Though he never got props from the black bourgeoisie for his ambitious “Back to Africa” plan, it's hard to deny that black nationalist and Pan-Africanist visionary Marcus Garvey was on to something.
The Jamaican immigrant who launched the largest mass movement in African-American history just over a century ago—attracting thousands of people throughout the Diaspora and inspiring the Nation of Islam and Rastafarian movements—was convinced that black folks were destined to suffer from social, economic and political inequality and disrespect as long as they lived in America.
While today it’s unlikely that one would buy a one-way ticket from New York to Namibia sight unseen, curiosity spawned by genetic-testing kits and shows like PBS’ currently postponed Finding Your Roots are leading more and more black Americans to ask themselves, “What if?”
Rare Customs founder and CEO Cherae Robinson, who last year launched Tastemakers Africa, “a mobile app and content platform revolutionizing travel to Africa,” says to folks just now thinking about coming to Africa—shoot, we are already late.
“If you’re not in Africa,” says Robinson, who shuttles between her home in Brooklyn, N.Y., to hot spots across the continent like she’s riding the A train, “you are missing out.”
To get us caught up, the American-born communications exec-turned-entrepreneur—named one of the Top 10 Women to Watch by the United Nations Foundation last year—has shared her list of the five hottest African metropolises that black Americans should hop on a flight and go visit—or, better yet, pack up and live in for six months—like, yesterday.
Joburg ain’t new to the black travel set, but if you haven’t been in a while, you might have a hard time distinguishing it from parts of New York City.
“Joburg is the place that’s most like home in terms of its infrastructure and the makeup of the people because it’s so diverse,” Robinson says, pointing especially to the Brooklyn-esque vibe of the Mabaneng neighborhood. “Plus, the rand-dollar ratio is 14-to-1 right now, so your money goes a long way for amazing things, including Joburg’s crazy food scene.”
Well-networked entrepreneurs (especially scientists or engineers) will have few problems finding work, and living as many as 24 hours away from the closest relative may not hurt as much because there’s no shortage of “solid Wi-Fi connections.”
Families should ensure that they peep South Africa’s recent travel restrictions involving children, although if the related drop in tourism throughout the country continues, who is to say how long those restrictions will continue? Overall, Joburg—despite its legacy of racial discrimination and recent reputation for xenophobia (“That’s been blow up out of proportion, mostly; it’s more of a petty-crime place,” Robinson insists)—is a win, especially for families.
“There’s a community of black excellence there,” she said of the well-manicured homes and cultural scenes in neighborhoods like Parkhurst and Melville, where child care—particularly affordable nannies—is plentiful. “There are black people thriving in Johannesburg and dominating the narrative there in a way that you won’t see on a mass level in the U.S.,” she says. “That’s empowering to witness on the other side of the globe.”
2. Kigali, Rwanda
“It’s probably a sleeper pick, but [Rwandan] President [Paul] Kagame has not only made that country grow by leaps and bounds since he’s been in office, from an infrastructure perspective, but he’s also created a lot of systems for [foreigners] to come in and start businesses there, [investing in the country’s continued success],” said Robinson.
“Visas are easy to get, so you get to be a part of the East African community, which means your visa not only works in Rwanda, but it works in Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania, and you can travel around that whole block of countries quite easily,” she said, adding that the ease increases if you pick up Swahili.
Add to this Kigali’s solid Internet framework and that it is “one of the most beautiful cities I’ve seen from a cleanliness perspective, almost European-like,” and Robinson expects the pace at which black folks visit to pick up as the word gets out.
“It’s a bit slower than people from big cities like New York or [Los Angeles] might be used to, but for the more laid-back-type person, Kigali is definitely an all-around amazing city to live in,” says Robinson.
3. Abuja, Nigeria
“If [Nigeria’s largest city of] Lagos is New York, Abuja is the Washington, D.C., of Nigeria,” says Robinson, pointing to the fact that the country’s president lives there, it’s Nigeria’s federal capital and it was the nation’s first “planned city,” which means that from an infrastructure perspective, it’s well-organized and clean. It also boasts low crime rates.
“Abuja is much quieter than Lagos, but you can access Lagos by a quick flight, which means you can also access Lagos’ tremendous business opportunities,” she says, which you will likely need to be able to afford living there American-style. As with many other parts of Africa, having access to a generator to fend against rolling blackouts is key but expensive.
“The price depends on the country, but for the most part you’re looking at about $400 [a] month [for fuel],” said Robinson, if you’re looking to own one, which some of the private-sector American expats there working in oil, telecom and technology do.
“So don’t think you’re coming to places like Abuja getting the U.S. lifestyle for low prices,” she warns. “You have to pay for it.” Investing in a high-quality education for your kids can also be a pricey affair.
“Private school is a big thing in most African countries for anyone that’s in the middle class,” she says. “In Abuja there’s an American school, a British school and a French school—all these international options—but you can expect to pay anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000 a year, depending on which school you choose.”
4. Accra, Ghana
“Out of all the cities I’ve been to in Africa, the Ghanaians ‘get’ African Americans the best,” says Robinson. “They actually understand us and our history because the founder of Ghana—its first president, Kwame Nkrumah—was such a Pan-Africanist, so there are so many systems in place for African Americans to do well there if they are prepared to work through them.”
Plus, “that friendly, welcoming vibe—the Africa that we have in our heads as African Americans—exists,” she said of the city, where, if you are a resident for more than three years, you can purchase your own home and apply for citizenship (and keep your U.S. passport).
“For Ghana and every place on my list except for South Africa, though, you should expect to pay three months’ rent in advance,” she says. “These are cash-and-carry-type cities.”
But no worries: Accra (without the recommended generator) is “super, super cheap.” (You get 40 Ghanaian cedis for each U.S. dollar, which means a two-bedroom in the nicest area in town will run you about $1,000 a month.) It also has the longest-running tradition of peaceful elections in Africa and is known for petty crime more than anything else. Plus, the Internet is widely available, though perhaps not as fast as in Nigeria or South Africa.
“Also, there’s a direct flight from the United States [through New York City], and so you’re only [about 10] hours away if you’re on the East Coast,” she says.
5. Nairobi, Kenya
“The nightlife there is amazing, the [Kenyan currency] shilling is affordable and there’s Uber there—which says something about connectivity in this and other parts of Africa,” says Robinson.
“Plus, if you’d like to work there through the Department of State or an NGO, you can,” she adds, noting that there are plenty of those jobs available and that Nairobi is a travel hub that many choose to fly out of or into from other parts of Africa. However, for families especially, the crime there and in the coastal area of Mombasa—particularly carjacking and violent home invasions—can be concerning.
“It’s a city of contrasts, like so many other countries throughout Africa and the world,” she said, referring to the super rich and super poor, who share many of the same spaces. “But there is a warmth among the people that is tangible, and the opportunity to soak up so much cultural richness is one of Nairobi’s most attractive elements.”
Tomika Anderson is a freelance writer, editor, producer and military brat who has traveled to 36 countries and counting. Follow her on Twitter.