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'Bright Lights, No City' and 'My First Coup d'Etat'

Two memoirs about Ghana – a country that is easy to love but confoundingly difficult to cultivate.

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Bright Lights, No City
By Max Alexander
Hyperion
378 pp.

My First Coup d’Etat
By John Dramani Mahama
Bloomsbury USA
336 pp.

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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.

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