By Raliat Oluyemisi Sunmonu
It was supposed to be the simplest of plans: get in, do what you want to do and get out. Piece of cake. Only it isn't, of course.
I always knew what I wanted to do: come to America, gain as much knowledge and expertise on computer technology and its applications, then go back Home and put that knowledge to good use and in the process, earn my country's undying gratitude and admiration (naturally). I scoffed at people who'd been abroad for decades. I couldn't understand what was so difficult about my plan. If it wasn't working out for them, they weren't trying hard enough, I concluded with an arrogance matched only by my inexperience.
Two computer science degrees and almost a decade later, the oh-so-simple plan doesn't seem so easy. I still plan to go Home, except now I have doubts that never even occurred to me when I was making those plans a long time ago. Seditious thoughts nagging me; insidious voices in my head asking me what difference one measly person can really make; both competing with incredulous warnings of my friends, tsk-tsking, clucking their tongues, shaking their heads in dismay at my naivety, my seeming willingness to throw the "good life" away for what was at best, an uncertain but sure to be painful introduction to African reality.
The truth is, I haven't heard anything, either from the naysayers or the cautious optimists, that I haven't gone over in my mind. At the end of the day, this is what I know for sure: I have to go home because I have no choice. I have tried to find satisfaction from going to a job where the bottom line is all that counts, to a job with minimal connection to people, to a job where improving life often means devising neat, little gadgets for the rich and the bored. I can't. I am too young to spend my life doing something that means nothing.
So, in case I didn't make it clear before, here it is: I am going Home. I just don't know when, or how or even where. And I know there are lots of people like me out there; who know they don't belong here because they could never be happy here. But for most of us, practical matters must outweigh our dreams of saving the world. We have rent to pay, car payments to make, school loans to pay off, that stock killing, the healthy nest egg …So the question becomes: how do we keep our dreams alive in the reality of living abroad? I don't claim to have all the answers, but I do have my own little formula for (I hope) success. Remember, absolutely no warranties:
Overcome the battle against yourself. To me, the greatest struggle is the one you wage in your mind; the hope of the good you might do struggling to overcome the doubts and the fears of failure; going from a dream, a wish of wanting to return Home, to the moment when you say "I AM going Home. How do I accomplish this?"
Figure out what you want to do. It sounds easy but I'm not even sure I'm at this stage yet. Do you want to work for yourself? Work for a multinational corporation? What field do you want to work in? How do you want to get involved? Volunteer work (hey, don't snicker. It is an option!)? These are the tough questions each individual must answer. From this point, everything you do must put you a little further down the road to achieving your goals.
Keep your ear to the ground. Don't scout around for just general news; sift through the verbiage for employment/investment/other opportunities. You should be thinking: how can I use this back home? How can I benefit from this? What can I do with that?...
Start small. For myself, since I don't know how or when I'm going back, I want to build a little something for myself at Home. I try and send a certain amount of money home at regular intervals and I buy stock with it. Sure it's peanuts compared with what I do here and anything could happen to the investment, but that's a risk I have to take. Before I put down $5000-$10,000 for a 30-year mortgage here, I will send the money home and buy or build a house.
The ideal thing would be to work for yourself, but it's also the riskiest. The name of the game is contacts. Being over here puts us at a major disadvantage because we're out of the loop. Spending some time working for someone else before branching out on your own covers you somewhat because you can use the time to develop your own contacts. You could also find a local partner who has the prerequisite knowledge and understanding of the system.
Look for like-minded people, anywhere, everywhere. There are lots of people around who think the way you do, just looking for the right contacts, the right person, or the right project to come along. The Internet is a treasure trove when it comes to connecting with people who share your ideals although it may not be that effective at delivering. I have several projects going on at once-trying to setup a website to provide African students with internships in Africa, putting up a resource site for Nigerian organizations abroad, etc.
Don't limit yourself to a specific geographical location or at the very least, learn to think in terms of "regions" and not "countries". While it is true that most of us would like to return to the country where we feel most comfortable (most likely where we were born), the reality of Africa is that the conditions are very similar in many countries- the obstacles, the challenges, infrastructure (or lack thereof), etc. The various regional organizations like ECOWAS and SADC, not to mention the African Unity, make it as easy to do business in one of the member nations as the other. Spreading your wings to span multiple countries may increase your risk but I think the potential rewards are worth it.
The only sure thing about going home is that it's sure to be a long, uphill task. It requires a complete change of mind, an extraordinary will and determination. Sometimes I'm not even sure that I'm up to it but I do know I have to at least try. There are quite a few people who have gone home and are doing quite well but for every success story, there are countless failures. I guess we each have to find what our story will be.