Sunday, 13 April 2014

Living Single in Africa

Dubbed the African version of "Sex and the City", An African City has been greeted with a lot of buzz on the social media and beyond. The series is available on Youtube and consists of ten episodes (seven have aired so far) that give us a taster of the lives of  "Five beautiful, successful African females [who] return to their home continent and confide [in each other] about love and life in 'An African City'! "
A friend posted the pilot on Facebook before it aired and I must admit that I was intrigued - it looked both interesting and refreshing -life in one of our fascinating, colourful African cities. Also the story of the returnee is one that I'm familiar with, having lived in three countries in Africa as either a returnee or a friend of a returnee.

With episode 1, my hopes were abruptly dashed - instead of observing five exposed women for whom the African continent was not a 'foreign thing', I witnessed five condescending Americanahs.... 'Johnny-Just-Comes'; 'Summers' or 'Just-kams' as they are known depending on where in Africa you are. The first episode was so full of cliches that I cringed as I watched. The women have such conk American accents that they almost sound like caricatures. I would not have been surprised if they burst into "OMG Brittany...whatever...LOL" at any given time. All I could think in my exaggerated pan-West African accent (used for effect) is "What is dis Non-Sense?" To add insult to injury one of the silly characters lamented about not being able to get Starbucks anymore - I mean who on earth misses Starbucks in a continent that exports the best coffee on earth. To use an American expression that our five protagonists can probably relate to - "really dude....?"

Determined though not to write it off...after all on paper there was not a single reason why I shouldn't like this series...convinced I would be able to relate to some of their experiences, if not all - I decided to dig my heels in and continue watching. All I needed to do was grit my teeth and sit through seven fairly short episodes (around 20 minutes each). I discussed the series with my equally unimpressed friend who lived in Accra as a 'returnee/expatriate' for a number of years and managed to convince her that it would get had to.

So after watching all seven episodes, some more painful than others, I've decided to see the glass as neither half full nor half empty, rather than tell you what I think is wrong with An African City, I prefer instead to give you a list of its Pros and Cons. I don't want to be accused of being a "Hater" or not celebrating African Success so let's go with the list approach and I'll let you judge for yourself.

Let's start with the positives - that way if you love the series you can stop after this list and not be tainted by my negativity. Here goes:

  1. Fabulous African City - An African City is set in gorgeous, progressive Accra. What better African City to set a series that celebrates a new generation of Africans than in Accra, the poster child for the "Africa Rising" rhetoric.
  2. Beautiful Black Women - The five women featured in the series are stunning without a doubt....of different hues, shapes and sizes but each one embodies our diverse beauty in the continent and particularly in the region.
  3. African Fashion - I love how they showcase African fashion - each episode features beautifully crafted clothes - some Western but most with African fabrics. The people behind the series even provided the link for one of the designers that they use on their Youtube page. I think this aspect of the series is spot on because whether you are a "homegrown" African or a returnee, the most important relationship you'll have in any African city is the one with your tailor/dressmaker. They may frustrate you and cause you to blow up their phone when your outfit is not delivered on time but when they come through, there is no better feeling than being able to walk into a crowded room with your one-of-a-kind, made-to-measure fabulous piece of Ankara bliss.
  4. Relationship drama - The various relationship dilemmas are interwoven in each episode making for relate-able viewing no matter how old you are or what your marital status is. The reality of being single in any city produces interesting anecdotes let alone an African one where married men happily feature in your dating pool - and yes before you cry stereotype, that is is more of a reality in our continent than in say, New York, Paris or London. I recall when I first moved to Tanzania being asked on a date by a man and with my naive "Johnny Just Come" self, assuming he must have been not-married because why would a man with a wife and children at home take a woman out on a date in full view of society. Turned out he ,,was married and society was fully aware and fully accepting of his behaviour.  
  5. Women confiding in each other - Who does lunches/dinner parties/drinks better than women? For me the fact that these five women are the main feature of the series, with the various men merely serving as a backdrop - to illustrate the tales they tell - is a recipe for fascinating, eye-opening, mind-boggling exchanges. When I think back to the conversations I had about boyfriends, sexual experiences etc during my single days, I realise that if my exes had been flies on the wall during those moments they would have gasped dramatically and probably dumped me immediately afterwards. Among single women though, no topic is taboo....the size, the way it's used, the willingness or not to take the "southern route", when single women get together - it's like a multiple therapy session where everyone gets an opportunity to air their issues and offer advice, opinions, support or just a listening ear. It's both fascinating and hilarious and while married women can also produce many side-splitting female get-togethers, we tend to be a little less generous about dishing out information on our sexual experiences - a singleton can laugh about the guy she dated with the "Idris Elba face and micro-penis" but a married women would be less willing to share unflattering stories about her life partner's bedroom skills or lack thereof with a group of friends, no matter how close. 
But here is where I think the series needs serious editing/polishing/revamping before it can claim its rightful place among brilliantly executed web series like Misadventures of awkward black girl or Shuga that are embraced by both young Africans back home and in the Diaspora. Here is my list of the pitfalls of An African City...its 'Cons' if you will....

  1. Un-African Africans - after the first episode one of my girlfriends sent a message asking a group of us who had lived in Kampala as 'returnees' in our late 20s whether we were "that condescending". I immediately responded in the negative - while we bemoaned all the idiosyncrasies of living in an African city after spending decades in a Western one, we were never that disdainful. What you get in "An African City" is a bunch of self-congratulatory Americanahs (I failed to spot the British accents in all seven episodes I've seen even though at least one claims to be Brit-educated) who have a serious superiority complex. My experience in the three African cities I lived/spent time in, was of friendships that included both returnees and "home-grown" women. I remember a fabulous dreadlocked chick in Kampala who used to read poetry - she was born, studied and grew up in Uganda and I could relate to her as much as I could relate to the women who had the same Western education as me. The exchanges of the women in An African City reminds me of an expatriate dinner party I once attended in Freetown where white expatriates (oblivious of the colour of my skin and my origin) sat complaining about the locals and how hard it was to get "good help". Suffice to say that was the last time I spent time with that group of people. The women in this series are incredibly condescending and seem completely clueless about how this may come off to a "local".  In one of the episodes the main character Nana Yaa is shocked at the fact that her Ex's girlfriend spoke to her in twi...and half-heartedly regrets that she (and no doubt her friends) cannot speak a 'local language'. I mean "Are you kidding me?" (exaggerated generic West-African accent comes out again) - "are you an oyimbo/obroni/jungu/muzungu/wate-man that you cannot speak your own language?" *mcheewwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww* or *tsssssssssssssst* - "Foolish gyal- you bettah go and learn". Word of warning to all you Americanahs/Europeanahs out there, if you plan to go "back home", or as you might say, back to the "motherland" I suggest you brush up on your wolof, twi, yoruba, igbo, krio, swahili, luganda, shona or whichever language applies because living in African City and not being able to speak like the "locals" is simply not an option. You may as well be a foreigner...heck as far as Africans are concerned, you may as well be Chinese.
  2. Unrecognisable African names - when I heard the name Bamidele pronounced in one of the episodes, I almost fell off my chair. It was like I had been transported to middle America and was listening some foolish girl called Tiffany mispronounce an otherwise simple Yoruba name. But I soon realised that if one of the main character's name was being butchered - "En-GO-Zee" then what hope was there for poor "Bami-Day-Lay" whose face we did not even see (again...please read in appropriate African accent). Please, a word of warning if you are going to make a series set in Africa featuring African women, getting the names pronounced properly is a basic requirement. Even the character called Makena....for many of the episodes I was convinced her name was the friends kept calling her Mak-eee-na, it was only at the end that I realised that it was infact Makena pronounced in Kenya "Ma-kay-nuh". I don't know how the Africans behind this series could miss such an obvious issue or where they so absorbed in their own American accents that they thought African viewers would be happy to see their names butchered? Every word these women utter just sounds foreign to my ears, to quote a Youtube viewer, who was clearly irritated my Nana Yaa retort to the Immigration officer who told her (rightly) to join the line for foreigners, who on earth says "I'm Gheh-Nay-An"? My reaction when I heard her was - Wha' be dis NON-SENSE? (said in a Nollywood-esque accent).
  3. Too much too quickly - as I watched episode after episode, my head went into a spin with the number of issues the girls were "dealing" with at the same time. It may be true that in real life in one sitting you and your friends talk about parents' expectations, dating, government contracts, poor infrastructure, careers, exes, red tape - but on screen, that simply does not make for good viewing. An African City comes across as an attempt to cover all the bases when it comes to living in modern day Africa but for the viewer it's simply too much, too quickly. The subjects, most of which are pertinent could have been dealt with in far more depth if they were broken down, yet there were times when it felt like we were going through the creator/director's tick list. Okay - married African men -tick; corruption -tick; poor customer service - tick. And then there is the long list of Ivy league and Oxbridge schools thrown in here there and everywhere - all of them ticked off the list. Every single one if the characters - major or minor seems to have graduated from either an Ivy League university or from Oxford or Cambridge - I almost want to shout out as I watch- it's okay if you graduated from CUNY or South Bank University ladies....really you can still return home and do well. 
  4. Juvenile on so many levels - I kept trying to refresh my memory with every episode about my late 20s, early 30s....was I this immature? Either these women are getting starry-eyed as they make ridiculous declarations about 'love' or someone being their 'soulmate' or spouting cliches like "I gave you seven years of my life". Or the creator is dedicating entire episodes to quirky but hardly common experiences that involve either men playing "Fling the soiled condom" in their girlfriend's apartment or going down there to check whether their girlfriend 'smells nice' - or taking loud bathroom breaks immediately after sex - Again I ask you - What nonsense is this? Does the creator really mean to tell us that Ghanaian men have a habit of throwing soiled condoms around an apartment to see where it lands or that they don't go down on their women before doing the fictitious "belly button test" or that they develop diarrhea immediately after sleeping with their girlfriends? Chale ah beg o! Perhaps these oddities were featured for comedic effect - a fact that was lost on me but I think the creator missed a trick because there are so many pertinent issues that could have been dealt with, with maturity. For instance the "to wear or not to wear a condom" question is real - take notes from Shuga - where a character in the Nigerian version responds to being asked to wear one "how can you eat an orange with the peel on - it's just not the same baby". This is an attitude that is still so prevalent among African men, young and old.  The idea that having a vibrator is something so foreign to Africa and Africans that a customs officer would mistake the infamous rabbit for a back massager is laughable to me - I'm wondering if the creator and director have had the privilege of visiting the Ghanaian blog . You have to sign a disclaimer before entering the site, that is how risque it is. The first time I heard about it was when a friend sent me a link which gives a whole new meaning to the term 'going native' - it blew my mind! Another issue that could have been dealt with in a more mature and relevant way is the whole "to go down or not to go down on your woman" debate. This topic is fascinating because the likelihood of a man going down on you actually varies significantly from one African city to another, ...I would even go as far as saying from one ethnicity to another - while a Munyakole man in Kampala may happily do it, a Hausa man in Lagos may not be so willing. It depends entirely on cultural taboos and this really would make for a fascinating analysis.
  5. Africa is not a country - while I think it's commendable that the creators of this series are trying to paint a Pan-African picture, I don't think it works. First thing - Stop with the "since I came back to Africa...since I came back to the continent" - Accra is not Nairobi...Nairobi is not Johannesburg....and Jo'burg is not Addis. While there are certain similarities -there are more differences than there are similarities. For instance customer service at Java's in Nairobi is excellent, yet go to Bancafe in Kampala and you'll want to throttle someone. Freetown has power and water rationing but Abidjan has no such problem. Women in Dar-es-Salaam tend to wear Westernised clothes whereas women in Ouaga will rock their African print and Dutch wax in the most elaborate styles. There are similarities but there are differences - many differences. And the attempt to create a group that represents 'the continent' - Sade being half Nigerian; Zainab - Sierra Leonean; Ngozi-Nigerian and Makena born in Kenya (I assume to Kenyan parents) simply falls flat when there is no follow through. The only thing I see from all of them are bland generic Western cultures - perhaps with the exception of Sade who has a bit of African spunk. They could be any group of women from any random city - London/New York/Paris - and no amount of pronouncements about "Ghana being the place of my birth,... my parents birth" changes that. It's odd because the creator does not have to look far to find true Afropolitans (to steal an expression coined by another Ghanaian) in African cities. There are many who in spite of being away from their country of birth or origin have maintained a connection with said African country that makes returning home relatively easy. Yes ofcourse they will bemoan the bureaucracy and inefficiencies in countries that are mostly developing, they will also discuss experiences that they may have taken for granted in the West but they wont in any way be handicapped by their Western education or upbringing. They can flip from their Oxbridge accents to a conk Ugandan one when the need arises; depending on who they're talking to they can either "chuchote à la Française" or launch into nouchi when trying to get a bargain in Cocody market. And then there are the Africans who move effortlessly from one African City to another - from Abuja to Harare to Libreville - all in a week's work and they are equally at ease in one city as the next - authentically Pan-African. Instead what we get is a group of über-Westernised women who seem to observe Africa from the outside. Watching the seven episodes, I simply can't get the image of the film White Chicks out of my head - as Nana Yaa or Sade or Ngozi speak all I can hear is "OMG Brittany...can you believe her...I was like seriously".  
Suffice to say An African City represents a start to getting interesting stories told about the continent but it's a far cry from being our answer to Sex in the City - if there is one thing we could say about the women in SATC is that they were New Yorkers through and through - our five fashionistas in An African City are neither authentically Ghanaian, nor West African, nor African for that matter. Personally I think this is a shame because as Africans back home and in the Diaspora we do have fascinating and relevant stories to tell but what makes them interesting is that our storyboards are coloured with our cultural experiences, our versatility, the languages we speak, the cultures we respect, our understanding and embracing of religion - even if its on our own terms. Perhaps the show will redeem itself in the last three episodes, perhaps the women will get accent transplants and befriend a 'local' who may not be so strange after all...until then I'll continue to enjoy the beauty, the fashion and the fabulous backdrop that is Accra.


owpeepee said...

...Lovely piece. Sounds like the escapades of someone I know. Actually worked with. Keep it up... wink!

Isioma said...

I hate that term " 'Un-African' African ". I find it insulting. What does that even mean? You are African by virtue of being born there and that is that. It's divisive and exclusive to define anything else.

I was born in a West African family and raised in the same West African country for 18 years. I moved to America for college. I'm in my fourth year and about to graduate. I am likely to return home this year.

I can more or less understand my native language but I cannot speak it. Am I therefore an 'UnAfrican African' by your definition?

The Hibiscus Notes said...

Thanks for your comment.

I feel though that the term Un-african is somewhat taken out of context - not being able to speak your native language by itself does not make you Un-African but being condescending about it and those who do speak their native language does.

I find it baffling that as a people we are always the first to denounce our culture and claim some adopted one. The issue I have with the ladies of An African City is precisely that - many of us have diverse backgrounds, and living in countries outside our 'home' countries is hardly unique. I left home at 9 for a foreign country but continued to speak my native language throughout because my mother thought that was an important part of my identity. While I recognise that everyone's circumstance is different, the point the piece tries to make is that we should be making an effort to embrace our cultures not act as though epitomising all that is Western somehow makes us superior to those we find back home, who have never lived in western countries.

Going back home after a long period abroad is not without its challenges but we should be making every effort to learn our native languages and embrace our cultures rather than forming cliques and looking down on 'the locals'.

Anonymous said...

Very well written. I agree with all your points above. It also scares me the amount of press this series is getting-- from BBC to CNN, what next? NPR? Where is the due diligence? I just wish these media houses would give a representative view of what African women think about the series, instead of making it seem as if the women represented define us all.