The Returnee Experience

From the desk of our Editor-in-Chief, Pamilerin Beckley

There was a lot of online buzz this year surrounding An African City, a new online series created by Nicole Amarteifio and set in Accra, Ghana. I watched the trailer and the first two episodes back to back and then I kept watching for three main reasons:

1)   To see how the main characters develop hoping that when all the clichés are exhausted, some complexities, conflicts, twists and turns will begin to emerge. I was also intrigued to know what bound these women together as I found it very unreal and unrelatable that their friendship was solely based on the fact that they are returnees. There had to be more to their stories.

2)   I watched in the hopes that somewhere down the line there will be some intertwining of the city lives of local Ghanaians and the returnees. That for me would have been a lot more realistic and relatable.

3)   Fashion. This alone was enough to keep me watching. First episode in and it was obvious that these ladies were about to thrill us with their wardrobes, Sex And The Ankara City style.

With each new episode it became apparent that Nicole and I had different ideas which is fair enough given that An African City is her vision and not mine. I do however feel that there was a missed opportunity for truly great stories to be told, because the returnees chose to remain in their exclusive conclave and not mix. That missing dynamic, the missing conflict between the mentalities of home-based and those who have just arrived, would have made all the difference.

As far as online TV goes, I do not believe that I have seen another series that polarized its viewers as much as this did. And so we posed the questions: Does “returning” give African women the chance to progressively follow or discover their passions? Do you think the series is an accurate representation of the lifestyle of African returnees? For Claudia Akyeampong there was hopeful resonance but Janice Williams asks; who are these women?

Claudia Akyeampong

Hopeful Resonance by Claudia Akyeampong

When I heard there was a web series starting that would be chronicling the lives of returnees to Africa, I was hoping to be able to relate to the characters and see living in Ghana from the viewpoint of an “outsider.” As an African, I grew up with parents who always talked about going home eventually. “After we are done working, we will go home and enjoy life”. Even though I was born in the US, I was raised by Ghanaian parents. There is a value system you grow up with that always reminds you that you are an African first, and where you were born is just a minor technicality. An African City portrays the lives of five women and the everyday experiences they face as they adjust from living abroad, to living on the continent. They tackle issues that are universal; careers, culture, relationships and combine them with the overwhelming pressure of trying to create a sense of belonging in an environment that is both familiar and foreign. No matter how connected Africans living abroad might feel through family and traditions, there is a difference between being an African and being an African living in Africa.

We didn’t grow up saying, we are going to Ghana on holidays. We said we are going home. But is that truly the reality for returnees? The main character, Nana Yaa, is at the airport and because she speaks with an American accent, because she has an American passport, she’s assumed to be a foreigner even after she shows her name. I’ll never forget the several times in Ghana when I basically had to present a list of my family names before whomever it was believed me. Even then I would still get the, but you’re still not from here look. I can understand the look. There is culture and tradition in being an African. It is in the language, mannerisms, it is a way. Nana Yaa got the look for showing her passport and stating she is a Ghanaian, without a Ghanaian accent.  Now, to look at it from both sides, there is an air some Western born Africans return back with, that disproves the whole “Me ye Ghanani” statement. Living abroad is put on a pedestal that is often undeserved. The hype of living abroad has been fed by both African immigrants living abroad and Western born Africans living abroad, when they return home. Europe and the US are depicted as this land of milk and honey where you only need step foot on its soil and money rains down on you. If this were so true, why are so many leaving the constraints of the West to return home? It’s hard and that’s a truth I wish was more talked about. It’s like the camp letter you send home to your parents, telling them you are OK when in actuality, you’re miserable and can’t wait to go home.  I’ll never forget my parents saying, “We work here, that is all. We don’t live in the US. You come here, make your money, educate your children and you go home to live the rest of your life.” More and more, we are seeing that you don’t have to stay in the West to live.

Nana Yaa talks about how her mother constantly says that her natural hair embarrasses her. When I returned to Ghana [pullquote]Nana Yaa talks about how her mother constantly says that her natural hair embarrasses her. When I returned to Ghana with a head full of locs, I was told by my family that only the Rastafarians wore their hair like that and the Rastafarians were basically hooligans. I think I secretly went back with my own ideals of returning to Ghana. I somehow felt that my hair would be embraced because Africa is where it all started right? I like the fact that the women in this series are proudly wearing their kinky crowns, as returnees. I have never seen so much weave in my life, than when I was in Ghana. Hands down, even the quality of the weave is better, but I have to admit it was a little disheartening as well. I already see the obsession with long straight hair in the states. To each their own, some just like the idea of changing styles up when they feel like it, which is fine. However, for some, it is to distance themselves from parts of who they are, out of fear or out of shame.  Some see having kinky hair as a negative burden to adorn. This is when the affinity for extensions and wigs becomes a mask to cover up what is seen as an imperfection and not an accessory to one’s beauty.[/pullquote]with a head full of locs, I was told by my family that only the Rastafarians wore their hair like that and the Rastafarians were basically hooligans. I think I secretly went back with my own ideals of returning to Ghana. I somehow felt that my hair would be embraced because Africa is where it all started right? I like the fact that the women in this series are proudly wearing their kinky crowns, as returnees. I have never seen so much weave in my life, than when I was in Ghana. Hands down, even the quality of the weave is better, but I have to admit it was a little disheartening as well. I already see the obsession with long straight hair in the states. To each their own, some just like the idea of changing styles up when they feel like it, which is fine. However, for some, it is to distance themselves from parts of who they are, out of fear or out of shame.  Some see having kinky hair as a negative burden to adorn. This is when the affinity for extensions and wigs becomes a mask to cover up what is seen as an imperfection and not an accessory to one’s beauty. I grew up with my ma sitting me down with a spool of thread and like a sorceress, she would spin my hair into divine appendages of art. In both negative and positive ways, the West and the continent influence each other. I am glad to see a group of young women, owning their natural beauty on a platform that is highly visible to Africans on the continent and abroad. This will definitely encourage other young women to embrace who they are and wear it with pride.

Each woman talked about the difficulties of being business women in Ghana. There is the importance of knowing the right people in the right positions and the prevalence of the workplace being a male dominated arena. This happens everywhere, the only difference is how acceptable it is within the society. In the US, there are policies in place to protect both men and women from overt sexual advances in the workplace. In An African City, the fact that the women are talking about this being the way things are in Ghana, gives the sense that people have come to accept it. The character, Zainab talks about how she cannot pitch one business deal without a man eventually asking her for sex. Is this so different than living abroad though? In the US, sex is everywhere. We are bombarded by it in advertisements, magazines, movies, television, the list goes on. You can’t go anywhere without seeing women being objectified in the media or influenced to want to live up to certain standards of sexual saleability. The fact that there are more implemented statutes in place that govern what is appropriate interaction between men and women and what is not, is what separates the way women are treated in the business world between these two societies. One is just more direct than the other.

The dating situations in this series were hilarious, with one episode titled An African Dump. Even in this modern day I respect the fact that they included a character like Ngozi who insists on waiting until she gets married. On the other end of the spectrum, you have Sade who has no problem being a woman who knows what she wants and is not afraid to go after it. The sister circles about breaking up over snoring, lackluster hygiene, sweating, and disturbing bathroom rituals? Who doesn’t have relationship issues though? I’ve dated African men but not in Africa. I was told by one friend in particular who lived in Ghana that relationships have become more like business deals than loving partnerships. One issue that came up with Nana Yaa was dating an African man who loves nothing more than a traditional African woman. She comes back to Ghana, only to find her ex has moved on with a woman who speaks Twi. There is a feeling of being out of your element as an African in Africa who does not speak their language. I’ve heard it my whole life; “Oh you don’t speak Twi?” The truth behind why this is, makes me feel the need to heroically leap to my parents’ defense when other people chide them for not teaching us. My parents worked constantly. So much so that sometimes I didn’t see them when I went to bed or when I woke up. So, having the time to practice Twi with my sister and I, was not top priority. What was priority, was making sure their kids went to a school where they didn’t need to look over their shoulder when they walked home, putting a roof over their head, putting clothes on their back and food on the table. Do I wish that I had been taught? Yes. However, I am grateful that what I did learn, is to never take food with my left hand, that my elders were to never be called by their first names and that squeezing my face was unacceptable. In the series, Nana Yaa decides to take Twi classes, she is determined to learn. She demonstrates what Western born Africans should hold on to, it’s never too late to learn your language.

One of the most significant components of this show that I appreciated was that it demonstrates the side of Africa people still rarely see. Even with the groundbreaking strides African countries have made within their communities and more importantly, on a global scale, there still remains this stigma that Africa is a makeup of developing nations. We see it in Hollywood, on television. The ignorant, accent-so-thick African, that lives in a hut or the poor Africans in need of aid. Truth be told anywhere you go in the world you will meet people who are less than knowing of the world around them, you will meet the homeless, the down trodden. Poverty is a universal issue. Even in the most “developed” countries, people have no water, people go hungry. Take the character Makena, a lawyer from Europe. The title alone of lawyer gives people the impression that she has money, but there she is in Ghana, looking hard for work. This is the plight of the everyday man/woman across the globe. This show resonated with me in a variety of ways. I appreciate the fact that we are given five different perspectives of what it is like to return home.  Yes, there is opportunity living abroad, but I am also pleased to see that the opportunities available in Africa are being given the attention they deserve. Africa is becoming an economic force in the world and it will only be a strong force if the people are willing to work to make it so. You can live well in Africa, you can be progressive in Africa, you can be successful in Africa, you can always go home again. 

Claudia Akyeampong is a graduate of the MFA program at Brooklyn College in New York. Her writing has appeared in Afar Magazine, New African Woman Magazine, The African Magazine, Tidal Basin Review and Essence Magazine. In 2008, she was awarded the Himan Brown Award for Creative Writing. In addition to her writing she is also an avid sculptor and jewelry designer.

Janice Williams

 

Who are these women? by Janice Williams

Who are these women? – That is the question I asked myself when I started watching An African City.  I was expecting a lot from the series especially since many African women had been talking about it non-stop since it first started showing  on Youtube. There are several episodes where the writer states that these events are based on true stories. But I have not met any of these types of women since my return to Sierra Leone, although I’ve only been here about four months so maybe I should give it some more time. This is not my first “return” to the continent though. I lived between Niger and Guinea for two years volunteering with the Peace Corps, but I’ll only speak of this specific return because it relates more to the stories in An African City.

I returned to my country of birth, Sierra Leone at the end of February, 2014. I had been away from Sierra Leone for more than 16 years.  I attended middle school, high school, college and graduate school in the United States. So in that aspect, I can identify with the women of this series. Ngozi is one I identify with the most. Although she is Nigerian she is from my area in the states and she graduated with a degree in International Affairs and returned to Ghana to work for a development agency. Unlike Ngozi though, I am not outwardly religious and always preachy and I am most definitely not a daddy’s girl who gets everything from her parents.  Zainab who constantly insists on having coke with no lime was one of the first things that stood out for me. I found it bratty, irritating and weird. I initially liked Nana Yaa, but after episode three I just wanted to slap some sense into her. She appears very shallow minded, especially when it comes to relationships and she constantly has issues. Well they all have relationship issues, but who doesn’t? Sade, is my favourite and probably the realest of all the women and I think the best actress in the show, but I’ll deal with the acting later.

[pullquote]While we don’t know how these sisters found each other, it seems they all share common attitudes; shallowness when it comes to what they want in a relationship, a condescending attitude to home-based Ghanaians and all in all an air of pretentiousness that I just can’t understand. I ask myself who these women are because I don’t know who they represent, although a few people  I have spoken to have said they know women who act like this.[/pullquote]While we don’t know how these sisters found each other, it seems they all share common attitudes; shallowness when it comes to what they want in a relationship, a condescending attitude to home-based Ghanaians and all in all an air of pretentiousness that I just can’t understand. I ask myself who these women are because I don’t know who they represent, although a few people  I have spoken to have said they know women who act like this. One of the women complain about not having money for a $5,000 a month rent, but somehow they are able to eat out all the time and dress in very expensive clothes and drive nice cars. The clothes are beautiful by the way, don’t get me wrong. I would love to own their wardrobes because the fashion on the show is on point! Which is just about the only thing I really I liked about the show. But I do seriously wonder how they are able to stay looking so fresh and not be sweaty. Some of those outfits are not meant for the Ghana sun chale.  I’m sorry, by the time I walk out of my door, I’m already dripping with sweat enough to fill buckets. Perhaps that’s another key difference between me, some of the returnees I know, and these ladies; I walk. Boy do I walk. If I’m not walking, I am rubbing shoulders with other Sierra Leoneans in public transport. All the women on the show have cars. I guess it would be nice to hop from house to car, to job, to car, to house, to restaurant.  Maybe it is also the type of job I have.  As a person working for a very small non-profit, I cannot afford $5,000 a month for rent, let alone a car, but these women are what we commonly think are very “successful” women.  They all have big jobs, well except for the divorcee who we learn right away is unemployed at the moment and Ngozi who works for a development agency, but remember she has daddy’s money.

Now I saved the best for almost last. The acting. It is so forced and rehearsed that it seems like they are just regurgitating all the stereotypes they’ve heard about living in Africa. At some point in the first episode, I wondered if there was any reason to watch any further. They’ve already spat up all the things most people complain about; light, food, men etc. The only actress on the show that I would really like to commend is Nana Mensah who acts as Sade. She just has it. She appears to be funny naturally. She delivers her punch lines with perfect timing and she’s a breath of fresh air to the dull, whining voice of Ngozi and the over the top acting of some of the others.

With all of that being said, don’t despair it’s not all negative. I’m happy for this show because it made me think a lot. It made me analyze how I am and think about the returnees I do know and how we act.  I do recall having conversations similar to those the women have about the people here. Sometimes it does sound condescending and I really have to stop myself in my tracks However I do notice a distinct difference between the returnees in the series and the way in which the returnees I know speak about the situations they’re in. They do complain about the lack of electricity, bad customer service, and in the private woman talk, the way it is hard to find a good man in Sierra Leone that shares the same values and morals as you, the most common denominator being fidelity. But with those complaints there is alway hope and a desire to make a change. And with some of these returnees it goes beyond just a desire as they actively pursue activities and projects that will enable them to give back to local communities. They are not content with their life of luxury or just focussed on the pursuit of even more luxury, as the women in An African City are. They see potential, especially in the young people and choose to help bring them up rather than look down their noses at them.This is not to say that they think they have all the answers to Africa’s many multifaceted issues. But instead of grumbling and complaining over lunch every day while sipping on glasses of coke with no lime, they are doing their bit.

How will the women of An African City change the narrative of typical African films and series? Are we supposed to just fawn over their lavish clothes, houses, and cars as we do with the millions of films that Nollywood and Ghollywood produce? The creator of the show insists that she wanted to create something different, but I have to ask, different from what? I’ve seen enough Nollywood movies to last me a lifetime and all I see is a major focus on big house, big cars, nice clothes, relationship drama, and complicated English language with no depth.  If An African City is supposed to change the narrative, it has a lot of work to do and I will be looking out for the next series because I can see the potential. Sade is a testimony to that!

Janice Williams is a returned Peace Corps volunteer who served in Niger and Guinea from 2010 to 2012 and Co-Founder of the Sierra Leonean Empowerment Network (SLEN). She is currently the Country Director for the Innovation Lab (Inlabs) program of Innovate Salone.

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