Exploring An African City: An Interview with Nicole Armatefio

Interview and Photography By MANTSE ARYEEQUAYE

Mention African cinema and commentary is bound to focus on Nigerian cinema, better known as Nollywood. South African cinema usually comes next with Kenya a distant third and Ghana struggling to follow, lurking in the shadows while attempting to reclaim its past glory.

 Thanks to ill-written screenplays, poor direction and atrocious acting, the Ghallywood industry is rather detached from most people’s realities. An African City jumps into the fray, a Ghanaian retribution in webisode form, exploring African femininity through the lives of a group of repatriates. The Youtube phenomenon has received mixed reviews with some calling the characters privileged women who only seem to eat at fancy restaurants and wear gorgeous fashion.

 Recently, we sat with the creator and director of the web series, Nicole Amarteifio, to understand her motivations and creative cues in undertaking the project that is An African City.

 

ADA: Can you tell us why you created An African City and what story you wanted to tell with this work?

NICOLE: Seriously, I was just tired of the same imagery, the same visuals, the same messaging about African women. I was tired of the African woman always being synonymous with an anti-poverty campaign, and so I wanted to change it up. And so I looked at the lifestyle of my friends, myself and other African women I knew, women throughout the continent, and I said yeah, I want to get their stories out there, in a funny way to break these stereotypes, but in a funny way.

 

ADA: Do you think you’ve been successful? Outline what the successes are and also what you think the shortcomings have been.

NICOLE: Well the success of the show is, first of all, I was not expecting this to happen. I created this web series as a pilot season so I could pitch to TV networks. I had no idea it was going to take off like this. I thought it would reach a few thousand hits per episode maybe, but I wasn’t expecting less. So yeah, I think one of the success points is the numbers. I mean people are watching this, which means they want it. I think they, too, were looking for different imagery, different visuals or different messages about the continent. I think that’s why the numbers keep going up.

 Other success points, I think, are the five beautiful women who are representing Ghana. The fact that Ghana is now being talked about differently on BBC, CNN, Ebony and BET right now, is speaking well of our nation. Even if the majority of the episodes are looking at something silly, there’s always going to be a serious issue in every episode. And if you pay attention you’d see it.

 Episode 2 for me opens up with Nana Yaa trying to buy an apartment and in that scene it shows how ridiculous the housing market is in this country – how it’s inflated and way too expensive for the ordinary Ghanaian. I wanted to bring up this issue. I wanted to have a conversation about Ghana’s housing market.

Episode 3, the whole episode is completely silly. However, Ngozi gets one little line in there about 2.4 million people do not have access to toilets. You know just putting that fact out there. And that’s not an African issue but a global issue.

Episode 4, I thought would be an interesting, hilarious take on how it is dealing with the Customs Exercise and Preventive Service (CEPS). If you’ve ever dealt with Customs and shipped anything, it is tedious. There’s a story of corruption in Africa but what I like is the customs agent did not take the bribe. But yes, corruption is an issue so I thought let’s deal with it in a more comical way.

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I feel like every episode, I wanted to have some kind of issue that’s brought up and the online audience can talk about. With the concept of the show, it was my first TV project, which actually makes me feel vulnerable because I just wasn’t expecting all of this. There are some issues with sound and lighting but I think it can only get better next time with a bigger budget and team. If I had two days more budget for Season 1, what I would have done is made sure the B-roll really showed more parts of Ghana. We tried to do it. We certainly showed different establishments here in Ghana. But we wanted to do more, that was the goal. Really showcase our country and more of the spots that mainstream media doesn’t show you. I’ve heard the critique about this whole returnee versus local Ghana. This was a story about returnees and if people just give us time, it might not have happened in Season 1 but I think you would see that gradually what happens in Season 2, the returnees are assimilating more into the culture that they’ve been away from for so long.

 It’s about timing. I pay attention to all the comments. There was one comment that you guys are not showing African men in a positive way. And I responded right away to this one person on Twitter and I let him know that most single women think that there are no good men in their communities. And there is a single woman wherever you go. You can be in Ireland, China, Los Angeles, and if you are a single woman, the reason you think you are single is because there are no good men around. In Season 1, I’m capturing the mind of these women who think there are no good single men out there. There were some good guys in Season 1. However, the girls have their own issues and did not know how to handle them.

 This show is a platform for all creatives. It has fashion designs from up and coming fashion designers. Whether it’s Christie Brown, Ameyo, it really was showcasing designers who are African or based in Africa. Whether it’s music – JaySo, Jeff Spin, AI or M.anifest – we were trying to showcase musicians from Ghana or around the continent. So I really feel one of the success points is that it showcases all kinds of art forms. And I feel like we did that. I feel like people are online asking about where’s that top, where’s that dress from, what was that song six minutes in. That’s a success point.

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ADA: There’s a conversation about returnees and how they struggle to fit in when they get here. And also how sometimes returnees sometimes feel like they’re better than everybody else. There’s an ongoing conversation on radio about this returnee tension with people who are living here. Some people say that tension comes out in your show. What’s your take on that?

NICOLE: Interestingly, I would actually say it doesn’t come out in my show. It comes out in conversations about my show. For me, it was really about showing the bonds between these five women. It’s never been a secret that my model was Sex in the City. And when I look at Sex in the City, it was really about these four women and their friendships and their bonds.

 I think the one line is that they are each other’s soul mates and men are just something there for them. And so for me when I look at An African City, it’s really about these five women, their bonds and them trying to navigate through life, looking at each other for support. So, they are looking inwards. They are looking within their circles. I think as the seasons continue you’d see them start to  look elsewhere, still having that close friendship and not being scared to be independent from each other.

 

ADA: Outside of Sade, the rest of the girls navigate Accra in a very insulated manner. Is that how you wanted to tell it or that’s just how it came out?

NICOLE: This is a pilot season, so there are a lot of things I did not explore because I wanted some time or flexibility for future seasons to play around. Sade is the oldest returnee and I feel like she understands the system more than the other girls do. That’s, I think, why it comes across like that. Also I think the story of the returnee is about our experiences and these are largely shaped by how our parents raised us.

So I think Sade says in one episode that even when she graduated from Harvard Business School, on the day of her graduation her father was asking her to cook him jollof with goat meat. And here she sits in Cambridge, Massachusetts, now trying to find goat meat to cook her father’s jollof. I feel like she might have had parents who immersed her in Ghanaian culture. And maybe the others, they didn’t really have that. That’s why they come back like a fish out of water.

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ADA: Most people like the characters but think their lifestyles are unreal. There’s obviously some sort of disconnect between these girls and the larger audience who watch the show.

NICOLE: You’ve brought up two issues here. I was saying in another interview that I like Breaking Bad. It doesn’t mean I have to be a chemistry teacher with cancer or a drug addict. There’s hopefully something human about the characters that you are watching, and that’s the connection.

 If you look at Nana Yaa, she’s a Ghanaian who does not know how to speak her local language. Some people think she’s bragging about that. You think she’s proud about that? She’s not. She’s been told her whole life that she’s not Ghanaian. She’s been told her whole life what she is. How many of us walk through this life and are told what we are? People are always trying to define us. That’s where I feel like the human connection between us and the audience lies. It’s because we understand that, having somebody always pointing and telling you what you are and what you’re not.

 So you might not know very affluent African women, but there’s still a way to relate to them. These girls have cash flow because they work. They all have steady jobs, except for Makeena who does freelance work. And yeah, from the way I see this country, there are economic opportunities in this country and these are women who understand how to capitalize on economic opportunities.

 What people aren’t probably talking about is in the very first episode where Zainab says she makes thirty thousand dollars (US$30,000) per container of shea butter she exports to the United States. And that is a real business and those are real numbers. Maybe not US$ 30,000 in profit, but US$ 30,000 in sales. She’s able to do that with the Africa Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA). If people really pay attention to Zainab’s character, they’d actually learn a lot about economic opportunities in this country. The biggest problem with AGOA is that African entrepreneurs don’t know about it. Oil companies in Africa know about AGOA. So they are able to export their oil to the United States tax-free. Ngozi works at USAID, and like some of us, her parents support her. So she’s making some money, but she’s also supported by her parents. There are some magazines that talk about how if you have a child today, expect to be taking care of them until they’re forty.

 I have different goals with this show. Some of the goals I have tie into the bigger picture for the entire season. Some goals are specific to episodes. Goals for one episode can conflict with goals for another episode. Globally people do not see Africa in this way. And that is a goal that I want to change. When people think about Africa, they don’t always have to think of us as poor, struggling with some kind of disease, conflict or war. I wanted global conversations about when Nana Yaa is wearing Christie Brown or that she’s reading a book by Chimamanda or what’s that restaurant they are eating in episode 2? That was my goal. I’ve heard educated Africans for a long time talk about how they want the narrative of Africa changed. I thought this was one of the many ways to do that because people are talking about the show. And they are not talking about war or disease or poverty.

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ADA: Are you looking to solely produce for television or you are gunning for a feature at some point?

NICOLE: This is my first web series project. I learnt a lot by just watching a lot of Sex in the City and watching a lot of director cuts and redressing everything I knew about the producers of the show. That’s my teacher and I think okay, well you have some seasons and then eventually you do a movie. It started as a web series. I hope it gets picked up by a TV network. And we are in talks with some TV networks. After a few seasons, it would be great to do some kind of full length feature film. From the web series to the feature film, hopefully, you’d see growth in the girls. I’ve read the comments. People think the girls are shallow or not in touch with what’s really happening on the ground. I think by the time it gets to the movie, there will be more depth and assimilation. With the feature film, I want it to be something that makes Ghanaians proud and I want it to be something that really shows the world what Ghana can do and what Africa can do.

ADA: Do you feel pressured by the attention you are getting?

NICOLE: Yeah I do. I think there is a lot of expectation and what I would say is that this show can’t be everything to everyone. There was one journalist that asked me, is this an accomplishment for all African women? You know that can’t be, but at the same time I hope it’s an accomplishment. There is certainly a lot of pressure from the critics and even from the fans of the show. I don’t want to disappoint them. Every episode I say, I do not want to disappoint the people who like us. And it’s especially tough because we’ve already shot the whole season so it’s not like I go in and change anything. So even when somebody does critique properly, I can’t go and fix it for Season 1. But I want to look into that for season Two.

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ADA: What’s your creative process?

NICOLE: I’m always jotting down notes. When I am in the writing process, I carry along a lot of stickies and I carry those stickies with me everywhere. And then anytime I have a thought, I jot it down and it goes in my notebook or my computer. Yeah, I’m always taking notes, listening to their stories and hearing what they are really trying to say. If I go to the salon, I’m listening to what the hairdressers are saying or I’m asking them questions. For me, reality is so much more imaginative than fiction. So I actually like hearing people’s real stories. And that’s the thing with Season 1 – I want to say 98% of it was real and maybe only 25% was exaggerated. I mean these were just people’s stories, stories from women that I know in different cities throughout the continent – Accra, Kigali, Lagos, Nairobi, Kampala, Jo’burg, Cape Town.

 

ADA: What is Season 2 going to be like?

NICOLE: Season 2 is just about getting to know the girls more. How can people feel more connected to Zainab, Makeena, Sade, Nana Yaa and Ngozi? Season 1, maybe there weren’t many positive portrayals of African men. Single women, wherever they are in the world, assume that there are no good men left. That’s the mind of many, many single women.

For Season 1, I thought we were capturing the mind of single women in Accra who just assume there are no good men left. But in Season 2, I think we’ll open that up and their perceptions might start to change because of certain Ghanaian or Nigerian men who shed a different light on the possibilities of African men.

You can catch An African City here

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