairobi I jumped at the chance to go. Riding tuk tuks, eating mandazis and picking up Swahili phrases helped me find ease. And when my Google alert pinged to let me know my flight back West was in a few days, I panicked. It was beyond panic. It was indignation. Finally, I had found a level of comfort that had been so difficult to grasp in the West. It wasn’t simply a romanticized bliss of connecting to my roots or finding home. Of course, these aspects were certainly there but it wasn’t the most commanding aspect. What I had found in traveling was a certainty that I could have a different quality of life. A life that I never knew was a viable option. It was a life where I could live on my own terms, in an environment that suited my actual sensibilities, and when I realized this fact, I was not quite sure how it would impact my friends and family back in the U.S. How do you tell the people you love that you are leaving them?
Navigating Doubt and Finding Peace
I had spoken to a longtime friend after I had been abroad for two years and settled in Nigeria. We decided to speak after they had liked an Instagram post I made on navigating doubt. In that post I had talked about the need for discernment in the face of so much naysaying. I had always sensed that this friend had reservations about my leaving, not so much in what they said, but more in what they didn’t say.
During our conversation they admitted they had doubted me. “I’m sorry,” they said. “It was just… you were here one day and then you didn’t come back, and it’s not like you had a solid idea of what you were doing, and not a lot of people do that, and you landed in Nigeria of all places… and when you were here you were going through so much struggle and I was worried that you’d end up in a ditch somewhere and… I’m sorry.”
When I had decided to stay abroad, I had to confront the doubts everyone had all over again. It was quite painful, because the truth is I did have a lot of failure under my belt. I had lost a job, I had gotten really sick, many longtime relationships I had were suddenly coming into question, and it was like the things that had grounded me in America were floating away. I had friends and family constantly asking, “What are you doing? Are you ok? So, are you gonna get a new job?” and though their questions weren’t meant to hurt, they did.
As the child of immigrants, I felt like a double failure. I had failed in the West, because I couldn’t find my footing in a place that was believed to have afforded me so much, and now I was moving to a place where I had no business living and it was obvious that I would soon fail because I had no idea the challenges I’d meet once I arrived. And there were many challenges. I had my doubts too. In fact, I think part of what helped me to stay the course was confronting the doubt I had internalized about being incapable of making my life work. If you’re gonna be courageous enough to start a new life, you have to confront the delusions you had in your old one. I had so many, and I had to promise myself that no matter what happened, I’d never abandon myself. I’ve learned that when you’re fed up enough and exhausted enough, you’ll give up every delusion to find your peace of mind.
Confronting Fear and History: How to Move Forward
Roger, a friend who has spent his adult life creating art about Africans returning home, immediately affirmed my reason to leave once I told him more about myself. He had also returned to the continent after living in the UK and he spoke openly about all the naysayers. “People were asking, why do you care? Who cares about that? They said, ‘you’re smart. Why would a smart person like you be so obsessed with this?’ But now there’s Clubhouse, there’s Diaspora student associations, there’s so many people embracing new ideas and embracing the possibility of returning.”
It was refreshing to hear his perspective, as someone who had also lived what I was living before I knew I would live it. Wow.
I do think it’s important to understand the context of someone’s doubt. Doubt is actually a huge part of the expatriate conversation for the Black person who is considering leaving when they have had enough. Having an awareness of the particular legacies that shape our perspectives can further inform how we travel and relocate in a more intentional way.
Since we’ve already left the West, some assume we didn’t find the success we thought we’d get and wasted our coveted opportunity, so then our venturing out to ‘build’ something abroad can be viewed as arrogant, misplaced, uninformed, silly and the list goes on. It’s important to understand that yes, there is a profound responsibility when you decide to relocate, because for many, to get up and leave the West is a luxury.
I’ve found within my own experience that there’s this hope the West will be so great that we’ll soon forget about the places we left. But I’m thinking that this simply isn’t true for most of us. Most of us, in spite of all the doubts we navigate, have a deep longing for some reconciliation with where we come from. And this feeling isn’t only a Black immigrant feeling, it’s a Black feeling, it’s a need to find a sense of wholeness in a world that can make you become so fragmented.
The doubt of finding your way abroad is really about the audacity to live in the contradiction of this history, because you certainly won’t be absolved of it. If there was any fear I confronted around my capabilities to make such a spiritual and physical shift, it was a confrontation with self. Everyone had their opinions to add, but at the end of it, I had to deal with doubts I had been nursing long before the naysayers ever came. Who am I to make such a jump? Will I ever be content? Was America a failure? What will happen if my African Dream is a failure too? What are the consequences of making this move?
I wish I could tell you the simple thing, but it’s not so simple. I can only say that doubt is a feeling that must be moved through until it shifts into another emotion. I can say that after a while there’s no use trying to explain yourself because this decision is one that involves lots of investigation and hard conversations about what dreams actually work for you and what dreams don’t. It’s not easy releasing one dream for a new one. If you are called to move, then move you must, and it’ll be on you to ensure you’re leaving the world a bit better than how you left it. And for the Black expat, this could be simply finding your peace, living a local existence, eating fresh fruit and sharing what you can while keeping these conversations going.