A ‘Sex and the City’ for African Viewers


 From left, Esosa E, Nana Mensah, MaameYaa Boafo, Marie Humbert and Maame Adjei are the main characters on “An African City,” the steamy Ghanaian web series that is working on its third season. Credit Emmanuel Bobbie/An African City Limited
From left, Esosa E, Nana Mensah, MaameYaa Boafo, Marie Humbert and Maame Adjei are the main characters on “An African City,” the steamy Ghanaian web series that is working on its third season. Credit Emmanuel Bobbie/An African City Limited

Let’s get this out of the way up front: “An African City,” the steamy Ghanaian web series about five young women looking for love in Accra, is an unabashed rip-off of “Sex and the City.” There are the ubiquitous five-inch strappy sandals, the scene-stealing dresses made of Fanti fabric and the bevy of men who hop in and out of the beds of Nana Yaa, Makena, Zainab and Sade. The women are as free and liberal about sex as their American HBO foremothers, with the exception of the fifth character, Ngozi, who is such a Charlotte.

The women fit perfectly into Carrie- or Miranda-type boxes. Nana Yaa, the main character, is a radio journalist who ponders existential dating questions in voice-overs throughout the show. Zainab and Makena both function as a Miranda — fiercely independent and all about their business. Ngozi is the church girl who works for a nongovernmental organization and purses her lips at too much talk about the male anatomy. And Sade is Samantha, with condoms spilling from the designer handbags that her rich, married boyfriend buys for her. The women spend an enormous amount of time sipping cocktails in dimly lit restaurants as they chat about rolling power outages, good condom etiquette and men who expect them to leave their jobs and make fufu all day.

But the show’s creator, Nicole Amarteifio, who moved from Ghana to New York and then back again, is also presenting an unseen side of culture on a continent that is usually depicted with footage of war, famine and poverty. There is none of that here. Instead, “An African City” struts into the lives of well-off African women. Makena is an Oxford-trained lawyer, and Sade graduated from Harvard Business School. Zainab sits atop a growing shea butter empire, and Nana Yaa’s father is the country’s minister of energy. Through the five women, “An African City” explores what it means to be a westernized young woman readjusting to the culture and surroundings of her home continent.

The five women are all “returnees,” the children of families who left Ghana for the West and then came home with so-called “returnee savior syndrome.” The phrase “to whom much is given, much is required” could be their unofficial motto, as it frames their interactions and challenges their way of thinking. They are constantly fretting about whether they would tip so little if back in Manhattan, or why the “white wedding” is considered better than a traditional one.
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The show has received deserved criticism for the distance it maintains from the side of Ghana that doesn’t yet have street signs or personal chauffeurs. Some of the women’s biggest problems are the usual complaints of the well off. Are their maids stealing their bras? Shouldn’t their neighbors buy expensive silencers for their power generators so the women can sleep a bit more peacefully at night? This is Ghana’s 1 percent, portraying a lifestyle that few on the continent can relate to.

Just like the original, “Sex and the City.”

But the show’s appeal comes from the ability to turn the same discussions that women around the world are having over cocktails and in group texts into a salient critique of Western and African cultures.

Bringing a handsome lawyer from Washington home to meet the traditional West African family reveals the divide between black people in Africa and black people from the United States. The question of entitlement is explored through familial connections high up in government. And a conversation about a particular form of birth control earns a quick and snappy referendum on colonialism, as Zainab says, “The only time you will hear me support the pullout method is happily discussing the British pulling out of Ghana in 1975.”
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In an interview, Ms. Amarteifio said most of her audience outside of Africa is in the United States, followed by Britain, France and Canada. Though the themes of love and sisterhood are universal, she assumes most of those viewers are members of the African diaspora.

Black women in Houston thanked her for showing women in natural hair and stunning African clothes, she said. And surprisingly, older women have nudged her to push past boundaries.


Nicole Amarteifio, the creator of “An African City,” has talked with Netflix regarding the show. Credit Jason Henry for The New York Times
Nicole Amarteifio, the creator of “An African City,” has talked with Netflix regarding the show. Credit Jason Henry for The New York Times

“It’s definitely my mother’s generation who come up to me and say, ‘Good job, good job, keep it going!’” she said. “And I’m assuming it’s because they like the fact that these are five young women talking so freely about sex, and there’s something so liberating about these five women. Maybe they didn’t feel in their day that they were that free.”

In an episode from Season 1, some of Sade’s luggage is held up at customs for upward of three months, leaving her without her beloved vibrator. She says she would have brought it in her carry-on instead “if I had known that you can’t get one in Togo, Benin, Ghana — anywhere in West Africa for that matter.”

A later episode has them mystified by social media and its role in a society that is already confounded by the murky lines drawn around traditional marriages. After Zainab’s date assures her that he is not married or seeing anyone, he friends her on Facebook without bothering to hide his actual marital status. “When a man in Ghana says that he’s single, it means that his wife is just in another country or in another city or the other room,” Sade tells her.

In Season 2, Makena’s African-American boyfriend is upset to learn that her family’s houseboy calls her uncle “master,” and she herself goes into personal crisis when her aunt tells her that the family once owned slaves. One episode shows a store clerk pushing bleaching cream on one of the girls, telling her that she would be so much prettier if she weren’t so dark.

Ms. Amarteifio is a returnee herself, as are many of the cast members. She moved back to Ghana after attending graduate school at Georgetown, intent on doing development work in her own country. She got a job with the government in development, but her heart wasn’t really in it. Then she fell in love, got her heart broken and binged on the DVD box set of “Sex and the City.” Watching it, she said, felt like watching her and her friends gallivanting around her own version of New York City.

“These women are actually very familiar,” she remembers thinking. “Women I know in Accra, women I know in Kigali or Nairobi or Lagos or Monrovia.”

So she wrote her own series. “An African City” features music from Ghanaian hip-hop artists like Jayso, chic home décor from Ghanaian interior designers that are highlighted in detail on the show’s Instagram page, and clothing from fashion designers like Christie Brown, Archel Bernard, Kiki Clothing, Osei-Duro and Afrodesiac. The vibrant colors and pop patterns have been the toast of the series, especially as members of the African diaspora have begun to incorporate kente cloth crop tops into their wardrobes and wear traditional patterns to big events like prom.

Ms. Amarteifio had initially planned to release the first-season episodes online, build a following, then pitch the series to a network like BET or the Africa Channel. But she didn’t even make it to the finale before those same channels were seeking her. It has since been shown on EbonyLife TV and A+, a subsidiary of the French channel Canal+. She’s been in talks with some of the networks to move forward with the show, but those discussions have stalled.

She has also talked with Netflix, which she said is likely to be the future home for Seasons 1 and 2. And she and Netflix are discussing “The Republic,” another show that she’s working on. It will be an African version of the ABC show “Scandal.”

Meanwhile, she has begun work on Season 3 of “An African City.” She doesn’t foresee the happily-ever-after ending that “Sex in the City” had, a bow-tied finale that remains scrutinized today. Rather, she says, she wants to continue to tell stories about Ghana through the eyes of young returnees looking for love on their home continent.

Source: The New York Times

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