Power and money in Africa

July 6, 2012, 3:26 PM UTC

A long time ago, a more experienced magazine editor showed me a trick. “When you get an article in,’’ he declared, waving a fistful of white pages, “just look at the first and last sentences and they’ll tell you exactly what you’ve got — what the story’s really about, and if it’s any damn good.’’

He was right, I’ve found, and this divining technique works with books as well. Here’s the first line of Max Alexander’s Bright Lights, No City: An African Adventure on Bad Roads with a Brother and a Very Weird Business Plan: “I never cared about Africa.’’

And the last line of this entertaining travel/business/family memoir: “Soon the Ghanaians disappeared into the crowd, and then Africa was gone.’’

What have we got? Clearly, the author has completed a journey, a requisite of successful narratives from The Odyssey to Eat, Pray, Love. And over that arc, something has happened. Look at the tonal shift from that first flat, skeptical statement to the much more engaged, elegiac last note. Africa has become something to miss, perhaps even mourn. The narrator has also changed as a result of his journey, another narrative element that good screenwriters and other story mongers tend to insist on.

Alexander has clearly been on some kind of mission, that’s the suspenseful heart of the journey that keeps the audience reading, or in their seats until the lights come back up. As it turns out, his quest centers on a totem, a small but magically powerful object often found in classic narratives (see the genie’s lamp, the Wicked Witch’s ruby slippers). In this case, it’s batteries.

In 2008 Alexander’s younger brother Whit, a former Microsoftie and co-inventor of the board game Cranium, launched a business in Ghana: renting rechargeable D and AA batteries to villagers who lived off the electric grid. Inspired by Bill Gates’ take on creative capitalism, he sees himself as a social entrepreneur, “doing good by doing well.’’

Challenges are steep and many. The Burro batteries, as Whit names his little totems, are more powerful, and greener, than the leaky, toxic Chinese batteries most Ghanaians rely on, but three times more expensive up front. Plus, all the stereotypical difficulties of doing business in Africa are in effect: “My brother…was renting batteries to people who earn a dollar a day,’’ writes Max, “in a country with annual inflation exceeding 20% and a long history of military coups followed by firing squads.’’ Max, the elder, joins Whit for roughly two years, mocking and baiting all the way.

Whit goes with the rental model because chargers are too expensive for most villagers, and he hires a cadre of local agents — like African Avon ladies — to direct-sell the service and replace clients’ spent batteries with fresh ones. (Burro charges 1.5 Ghanaian cedi or roughly $1.20 a month per pair.) The need is huge. In rural Ghana, “flashlights allow villagers to hunt at night,’’ Alexander writes, “for children to do homework after dinner, and for villagers to feel safe after dark.’’ Radios provide their only access to news and music. Meanwhile, the villagers’ lives are being transformed by battery-powered cell phones, and Whit has a plan for them, too.

He pitches the Burro battery in village assemblies called “gong-gongs,’’ held outdoors in hamlets that are too small to appear on maps. The men, summoned by the village cowbell or gong, gather in the shade of mango trees. The Burro team flog their wares from the back of their Tata pickup, having first determined if the audience speaks “Twi, Ewe, Ga, Hausa, or one of the more than seventy other languages and dialects…not counting the official English.’’

Trials, tribulations, and hilarity ensue. Many of Max and Whit’s escapades are predictable, right out of the white-man-goes-to-Africa playbook. (The local term for white man is obruni; they hear that a lot.) Strange food? Try grasscutter, “a rodent bigger than a rabbit with a ratlike tail that lives in the tall grass.’’ Do-nothing workers in this postcolonial country? See the bank manager asleep at his desk.

The local police want bribes — “pay whatever is in your heart,’ is their mantra. Burro employees have to be taught to put subject lines in their emails — and to drive. The obruni brothers are based in Koforidua, a city of roughly 100,000. But they’re traveling salesmen, so the harrowing Ghanaian roads and fatalistic drivers provide more laughs and gasps.

We’ve read this kind of thing before and seen it on-screen — it’s déjà lu as well as déjà vu. Yet Alexander’s take on the classic fish-out-of-water tale works. No City succeeds by offering surprises and complications — a prized employee breaks bad; Max Krazy Glues his eye shut — rendered in cinematic, dialog-driven scenes. There’s even a gripping “all is lost’’ moment: Just as Whit’s business is getting traction, a crucial shipment from a Chinese supplier comes in defective, built to the wrong specs — and painted the wrong color.

Character is king in Storyland, and we meet worthy ones, African as well as American. When Max decides to try working on a farm, swinging a “cutlass’’ or machete, he’s hosted by generous, devout and amazingly diligent Jonas.

But Whit — tireless, driven, idealistic but endowed with a sense of irony — is the hero here, the emotional heart of the story. Setbacks, parasites, and the family he left back in the First World can’t deter him from his Fitzcarraldo-esque mission. When the batteries inexplicably fail, Max relates, Whit’s nights “grew later and later. Surrounded by buckets of green Burro batteries and racks of blinking chargers, he worked, bent over his testers and coils of wire, like a mad scientist, talking to himself…’’

Whit is resilient, hand-crafting an “eliminator’’ device that makes flashlights run on one battery instead of two. Ultimately, Whit has to adapt. Batteries alone won’t do it, he learns. Instead it’s other devices — powered by Burro’s rechargeables — that put his business over the top. You don’t have to be an entrepreneur to thrill to the climatic scene when village customers interrupt yet another Burro pitch to yell, “Stop talking and let us pay!’’ (“Over the top’’ is a relative term for this micro-endeavor, as is “profitable;’’ on its best revenue day the take is around $220.)

Bright Lights, No City satisfies as both a business tale and a personal saga — even though we sense early on where both streams are leading us. That’s the counterintuitive thing about stories. They can still entrance us even if we recognize the arc at the outset, predict some mini-dramas along the way, and guess the ending before it happens. And yes, even if the first and last sentences lay it all out for us.

This recognition is actually a comforting and enjoyable part of the experience, like the resolution of chords in a musical progression. When it comes to narratives, familiarity breeds contentment. Put another way, sitting down with Bright Lights, No City is like an amusement park visit. You can see exactly where the roller coaster begins and ends, you can trace the rails that guide it, and you know the danger isn’t real. Yet, careening along, you’re in thrall to the ride.

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