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“You look fat.” How is a woman supposed to respond to that? There is no obvious answer when the observation, accusation — or, in this case, compliment — is leveled by your smiling aunt, who is holding both your hands in hers and looking into your eyes admiringly.
This happens to the character Sade in the first episode of the web series An African City, which debuted on YouTube in 2014. Sade’s reaction is to force a smile over her gritted teeth and relate the number of times this has happened to her. Then each of the show’s other four main characters do the same — except for Nana Yaa, who is relearning social codes after having just moved back to Accra, Ghana, from New York. Sade, Zainab, Makena, and Ngozi use the occasion of a dinner celebrating Nana Yaa’s return to tell her about the advantages she will have and the challenges she will face after coming home.
Watching these women enumerate the times they’ve been called fat as a compliment parallels the series’ main strategy: each episode inventories and dramatizes the way the characters negotiate the difficulties they encounter in Accra. Some of the problems have to do with the limits of Ghana’s infrastructure — for example, real estate is as expensive as it is in New York, despite frequent power outages and the erratic availability of running water. But the real challenges — the ones that make the series worth watching — relate to lifestyle.
The women get the business in a cultural context in which it’s seen as attractive to have a body that looks well-fed but where, regardless of her level of education or professional achievement, a women’s worth is traditionally measured by her ability to cook— that is, to feed her husband. The show’s cultural politics around sex and gender are shot through with the misogyny typical to many places around the globe, but with a uniquely Ghanaian flavor: condom use is intermittent and dependent on vagaries like whether a woman looks “clean”; men try to buy women with expensive gifts like cars in order to keep them strictly in the role of side piece; men don’t go down on women because they purportedly don’t see that as masculine behavior.
Power dynamics exerted through sex and gender completely infuse the lives of the show’s characters, as do sex and sassiness. These women present West African feminine fierceness via innovative clothing, hairstyles, and makeup. This has led to the series being described as the African version of Sex and the City, but that’s just the Chardonnay talking. In fact, the show is much more ambitious than that. An African Village is not just about recognizing the intricate negotiations required of professional women who are trying to attain security, love, and career fulfillment. The show is also about the African diaspora and the return of its children to a place that has in some ways become inhospitable to them.
Many artists associated with Africa either by birth, familial culture, or extended experience have to work through the issue of how to return to the country of one’s birth or ancestry from the United States or Europe, particularly in light of the external and internal pressures to be seen as authentically African. Some contemporary curators and artists evade this trap by describing themselves in terms of the “global contemporary,” meaning that they see themselves as world citizens who convey a mix of local, learned traditions and what they have acquired through formal education and lived experience in other places. Another strategy some African artists utilize is to carve out a more suitable sociocultural reality through the invention of parafictions. For example, the commissioned artist for the recently closed Armory Focus section on African Perspectives, Kapwani Kiwanga, bases her practice on Afrofuturism and fictionalized accounts that imagine a world better than the one we now inhabit.
An African City can come off as light entertainment, with its pop-culture concerns about glamor and stylistic individuality, stock jokes like waiters who never get the drink orders right, and comedic plotlines like Sade finally getting her vibrator out of customs and Nana Yaa’s wealthy lover having a small penis. However, experiencing life in Accra through the eyes of the main characters demonstrates that local traditions are a kind of glue holding the social order together. At the same time, these traditions make it difficult for them to move as freely as they want and need to be, especially having been educated and raised in places that expect women to have and exercise their political, social, and sexual agency.
Indeed, the series keeps asking whether one is ever actually able to return home on one’s own terms. When Nana Yaa first arrives back in Accra, she has to pass through customs, and due to the combination of her dress, accent, and demeanor, she is mistaken for a foreigner by the customs officer. Zainab, despite having been back for years, seemingly still has not adjusted to the food in Ghana, and friends returning from abroad always bring her Pepto Bismol to get her through the rough patches. All of which is to say: sometimes we are rejected by the traditional gatekeepers of our homes, and at other times we absolutely cannot stomach what they ask us to accept.
An African City can be watched online.