Five glamorous girlfriends sit at an outdoor café sipping lemonades and talking about sex. "Last night Edem and I used the pullout method," says one to the horror of the others. "What are you — in high school?" another woman asks, before a third chimes in: "The only time you will hear me support the pullout method is when happily discussing the British pulling out of Ghana in 1957."
Welcome to An African City, the brainchild of 34-year-old Ghanaian creator Nicole Amarteifio, who writes and directs the show. (Amarteifio is also an executive producer, along with native New Yorker Millie Monyo.) The web series has been dubbed Africa's answer to Sex and the City — with a few twists. Instead of Manhattan, the show is set in Accra, Ghana's capital city. Instead of Carrie Bradshaw and company, it follows the exploits of a 30-year-old journalist, Nana Yaa (played by Ghanaian-American actress MaameYaa Boafo), and her four BFFs, all "returnees" — women of African descent who have left their lives abroad to come home to "the continent," where they must learn to cope with malaria outbreaks, fuel shortages, power outages, noisy generators, and nosy aunties. But life in Accra also has its pros: perfect weather, beautiful beaches, mangos, "and then there are the men … dark and chocolatey. YUM!" says sexy banker Sade (played by Nana Mensah, channeling Samantha Jones). "Big biceps, big hands, big … "
Like Sex and the City, An African City is about sex, but it's as much about the search for identity in a traditional culture. It's a theme that resonates. Since An African City premiered on YouTube in March of 2014 and reached one million views within a few weeks (season two is available for $19.99, and they're hoping for a third season), the show has gained fans around the world. "We've been getting emails from women in Korea, Puerto Rico, Italy," Amarteifio says. "It just shows that women carry similarities across ethnicity, across race."
Like Sex and the City, An African City is about sex, but it's as much about the search for identity in a traditional culture.
The show especially hits home with Ghanaian, or "GH," women and other viewers of African origin who have taken to cultural forums like GhanaWeb as well as Twitter, Facebook, and personal blogs to voice reactions ranging from total adoration to total outrage. "As a Cameroonian girl living in Amsterdam I am LOVING this!!!!" one commenter gushed after watching the first season on YouTube. "SHOWS LIKE THIS WILL MAKE GH WOMEN MORE PROMISCUOUS," another viewer fumed on GhanaWeb, before ranting about how Sex and the City ruined American women.
It's late February when Amarteifio and I chat, and soon she will be en route from New York City to Accra — it's a journey she knows well. "Oh my goodness, I've been doing the move back and forth for a hundred years," says Amarteifio, formerly a social-media strategist for the Africa Region at the World Bank. Born in Ghana, she relocated with her parents to London shortly after the coup of 1981, later moving to Westchester County, New York, where she was raised until the age of 15. She spent the next few years ping-ponging between countries: she attended Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, before once again returning to Ghana post-college, and eventually she earned her master's degree in corporate communications and public relations from Georgetown University. Although Amarteifio identifies as Ghanaian, "I have this kind of dual consciousness," she says.
She's not alone. Despite instability in recent years, Ghana's economy has lured a steady tide of young professionals seeking better jobs and lifestyles. Many feel a loyalty to the country that their parents fled: by the mid-1990s, an estimated 10 to 20 percent of Ghana's population (then around 20 million) was living abroad. It's difficult to know the precise number of returnees, since many have dual citizenship and don't need to register, but the country is experiencing a considerable "brain gain."
Like the characters on An African City, the real-life repats often come home with advanced degrees and American or European sensibilities, but Amarteifio wasn't seeing their stories reflected onscreen (not by Nollywood or Gollywood, the respective film industries of Nigeria and Ghana). Tired of hearing a single narrative about the impoverished and diseased African woman, she was watching Sex and the City one day when the idea occurred to her. "I'm pretty sure Samantha was doing something absolutely crazy when I just said, 'My goodness, I have friends like this in Accra. What would it be like putting this on television with Ghanaian and Nigerian characters?'"
Amarteifio is a firm believer in writing what she knows, and that's exactly what she has done in episodes like "Got Goat Meat?," in which vegetarian Ngozi (played by Esosa E) gets a cooking lesson from her girlfriends. "When you are an African woman, whether Ghanaian, Rwandan, or Malawian, you are often told that your ability to be a domestic goddess is very important," Nana Yaa, the show's narrator, tells us. "Your whole future — if your end goal is marriage — hinges on it."
But the show also touches on deeper issues. In the episode "Forwards Ever," one of the characters, Makena (played by Marie Humbert), is raped by a handsome, wealthy man she is dating. "Her way of handling it was, in a way, not handling it. She didn't go to the police. She didn't report it," says Amarteifio, who wrote a powerful scene in which Makena finally tells her girlfriends about the assault, which didn't seem violent to her at the time. "I kept hearing myself say 'no,' and I kept thinking, Why isn't he hearing what I'm saying? My 'no' didn't matter," Makena confides.
When one of the women begins to question how it could be rape if he was "gentle," another girlfriend, Zainab (played by Maame Adjei), shuts her down: "The point is she said 'no.' I don't care if she screamed it, whispered it, or said it in fucking sign language." This is a scene inspired by real-life headlines in Ghana. "A couple years ago, there was a date-rape issue in Accra, and a lot of people were blaming the woman: she was in his room; she was wearing a short skirt; all the things that make people blame women," Amarteifio says. "I'm tired of the onus being put on the woman."
This is a scene inspired by real-life headlines in Ghana.
At times, the show functions as a consciousness-raising session, or at least a PSA. (Spoiler alert: in that episode about pulling out, Nana Yaa and her partner eventually decide to use condoms. "The educator in me comes out," Amarteifio says.) At other times, it doubles as a platform for celebrating African artists and authors, with the characters wearing must-have dresses by Ghanaian designers like Christie Brown (on the show's Instagram, viewers can shop different looks, from ethereal caftans to colorful, bold prints) and reading novels like Americanah by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Most of all, the show is a love letter to Ghana, and it has inspired homesickness in many Ghanaian viewers abroad. Amarteifio understands the feeling. "I come to America and have to pick up a cardboard box of coconut water — it's just such a strange experience because you want to drink coconut water out of a coconut," she says.
Bouncing between cultures has led to bigger revelations as well, particularly when it comes to beauty. "In Ghana, I was always told I was beautiful, and in the United States I felt like I wasn't told that," Amarteifio says."There were too many times when my color, or my hair type, was not right. That's unfortunate. I don't know how black Americans do it every day, because I always have Ghana to go back to."
Bouncing between cultures has led to bigger revelations as well, particularly when it comes to beauty.
With An African City, she aims to broaden viewers' perceptions of attractiveness. "Let me bring it back to hair politics," says Amarteifio, who is proud of the fact that four out of five of the show's main characters choose natural hair over wigs, weaves, and extensions. "I love the fact that these women are rocking their natural hair because, especially in Hollywood, natural hair is reserved for women in a period piece on slavery. There's nothing wrong with black women's hair in its natural state. I think natural hair is glamorous, beautiful."
In fact, some critics have complained that Nana Yaa and her friends are too glamorous. Representing Accra's 1 percent, the five returnees live in the chicest apartments and dine at the swankiest restaurants, their good fortune flowing as freely as their Moët & Chandon (as it happens, the brand is one of season two's corporate sponsors). And while An African City has no shortage of fans obsessing over the characters' fabulous flats and wardrobes, it's also the subject of deeper scrutiny among many Ghanaian viewers like Malaka Grant, a 38-year-old writer who grew up in Accra and now lives in Atlanta, Georgia.
"Most of my Ghanaian friends in Atlanta love the show because it's a different portrayal than what we're used to seeing in the media as far as Ghana or even Africa as a whole is concerned," says Grant, who wrote an article called, "The Trouble with 'An African City'" on her blog, MindofMalaka. "My issues with the show just come from upbringing: I didn't grow up elite. I grew up lower middle class, so I don't really identify with the main characters. I'm more likely to identify with the waiter or the housekeeper or the driver."
Critiquing the show for the website Okayafrica, Akinyi Ochieng, a Yale-educated writer and researcher with Gambian and Kenyan roots, urged viewers to remember that An African City is, above all, a fantasy. "As we indulge in this bourgeois tableau of urban African life," she writes in her article, "we risk forgetting that [the] independence of Nana Yaa, Ngozi, Zainab, Makena, and Sade is a rare privilege in a world in which African women experience fear more than freedom."
While Amarteifio is sensitive to such concerns, she isn't about to apologize for her characters. "It was very important for me to have these women who are successful and independent and at the far extreme of the 'single story' of Africa, which tends to be about war, poverty, and famine," she says, alluding to Adichie's famous TED Talk. "These women do exist. Let's have that be the face of black beauty. Actually, forget 'black' beauty — of beauty, period."
Brooke Hauser (@brookehauser) is the author of Enter Helen: The Invention of Helen Gurley Brown and the Rise of the Modern Single Woman, out now from Harper.