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Ghanaian-American filmmaker brings immigrant experience to forefront

Tamerra Griffin | 8/8/2013, 5:20 p.m.
Just as African-Americans jokingly throw around the acronym CPT, or “colored people’s time,” to explain their tendency to arrive later ...

Just as African-Americans jokingly throw around the acronym CPT, or “colored people’s time,” to explain their tendency to arrive later than scheduled, continental Africans have “African time,” which carries with it a similar meaning. The colloquial phrase was one West African filmmaker’s inspiration for what has become a YouTube-channel-turned-television fixture.

Mawuena Akyea is the creative brain behind “African Time,” a series of testimonies from African immigrants living in the United States. Akyea, a 25-year-old Ghanaian filmmaker and writer, left his home country at age 4 and relocated with his family to Madison, Wis., where he lived for 19 years. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Wisconsin—Madison and spending a year in Milwaukee, Wis., with Teach for America, Akyea decided to redirect his career endeavors back to his passion for film. He said the idea for “African Time” was born two years ago from works he had seen about the experiences of other ethnic groups in the United States.

“I’ve seen a lot of documentaries that feature prominent immigrant populations in the U.S.: Indian-, Chinese-, Iranian-Americans and Latinos,” said Akyea, who has called the Bronx home for the past year. “I thought, ‘Let’s just change that to the African experience.’”

Akyea sought the help of his college friends Algernon Felice Jr. and Ayman Gasmelseed, and together, they began asking members of Madison’s African community to tell their stories of their trials and tribulations in the U.S. on camera.

When asked about what drew him into the project, Felice, who is Trinidadian, talked about the need to give voice to a thriving community.

“I think Africans are underrepresented, and that was my incentive in helping a friend produce and create it,” he said.

The stories, which run the emotional gamut from humorous to somber, are told by college-age Africans and their middle-aged parents. The personal accounts are combined with informative episodes given by college professors. According to Akyea, this diverse range of voices was deliberate.

“What I set out to do was interview both the older generations coming here straight from Africa, and how they see it, versus us, who grew up in America,” he said. “I knew the older generation would add color and that much-needed other perspective.”

Akyea’s prediction proved to be spot-on; the most viewed episode of “African Time” on YouTube features his mother, Dzigbodi Akyea. Among other things, she tells the story of the first time she witnessed an American cradling a large bucket of popcorn at a movie theater in Madison. Dzigbodi is charismatic before the camera, and the recollection is so earnest that it affords non-Africans the opportunity to assume her role as a foreigner observing American habits.

Other subjects interviewed represent all regions of the continent, from Egypt to South Africa, Sierra Leone to Ethiopia. Gamselseed, whose family comes from Sudan, reflects on how his family had to negotiate African and American gender norms when he decided to get his ear pierced on his 18th birthday, while Cameroonian sisters Linda and Delphine Vakunta laugh over the benefits of being multilingual in a country where English dominates.