They left Africa in search of opportunity, to escape political persecution or to build a better life for their children.
But, sometimes after decades spent as immigrants or refugees in the rich countries of the West, growing numbers of Africans are beginning to bring their expertise, talent and hopes for the future home to the world’s poorest continent.
“The only thing I regret is not returning earlier,” said star South African swimmer Ryk Neethling, who returned from Arizona to lead South Africa’s freestyle relay team to a gold medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics.
Neethling — whose broad American accent sometimes surprises South African sports fans — is not alone.
Across the continent, returning African emigrants are filling key positions in government, education and business in a slow “reverse brain drain” that is gathering pace and that officials hope will sow the seeds of a broader economic revival.
Returning to contribute to the future
Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who last year became the first woman elected as an African head of state, graduated from Harvard and is a former Washington, D.C. banker.
Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was lured from her job as World Bank vice president and is now a stalwart reformist in President Olusegun Obasanjo’s cabinet.
Zambian Finance Minister Ng’andu Magande worked as a bureaucrat in Brussels, while Kenya’s chief government spokesman Alfred Mutua was employed as a reporter in Australia and a college professor in Dubai.
“I was asked to come back and help my home country and I am happy to be doing that today and sharing the successes and knowledge of the West,” said Malawi Finance Minister Goodall Gondwe, who left a World Bank job in Washington after living there for some 20 years to return home in 2002.
Returning Africans have many reasons for coming home. But chief among them appears to be the chance to contribute to countries that badly need their skills.
“Since I joined the [central] bank I have made contributions to my country’s economy through policy advice, and I see a role for many other Zambians working abroad,” said Zambian Deputy Central Bank Governor Denny Kalyalya, who spent eight years in the United States before returning home.
“When you are out there [in the U.S.], sometimes you feel like you are just one of the statistics, no matter how much contribution you are making,” he said.
South Africans finally coming home
Apartheid drove many South Africans, both black and white, into exile overseas while the country’s high crime rate and unsettled social landscape after the 1994 transition to democracy persuaded some others to leave voluntarily.
Now, a non-governmental group called the Homecoming Revolution is seeking to lure emigrants home, mounting road trips to Australia, Britain and other European countries to sing the praises of life in a democratic South Africa in need of skilled professionals.
“Initially, it was very much the whites who were coming to us, but we are certainly seeing a shift,” said Homecoming Revolution Managing Director Martine Schaffer.
“We are seeing that there is a large colored [mixed race] community in Australia interested in returning, and a large black community in the Netherlands. They may have gone as exiles, or as students, but they want to come back.”
Statistics on returning South Africans are hard to come by, and like other African countries skilled professionals, particularly in the medical field, continue to leave for higher pay and better working conditions overseas.
But Schaffer said the tide was starting to turn, particularly as overseas South Africans begin to compare the cost of living differences.
“They have worked out that actually, the world is a difficult place, and want to be near their families and the opportunity that South Africa has to give. They are finding out that this is an exciting place to be.”
Now, the brain gain
South Africa, the continent’s largest and most developed economy, is alone in Africa in offering a standard of living that approximates that found in Berlin or Boston.
But other African countries are also luring people home with the promise of good jobs and a stable life.
In Uganda, where the late dictator Idi Amin expelled tens of thousands of Asians in 1972 accusing them of being leeches on the economy, thousands have returned since 1986 when former rebel Yoweri Museveni seized power.
Their property was returned, and Asian investment has boosted economic growth of around six percent a year over 15 years. Overseas Ugandans sent home about $500 million in foreign currency last year, more than the country’s main exports of coffee, fish and flowers combined, officials say.
“These people send back a lot of money, and we want to help them with passports,” said an immigration official of plans to reinstate their Ugandan nationality. “And being Ugandan doesn’t mean you must have black skin.”
Kenya, too, is looking to overseas Kenyans for both cash and skills, and headhunting firms such as Deloitte Consulting are helping to place them.
“Professionals are coming back but not necessarily at the level of leadership of organizations, more at the middle-management level,” said Deloitte’s Isabel Ngugi, adding that these numbers were growing.
Making change happen
Roma Khonje left Malawi in 1976 when his homeland was firmly in the grip of former “president for life” Hastings Banda. He returned in the late 1990s after democratic elections, and is now the country’s only pharmacologist with a PhD.
Khonje, who brought his family back with him, launched Malawi’s first medical school which is now producing 12 doctors a year and hopes to increase that number to 60 before long.