A group of metropolitan single women juggling their careers and sex lives is a well-worn but beloved television premise. Nicole Amarteifio and Millie Monyo propose this in their web series, An African City, which some have hailed, “Africa’s answer to Sex and the City.” I’m a Samantha.
The series open in an airport where Nana Yaa (played by MaameYaa Boafo), newly returned to her native Ghana after years in the US, cruises in style. She thrusts her passport at a disbelieving immigration officer who tries to wave her to the foreigners’ queue. “I’m Ghanaian,” she says exaggeratedly.
A later scene takes places at a fancy restaurant with her glamazon friends. Each character embodies a tale of the West African returnee: the benign USAID employee, the fierce marketing manager, the unemployed Oxford-educated lawyer, the entrepreneur. Their outfits are gorgeous. They are gorgeous. Life is gorgeous. Except that Accra is amiss.
The title “An African City” may sound generic, but it fits. The only clues we have of the setting are fleeting establishing shots. Rather, Nana Yaa and her clique bounce between opulent restaurants and her 5,000 USD/month apartment. The show’s characters inhabit a hermetic universe. AAC may be doing for Accra what Seinfeld and Friends did for New York City, which is maybe not so positive. On the other hand, this might be a genius move on the part of Amarteifio. Accra is so indistinct here that it could represent any location. To the first-time viewer who asks, “Where the hell is this?” An African City retorts, “Up to you, my friend.”
Neoliberal development, Geographic erasure
I remember roaming through such an ambiguous space. In my early twenties, I taught at a primary school in a bustling Iraqi city, where I would carpool with a colleague, who once drove me to a residential complex near the airport named “The American Village.” That afternoon, we steered through while she wistfully pointed out houses—beige outsized McMansions. This was uncomfortable since, just a few weeks prior to that visit, I had attended the house party of an international NGO worker. The gated community also sheltered oil industry workers, senior civil servants, and other employees of relatively lucrative professions.
Months earlier, at a bar, I had met a glossy Lebanese man who was venturing into a similar real estate construction: Gated communities, American-style suburbia, a vision in cash.
“That’s crazy!” I told him.
“It’s just crazy enough to work,” he smiled.
What was actually crazy was that, within the same year, Christian refugees who had fled sectarian violence populated the city’s neighborhood; local government allowed modern buildings to congest the perimeter of the Erbil Citadel, the oldest continuously inhabited human settlement. But you might have never sensed any of this from rolling through that block. The city’s pulse stopped at The American Village.
Such is the dislocation of neoliberal development.
Perhaps for this reason, AAC has a sizeable but polarized following. I culled feedback from the show’s audience by trolling social media, mainly the show’s Facebook page, “liked” by more than 31,000 people.
Daoneman80, a YouTube viewer, had this to say, “I hope they don’t turn this into some housewives of Atlanta junk. We don’t need more negative images of single black women that can’t find men reaching the motherland. That’s a western problem. And there lots of reasons why women over here can’t find men.”
Feminist redemption and natural hair
The sexism of this commenter’s remark counters the most likeable aspect of the show, its feminism. It shines for its portrayal of ambitious, financially independent female characters. And if it means anything, the main characters sport natural hair. Amarteifio’s narratives range widely and seldom feel prescriptive. Her plotlines explore sexuality and feminist agency, and the cast play them with aplomb. In an early episode, Nana Yaa, the main character, chooses not to financially rely on a man who would lavish her with gifts, and opts to buy her own apartment—an upfront take on transactional relationships.
In a mid-season episode, Makena (the idle lawyer played by Marie Humbert) discovers, to her mortification, black fetish porn in her Caucasian lover’s bathroom, and spends the rest of the episode brooding over whether he finds her interesting for that sole reason. This storyline is not played for laughs, but explores anxiety around a theme seldom discussed on TV from the point of view of a person of colour (American comic Louis CK executed the same plotline from an inverse point of view in the first season of his TV show Louie).
Despite all the comparisons to Sex and the City, the writer admitted in an earlier interview that she took her cues from The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, a cult web series co-created by Issa Rae. Awkward Black Girl was a revelation to a previously untapped viewership of quirky women of colour who have navigated racism in North America. The most important characteristic of Awkward Black Girl is that Rae seems comfortable enough to make fun of the interactions between the main character and her environment. Take, for example, an episode that starts with a quick cut of bigoted questions from her boss.
“Oh my god, your hair!”
“Do you wash it?”
“Is that how your ancestors wore it?”
And so on. These questions are followed by a shot of over-the top reactions from Issa, physically shaking her boss. It’s cartoonish, but dramatically satisfying. Too many times, I have fielded this type of question, but to see them compressed in that offbeat scene in Awkward Black Girl made me laugh at the dreary and familiar for the first time.
Morally Bankrupt Middle Class
On the other hand, even though many of the scenarios rendered by Amarteifio feel real and relatable, AAC’s preoccupation with the psyche and lifestyle of the middle class (elite, by global standards) seems to shrug off economic inequality and the impact they have on their world. For instance, there’s a running gag about waiters who include lemons in the women’s drink against instructions. The punch line: “I said no lemons!”
The world is obsessed with Africa’s rising middle class. With bated breath, the IMF, The Financial Times (paywalled link), The Guardian Africa Network (via Africa is a Country), the United Nations’ African information programme, the World Bank, Harvard Business Review, and Time Magazine have each weighed in on its meaning, from various angles.
African returnees, who, encouraged by stable sociopolitical conditions, partly shape that narrative. Some may want to develop their country, others, unwittingly, create ire. One irate blogger put it this way:
“They come back to Ghana bathed in a cloud of Versace (both cologne and clothing) armed with knowledge, a hard won accent, and a gross sense of entitlement.”
Writer Bynyavanga Wainaina spoke more playfully of middle class politics and privilege in his documentary-essay, “We Must Free Our Imaginations,” contesting the wanton modernization of African cities.
AAC may not appeal to some for its celebration of consumerism and corruption, with only a frail veneer of satire to redeem it, a fact that sends this working class-raised girl into apoplexy. That being said, it’s worth a watch, if only for its subversion of over- and underplayed images of African women.
What are your thoughts on An African City?