As Africa’s middle class starts to emerge, propelled by growth and urbanisation, many diaspora Africans are choosing to return to the continent.
Many of these returnees, known as ‘repats’, are highly educated and skilled, and while they choose to take a chance on new opportunities back ‘home’, the process of adjusting to mentalities and business practices can be brutal.
Six years ago, Nicole Amarteifio was just another twenty-something social media strategist covering Africa at the World Bank. A Ghanaian who stayed in Washington, DC after obtaining her Masters at Georgetown University, she was steady on a career path when she decided to pack up her bags, return to Accra, and create a TV series that would debate all kinds of societal norms in her home town. Along the way, at least that’s what she hoped, the show would encourage young African women to talk openly about dating, sex, and marriage.
As characters, they become ever more endearing as they wrestle with promiscuity (or abstinence) and explore cultural and religious issues that are meant to shape their own definitions of modern African femininity.
Loosely inspired by Sex and the City, An African City was launched in 2014, with the second season premiering in January 2016 and a third season scheduled for early 2017. The show follows five sexy, sassy ‘repats’ who seem to get into all kinds of trouble as they navigate the hot spots—and archaic bureaucracies—of the capital city. Some critics view the characters as self-absorbed, pretentious or detached from the real Ghanaian life, but there are many realistic (and funny) depictions of the challenges (and delights) that come with the choice of repatriation.
If NanaYaa (a Lauryn Hill look-alike) is the Carrie Bradshaw of this romantic sitcom, Zainab, Sadé, Ngozi and Makena are the other protagonists who spice it up by bringing their own different, and often funny perspectives. As characters, they become ever more endearing as they wrestle with promiscuity (or abstinence) and explore cultural and religious issues that are meant to shape their own definitions of modern African femininity.
Even though they never seem to live up to their parents’ and extended families’ expectations, these five women form a tight-knit group as we watch them share their stories and confide in each other. They are always seen—dressed to the nines—at the coolest Accra restaurants and clubs, and the men who work their way into their beds are either too macho or too weak. Many urban women in Africa can only dream of those kinds of social lives, but no one can dispute the fact that these ‘repat’ narratives—often based on commitment issues and infidelity and heartbreak—are universal.
In May, I interviewed Nicole and one of her production partners at the house of a friend, in Accra’s East Legon neighborhood. She was very open about the logistical and financial difficulties she encountered in trying to make An African City a reality, and we spent a lot of time talking about the idea behind—and the making of—the show.
‘The idea first came to me ten years ago,’ she admitted, ‘but I had no idea how TV or film worked. So I would tell other producers about the idea, thinking that they could go and do it.’ One day, someone suggested that she should do it herself. First, she put together a budget, and then she realised that she just needed enough money to get started, not even to produce all the episodes in season 1, even if that meant that the content would initially just sit in a vault somewhere for a couple of years. She used her savings to get started.
While managing social media for the World Bank in DC, she realised that video content was becoming more important, so she started paying more attention to the work of multi-media producers, as a way to learn more about video production. ‘I felt that if I stayed close to them, and learnt more about the video process, eventually that would tie into my dream.’ So she watched these producers, followed them around, and signed on for local community college courses, in addition to online courses.
She had no idea how to write a script, and one of her professors told her to just start writing, to just put something on a page. So she started writing a script on Microsoft Word. When she showed him the result, he laughed at her and told her that no one uses Microsoft Word to write a script, that she should switch to a type of software called Final Draft. It was an arduous learning process, and anything she didn’t know she googled.
She found Sex and the City scripts—and scripts for other shows she loved—that were available online, so she downloaded them, continued with her research, and started assembling stories of her friends from Accra, Lagos, Kigali. She knew, from her conversations with her girlfriends all over Africa, that a Sex and the City type of setting in Accra would be plausible, and entertaining.
The story of returning home, that’s my story, so no one can tell me that’s not my story. That’s why the show is about returnees.
Nicole has moved, back and forth, between Accra and DC for most of her life, even though she says she is now back in Ghana for good. Both of her parents are Ghanaians, but because she wanted to go back home, she decided to make the story of the five women about returning home. ‘I knew that if I made the story about Ghanaians who’d always lived in Ghana, people would say, “What does she know? She’s been living away for half of her life.” But the story of returning home, that’s my story, so no one can tell me that’s not my story. That’s why the show is about returnees.’
Casting the five characters was a process that required a bit of legwork, and a lot of intuition. Nicole had gone to Ghana International School, one of the Accra’s top secondary schools, with Maame Adjei, who ended up playing the Zainab character. She convinced her former classmate that she needed to be a part of it. She had gone to boarding school (and taken theatre classes) in Connecticut with Nana Mensah, who who chosen for the Sadé role.
She organised an audition in New York, and MaameYaa Boafo (who plays lead character NanaYaa) was the first actress to walk in. ‘As soon as she left the room, I said, “This is going to be a good thing. This is it.” She was just brilliant, even at the audition.’ Esosa E was chosen, and at another casting event in Accra, she found Marie Humbert, who was a ‘repat’ from Geneva. It was important to Nicole that the actors knew the experience of repatriation.
As someone who has split her life between Ghana and America, Nicole Amarteifio talks a lot about double consciousness, a term coined by the African American author W. E. B. Du Bois and later popularised in his seminal 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk to describe those individuals whose identity is divided into several facets. As creative ‘repats’ such as Nicole Amarteifio use new video formats to reconcile their dual experiences and sensibilities through entertainment, other Africans living outside the continent are swaying towards repatriation.
I even know an African-American lady who, after watching An African City, turned to her husband, and told him, ‘Let’s Move to Ghana.’
‘I’ve received emails from Lagos,’ says Nicole, ‘from people who said they had been on the fence while living in the States, but realised, after seeing my show, that they could go home. So they made the decision to leave the States for Lagos. I even know an African-American lady who, after watching An African City, turned to her husband, and told him, ‘Let’s Move to Ghana.’ So at the end of the day, I think that idea of going ‘home’ is what holds it all together.’
There were a few technical challenges during the filming process, and Nicole admits that the show could gain from better production values, but now that she has accepted that she has become a full-fledged TV producer, she is already working on her next show, called The Republic and billed as a Ghanaian version of Scandal. She also wants to create a male version of An African City. An astute entrepreneur, her business model is based on sponsorship, and product placement, which covers her production costs while enabling her to retain ownership of her creations.