An African woman… With a pot on her head… Half naked, except for strings of beads hanging from her neck. We’ve all come across this image, or at least some variation of it before, whether on TV or somewhere online. Replace the pot on her head with a hand-woven basket filled with rice or fruit. Add a little baby strapped tightly around her back with the help of a long piece of brightly colored and patterned cloth, and perhaps yet another young child holding on to this dark-skinned woman’s hand as she calmly stares back at you from whatever screen you’re gazing at her from.
Several Africans in the Diaspora—including me—tend to find this recurring image of the African woman rather upsetting, because it portrays only one part of her story. However, rather than just sit and complain about being stereotyped, Ghanaian-born Nicole Amarteifio decided to do something about it. Her personal protest comes in the form of An African City, a new web series she created that centers on five young, dynamic women living in Accra, Ghana. The series follows these ladies as they navigate returning back home from living abroad, friendship and relationships.
The web series itself is partly autobiographical. Although she was born in Ghana, Amarteifio spent most of her formative years in the United Kingdom and United States. She has even admitted that she shares a lot in common with the five girls on the show: “They are all a little part of me and other returnees I know or have met.”
Since its launch online earlier this year in March, the show has garnered a significant amount of buzz, with approximately 1 million YouTube hits in a 10-week period and notable media mentions on CNN, BBC, NPR, and French ELLE. The show has scored several points online for its portrayal of the African woman—by African women—as strong, educated and having freedom of choice, as opposed to victims; impoverished and suppressed. Viewers have also commended Amarteifio for not conforming to Western standards of beauty and casting women with natural hair in her web series.
The web series has also been likened to Sex and the City by several viewers online, and with good reason. In an interview with AfriPOP!, an online magazine that celebrates global African culture, Amarteifio revealed that she was in fact inspired by the widely popular HBO romantic sitcom.
“I was sitting in Ghana watching re-runs of ‘Sex and the City’ and I just began to wonder, ‘what is the Ghanaian version, or the African version, of this show?” she says. “I enjoyed the openness, the vulnerability of the characters on Sex and the City, and started to wonder about these vulnerabilities in the context of being a Ghanaian returnee back on the continent,” she added.
Yet, sharing similar motifs with Sex and the City has also brought with it controversy for An African City. At various points throughout the web series, Amarteifio attempts to show an honest depiction of the undeniable relationship between sex and money in romance in an Afropolitan city, much to the dismay of several viewers online. This issue harks back to the words of pioneering Malian film director Souleymane Cissé in the 1983 documentary Camera Afrique. “The aim for African filmmakers is to be realistic. That means to conform to reality; to know one’s country, to show the others what Africa is. For that, one must be truly honest with oneself. To be honest, one needs to be free to express oneself. Without that, nothing works,” says Cissé.
While An African City certainly has its high points—not excluding its bold expression of local fashion and music—, the show still has a number of critical shortcomings. Perhaps the most obvious is that the plot itself lacks any real complexity and depth. Up until the final episode of the first season, the leading ladies hardly move beyond conversations and interactions that revolve around men and sex. Even the show’s source of inspiration Sex and the City had both character and storyline development with tensions often arising between the main characters. More importantly, for a show that claims to be “the story of the returnee,” it fails to address the bigger question of self-identity and the realities of being bicultural and multicultural after having lived outside the continent for a significant period of time. Referring to how many months a character has been back in the country on occasion does not suffice.
With An African City, there’s a real opportunity to take a deep look at the new generation of the proletariat in a modern West African city like Accra where several changes are taking place and where the contradictions of modern-day Africa are violently apparent. In this regard, An African City has barely scratched the surface. Overall, for being the first show of its kind to openly discuss sexual politics from an African perspective while simultaneously attempting to balance this with an empowered image of the African woman, it deserves praise. However, much is still expected of the show. An African City has potential to be more than just a Sex and the City pastiche, and while this is a good start, I’ll hold my applause for the next season.
By Usen Esiet