The History of Education Society seeks to further the study of the history of education by providing opportunities for discussion among those engaged in its study and teaching.

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Tuesday, 2 December 2014

‘My First Coup': autobiographies of childhood

By C E Hastings

"My auntie and the headmistress tried as best they could, with smiles and toffee, to shield me from their rising anxiety, but I could feel it bouncing off the quick sideways glances they shot each other and taking flight like some dark, winged creature on the breath of their long, exhausted exhales. It was rumoured that people had been executed. I knew the headmistress and my auntie were worried my father might have been among them. I was worried too…"

 John Dramani Mahama’s autobiography, My first coup d’etat: Memoirs from the lost decades of Africa is not the typical political autobiography. Thankfully.

The first chapter is the title story and presents him as a small boy of 7, how he hears of Nkrumah’s ousting, and the personal consequences. As the school holidays start, he is the last pupil left, waiting for his father to come.
He doesn’t come, and he and a school matron travel to the city centre to find his home surrounded by troops and his father jailed by the coup leaders. He writes that the ‘course of my future’ was changed by an ‘unspeakable period of violence’ that followed.
This opening does not reflect the almost idyllic childhood Mahama recounts in the remaining chapters. The reason for this opening can be related to his introduction.  Here, he suggests that he views his book as a paedagogic project, a way to educate his readers. He is going to be as specific as possible, because he is tired of people generalising about Africa, creating a ‘monolithic’ viewpoint. In this way, for example, he stresses the difference between growing up in Accra (with his father, and attending the elite boarding school Achimota) and in a small northern village that is difficult to reach and (he suggests) considered by many Ghanaians as foreign. He is keen to establish that there is purpose in writing: this is not an ego project, but an important way to generate understanding, believing that survival despite difficult political and economic situations ‘must be somewhere in our stories, in the seeming minutiae of the day-in and day-out’. There are clear echoes here of the Christian biographical narrative, the focus on what can be learned, improved upon over a lifetime: the belief that there is meaning in everyday experience. For Mahama the adult, as much as Mahama the small boy faced with intimidating soldiers and a father who disappeared (to prison) for a year, the coup has educative potential.
It is this focus on minutiae, the small parts of life, which is of great interest to me in his descriptions of history, and of school as I develop a project looking at West African autobiographies. I am particularly interested in childhood memories of school, given the focus in so many sources and studies on the experiences of teachers, parents and policy makers. Mahama’s account of facing a playground bully, in contrast to these top-down texts, presents the school as a community in which teachers know little of their charges’ life. Mahama (briefly) attended Achimota, a school that stressed cooperation, yet the author describes a systematic theft of food by a bullying pupil that went unnoticed by teachers. This may seem insignificant, but shouldn’t: a key way in which African pupils showed their opposition to school authorities was the so-called ‘food strike’. Protest could grow from young people’s concerns over what was available on the meal table.
Achimota Badge: The keyboard image symbolises cooperation
In the reverse of this process, large, globally significant events become small parts of everyday lives through the prism of the school. Politics (in the shape of the coup) is discussed in school.   Even if for the smallest boys it is in confusing, new terms, that are not fully understood, that seem to offer exciting possibilities.
The autobiography also provides insight into the ways in which families strategically managed educational opportunity. In his description of a family divided between different schools, it becomes clear just how some parents attempted to systematically improve the odds of their children’s success (separating them across different institutions). This is even though Mahama recalls his father’s attitude to schooling:
"He saw it as one of the few risk-free endeavours in life. There was nothing to be lost from it and everything to be gained."
Children’s views of the school concerned, not to mention separation from siblings and home do not seem to have mattered from Mahama’s account. The author makes clear that the ‘tradition’ and prestige of Achimota did not prevent him from hating the experience. Again, it is suggested here that we have the child’s eye view of school.  This contrasts to the fuzzy, often minimally defined, claims to ‘reputation’ which dominate many accounts of African schools I have read in the archives. Despite this apparent disempowerment, Mahama’s account also includes key moments in which school enabled him to shine in front of his father. Even before he is selected for Achimota, his father is called in to meet with his first teacher, who has spotted his potential.
She tells his father that Mahama: ‘has the potential to make you really proud’. He goes on to win prizes at Achimota, recalling of this experience that
"even considering all the accolades I have been blessed to receive thus far in my life, nothing can ever top those few precious moments of hearing my name called, of climbing up on that stage and having all the parents clap for me."
Education here is a publicly rewarded activity, but also one seen as all the more rewarding in retrospect. I connect this retrospective focus on the benefits of education to Mahama’s introduction, his goals for expanding his readers’ knowledge and understanding. For me, Mahama’s autobiography sparks important questions. How valuable are memories of school, if they are recalled to argue for the value of education?  How do we interpret the discordant notes (his hatred of much of life at Achimota) in the light of this focus?
 John Dramani Mahama, My first coup d’etat Memoirs from the lost decades of Africa (Bloomsbury, 2012)
With thanks to Liverpool City Library, where I loaned my copy.

* This post is cross-posted from Africa in Words, a blog that focuses on cultural production and Africa. We cover books, art, film, history, music, theatre, ideas and people and the ways they interact, through their publication and circulation, with societies, economies and space. Our name is intended to recognise that there are as many Africas and ways of talking about it as there are words to do it with. It reflects our shared understanding of the diverse networks across the continent that generate thought and action, that provoke people to produce, to curate, and to write, and that cross political, generic, and disciplinary limits. Ours is a collective space made up of regular authors and guest contributors, edited by Kate Haines, Charlotte Hastings, Nara Improta, Rebecca Jones, Katie Reid and Stephanie Santana. The post forms part of an ongoing project looking at a autobiographical work and the study of childhood in West Africa. The goal of cross-posting is to reach an audience who might not have found the original site of the post, despite an interest in childhood, memory, colonial schooling and/or Africa. *

Monday, 1 December 2014

The Peter Gosden Fellowship


In 2015, the History of Education Society will fund the second annual Peter Gosden Fellowship. The purpose of this Fellowship will be to build upon the achievements associated with the first Fellowship, in terms of establishing a higher public profile for the History of Education Society, its associated publications and conferences, and other activities concerned with the study and teaching of the history of education both in the UK and abroad. In particular, the Fellow will be tasked with maintaining a social media presence utilising a weblog (on the Society's website), Twitter and Facebook. This online activity will continue to develop an interactive web-presence in the period leading up to the 50th anniversary of the Society.

The Fellowship will start on 1st February 2015 and finish on 31st January 2016.

The Fellow will be mentored by the Society's publicity/website officer Dr Rob Freathy (University of Exeter).


  • The Fellow will be responsible for the following:
  • Ensuring that a weblog is posted on the Society’s website at least once a month;
  • Ensuring that regular Tweets are posted as and when necessary/appropriate/requested by the Society’s publicity/website officer;
  • Ensuring that regular entries are added to the Facebook page as and when necessary/appropriate/requested by the Society’s publicity/website officer;
  • Liaising on a regular basis with the Society’s postgraduate represent to maximise efficiency and effectiveness when publicising news and events pertaining to postgraduate students;
  • Liaising with the organisers of the annual conferences (student and main conferences) to ensure appropriate and timely publicity over calls for papers, Tweeting of conference content, blogging of conference reports, book prizes, and similar;
  • Consulting with the Society’s publicity/website officer on a regular basis, to be mutually agreed, with regard to the frequency, content and style of the ‘posts’, Tweets and Facebook entries; and
  • Attending History of Education Society Executive Committee meetings (when necessary).

Note: So long as the authorship of all ‘posts’, Tweets and Facebook entries is appropriately acknowledged, so as to avoid any contravention of copyright law, it will be permissible for the Fellow to simply co-ordinate the social media activity rather than write all of the content his or herself.


The Fellow will receive:

  • £1,000 as an honorarium
  • a year’s membership of the Society
  • free attendance at the Society's annual conferences (i.e. the student and main conferences).


  • The honorarium will be paid in four instalments (each of £250).
  • The year’s membership of the Society will entail receipt of free copies of History of Education Researcher and History of Education. (The second is additional to standard membership.)
  • Payment for attendance at the Society's conferences will include the conference fee (including conference meals if these are additional costs), accommodation costs (to be agreed in advance) and standard class travel expenses.

Application information

Applications are welcome from anyone interested in furthering the missions and aims of the History of Education Society. These include the promotion of the study and teaching of the history of education; promoting the public profile and an informed public understanding of the history of education by engaging in relevant debates; providing collaboration and exchange among those interested in the history of education in the UK and around the world; and promoting links with the study and teaching of history at all levels. Previous recipients of a Peter Gosden Fellowship are welcome to re-apply.

Applicants should ideally be undertaking or have completed a postgraduate degree in the history of education or a cognate field of enquiry. Personal or professional experience of utilising social media, such as weblogs, Twitter and/or Facebook, would be desirable. Applicants should also be able to name two referees whom we may approach for references.

Location: The Fellow can be based in any locality, but must have ready access to the relevant Information Technology and to a reliable internet connection.

Application closing date: 31st December 2014.

Short-listed applicants will be interviewed via Skype on a date and time to be arranged. Unsuccessful applicants will not be contacted.

Interested applicants should contact the President of the History of Education Society, Dr Cathy Burke, on