I thought moving to Ghana would improve my appearance. I imagined closer proximity to the sun kissing my honey-brown face with kindness, bringing out the natural coppery tones of my fiery complexion, dulled to a pasty, doughy-yellow from too many years of living in England where the sun never shines.
I saw myself moving among the beautiful coal-skinned blackness of Ghanaians virtually unnoticed. But after only a week in the bright and stifling glow, the heat had not been kind. My face had become drawn and ashy. My eyes, those windows to the soul, sunken like dried craters, where less than seven days before, a more fleshy youthful skin shone out to greet the world in colder climes. And these eyes, my dear departed mother’s orbs, have always had a tendency to attract the passing glare of others. But now when men and women looked, they recoiled in momentary horror—for they knew not what sickness they may have seen there, lurking between the blink of an eye.
At first, I blamed it on the sun. Landing at Katoka International Airport has always had the effect of stepping inside a giant conventional oven. That feeling of being enveloped by intense dry heat, sucking out every morsel of the body’s moisture. But this time around, I had come prepared. To compensate for the roasting effect of living in a virtual furnace, I had drank more water in one week than I had consumed over a three-month period in England. For once, my body was fully hydrated, my liver never felt so healthy, and there was very little chance that my skin was somehow drying out from a lack of fluids or any overexposure to the sun. Some other explanation had to be found for my increasingly gaunt look, and this general sense of unease I felt.
I told myself it was the new job. This new country; the new environment; and these totally new experiences daily. New languages all around me. New colleagues to get used to in a completely new industry, where I was the new boy in town. No wonder I was feeling anxious, jumpy, and generally on edge. But this anxiety, I told myself, it too would pass soon enough, given time.
Yet the more I tried to console myself with soothing thoughts of recovery, was the more my nerves took flight. I wasn’t just feeling jumpy anymore. I was feeling progressively out of sync with every passing day. Was I having a nervous breakdown? Was I in the throes of a burnout brought on by too much stress? Lord knows, I was no stranger to psychiatric disorders, having had to section my mother and watch my sister, and a former partner of mine, go through years of mental health hell. Once you’ve seen mental disorders showing up in your family, you can’t help but wonder whether insanity might be a heredity condition that could some day blight your own mental wellbeing. Up until now, my theory on the subject had always been, “If you can cope with all the madness you’ve seen in your life, and still keep your sanity, Paul, then I don’t think you’re fit for the Loony Bin or have anything to worry about, mate.” But I was rapidly beginning to doubt my own thoughts.
Quite apart from living the expat life, suddenly transplanted to a foreign country where everything was new, what else was I doing differently? Had anything else changed in my life in these past few weeks? These were questions I began to ask myself, and that’s when the penny dropped. My doctor had been very specific, “You must take one of these once a week beginning at least one week before travel and for every week you’re abroad,” she had said. And I remember thinking then, but that could be for a very long time, and become a hugely expensive habit. “Can’t I acclimatise over time?” “Do you want to get malaria?” she had fired back, adding that “Lariam is the best on the market,” as she scribbled off a three-month prescription that would cost me a small fortune at the chemist.
It should have occurred to me earlier. Wasn’t I the one who had persuaded my mother that if the pills are doing you more harm than good, you should stop taking them immediately? Poor dear was locked up in Guy’s Hospital for months, being over medicated and dribbling like a fool, unable to hold a coherent sentence or speak to anyone with her tongue heavy and twisted in her mouth. Years later, she would credit me for handing out advice that saved her life, but I could never escape the personal guilt of having signed the document that had put her there in the first place.Now here I was, suspecting a daily dose of antimalarial tablets for my own sudden burst of anxiety, and a new unwillingness to meet people’s gaze. Come to think of it–hadn’t I read somewhere once that mefloquine hydrochloride, more commonly called Lariam, is known to cause depression? It would be just my luck to be that “one-in-a-million” for whom this commonly prescribed antimalarial pill has a severe adverse side effect.
On 7th March 2011, three weeks after I’d started taking mefloquine hydrochloride, I decided to go Bushman style. Just over a week after I’d stopped taking mefloquine hydrochloride (aka Lariam), my anxiety issues vanished. I’ve been living in Ghana for nearly four years and have had malaria twice. When I was a boy, I would watch mosquitoes land on my skin, sucking up as much of my blood as they could fill, before I’d slap them dead with a childhood vengeance. My childish game has left me with no immunity to the deadly diseases mosquitoes spread, but malaria is still curable last time I checked, and prevention isn’t always better than cure.
As of 29 July 2013, here’s what the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is advising the public about strengthened and updated warnings about neurologic and psychiatric side effects associated with the antimalarial drug mefloquine hydrochloride.
The neurologic side effects can include dizziness, loss of balance, or ringing in the ears. The psychiatric side effects may include anxiety, paranoia, depression, agitation, restlessness, mood changes, panic attacks, forgetfulness, hallucinations, aggression, and psychotic behaviour.
These side effects can occur at any time during drug use, and can last for months to years after the drug is stopped or can even be permanent. See the Drug Safety Communication for more information, including a data summary.
As a “Big Man” in Ghanaian society the trick is to marry early. Give your wife at least two children sharp. After the firstborn, and certainly by age thirty or so, on a diet of oily, starchy foods and sweet cakes with no exercise, she should have already turned into “Big Mama.” You know, grossly overweight with everything hanging out. You may have already seen the American caricature on screen; huge sagging breasts, big belly, giant thighs and an even bigger behind.
What does it matter that the once slim young woman you married now waddles in fat and can barely walk anywhere? Or that your children may inherit the obesity trait and your daughters will most likely follow in their mother’s untimely footsteps to deadly diabetes and heart disease?
Here in Ghana, where we equate size with wealth and power, the hefty mother of your children is already seen by all and sundry as the wife of a very rich man indeed–a “Big Man.” And as long as you can afford to keep her latest hairdo done, and provide a “home used” 4×4 all-terrain vehicle for her to roam about in at will, she’ll be happy enough to just play “de madam” of the house for the rest of her natural life.
Leaving you with enough time on your hands to go chase the young skirts, and maybe even a few tight trousers, too. For your wife and you now live very separate lives, still under the same roof but in separate bedrooms. You may come together for church, but only on Sundays and funerals. Not that you would have it any other way. You have finally arrived. You are now a “Big Man.” No more small boy-ooo.
I was having a discussion with one of my regular taxi drivers the other day. We were on the subject of a depreciating Cedi, high levels of government misappropriation of funds and other social ills in Ghana, when he suddenly pointed to a man walking on the dirt road ahead, and says, “Look at that man and the way he walks.” I looked and saw a slightly overweight man walking up a hill, and asked, what about him?
“Look at the way he walks,” the driver repeated, scornfully. “He’s a homosexual. I hate those people.”
Well, I looked again, and all I saw was a fat man walking up a hill. And I suppose because his arse was quite big, like many African men I’ve seen here in Ghana and elsewhere, you might have said that it looked like a woman’s backside from behind. But other than a slightly over-sized posterior, I could see no reason to reach a conclusion that this man walking on the road, minding his own business, was anything other than totally masculine and completely heterosexual.
“They should be shot,” continued the driver, angrily.
“What the hell are you talking about?” I had to ask him bluntly. He had just been speaking to me about how he tells his wife about me–“my friend, Rasta,” whom he claims to like very much because “he tells it as it is,” and so, I told him as I saw it.
You know nothing about this man. You’ve just seen him walking up the road for a split second. Yet you’ve decided that you hate him because you presume him to be a homosexual. What if he is? What does it have to do with you? Why should you want to harm him? You must have real issues, my friend. And you call yourself a child of God, a Christian? Homosexuals are children of God, too, you know.
“My God would not make those people,” he yelled, turning toward me with angry eyes.
“Your God?” I chimed.
“Yes. My God,” he replied. “My God would never make homosexuals.”
Well, somebody’s God made them. Somebody’s God must have trumped your God, because “those people” exist! Why do we Africans spend so much time worrying about the insignificant things in life? Here we are living in filth with dirt roads, open sewers, gross unemployment, corruption at every turn, a currency heading down the drains and our children still learning under trees. Yet you reserve all your anger and resentment for some fat man walking up a hill, who you believe to be a homosexual. And without even a shred of proof, you’re ready to shoot him, in the name of God. Don’t you think that’s odd?”
“I hate those people,” he responded again. “They spread disease.”
Well, you know, where I come from in England, it’s African communities that are said to spread HIV/AIDS. But no one is advocating killing them.
“Why do they say that about Africans?”
“Because homosexual men and African communities have the highest rates of HIV infection in that country. Many Africans migrate from this continent to the UK where they can get better treatment and care.”
“And they let them into Europe?”
“Yes, they do. And I’ve worked in the health sector where gay men and African communities have forged unlikely alliances to fight the prejudices they face in certain quarters.”
So you support homosexual rights?
Yes. I support the right of anyone to live their life freely, in peace, and without persecution. As long as “that man” is not trying to bed you or cause you any harm whatsoever, why do you care who he may love? It’s the leaders of this country who are fucking us all that you should be worried about. I’ve never understood why some men are so concerned about where and in whom some other man wants to put his dick.
“They corrupt our children.”
Pleeease! The only thing I can gather from what you’ve said is that you saw that man walking up the hill with his fat arse, and it turned you on. If only for a moment, your eyes settled on his butt and you were aroused. And if that was the case, then it’s all about you, my friend, and nothing to do with that man being homosexual at all.
“Are you calling me a homosexual?”
I’m not calling you anything. Not in so many words. I’m just telling you what I think your words may reveal about your train of thoughts.
He went silent for a very long time, and shuttling me around town for the next three hours, he hardly spoke a word. But every time we stopped for me to get out the car, he struggle rather clumsily to unbuckle my seat belt, hitched upon my hip, which somehow left me slightly unnerved.