This post was sparked by my friend Nana, who shared her impression of the show via her FB page.
I couldn’t glean much from the title alone but once I found out that the new web series, An African City, features five diaspora African women who decide to move “back home,” in this case to Accra, Ghana, I started watching immediately.
It pains me to admit this but after eight episodes in, I’m leaning toward the disappointed/cringing with every episode/crimpling my eyebrows a little too often stage. Which sucks because I really want to love this show, especially since there aren’t many out there like it. But it falls short because: a) the acting could be better; b) uniformity of the background and lifestyles of the characters – I get that there has to be a core that ties the show together but virtually every character who speaks more than two consecutive lines lives and works in the same social and economic circle; and c) simplistic narrative style that scratches the surface instead of going deeper to complicate existing notions.
Critiques should start with the positives, right? The aesthetic beauty of the five women themselves, as well as their confidence, fashion, femininity, hairstyles, and overall girlfriends and sisterly vibe is wonderful. I like that everyday realities of life in Accra and probably in other places in Africa are explored, even if in a lighthearted and comedic way, such as: the overabundance of bootleg medicine instead of the real thing, being called fat as a gesture of compliment, encountering men who have no qualms about urinating in random and very public places, being “flashed” by someone who is running low on phone credit and so wants you to call them back using your own credit, the expectation to bribe and be bribed, inefficient and lackluster customer service, enduring constant telecom network outages, and of course, the infamous African time.
The show also deals with heavier realities, like the gender-based struggles and expectations women face when they seek and find employment, especially navigating some industries that are wholly dominated by men. All five characters defy the boundaries of womanhood set in place by their environments and cultures in one way or another. The plight of vegetarians is explored through Ngozi, who must carefully plan her meals “in a continent whose cuisine center(s) around meat.” Both Nana Yaa and Zainab are confounded that in a country full of black people, there are those that not only go through great lengths to alter their hair and skin textures, but find it distasteful to keep one’s hair and skin as it naturally comes.
Now on to the problematic aspects of “An African City.” The central narrative is part and parcel of the Africa Rising rhetoric of the last several years. It promotes a renewed image of the continent as the place to be, the time to invest, the moment to move back, a message marketed in an urgent way that warns diaspora Africans not to miss out and get left behind. There are many conversations already taking place on this subject, so the aim here is not to debate if Africa is indeed rising, but to look at the way such changes and transformation are discussed and who they include/exclude. The women in this series were able to leave behind the West for Ghana mainly because they had the means, privilege, and access to do so. And after they arrive in Accra, they can afford to enjoy a comfortable and enjoyable lifestyle, what with their drivers, expensive homes, and nice neighborhoods, thanks to serious family connections (Nana Yaa), sugar daddies (Sade), entrepreneurship (Zainab), and working at an international development organization (Ngozi). The show’s creator, Nicole Amarteifio, defends this decision in an interview with Ebony magazine:
“And quite honestly, it’s about time that that “certain segment” of the African woman be showcased. Why not? For so long mainstream media has shown the African woman as one who has HIV, living in poverty and needs to be educate about maternal and child health. That has been the reoccurring visual of the African woman. I want to change that.”
I respect and appreciate this mission; however, it is creatively possible to incorporate diversity on this quest to overturn negative portrayals of Africa and its people. Diasporans come in all shapes and forms, with varying bank accounts, political and social motivations, and reasons for moving back home. These are important and valid considerations.
In the later episodes, we finally begin to meet characters born and raised in Ghana. That is, those that weren’t just restaurant waiters, airport and customs workers, housegirls and “the help,” parking attendants, and bartenders that only interact with the five women in service oriented situations instead of in personal and meaningful relationships. Even the men they date are also returnees from prestigious and privileged backgrounds. It got exhausting to see virtually the same types of people over and over again. The invisibility of Ghanaians who’ve spent their whole lives in Ghana is glaring, even if the primary focus of the show is on returnees. After all, the returnees must eventually interact with the people that already call Accra home so it doesn’t make sense to omit those relationships.
I love the concept behind “An African City.” Its central themes and topics tug at a deep desire I have to see these kinds of stories represented in media. Recognition, reflection, and visibility matter a great deal. But at this point, I’m wondering if it’s enough to just be shown. The implications of what and how something or someone is shown are just as important, if not more, than the fact that they are shown in the first place.
Effective storytelling requires different, multiple, many, and diverse accounts of lived experiences. Perhaps we can take “An African City” to be one contribution to this effort. But we can and should also aspire to create and ask for stories that most closely resemble the truths of our realities and aspirations. It’s off to a start by touching on identity among Africans, such as language and how that defines cultural belonging and authenticity. I still believe in the possibility of this show and hope that it grows and incorporates feedback from its audience. That is a major benefit of hosting independent projects on social media platforms, no?
Oh, and I’m still trying to figure out what exactly “an African dump” is. Pray do tell.