My First Coup D'Etat

And Other True Stories From The Lost Decades Of Africa

by John Dramani Mahama

My First Coup D'Etat

Paperback, 318 pages, St Martins Pr, List Price: $16 | purchase

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Book Summary

In 1966, a military coup overthrew Ghana's first president. At the time, John Dramani Mahama was 7 years old and his father, a minister in the government, disappeared and was imprisoned for more than a year. Today, Mahama is the vice president of Ghana. Mahama's memoir recounts his urban life with his father and his rural experiences in his mother's village.

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Excerpt: My First Coup D'Etat

OF SILENCE AND SOLIDARITY

It was with much consternation that we came to realize that the brand-new member of our class 3 group was a bona fide bully. It took a while, at least the first few weeks of the term, for that truth to come to light because initially he tried to blend in. I think it was his way of studying us, taking note of our individual constitution and our collective consciousness, so that when he was ready, he would know how far he could go — because people will push you only as far and as hard as you allow them to. Feigning kindness and friendship was his due diligence.

The boy's name was Ezra, and despite his best efforts to fit in, it was apparent from the start that it would be a most difficult task. There were ten of us in our dormitory, and Ezra was the tallest. He was a couple of years older than us, and even though I'm sure the other kids were curious as to why he was even in our class, nobody asked. It would be impolite and in poor taste. And it would make no difference. After all, whatever the reasons, Ezra was in our class, wasn't he?

Something else that made Ezra stand out was that he was very muscular, which was quite strange for a child. His physique resembled those of the men we sometimes saw on the campus grounds clearing the underbrush with long, slightly curved cutlasses. Their skin, which was blacker even than a starless sky at midnight, would be glistening with sweat.

The rest of us were of average size. We weren't weaklings, nor did we look as though we had kwashiorkor, though standing next to Ezra, you might be inclined to wonder. I wasn't at all surprised to learn that his father was a farmer, though I would have guessed that it was an animal farm and not a cocoa farm, because Ezra looked as though he had been born, raised, and fed in much the same way as livestock.

His father, though uneducated, had made a lot of money for himself. He wanted his son to attend Achimota, the school where the doctors, lawyers, politicians, and other members of the upper echelon sent their kids. With good reason: Ezra was a bush boy; he was tactless and uncouth. Little by little as the days and weeks wore on, he revealed more of his true nature.

I believe that little children view difference as a motivation to be more inclusive, though as we grow older and become adults we begin to see it as the opposite, a reason to exclude. Since most of us in our group had been boarding together since we were six, we all got along wonderfully. We wanted Ezra to fit in and not feel like the odd one out.

We went out of our way to be nice to him. We would invite him to play with us. We would let him stand at the front of the queue in the dining hall. We did all of this to welcome him into our circle. It was a show of our hospitality. Ezra saw it as a deficiency, his invitation to crown himself king of us all.

***

Achimota's school motto is Ut Omnes Unum Sint, "That All May Be One." It fell in line with the statement of unity that the founders were trying to make. They wanted Achimota to be a leader in the practice of breaking down the walls that divided by gender, by race, by ethnic group, by religion, by political persuasion. By the mid-1920s, women in the United States had only just won their battle for suffrage. And women all across the world, from China to Guatemala to Great Britain, were waging their own battles for equality in matters of suffrage, ownership of property, and education. The idea of a school like Achimota, one that embraced and even advocated gender equality, was extremely revolutionary — especially in West Africa. The student population at Achimota seemed to be evenly divided between girls and boys, though some years there might be a few more of one than the other. Our dormitories were segregated by gender, but other than that, the boys and girls attended classes and did most everything else together.

***

The school crest is a black-and-white drawing of piano keys. It was in keeping with the motto and founding principles. One of Achimota's founders, Dr. James Kwegyir Aggrey, is famously quoted as saying, "You can play a tune of sorts on the black keys only; and you can play a tune of sorts on the white keys only; but for perfect harmony, you must use both the black and the white keys."

It somehow seems just, given the history of the land on which it was erected, that Achimota should have made a name for itself as a safe haven, a beacon of promise and hope for future generations of Africans. The school was built in the middle of the Achimota Forest. The forest, which at one time spanned thousands and thousands of acres, was notoriously dense, the sort of place in which a person could get lost forever. It was officially set aside as a reserve in 1930.

The area that became the Gold Coast colony and is now called Ghana was a key location in the transatlantic slave trade. Ghana contains more slave castles and forts than anywhere else. These buildings have been preserved as historical landmarks or turned into museums. They tell the story of domination and enslavement.

But there are lesser-known landmarks, ones that tell another sort of tale, a tale of defiance and re sis tance. One such landmark is the forest in which Achimota School is now situated. It was where the captured who'd managed to escape would run to seek shelter and protection from those who wished to enslave them.

Even the name that was ultimately given to the forest is a testament to the fear its trees have witnessed and the secrets their canopies have kept. Achimota, in the language Ga, means "speak no name." That forest was a place of silences, but it was also a place of salvation.

This history is all the more reason I find our experience with Ezra so significant that even to this day it stands out in my mind.

Excerpted from My First Coup D'Etat by John Dramani Mahama. Copyright 2012 by John Dramani Mahama. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury.

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