For Ghanaians, the American dream is in Africa

October 20, 2002|By Joseph Berger | Joseph Berger,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK – When Ghanaians immigrate here, they quickly display the timeless yearning of new Americans for owning a house. What makes the Ghanaians different is that the house they yearn to own is in Ghana.

That explains why an odd business has sprung up on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, that boulevard of dreams for earlier generations of immigrants. It is called Ghana Homes Inc., and its principal enterprise is helping Ghanaian immigrants, some of them living pinched lives as taxi drivers and nursing home aides, to buy houses in Ghana even if the buyers may never actually return to Ghana to live.

Beyond the standard rationales for buying so remote a house – investment or as havens for vacations or retirement – there is one explanation that speaks volumes about New York City’s growing population of Ghanaians and other West Africans.

Symbol of success

“You can own a home here, but no one’s going to know about it, so you have to own a home in Ghana,” said Kwasi Amoafo, vice president of Ghana Homes. “Then everyone who matters to you can see you’ve made it in America.”

Ghanaians, as well as Nigerians, Ivoirians and many other West Africans, come from lands with powerful ties to tribe, clan and family. Someone who can build his own house has achieved a “cultural coming of age,” said Chudi Uwazurike, professor of sociology at City College and a senior fellow at the Institute for Research on the African Diaspora in the Americas and the Caribbean.

Frank Samad, 50, came here from Ghana 22 years ago after finishing high school and started work as a security guard. He moved up to work as a supermarket manager and 11 years ago opened Kantamanto African Market, a grocery store on Tremont Avenue west of the Concourse that stocks ground yams, pumpkinseeds and smoked mudfish as well as dry goods like kente cloth and African magazines.

In New York he has always lived with his wife and three children in a rental apartment, but in 1993 he began building a four-bedroom house in a suburb of Accra, Ghana’s capital.

`It doesn’t make sense’

“When you look at it, it doesn’t make sense,” he admitted. “I’m not living there and with the kind of money I put in there, if I used it here I could have tripled the size of my store. But when I go to Ghana I have a place to live. I wouldn’t like to bother my relatives or live in a hotel there. That would be a letdown. After all those years here, I would go back to Ghana and it would be like being homeless. So with that kind of pride, anybody who makes a little money here will buy a house in Ghana.”

The story of the Ghanaian houses is quite typical for many immigrants who cannot quite let go of their home country. The Jews, Irish and other Europeans who fled pogroms and famine knew they would probably never return. But many immigrant groups today keep one foot in the old country largely because, with jets and cheap phone cards, it is relatively easy to do so.

Many Dominicans and Trinidadians live in two lands at once, shuttling back and forth to their homeland several times a year.

Israelis keep their names in the Israeli phone books for decades after they have moved here just to show their friends back home that they haven’t abandoned the land.

Amoafo said that for Ghanaians, too, “Always in the back of their minds is the idea of returning one day.” But it is largely a pipe dream. “I can tell you that 90 percent will never go back,” he said. “But it defines their thinking.”

The fact that Ghana Homes exists also testifies to the remarkable growth of the city’s Ghanaian population, particularly in the Bronx, as the pioneer generation of immigrants sends word home that life here is good. Nearly 5,000 Ghanaians immigrated to New York City between 1990 and 1996 alone and the 2000 Census reveals that the numbers of those who list Ghana as their birthplace have tripled, to 14,915, of which 9,275 live in the Bronx, according to Francis P. Vardy, a City Planning Commission demographer. (Those numbers do not include children born here to Ghanaians, which would almost certainly expand this subculture by several thousand.)

The robustness of Ghanaian life here is felt daily in cabs and nursing homes and, since many Ghanaians arrive here with advanced degrees, in the top ranks of the city’s banks, hospitals, and colleges. Like Kofi Annan, the secretary general of the United Nations, many also work at the city’s international organizations.

In the Bronx they are visible in African groceries and variety shops that dot Highbridge and Morris Heights west of the Grand Concourse, in several Ghanaian-inflected Pentecostal churches, in clusters of buildings like Parkchester and soaring Tracey Towers at the Concourse’s northern end and in more than a half-dozen sometimes ragtag restaurants, like the African and American Restaurant on University Avenue near Burnside Avenue

Mohammed Abdullah, 47, the restaurant’s owner and a father of 12, started working here as a gas station attendant in 1980. His co-workers were so taken with the savor of his lunches they paid him to make them lunch.

Soon, he was operating a restaurant incognito out of his fifth-floor apartment, his landlord none the wiser. In his new restaurant, he also serves soul food, enticing the neighborhood’s American blacks to try his spicy Ghanaian baked steak and spinach laced with crushed sunflower seeds.

“Now most of them don’t eat soul food anymore,” he said.

A curiosity

Ghana Homes, though, stands out as a curiosity even among the Ghanaian businesses. Situated in the ground floor of an apartment house near Tremont Avenue, it pays its overhead by handling money transfers, money orders, travel arrangements and prepaid phone cards. But Amoafo and his partner, Kwasi Kissi, make their real profits selling the houses, representing developers in Ghana as well as the country’s main mortgage company. Their Web site,, reassures potential customers that they can avoid the disheartenment of murky property titles or even the fraud too typical of some of these transactions.

The houses are ranches or two-story affairs, usually new and part of a development. They cost anywhere from $30,000 to $300,000 (the equivalent houses in America would cost many times those amounts) and the cheapest houses can be had for a $6,000 down payment. Owners who live in the United States often rent the houses out or let family members use them.

Given the values they bring with them from Ghana – like the reverence for elders and the all-important bonds of family – Ghanaians struggle with Bronx streets where their children are exposed to bare midriffs and drugs and the relatively egalitarian relations of the sexes. Worried that their children will adopt modern American values, many Ghanaian immigrants let their children remain in Ghana, to be raised by parents or wives. They plan to return to their brood as soon as they have put together a nest egg. And that is why owning a house in Ghana becomes even more urgent.

Austin Batse, 31, works as a computer consultant in Durham, N.C. He has wanted to return to Ghana to help build up the country practically since the day he immigrated here as a 10-year-old in 1982. He bought one of Ghana Homes’ houses for $63,000 last year. Batse has never been to his house, but last year he asked his sister in Ghana to visit the house with a wedding photographer. They shot a video of the house and shipped it to him and it gave him joy to look at it.

“For a lot of people it’s a status symbol of getting out of the position you were in,” Batse said


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