Feature Article of Tuesday, 25 September 2012
Columnist: Amenyo, Kofi
Two of Africa’s literary heavyweights say nice things about the book. Their words adorn its jacket. Chinua Achebe describes it as a “much welcome work of immense relevance”. Ngugi wa Thiong’o says it is an “unforgettable journey ... The characters and the episodes are ... imbued with magic and suggestive power that go beyond the concrete and the palpable to hint at history in motion”. Sierra Leonean born writer, Aminata Forna, whose own book, THE DEVIL THAT DANCED ON THE WATER, (Grove Press, 2002), details her childhood in a turbulent political Sierra Leone that saw the demise of her father, describes it as “[w]arm and engaging ... the view of a complex world in microcosm”.
But, apparently, the book has a few discontents in Ghana. Of the four articles about the book that appeared on ghanaweb in the past few weeks, Gabby Asare Otchere-Darko’s is the most interesting because of the controversial stance it takes against the writer (Mahama Defends All-Die-Be-Die, August 31st, 2012).
Gabby argues in his article that Mahama’s descriptions of his attempts to “resist oppressors rule” (the Ezra incidence and his fight against Unigov) echo the rationale behind Akufo-Addo’s infamous “all die be die” formulation. I am not taking issue with this argument but there are two other things Gabby says which I find strange. He argues that Mahama’s description of Ezra shows him (Mahama) as elitist. I do not think so. It is true that Mahama comes from an “elitist” background because his father was a minister. But his description of Ezra doesn’t show him as playing off this card. Anybody who has been in boarding school in Ghana at the time Mahama describes knows the Ezra type. As a farmer’s son, he was likely to be older than his mates and if he followed his father to the farm, he was also likely to grow muscles and look tough. The work of the farmer makes you a hardy man. In the eyes of the ten year old Mahama, Ezra looked exactly as he describes him in his book. I don’t know if Gabby wants Mahama to change that outlook because he is now writing as an adult who should know better than to tell the truth about a farmer’s son as he saw him as a child. Moreover, Mahama adequately indicates in the book that he saw Ezra as an adversary because he was a bully, not because he was a farmer’s son. Ezra was different from the rest of them and Mahama writes that his group went out of its way to be nice to him, invited him to play with them and did everything to welcome him into their circle. But Ezra only took this as a sign of weakness on their part.
The story is clearly told to show how domination gradually builds up if you don’t resist it the first time and how resistance becomes more difficult later on but must still be made. That Ezra happened to be a farmer’s child is quite incidental to this theme. It is only a politically biased reading which will come to a different conclusion. Mahama tells us his father became a successful gentleman farmer. This made him richer than he ever was as Nkrumah’s minister. Mahama worked in his father’s rice mill during the holidays. So he, too, became a farmer’s son – like Ezra!
In making the elitist complaint, Gabby forgot that he, too, is a dadaba (born in Chelsea, travels to the US for medical treatment, etc). Gabby’s mentor, Akufo-Addo, is an even bigger dadaba than Mahama ever was. That the two of them have not written books in which they describe a farmer’s son as “uncouth” does not absolve them of the “sin” of being elites. For the greater mass of Ghanaians who, unlike Gabby and Akufo-Addo, are not elites, this can be a pertinent issue. All the leading candidates in this year’s elections are “elitist” because they had easy lives in their youth! Both Mahama and Akufo-Addo have never known poverty in their lives. Neither have their running mates – Amissah Arthur and Bawumia who went to universities abroad where he didn’t have to wash dishes or clean toilets to see himself through his studies. Today, they are, themselves, “dadas” and the material lives of their children are a lot better than those of the children of the millions of our farmers and fishermen and the dirt poor who dwell in the slums where they struggle every day to make the proverbial ends meet. These “elitist” candidates are, today, going around begging these same poor people for the votes that will enable them become president and be even more elitist than they already are! What about that? It is increasingly looking like no poor goldsmith’s son can become the president of Ghana again!
The other thing I found strange in Gabby’s piece is his declaring outright that Mahama did not write his book and that it is a ghost writer, none other than his own cousin, Meri Nana-Ama Danquah, who is hiding in the white cloth. In the lengthy acknowledgments, Mahama thanks several people who helped in seeing the project come to fruition. The most profuse gratitude is reserved for Nana-Ama whom he describes as a friend. Nana-Ama (best known for her memoirs written in the USA where she migrated to as a six year old in 1973 – WILLOW WEEP FOR ME: A BLACK WOMAN’S JOURNEY THROUGH DEPRESSION, Ballantine Books Inc., 1999) surely knows a thing or two about writing and may have done a great job in shaping the Mahama book. But it is quite a different thing to say that she wrote it. Because Gabby wants Akufo-Addo, rather than Mahama, to win the forthcoming elections, he does not want Mahama to be capable of writing his own book lest that fact gives him an edge. This is preposterous especially to those of us who will not lose a minute’s sleep over who wins December’s elections.
But what does the book really contain? It is about the life of Mahama until he entered politics. This life is not an extraordinary one. But your life does not have to be spectacular for you to be able to write a good story about it. Many Ghanaians have had a life like Mahama’s but the prize goes to the creative genius who writes something wonderful out of this life. Mahama succeeds in this endeavour. No matter what you think of the book, the guy deserves praise for writing it. How many educated Africans, let alone active politicians, write books of any kind? How many of us read such books? He is working on his second book.
The language is good – simple and effective without any bombastic words and tortuous expressions put there to impress the reader. I was pleasantly struck by his ability to find the proper words for several things that Ghanaians are wont to describe in other, less appropriate, ways. For instance, he names the soldiers’ vehicles patrolling the Tamale streets as Pinzgauers rather than just “military vehicles”. There are occasional flashes of brilliant descriptions like how the “two lunacies” of Mallam, his father’s driver, looked to the child’s mind and the strange things that childhood fantasies invest adult behaviour with.
A few humorous moments occur also. There is a house that sits astride the Ghana-Togo border so that the family spends the day in the Ghanaian section and withdraws at night to bedrooms that are on the Togolese side. The story of Sumaila, the maracas player of the school band, will draw a chuckle from you, if not a guffaw. We also read of his adolescent love pangs for Alice to whom he writes love letters doused in his stepmother’s perfume. Of course, the first letter declares his love at 99.9%. But Mahama forgot to add that all he required of his lover was for her to add the 0.1% that would make it 100% perfect which was the standard line of the joke in those days.
The description of his father’s flight to Côte d’Ivoire after the Rawlings coup brings to mind a similar flight by Wolé Soyinka across the Benin border so vividly described in his fourth memoir – YOU MUST SET FORTH AT DAWN (Random House, 2006). There is even a sentence that reminds you of the title of that book: “Bukari had shown Dad his sleeping quarters and asked him to get some rest because they were going to be leaving early in the morning, well before dawn”.
The incidents in the book are well told and the gaps between these are filled with reflective commentaries. Every Ghanaian can read and easily relate to them. This is a book that can encourage other Ghanaians, especially our youth, to write their own stories when they realise that they do not need to have lived a spectacular life to write a good story about it.
Mahama studied History at the university but this is not a historical account grounded on academic research. A few facts will raise eyebrows. By putting the beginning of Ghana’s “lost decades” after the “first coup” (which informs the title of the book), one gets the impression that it was the coup that caused it. The historical evidence is more complex. While things had started getting bad even before that coup, Ghana was still, by African standards, an affluent country throughout the 60s. Those who lived in those times will attest to the fact that the crunching poverty that the ordinary Ghanaian experienced for the first time really started during the Acheampong regime. It got worse and reached its nadir under Rawling’s military era.
Even though Nigerian refugees fled to our country during the civil war, many Nigerians had made Ghana their home long before the war started. Most of them were petty traders who had come there for economic reasons and found a people who welcomed them. The Aliens Compliance Order was passed on November 18th, 1969, barely two months before the surrender of the Biafran forces on the 15th of January, 1970. Yes, the timing of the order was bad for the Nigerians (the whole exercise was wrong, actually) but it did not happen “in the midst of the war” which was dwindling towards the end when Busia moved against the aliens. “Ghana must go” was not in retaliation for the compliance order. The Nigerians are not so vindictive as to wreak vengeance on us twice for an “offence” committed more than ten years earlier. They were grappling with their own economic problems and saw us as helpless scapegoats.
I found Mahama’s history of his Gonja people very scanty. Part of Gonjaland was a German colony that was in Trans Volta Togoland (TVT). In the 1956 plebiscite, the TVT Gonjans (not Mahama’s part) voted by a tiny majority (53%, according to the highly disputed results released by the UN Trusteeship Council) to remain attached to the Gold Coast that became Ghana on independence. It is strange that he does not mention this especially since he talks about the artificial boundaries created by colonialism that divided tribes and families in Africa just like the Ewes were, and still remain, divided among three countries! The Kokomba/Dagomba and Mamprusi/Kusasi disputes can also trace their origins to these artificial borders.
Mahama is economical with the truth when it suits him. He admits that he did not get to study Business Administration or Law (his topmost choices) at Legon and had to settle for History, but refuses to add that it was because his ‘A’ Level grades were not good enough. He also talks about his father’s 19 children from “four marriages and several relations”, but keeps mum about the fact that he, too, has taken after Dad in that department of life.
The story stops short of an account of his participation in present day Ghanaian politics that has, eventually, led him to the presidency. That is where you, as a Ghanaian, will find the book’s greatest drawback. He talks about getting acquainted with socialist ideology in secondary school and going on to belong to a socialist cell at Legon where he also becomes student union secretary. He had a positive picture of the Soviet Union until he goes there for two glasnost years and does not quite like what he sees. He returns to Ghana with his socialism frittering away. There are a few inconsequential quotes from Marx and some lightweight ideological analyses. That is all. You will finish the book without knowing the political Mahama.
Mahama may be cheating us out of something. The book about his early life (a life that really contains nothing extraordinary apart from his being a politician’s son and getting accidentally shot in the shoulder by his brother), may become popular because of the person he has become – our present head of state. Any controversy that surrounds the book will only contribute to its sales figures. And it won’t hurt one bit that it is so very easy to read!
MY FIRST COUP D’ÉTAT – MEMORIES FROM THE LOST DECADES OF AFRICA. By John Dramani Mahama. Bloomsbury, 2012, 318 pages. Buy from amazon.com at $14.90. Kindle e-book: $13.79. Kofi Amenyo (firstname.lastname@example.org)