Monday, February 8, 2016

Why Shows Like An African City Matter

Cast of An African City
Photo: An African City
An African City, a Sex and the City-esque online series which debuted last year and is currently in its second season, follows the lives of five, single, middle-class African women who return to Ghana after years of living abroad. The show, which diverges largely from the usual narrative about Africa—hollow-eyed children with distended bellies, disease and war—has been lauded for showcasing a version of Africa where Africans work normal jobs, wear fancy clothes and eat in expensive restaurants. But it has also come under criticism for not reflecting the lives of typical Africans.

But what’s the story of a typical African?

Sure Africans have shared experiences, but there are also differences so large that should be recognized as a valid stories in an African anthology. The expectation that poverty and war should feature in an African story simply is as absurd as positing all women must experience dysmenorrhea because they’re women. Yet, such expectations are rampant.

Case in point, during my postgraduate program in the UK, my supervisor proceeded to tell me how dangerous Nigeria was after I mentioned I’d be returning to Nigeria when the program ended. He narrated how his sister, who worked for an NGO in Nigeria, had to have mobile police with her at all times. By the time he ended the story, I would have thought Nigeria was a war zone if I’d never lived there. Granted, not all of Nigeria is peaceful, but most parts, like where I live, are calm and a far cry from a war zone.

In an unrelated event, a surprised face met mine after I disclosed my tuition fees were paid by my parents and not a scholarship. Apparently, there are some people who think Africans just sit around waiting for financial assistance.

Still, my personal experiences were nothing compared to a Kenyan friend of mine, who was asked by a fellow a volunteer at a charity fundraiser to wear a plaque of sorts and carry a donation bucket, because wait for it… people were more likely to respond to pleas from an African.

A tasteless remark? Yes. But that volunteer can’t really be blamed if they’ve been fed countless newsreels and TV ads with a morose voice-over soliciting one pound to help crying, black children with runny noses and flies swarming overhead. This insular narrative is a similar treatment applied to Native-Americans and Australian Aborigines, whose populations are often depicted by the media as poor and alcohol-dependent.

In the art of storytelling and creating impressions, the media has a companion in Hollywood, an industry notorious for promoting tropes among other things. For a primer on how Hollywood pictures Africa, one need not look any further than the final scenes of the movie Independence Day, where the aliens’ spaceships go up in flames on different continents after Will Smith saves the day. Australia was represented by its famous Sydney Opera House. And Africa? Africa was depicted as a bush with loin-clothed men wielding spears.

Dear Africans, do you come across these people regularly?
Clip from Independence Day
A quick survey of Hollywood’s Africa reveals one of these three realities: Africa is a hell hole teeming with ruthless warlords and tribes bent on brutalizing one another; a picturesque land where the red sun forever rises over acacias, and naked Africans and animals roam the vast Serengeti, or a continent of the eternally happy singers and dancers as handsomely portrayed in the Adam Sandler movie Blended.

These jaundiced and oft-repeated accounts serve no purpose other than to typecast and perhaps ridicule a people. Which is why diversity and representation matter—be they in the news, books, movies, or Hollywood movie studios. Not only do we become better informed when different stories are told, we encounter a panoramic view of our world through the eyes of others. And shows like An African City are helping do just that.