Author Interviews
1:57 am
Tue July 17, 2012

African Politics, And Afros, In 'My First Coup D'Etat'

Originally published on Tue July 17, 2012 11:17 am

John Dramani Mahama is the vice president of Ghana and the author of a new memoir with one of the most eye-catching titles you'll see all year — My First Coup d'Etat: And Other True Stories from the Lost Decades of Africa.

The title refers to the 1966 military coup that overthrew Ghana's first president. Mahama was 7 years old, and his father, a minister in the government, was imprisoned for more than a year. Mahama tells NPR's Renee Montagne that Africa's "lost decades" lasted from the late 1960s to the 1980s, after the initial euphoria of independence passed.

"Africa had become plagued by coups and violence, and dictators were taking over from civilian governments," he says. "Most African countries went under military regimes. The Cold War was at its height. This is a period that is not well-documented in our literature, and yet that was the period where most of us were growing up ... forming our consciousness."

The book presents both Mahama's urban life with his father, and his experiences in his mother's village. Before the coups began, Mahama recalls a happy life picking fruit and climbing trees with his siblings, fishing in the river and hunting in the bush, cooking their catch over a fire — despite the occasional terrifying snake encounter.

And his life as a teenager in the city bore some striking resemblances to the lives of American teenagers. "There's a very strong Western influence, jazz, rock 'n' roll, the various pop singers, James Brown," Mahama says. "We particularly liked the Jackson Five, you know, because these were brothers from a family, and we kind of cast ourselves in the same mode — we wore big Afros like Michael."

But in addition to Western bell bottoms and platform shoes, Mahama says, he also had beautifully embroidered African dashikis and attended full moon dances out in the villages. "It was like a mix, a mix, a melting pot of culture," he says. "But as the villages got electric power, the culture that had existed disappeared at the flick of the switch. If you live in the city where there's lights, unless you look up at the sky, you don't even remember that the moon is full."

Mahama's years of listening to James Brown and going to full moon dances ended abruptly with another, much bloodier coup in 1979. "A lot of people were arrested and detained, you know, there were all kinds of incidents involving torture," he recalls. "There was famine, there was drought, there was a shortage of electricity," and shortages of all kinds of consumer goods.

But the situation began to improve in the mid-1980s, Mahama says. Now, he says, Ghana has made a lot of progress: "School enrollment is like at about 97 percent, and we've been having successful elections, we're going to hold a state election in December of this year, and the future looks much brighter now than it did in the past."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

When the Gold Coast Crown Colony gained its independence from Great Britain, it became the Republic of Ghana. That was 1957, the year before John Dramani Mahama was born into the first heady days of post-colonial Africa. Mahama's father was the son a tribal chief, well educated, much married, and among the first ministers of the new nation. But by the time John Mahama was seven years old, Ghana's national dream was shattered.

A coup d'etat toppled the government. Ministers of state were arrested, including his father, which is how it came to be that the young boy found himself one day all alone in the empty dormitory of his boarding school.

JOHN DRAMANI MAHAMA: When school broke for the Easter vacation somehow I was not picked up by anybody. I stayed in school for almost two weeks while the school authorities tried to locate where my family had moved to because our house had been occupied by soldiers.

MONTAGNE: John Dramani Mahama is now the Vice President of Ghana, and he's written a memoir, vignettes of a vanished world he calls "My First Coup d'Etat." The book's subtitle refers to the lost decades of Africa. Tell us what exactly you mean by that expression.

MAHAMA: With the lost decades, I describe the period from about the late '60s to about the late '80s, when the euphoria of independence passed. Africa had become plagued by coups and violence and dictators who were taking over from civilian governments. Most African countries went under military regimes. The Cold War was at its height. This is a period that is not well-documented in our literature, and yet that was the period where most of us were growing up, coming of age, you know, forming our consciousness.

MONTAGNE: As bad as - as traumatic as that first coup might have been, and of course you lived through a few more, as a child your life sounds like often a happy one. I want to have you read a little - a little moment in your childhood. For the most part you and all your brothers and sisters saw your mother during holidays because they were out in - often in their own ancestral towns and villages.

You describe one visit to your mother's village, which sounds incredibly idyllic, about what the village kids used to do to fill the time in this tiny place in the country.

MAHAMA: We climbed trees and picked fruits, our hands and feet searching the knobby fragile limbs for safe resting places. We ran to the river side and swam, watching as the fish altered their routes so they would not collide with us.

MONTAGNE: Well, it really does sound like the sort of glowing perfect summer childhood, but there was danger, and there's one section you write about a scary encounter with a snake.

MAHAMA: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: Read us that.

MAHAMA: Snake, Aldo(ph) screamed. The thing I remember most about Aldo(ph) is that he had a massive nose. We used to tease him. They called him oxygen catcher. As he screamed, I imagined his top lip rising sharply and then disappearing completely under the wide umbrella of his nose. We'd encountered snakes before during our expeditions. Mostly they minded their own business, slithering quickly away from the thunder caused by our collective march.

To them out footsteps must have sounded like an approaching herd of elephants, but there was an urgency and fear in Aldo's(ph) voice. I looked up just in time to see a massive reptile about two meters long, with its scaly, cold, black body coiled beneath it, lift its head high and then flatten its neck as though it were preparing to strike. Aah, we screamed in unison. When we started sprinting away, it was every boy for himself, and the snake for us all.

MONTAGNE: That last line is a take on a British expression.

MAHAMA: Yeah. That's right.

MONTAGNE: It's every man for himself and...

MAHAMA: God for us all.

MONTAGNE: God for us all.

(LAUGHTER)

MAHAMA: One of the things about the book is it presents both urban life at the time when I went to live with my father in the city, and then it also presents rural life when I came to the village to visit my mother.

MONTAGNE: Well, the urban part of your life sounded not very different from what a teenager's life might have been in the U.S.

MAHAMA: There's a very strong Western influence - jazz, rock and roll, the various pop singers, James Brown. We particularly liked the Jackson Five, you know, because these were brothers from a family, and we kind of cast ourselves in the same mode, we wore big Afros like Michael. We dressed in bellbottom trousers with platform shoes. But then we also had dashiki dresses with beautiful African embroidery. So it was like a melting pot of culture.

MONTAGNE: Let me take you back then to mix up the culture even more, because for you it was back and forth between the old ways and very new ways. Read to us the passage about the full moon dance in the village.

MAHAMA: Okay.

MONTAGNE: And explain what it is.

MAHAMA: There was no electricity, so often when the moon came out, and it was full, and the night was bright, there was a tradition where they had a brass band that would play, and so everybody would come out to dance, and so that's what this excerpt is about. By the time the moon was huge around and electric white against the black sky, all the young people would sing, and the ladies would dance seductively.

At all times the conductor carried a stick. It was a stick from a tree, straight, peeled of its leaves, painted white, and polished. To watch the conductor with his stick was really something. It was as though life on Earth as we knew it depended on the precision of his movements, and perhaps for the young people of the village, it did.

MONTAGNE: What a beautiful way of remembering it.

MAHAMA: Yeah. The full moon dance was very popular in the villages at that time. But as the villages got electric power, the culture that had existed disappeared at the flick of a switch. If you live in a city where there's lights, unless you look up in the sky, you don't even remember that the moon is full.

MONTAGNE: Much of this life that you have just been describing for us came to an end in 1979 with another, bloodier coup d'etat. What was that time like?

MAHAMA: A lot of people were arrested and detained, you know. There were all kinds of incidents involving torture. There was famine, there was drought, there was shortage of electricity. Just about everything was in short supply in the early '80s, but from '84, '85, things started to get better sometime down the line.

MONTAGNE: Looking forward, how do you envision Ghana in the next few years?

MAHAMA: Ghana has made a lot of progress from the period that I describe. School enrollment is like at about 97 percent, and we've been holding successful elections. We're going to have a state election in December this year, and I do think that the democracies we're nurturing create a much better life for our people.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

MAHAMA: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: John Dramani Mahama is the vice president of Ghana. His new memoir is called "My First Coup D'Etat and Other True Stories from the Lost Decades of Africa." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.