The myth of return among immigrants

LAST year, the New York Times carried a big feature story by reporter Declan Walsh which argued that the world is becoming more African.
Walsh adduced impressive evidence, highlighting scores of African youths who are leaving the African continent in pursuit of greener pastures abroad, leaving their colleagues betwixt and between.
Though not an immigrant myself, I’m a witness to how these winds of migration blowing across the continent affect those who remain behind.
There is a feeling of inadequacy that strikes you when you see your friends appearing to hit the big time in a country as afield as Britain or the United States.
I know of some people who have contempt for life abroad, but for the same number I know 10 times more people who wish they could relocate in the blink of an eye.
But even when you eventually leave the continent to live abroad, you succumb to what is called the myth of return, which is a longing for the familiarity of your homeland.
It’s called a myth because people hardly follow through with it. It is often an illusion, a fantasy of what could be.
Indeed, many immigrants think about returning home. For this reason, remittances tend to become a big expression of this aspiration. While abroad, people invest significantly in developing a family yard or estate, where they plan to eventually settle.
On X (formerly Twitter) the other day, an academic, who is apparently an African immigrant in the United States, poked fun at this phenomenon. It seemed not to compute for her that people who may never return home should invest huge sums of money in developing a base in the country of their origin.
But should the myth of return be dismissed as a mere illusion, even stupidity?
I don’t think so. While I’m not an immigrant myself, having lived abroad for a while, I’ll tell you that it’s not completely stupid to invest back home.
You see, almost always, speaking of the immigrants I’ve known so far, all people who live abroad eventually return home.
I know of a highly accomplished Zambian professor who has built himself a mansion in the suburbs of Lusaka. Having lived in the US for at least 20 years and having done well for himself, I asked him why he and his wife decided to set up a residence back home despite having a house in the US.
“Victor,” he told me, “you don’t want to stay here when you’re old because there are not enough people who know you.
You want to live and die among people who know you.”
You see, as you grow older, you begin to long for community and support.
As an immigrant, not even the children you sire abroad may assuage feelings of loneliness that ensue. This is because children anywhere in the world eventually move on with their lives.
But there is a feeling of security that comes with community, one readily afforded by being lodged in your home country than in some fantasy land across the pond. It doesn’t matter if you were a big bank executive on Wall Street in your prime.
What tends to matter more in the night of your life are the people who know you.
Accordingly, thinking about the drastic changes of the future makes it compellingly wise to invest in your home country to avoid destitution, poverty, and embarrassment. But that’s not the only thing.
There are also many things that can go wrong abroad. You can lose your job, the economy can collapse, or you can be victimised. In any of such unfortunate circumstances, where would you run to?
I’ll give two examples. Both Carlos Ghosn and Tidjane Thiam were titans of the automotive and banking industries respectively.
In the case of Ghosn, amid a high-profile career in Japan, when fraud charges were levelled against him, he quickly retreated to Lebanon. He went back to the source of his ancestry.
For Tidjane, returning to Ivory Coast made much more sense than staying in Switzerland as investment banking’s only Black CEO after he was victimised on account of his race.
You cannot be totally safe in a country other than where you were born. The myth of return is a good term for an academic concept, but it doesn’t mean much for real life. You cannot afford to be a subject of humiliating ridicule if and when the unthinkable happens.
Accordingly, invest back home.
The author is a PhD student and graduate teaching assistant in the Department of Journalism and Communication at Colorado State University.