BookBrowse Reviews My First Coup d'Etat by John Mahama

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My First Coup d'Etat

And Other True Stories from the Lost Decades of Africa

by John Mahama

My First Coup d'Etat by John Mahama X
My First Coup d'Etat by John Mahama
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2012, 336 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2013, 288 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Beverly Melven

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Ghana's President narrates his coming of age during the country's lost decades

Part memoir, part history lesson, My First Coup d'Etat is a collection of true stories by a Ghanian man who grew up close enough to his country's politics to have some real insight into Ghana's historical events. At the same time, he was far away long enough to have a spectator's perspective. What makes this collection even more interesting is that shortly after its release, the author, John Dramani Mahama, was sworn in as Ghana's newest President.

President Mahama grew up as the son of an out-of-favor politician while Ghana suffered coup after (relatively bloodless) coup. The "first coup" referred to in the title occurred in 1966, when President Mahama was only seven years old. It resulted in his father, a government minister, being imprisoned for more than a year. At the time, President Mahama was a boarding student in the southern city of Accra, Ghana's capital, and Mahama didn't find out about his father's imprisonment until the holiday break when nobody came to bring him back home. One of the youngest children in a very large family, Mahama ended up staying with his married sister until his father was released.

After being released from prison, Mahama's father reinvented himself as an agricultural businessman in Tamale, a big city in northern Ghana. My favorite stories in this collection are those of John Mahama and his brothers as teenagers in the city. Following the trends of the '70s, the boys wore bell-bottoms and listened to disco music just like their counterparts in the West. A few of the Mahama brothers put a band together, and it was around this time that John Dramani had his first crush on a neighbor girl. Family and coming-of-age are universal topics and these stories remind us that our similarities vastly outweigh our differences.

I found My First Coup d'Etat to be a refreshing read. While I have read fiction set in Africa, and fiction written by Africans, and even seen films such as Hotel Rwanda and The Last King of Scotland, I have not come across anything that so eloquently recounts the daily lives of Africans at a time when these newly independent countries were just breaking from the old and starting on a new path.

The writing is solid, the narratives are interesting, and the stories focus on the lives of regular people while still keeping an eye on the larger political climate. The school-aged crushes, summer vacations and family dynamics recounted here should feel familiar to most western readers, giving us a connection to Mahama and his family, even as he describes less familiar events such as watching an election being violently compromised.

My First Coup d'Etat is a bit dry for those who prefer juicy memoirs and the history lessons are not always well integrated into the narratives used to illustrate them. But the book is a good read for any one with an interest in Africa. Mahama beautifully describes events during the '70s and '80s, the "Lost Decades," in Ghana and the west coast of the continent. Non-fiction lovers who like coming-of-age stories will also take to these. This book is an interesting cross between autobiography and history that brings to life a time and place that few of us can say we know much about.

Here is an NPR interview with President Mahama about the book and life in Ghana.

Reviewed by Beverly Melven

This review was originally published in August 2012, and has been updated for the May 2013 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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Beyond the Book:
  A Brief History of Ghana

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