How did two nice boys from Michigan end up as struggling businessmen in Ghana – navigating 70-plus languages, a mango- and cassava-based diet, and one of the worst highway systems known to mankind? Siblings Max and Whit Alexander found themselves doing exactly this after Whit (co-creator of the popular board game Cranium) decided to try his hand at “creative capitalism” in the developing world. Bright Lights, No City is the story of the brothers’ bid to live the lives of “Willy Loman in the Casbah” as told through the eyes of Max, a former executive editor of Variety.
The story is entertainingly recounted but also full of eye-opening – and hair-raising – insights into the challenges of doing business in the third world.
Whit is the entrepreneur and Max the bemused scribe. “My brother Whit was starting this business in Ghana ... renting batteries to people who earn a dollar a day, in a country with annual inflation exceeding 20 percent and a long history of military coups followed by firing squads,” Max dryly recounts. Whit, an idealist in love with Africa since college, firmly believes that it is “the marketplace – not government handouts or benefit concerts” that can “create lasting solutions to African poverty.”
In a country where half the population lives off the grid, high-quality rechargeable batteries should sell as briskly as iPhones in midtown Manhattan. Or so you might think – until you actually arrive in Ghana and begin dealing with voodoo economics (literally), competing ethnic groups, a “Zen-like concept of time and distance,” and a country so lacking in infrastructure and know-how that a technician has no screwdriver and an electrician can’t install a light.
If Whit is hoping to change the world (“one battery at a time,” he insists), Max is in search of “the place where venture and adventure intersect.” He finds plenty of both, harvesting cassava by machete, meeting venomous snakes (Ghana has 24 types), trading gibes with clusters of half-naked children, and interacting with patrons of establishments with names like “Don’t Mind Your Wife Drinking and Chop Bar.”
Clearly, however, both brothers develop deep affection for their host country. What keeps them on task is Whit’s heartfelt mantra about the Ghanian people: “They deserve better.”
A very different take on some of the same national challenges is provided in My First Coup d’Etat, a memoir by John Dramani Mahama, a Ghanian journalist, historian, and politician born into the nation’s elite shortly after the country became independent in 1957. Mahama – the son of a Ghanian minister of state and great-grandson of a regional chief – was born to a family that enjoyed the best of two worlds. They lived large, savoring Western luxuries like chauffeured Mercedes and a steady supply of Jackson 5 albums on the record player even as Mahama enjoyed a native childhood, spent playing among elephants, gazelles, butterflies, and more than 100 species of birds.
But nothing lasts forever – and certainly not in Ghana. The 1966 coup during which Mahama’s father was arrested was just the first in a series of ups and downs for the family. They would come to know hunger and fear and to watch in frustration as fellow educated Ghanians fled their country in droves.
Mahama’s memoir is filled with a warm nostaglia for a way of life that he recognizes has gone for good. Yet he refuses to give up hope for Ghana. In all things human “there is always a hint of doubt,” he admits. But his country, he believes, is now on the right path and “never will” slip so badly again.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s books editor.