Updated: Aug 23
British Ghanaian Helen Debrah-Ampofo is a qualified English teacher who moved to the United Arab Emirates with her husband in 2016. She’s also a private tutor and a content creator who blogs about UAE lifestyle, being an expat and her experiences of travelling.
She also established an online community for women with afro hair after challenges in finding the appropriate products when she decided to grow her own out. She tells us what life is like in Abu Dhabi and why the colour of your passport is more important than the colour of your skin.
What took you and your husband to Abu Dhabi and when?
My husband Massimo and I moved out to Abu Dhabi back in 2016. We are English teachers by profession and knew that we would be able to have a better standard of living on teacher salaries than we would back home.
Teachers aren’t paid very well back home but moving here has meant we get to keep all of our earnings (because salaries are tax-free) and save. It would have been a lot harder in the UK.
What were your expectations of life there? And did Abu Dhabi meet them, exceed them or fall short?
In many respects, living in Abu Dhabi has exceeded my expectations. I didn’t realise how multicultural it is here and I love being constantly exposed to other cultures. I’ve had many opportunities to travel to places that were not even on my radar back home. That’s been amazing.
But the main thing that has been somewhat disappointing has been the job market. Because of some strict qualifications, I have not been able to find work as an English teacher since being here.
Why was that?
I did a degree in Psychology and a PGCE in English back home and even though that’s normal in the UK, in the UAE they want you to have a degree in the same subject you teach. So I haven’t been able to teach because of that. It has been a blessing in disguise though because I have been able to build my own businesses as a result.
What businesses are those?
Talking of hair, how have you been able to maintain your lovely ‘fro while out there?
Aww thanks! Being Ghanaian helps – our people are blessed with hair-oh!
It hasn’t always been easy. I shaved my hair before moving here back in 2016 and quickly realised that I wouldn’t be able to go to the men’s barber shops as they are not unisex in the UAE. So, I decided to grow my hair out but didn’t know where to get products and because I was new in the country, I had no one to ask.
So, I started an online community for women with afro hair who find themselves in the same predicament as me four years ago. And it’s because of the expertise and knowledge of the women in the AfroHairUAE community that I’m able to grow and maintain my ‘fro!
"I’m very aware of my Western privilege and feel as though I’m treated better here in the UAE than back home in the UK."
Being British or Black which sticks out more for you and how did you deal with that?
The way you are treated here is more based on your passport than the colour of your skin.
I think this is the first place where I’m not constantly confronted with the fact that I’m Black. So where I live, the job(s) that I do and even my social circles are a result of my British passport. This is what privilege feels like.
I’m very aware of my Western privilege and feel as though I’m treated better here in the UAE than back home in the UK. If I was coming directly from Ghana rather than via the UK, I know my experience would be very different.
I feel like I have to be actively conscious of my privilege and acknowledge that it comes with a responsibility. I’m always on the lookout for ways to help those who don’t have the same privileges that I do. Otherwise, what’s it all for?
Is there a sizeable Black/Ghanaian community there?
Yes! There are loads of us. Black people from Africa, The Caribbean, Europe and America. And I’m convinced that you can find Ghanaians in most places in the world. We’re here, there aren’t loads of us but we’re about.
What tourist sites would you take a visitor to and why?
If you visit Abu Dhabi, it’s a must to visit Dubai too. My top five destinations across both Emirates are:
- Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque (AD) (1st image)
- Louvre Abu Dhabi (AD)
- Qasr Al Hosn (AD)
- Burj Khalifa (Dubai) - (2nd image)
- The Palm Jumeirah (Dubai)
A blend of spectacular architecture, luxury and culture.
What is your travel style?
I’m really active on holiday because I like seeing what each place has to offer. But my main thing is travelling like a local. I hit up the spots that local people go to so I can have an authentic experience of the culture – especially with food! I much prefer to eat with the locals rather than the tourists! Japan was supposed to be my 24th this March but the Rona had other plans.
And what are the Race Archives?
Race archives are documented experiences of Black people. Although I’m an expat and travel blogger, I’m a Black one. Because of the state of our world, Black people are forced to ask questions like ‘is it safe for me to travel to…’ or ‘how do they treat Black people in…’. So unintentionally, and more often than not these days, I’m forced to share my experiences from a Black perspective.
Many of us ‘migrate’ but we’re not seen as ‘expatriates’ because of the colour of our skin and so being a ‘Black Expat’ is a new concept. And I’m documenting it for those who come after me. Same with travel. We need to document these things so our people can be well-informed.
And how have you dealt with the lack of travelling due to lockdown?
Ugh! When will you traaaavellllll? It’s not as bad as it could be because for many, Abu Dhabi is a holiday. I’ve done a few staycations, which have been nice but I’m itching to get on a plane.
How have you navigated being Christian in a predominantly Muslim country and keeping to their modesty rules?
Well, I love the fact that we’re allowed to practise our faith freely out here in the UAE. They respect our religion which makes it easier to respect theirs. But even if they didn’t, part of being a Christian is having to love others regardless of how they treat you. But to be honest, they are very tolerant and liberal in Abu Dhabi and Dubai so it hasn’t been that difficult. I also work from home so most of the time, I’m wearing my grandma’s cloth.
Are there any parallels between Abu Dhabi life and UK/Ghana?
Abu Dhabi is quite Western, especially in the social aspect. There’s always loads to do and the lifestyle is very modern.
As for Ghana, the main thing that sticks out as similar is their concept of time. We have Black Man Time (BMT) in Ghana and ‘Inshallah Timing’ in Abu Dhabi.
Are you planning on staying?
Who knows? That’s the beauty of being an expat, I’ll go where the wind blows me and the Spirit moves me.
Visit Helen's blog here for more on her adventures.
And if you live in the UAE and are looking for help with your afro, check out AfroHairUAE
Read about other Ghanaians Abroad by clicking the category tab 'Ghanaians Abroad' in the corner. And if you are a Ghanaian in the diaspora living in some far-flung part of the world and would like to share your experiences with us, fill in our mini questionnaire and you could be featured in our next post.