Africa 101 from a Jamaican in South Africa

Written by Ruth Wade-Kwakwa

Social functions that I attend with my Ghanaian husband in South Africa are usually peppered with the question “How did you guys meet and how did you end up here?” I am so used to telling it that I fear that one day someone in the gathering will finish my sentences for me. Nonetheless, I’ll tell it again, and explain how we ended up in South Africa, or this place called “Africa”, that even Jamaicans talk about as if it were a small, homogenous country.

So here goes….

First, a little 101 in Africa…it’s one BIG place, made up of very different countries, ethnic groups and languages. (I know this sounds basic, but work with me…you’d be surprised how many people treat it otherwise, black folk included). To refer to one “African” culture, is as wrong as to say that Spain has the same “European” culture as Germany and France, as if there were one European culture…that there is bullfighting in Germany, and that there are lots of stiff upper lips in Portugal. Sure there are lots of similarities across African countries, but if you lump all African countries together, you will miss the glory.

Second, a little 101 on me. I never came to Africa looking for the motherland. Nah sah. All that happened is that I met a really nice guy in College in the US, talked with him about his childhood in Ghana, realised that he felt as strongly about Ghana as I did Jamaica, became his bredrin, and fell in love. Plain and straight. We stayed close throughout graduate school and into our first jobs, and finally got married and lived in DC. Shortly thereafter he got a chance to transfer temporarily to South Africa, and my bag was packed, before you could say ‘jack’. South Africa here we come!!!


We always knew that we would live in “Africa” one day…Ghana, to be specific. South Africa was not on the books, but when the opportunity presented itself, we simply said, “Why not?” We’d ‘done’ the US for close to 10 years, and were looking for a change of scenery. Besides, we’d always keep the option of returning to the States, so it was a relatively risk-free move. Who’d have known that 3 years later, you couldn’t pay us to return to live and work in the US. No babba. Not after “doing” South Africa.


We loved South Africa when we came in 1996, and continue to do so, in our second stint here (2 years and counting). It was the best of both worlds, at least for the professional class (me nah lie…plenty poverty still deh bout, but from where we sat in 1996, my life was comfortable). I call SA “Washington in Africa”. Technology and advertising that I was yet to see in the US, zero potholes (they are so rare that when there is a recurring pothole, the roads authorities put up a sign), amenities like never seen in JA, the cleanest public toilets I’d seen in the world (Wow! In “Africa” of all places! Who would have thought?”) And yet, people of all races have an appreciation for relaxed life and leisure, just like we do in JA and Ghana, in a developing country kind of way. The sense of professionalism was very high, and yet, people didn’t mess with their leisure time. They work hard, but boy, do they play hard and love family and friends. People crack jokes with strangers, and people have a sense of humane-ness and family that we were missing in the US. And, for professional women, house help is available, the backbone of many of households with people working out of the home.

What did South Africans then know about Jamaicans? (and Ghanaians?) Not much. Cricket. A little Bob Marley. South Africans had been so closed off from the rest of the world, that their knowledge was pretty sparse, save for the South Africans who had been in exile or had studied in the rest of the world. Even less was their knowledge of Ghana, which to them might as well have been on the other side of the world. Apartheid pretty much lead to a disconnect from even the rest of Africa, and the high standard of living definitely has some people feeling superior to what they call “North Africans” which is basically anyone living north of SA. Some black South Africans believed that the entire continent spoke Zulu, and would actually get angry when my husband spoke in English. Blame the education system. I suppose it wasn’t in the interest of the apartheid government to have black folk know that there were millions of intelligent, worldly black people living throughout the world, much less teach black South African folk about them.

What was it like living in South Africa as a black person in 1996? Well, if my hair needed a relaxer and the grannies were starting to spring at the back of my neck, black folk figured I was black and would speak to me in Zulu. If I had just relaxed my short hair, people figured I was “coloured” and would speak to me in Afrikaans. What were white folk like towards us? (this is by far the most popular question coming from Jamaicans). Let’s put it this way. It was no worse than living in Virginia, USA race-wise, and to boot, I have never had anyone follow me around in a shop here, suspicious if I held onto a product for too long, unlike the US. So there.

My mother, and many Jamaicans and Ghanaians are pleasantly surprised that everyone is so nice here, across the races, and that on a daily basis, life is, well, normal. South Africans interact with even strangers in a very humane way, making conversation with your children as if you go way back. Race doesn’t really occur to me in my daily activities. I remind Jamaicans and other foreigners that not everyone supported apartheid, and in fact, many whites wanted it to end. Just because whites weren’t striking, picketing and toyi-toying didn’t mean they enjoyed apartheid. I compare the situation to Jamaica…..classism is a wretched thing, and it is one of the most disempowering things in Jamaica. Not all of us support it, but then again, it doesn’t mean that we are going to protest outside of JBC and march through the streets of Kingston. Does the fact that we don’t march mean that we are classist? Not necessarily. Same with apartheid. Not every white person is racist. Not everyone north of Half Way Tree is classist. Dem jus’ doan boddah buck the system more than suh.

Many of our friends in SA were other corporate Africans, Ivy League, LSE and otherwise educate, who had transferred with their US and UK-based companies, much like my husband Kofi. They’d had enough of America and the UK, wanted to go home to Ghana/Uganda/Nigeria/any African country, but weren’t quite ready for the life of hardship that their home countries would offer them. So for them, South Africa was a good middle ground….first world standards and amenities, with a touch of Africa, and only 4-6 hours away from home, relatives and childhood delicacies. There were also a few West Indians who had also come via the UK or US, and all in all, our social life was great. South Africa was and still is a country of immense opportunity and optimism, and there is a vibe in the air that reeks of possibility. Our South African friends make us wish we could speak Zulu, Sotho, Tswana, Xhosa and the 5 other “black languages” because our understanding of South Africa and the pulse of the country is limited by our ignorance of languages. We encourage our children to learn all 4 multilingual verses of the national anthem because it symbolizes everything that South Africa stands for. A plea for God’s blessing, reconciliation, forgiveness and an optimism-led passion to move ahead.

After a few years of living in Johannesburg, my husband got a job opportunity in Ghana. Ghana wasn’t on the cards for maybe another 5 years, but we grabbed the chance and went to Accra, with one child and another on the way. We were home. Ghana was what a Jamaican would call “the real Africa”…i.e. more like what Jamaicans imagine of Africa—tye dye and batik outfits, dashikis and flowing colourful dresses, heat, drums and music, food and feel. It is so much my home, which it is now actually difficult for me to step back and look at it through the eyes of a Jamaican. I wouldn’t know where to start to talk about Ghana. At the risk of being simplistic, let me include what Jamaicans and other West Indians have said about it.

Ghana is like Jamaica back in the 60s. (I’m told this by older people). Ghana is the key to understanding why we do what we do in our daily lives as Jamaicans…why we walk the way we do, why we eat what we eat, why we dance and talk as we do, why we say words like “nyam”, eat “dokonoo”, expressions like “seh feh” when we want to dare someone. (BTW, the word “seh” really means is not the word “say” pronounced badly. As in twi, the langugage of the Ashanti, “seh” means “that”.) Listen to Ghanaians speak, and you will give much more credit to patois and our local proverbs and expressions. Ghana touches your soul in corners you never knew existed. Understand Ghana and you will understand why family ties are so important in Jamaica, and why Jamaican women are so independent minded, ambitious, and yes, cantankerous to a fault at time, and believe in carrying “vex money” when they go out with a man.

And let me remind you. I was never one to romanticize about “Africa” the “motherland”. I was just a simple Jamaican Barbican-living, former St. Andrew’s High, patty nyaming girl, who fell in love with a nice guy who happened to be from Ghana and who reminded me of the average Wolmers/JC/C’bar/KC/Georges boy in JA.

Now, me nah lie. You haffe hustle to live in Ghana. Things can be slow, dusty, traditional, pedantic, frustrating, head-beating, confusing (unless the culture is decoded for you), bureaucratic, and completely unpredictable. (I can’t begin to tell you the many examples of these). However, there are many pluses when you look at the big picture, and stop having expectations about what life is “supposed “to be.

We stayed in Ghana for 5 years, which I wouldn’t give back for the world, in spite of some very frustrating moments. I worked with a local ad agency, which gave me insight beyond belief into “Things Ghanaian.” My workmates taught me about the sensuality of Ghanaian women who wear hip beads for their men, how to eat efficiently with one hand, how to pay respect and show appreciation to people, how to tie a scarf properly, for a 3-day funeral in my husband’s ancestral village, and how to preserve egos and not to belittle husbands publicly. I learned how to shake hands with everyone, one by one upon entering a room, even if I didn’t know them, and how to greet people in an anti-clockwise direction. I also heard a lot of painful stories about marital relationships, and have had to throw away my image of marriage which comprises a monogamous husband and wife, and two little children. (For the record, and since all Jamaicans wonder, no, I did not arrive in Ghana to find my husband with 4 other children and 2 other wives). I learned about both sides of marriages from my male and female colleagues and friends, who opened up to me, the questioning ‘white’ girl.

I learned about the subtle, relatively calm, unassuming ego and pride of Ghanaian men, and realised that Jamaican women are generally known to be a bit ‘much’ for Ghanaian men….in fact, I met quite a few Ghanaian men who had had Jamaican women in their lives at some point. They had loved their feisty spirits and ackee and saltfish dearly, but they just couldn’t handle taking them home, knowing that living and being part of the Ghanaian family in Ghana would be hard for a Jamaican woman. I barely passed the “test”, but am happy I did. Ghanaian men congratulate my husband in (partial) jest for having been brave enough to marry me (plenty work, apparently), but at the same time, reminisce about “Jackie”, “Sharon” or “Novlette” who they left behind in the US and UK

I learned about Ghanaian’s allegiance to family, and learned that at a man’s funeral, his widow is only slightly more than an invited guest. The deceased belongs to his birth family, his parents and siblings, and not the woman he’s married to. A shocker for a Jamaican, to say the least. Until a few years ago, among the matrilineal Ashanti, only a man’s sister’s children could inherit his wealth, even if he was married with children of his own. You see, before the advent of DNA, your sister’s children were the only people a man could swear were related to him by blood. A man could never swear that his children, were really his children. If you get what I mean. Yep, his children could really have been someone else’s. Like the postman’s or the UPS man’s, or…..Who could tell? Why risk passing on your family property to another man’s child?

That said, I learned with joy that a man in Ghana who has a child out of marriage, will very seldom deny that child. Ghanaian men don’t run from fatherhood the way many Jamaican men do. Even if the child is for his girlfriend, a man will step forward, name the child, and pay school fees. This means that in Ghana there are much fewer children who are “fatherless”, regardless of how many children are born outside of marital unions. Our Jamaican men appear cowardly in comparison with Ghanaian men who own uo to their extramarital children.

On the other hand, Ghanaians run from confrontation in a manner that Jamaicans would call cowardly. They seldom fight the way we do, and they will do everything in their power to avoid confrontation, even if it means to bend the truth a little. While Jamaicans call lying “hypocritical,” Ghanaians call it “keeping the peace”, and have they insist that there is a time and place for everything. You are allowed to bend the truth until the time is right to disclose the truth. Jamaicans in Ghana struggle to get used to the idea of playing ‘hypocrite’, but still respect the fact that doing so for years, has made Ghana the relatively peaceful country that it is.

The Jamaicans and other West Indians in Ghana are strong in their numbers, and we comprise a fairly eclectic mix. There are the old timers, who have been in Ghana for over 40 years, after marrying their Ghanaian husbands in the UK. They came to Ghana by boat, seldom received letters, and had no technology like email to keep them in touch with family. Until a couple years ago, they still had to apply for visas to live in Ghana every 2 years or so, since marrying Ghanaians didn’t automatically grant them residence.Then there are the Rastas, some live and direct from Jamaica, and others via the US and UK. Then there are the 30 and 40 something year olds, like myself who came a few years after university and weddings. Then there are those who come with international organizations, and move on to other African countries after a few years. We all hustle there, but we all love it. We cook our ackee, which grows wild and which some Ghanaians eat raw, as a fruit. We love the hills of Accra, which remind us Jamaica, and we all struggle to own a little land in the hills. We love a party, and let loose and wine on a dance floor and bring a “raunchy” flavour to local styles. We challenge the Ghanaian notion that married women have to start “looking married” at a certain age, and we bend the traditional rules on occasion. But we love Ghana, and it makes it hard for us to leave.

That said, Kofi and I packed up the children after 5 years in Ghana, and returned to South Africa. Ghana proved tough professionally and financially, for two western, book smart graduates, used to working and doing business in a more, shall I say, “Western” manner…The heartbeat and engine of Ghana is trade…and if you don’t have trading bones in your body, you struggle to make it. In Ghana you have to go with the flow and hustle in a way that we got tired of. So while we love Ghana, we decided to leave for a while to recoup our professional lives, and save up for our eventual return.

Our kids spent 4 months living in Jamaica, going to school and living with their Grandma and Grandpa, while we managed the move from Ghana to South Africa. They are very close to my parents, who managed to visit us every year, for a couple months at a time. The kids learned the Jamaican anthem, ate patty and bullah like Jamaican kids, and even had a touch of patois under their belts by the time they left. They are as comfortable there as they are in South Africa and Ghana. I try not to confuse them when it comes to nationality, by telling them that they are Ghanaians (despite their American passports), who are lucky to be able to call Jamaica (and South Africa) home as well. At 8, 7 and 4, they are fine with that, and don’t pretend to be otherwise.

After 2 years of being away from Ghana we returned for a month-long holiday. It was sweet beyond belief. It confirmed that Ghana is home. In addition to Jamaica, that is. We are in South African for pragmatic reasons, but Ghana is our soul. Ghana has far more of the “texture” of life that we delight in, even though South African living is much much simpler, on a day to day basis. With 3 children, simplicity and predictability count for a lot. There is NO DOUBT that we will live in Ghana again, as that is home, and our hearts yearn for it all the time. But for now, we are happy to still be in Africa, shuttling between Accra and Johannesburg. We still know that our hearts and souls are in Ghana, but that we don’t’ have to be there all the time to contribute and to feel a part of it. Not right now, that is.

About the author

Ruth Wade-Kwakwa