Sex and the African City

A Ghanaian re-pat counters negative preconceptions of her homeland with comic stories of love, lust and saucy sisterhood.

Nicole Amarteifio ’04
Bret Hartman
Nicole Amarteifio ’04

Growing up in Scarsdale, New York, Nicole Amarteifio ’04 dreamed of Ghana.

As long as she can remember, she wanted to return to her birthplace. It was where her grandfather, a white district commissioner from Great Britain, and her Ghanaian grandmother married in 1945, crossing the color line in defiance of the colonial system. It was where Amarteifio and her family vacationed every year, spending time with her grandparents and other relatives, celebrating holidays, eating Ghanaian food.

“Ghana was always a paradise,” she says. “Ghana was home.”

The country Amarteifio knew firsthand had little in common with the stereotypical way it was portrayed in the West. The image of an impoverished, powerless African woman, water vessel balanced on her head, didn’t square with the Ghanaian women she knew, especially her grandmother, who had risked social ostracism by whites and Africans to marry the man she loved.

“Whenever I turned on the TV, or opened a newspaper, or turned on the radio, if Africa was mentioned, it was very negative,” Amarteifio says. “It was always a story of war, poverty or famine.” Even as a kid, she hated that one-dimensional view.

Fast-forward to 2006. Amarteifio was 24, a re-pat who had recently returned to work in African economic development in Ghana’s capital, Accra. She was living with her parents (who had returned in 1997 following democratic elections in Ghana) to save money. While binge-watching reruns of “Sex and the City” one night, she had an unusual epiphany.

She recalls, “I said to myself, ‘That’s my answer. I’ll fight the single story of Africa by producing a show like “Sex and the City,” set in Accra.’”

During its six-year run on HBO, “Sex and the City” followed four well-heeled Manhattan women whose sexual adventures fueled their gossipy camaraderie. For her show, Amarteifio envisioned a similar story line. Her women would be five educated, professional Africans — much like Amarteifio herself — born on the continent but raised elsewhere, who come home to Accra in search of love. In homage to the original, her version would also include plenty of steamy sex and eyebrow-raising, edgy dialogue.

“Sex and the City” gave American women a confidence about their sensuality, Amarteifio says. “I wanted that for my peers in Ghana. I wanted them to take pride in their sexuality.”

Not that she had any idea of how to write or produce a series. But “that’s what Google is for,” she says.

And so in 2014, eight years after Amarteifio’s revelation on her parents’ couch, the first season of “An African City” debuted on YouTube. From the beginning, it was a sensation.

Learn-as-you-go auteur

Amarteifio graduated from Brandeis with a BA in African and Afro-American studies (AAAS) at a time when the major wasn’t particularly respected, she says. “You’re African,” she remembers her classmates saying. “Why are you majoring in AAAS?”

She struggled to find herself at Brandeis. “I have some really great memories, but I also remember really wrestling with my identity and my blackness,” she says today, fighting back tears. Still, the university was a good place for a budding social activist. “You can’t study at Brandeis and not get inspired by the fight for justice,” she says.

After graduation, Amarteifio landed a job in Washington, D.C., as a consultant focusing on African economic development. When she moved to Ghana in 2006, she worked at the African Development Foundation in Accra. Amarteifio let her “Sex and the City” idea incubate for several years as she pursued her development career. In 2009, she returned to the U.S. to earn a master’s in corporate communications and public relations at Georgetown University. After graduating, she returned to Accra to join the Africa division of the World Bank as its first-ever social-media strategist.

She also started shopping around her concept to TV-industry professionals. Though they turned her down, she says, “they saw how passionate I was and said I should take it on. So I started Googling and researching everything: how to write a script, how to raise money. Step by step, I learned how to create a show.”

This DIY strategy, born of necessity, was a good thing, she says. It enabled her to retain creative control and push some boundaries the industry pros were hesitant to cross.

Still from "An African City"
Still from "An African City"

Shoes, restaurants, Twi porn

Beautiful, educated and fashion-driven, the female leads in “An African City” “own” their sexuality, as Amarteifio puts it. When they aren’t in the sack, they navigate life in stilettos and one-of-a-kind outfits by top African designers.

Nana Yaa, the Carrie Bradshaw clone (and the character Amarteifio says is closest to her own personality), is a radio journalist. Ngozi is a development professional and devout Christian. Makena is an Oxford-trained lawyer who grew up in Maryland and practiced law in London before returning to Ghana. Sadé, a no-nonsense Harvard Business School graduate, is the most outspoken (her comedic sexual pragmatism makes her the most popular character with viewers). Zainab, the most serious of the five, is a shea-butter entrepreneur born in Sierra Leone and raised in Atlanta.

The girlfriends sip wine and munch on fried plantains in chic Accra restaurants. (Amarteifio, who jokingly calls herself Ghana’s “minister of tourism,” makes sure she spotlights local attractions and musicians in every episode.) The women banter about everything sexual. Condom etiquette? Yes, it matters. Vibrators? Don’t leave them in checked baggage because they might get held up in customs for months. Penis size? Height isn’t a foolproof clue.

Amarteifio is unapologetic about channeling “Sex and the City,” right down to parsing a SATC script she found online to figure out how to write dialogue and tell jokes.

Yet “An African City” is very Africa-centric. When a character gets sick and watches porn to kill time, the illness is malaria, and the porn stars speak Accra’s local Twi dialect.

And the show doesn’t shy away from taking swipes at life in Ghana. After Nana Yaa interviews an oil magnate related to the Angolan president on her radio show, she tells her girlfriends, “All the corruption and nepotism is disgusting.” She still sleeps with him though — he is Ghana’s most eligible bachelor. Later in the episode, ever the responsible journalist, she asks him, in between kisses, “How come our country has so much oil and we have power cuts every other day?”

For the first 13-episode season, Amarteifio hired a local Ghanaian crew and shot mostly on nights and weekends, when she wasn’t working at the World Bank. Producing and marketing ate up all of her $75,000 savings. “For a 29-year-old, it was really expensive,” she says.

When distribution talks with networks failed, she posted the episodes on YouTube so viewers could watch them for free. This turned out to be a very good decision. What YouTube lacked in financial reward, it made up for in visibility. Within a few weeks of airing, the first season racked up more than a million views, quickly developing a devoted fan base among Africans and viewers in places as far-flung as Korea and Puerto Rico.

The voice of a movement

Season two followed, with episodes doubled in length to 30 minutes. Season three is now in production. Amarteifio is negotiating with a U.S. network to distribute it, and if the deal closes, she says, it will be the first time a U.S. network broadcasts a series produced in West Africa.

At 3.5 million hits and counting on YouTube, “An African City” has made Amarteifio a bona fide change agent. Dozens of media outlets, including CNN, BET, The New Yorker and Wired, have written about the series. NPR called it “a steamy Ghanaian show you don’t want to miss.” The Financial Times chose Amarteifio as one of its “25 Africans to Watch” in 2015.

Last year, a New York Times reporter wrote that the series’ main characters represent “Ghana’s 1 percent, portraying a lifestyle that few on the continent can relate to.”

Amarteifio doesn’t agree. Her characters may be elite and elitist, she says, but “who is the average African woman, the true African woman, from a billion people on the continent? The show can’t represent everybody. It’s specific to a demographic, and that’s OK.”

The conversations the series sparks is what most interests its creator. “I want every episode of ‘An African City’ to have an issue,” Amarteifio says. “I want to go online and see young people across the continent talking about these issues.”

At its core, the series is “a movement,” she says. “We’re trying to erase the single story of Africa.”

With the success of “An African City,” Amarteifio is creating another series about female empowerment, this time in politics. “The Republic” features a political fixer in the mold of the Olivia Pope character in “Scandal.” Amarteifio has shot the pilot and is talking to a distributor. Production is slated to begin early next year.

She’s also filming a feature-length romantic drama set in Ghana, which she plans to post on a monetized website this fall. The self-taught filmmaker says her ultimate goal is to make an “Oscar-worthy classic,” even if it takes a decade to accomplish.

In the meantime, 11 years after returning to Ghana, her relationship with Africa is a happy one.

In the opening scene of the first season of “An African City,” Nana Yaa lands in Accra and heads toward customs to hand over her passport. An official waves her off, instructing her to join the line designated for foreigners. “I’m Ghanaian,” she responds in broken Twi, the weary refrain of an African returnee whose identity is suspect, who doesn’t even speak the local dialect all that well.

“Like Nana Yaa, I struggled with my identity for a while, but now I’m really confident in who I am,” says Amarteifio. “I’m Ghanaian.”