This week’s Saturday Short Story, “Ravalushan,” comes from Mohammed Naseehu Ali, a Ghanaian writer who now lives in Brooklyn and teaches fiction to NYU undergraduates. In the summer of 1979 when Ali was just a young boy, he witnessed a level of brutality and carnage in Ghana that he describes as “the most impactful (events) on my life.” The story’s title refers to the coup of June 4, 1979 that put a new regime into power, one that came to be called the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council.
The story is narrated by a young boy (such as the author) who is hanging around the local barber shop when the radio suddenly starts playing the kind of martial music that always announces a new government coup. When the music stops, the new leader announces that he and his comrades have taken over the government so that, for a change, the nation’s wealth can be shared with everyone and not with just a few wealthy families. The leader also announces an immediate new curfew requiring everyone to be off the streets by six p.m.
Military coups are nothing new to the people of Ghana, and this one is more or less welcomed as an opportunity to take a day off from work and school. A spontaneous street march becomes such an event when it reaches a city park that food vendors and other hustlers soon set up to service the large crowd – a crowd that in its jubilation forgets all about the new six o’clock curfew. Unfortunately for the crowd, the army did not forget about that curfew, and just as the clock strikes six, trucks filled with armed soldiers seem to be everywhere. Those living nearest the park are able to make their way to shelter, but those from distant neighborhoods, unless they are taken into a local home, are at the mercy of the army.
When the smoke clears, as many as fifty people are dead. And this is just the Leader of the Revolution’s first day. Rather predictably, this coup goes as so many before it have gone: the wealthy and the educated are targeted and everything stolen from them stays firmly in the hands of the new rulers. Men are arrested and never seen again, people are beaten in the streets and in their homes, and no one dares do anything about it.
What makes “Ravalushan” such a powerful story is that it is a coming-of-age story of sorts, one in which a child’s eyes are firmly opened to the atrocities of the adult world in a way that will scar him forever. As the story progresses, it’s tone evolves from one of childish playfulness and excitement to one of grim terror, and it’s as if the narrator is aging before the reader’s eyes. The author says this about his story: “The fear and the confusion of the adults in my life, and their helplessness in the face of such brutality, are what I try to capture in “Ravalushan.” He nails it.
(Author quote and coup history are taken from his comments in the 2016 edition of The Best American Short Stories, Junot Díaz, editor, where the story appears.)