Life Without Formal ID (Part 1)

I left the United States for Ghana back in 2002, vowing to never return.  This decision was based more on faith than logic (or faith as logic).  And true to word, I have been living in the “Gateway to Africa” for the past 15+ years, now residing on the outskirts of Somanya, a primarily mango-farming area far away from what any Westerner would classify as a city, in the Eastern Region of Ghana.

There are many times, even to this day, that I regret certain aspects of deciding to come to Ghana and feel compelled to return, which I may well eventually.  But overall, when I look at harsh realities stateside, such as the proliferation of mass killings and murderous incidences of domestic violence, I know I made the right decision to leave.

A friend of mine in the US, (the late) Rodger Taylor, has asked me to write an article for WurknProgress*, a website he started, about my experiences in Ghana.  Beyond that general instruction, he has left the particular subject I want to explore up to me.  So I decided to enlighten the reader on the realities of living without formal identification, something I’ve had to deal with for almost a decade now.

The “system” in Ghana isn’t nearly as encompassing as it is in the States, as in formal ID for masses of Ghanaians really being something that has just taken shape since the turn of the century and is still largely in its developmental phase.  Nevertheless, there are basic similarities that I think anyone, i.e. people considering living “off the grid”, can gather from my experiences.  Moreover, annually more and more Americans are expatriating from the States (and to places like Ghana), so I’m hoping some of them can learn from my mistakes.


I tend to be highly critical of American society, but those condemnations are more due to the culture than the ideologies the nation has been built upon.  Indeed, there are reasons beyond the prospect of making money that have people from all over the world willing to risk life and limb in order to immigrate to the United States.

For example, the government has instituted exemplary initiatives such as the US Repatriation Loan Program, which basically works like this.  If you’re an American citizen stranded in a foreign country, you can apply for a loan directly from the US government (via the local embassy) for a ticket to get your ass out of there.

I took such an advance from the US Embassy in Accra in 2006 for a sum of approximately $2000.  But as you probably already deduced based on the intro to this article, I never took the flight. 

Now before you think I did this to milk the system, please understand that the bulk of a US Repatriation Loan is not paid in the form of physical cash.  Of that $2000, $1700 went directly to the ticket, and only $300 was given to me as pocket money.  In fact, shortly after deciding not to take the flight, I tried contacting the travel agency the ticket was issued through to see if I could get a refund or waiver.  But it’s as if the agency didn't actually exist, which is a story for another day.

At the time I took the loan, I wasn't 100% sure I wanted to return to the States but was compelled to proceed with the process due to going through very-tough economic circumstances.  Surviving in Ghana can be extremely difficult.

Moreover, all of my friends were pushing me to return, because they couldn’t really understand why I decided to move to Africa to begin with.  The situation was also such they were hoping that if I did go back to the States, I would then proceed to invite them over.  Whereas coming over here the way I did definitely wasn't wisest decision, I would say that an American can appreciate why I left the States more than a Ghanaian.


‘So if you’re stuck in a foreign country with no dough, then what collateral does the US Government take for giving you a Repatriation Loan’, you may be asking.   Their collateral is your passport.  What they do is basically make it null and void, in terms of actually being able to travel with or renew it, until you pay off your debt.  So the way it's intended to work is that you're given a ticket and a special passport to return to the States.  But you can't leave the US again until you pay off the loan.

At the time I took it, I was still relatively fresh out of the States, inexperienced in living in Africa and unable to fully appreciate the value of my passport, how not having it would subsequently affect my status in Ghana.  I remember shortly after I came over, one radical dude even suggested that I burn it, which I'm glad I didn't.  Or put more bluntly, I now realize that incurring that debt and losing my main and most-powerful form of formal ID was the most foolish thing I ever did since coming over, a decision that haunts me to this day.


So it would have been better that if I had either got on the flight or not taken the loan at all.  Instead, I’m currently stuck in a situation where I’m living in a country I’m not a citizen of nor will be in the foreseeable future, a country whose currency is weak compared to the US Dollar yet unable to apply for a job that pays in dollars due to the status of my passport.  Otherwise, I do have the educational background and work experience to qualify for one.

This isn’t meant to be a sob story but a real story.  And in part two, I will go into more detail about the realities of not having ID and how people who are perhaps thinking of taking a similar course of action (leaving the States for the Third World) should organize themselves accordingly.

I still recommend expatriating from the United States.  When I came to Ghana no one I met, including Ghanaian-Americans, were able to give me practical advice on how to survive as an American who didn’t come over with loads of money, presumably because they never met anyone like that before, nor were they expecting that I'd be able to last this long.  So one thing I am grateful for, as a trailblazer, is at least others will be able to learn from my experiences.

*WorknProgress was a literary website run by Brooklynite author Rodger Taylor.  "Uncle Rodger", who was a friend of a friend, unfortunately passed away in 2019, and since then, WorknProgress has gone defunct.  However, the short-lived site has been preserved via the Internet Archive.

Last edited on 20 April 2024.