An old man walked into the 37th Military Hospital in Accra early one morning. He had known all his life that the 37th Military Hospital in Accra was a place for deserving Ghanaians, and so he had travelled there from far, obviously very sick and in need of emergency care.
Several hours passed as he waited for medical attention and care, while chaos reigned in the emergency ward. Doctors and nurses stepped over him in passing, and although reminded by several other patients, “the old man has not been seen to all day,” they merely waved a dismissive hand and disappeared along corridors lined with the sick and dying. “We’re busy ooo,” they crooned, for there was no one waiting who looked important enough to them. And so, they continued with business as usual.
Some people began to wonder if the old man had any family at all. What heartless relatives they must be to leave him sick and alone like this, they muttered to themselves and each other. Then at around 5pm, a worried-looking young man turned up from work distraught to see his father slumped half-dead by the emergency ward entrance. The old man had clearly urinated himself, and the son immediately pulled off his own jeans to replace his father’s soiled trousers. Standing there in boxer shorts for the entire world to see, he began to clean up his father as best he could. Then, when he was through, he turned his attention to the hospital staff.
So furious were the young man’s words that a junior doctor immediately flew into action with two or three ancillary staff. They checked the old man’s pulse and concluded that he needed a drip and emergency care. He had lost a lot of fluids. He was coughing up blood. They would see to the drip right away, they said, but they could do nothing further until the son paid up two hundred Ghana cedis in cash. That’s roughly £51/$85 or much more than large sections of Ghana’s population earn each month. The young man protested, but he seemed to have come prepared. He eventually pulled out the notes from a battered wallet, and reluctantly handed them over.
He would rush out, he explained, to get his father a drink and possibly some light food to eat. He asked that the emergency care team find a spare bed and set up a drip for the old man on what was already an overcrowded ward. The son left them at it, and walked outside in his boxer shorts. He had not been gone ten minutes when the old man coughed up a puddle of blood, and expired right there on the spot, exactly where he had sat unattended since morning. Other patients on the ward and their families fell silent.
When the son returned, about 20 minutes later, he knew immediately that his father was dead. He could tell it in the attitude of the people around him, in how they hung their heads in shame and prayer. He did not look across at the now lifeless body of the old man. He marched straight up to the duty officer’s desk and shouted, “What happened to my father?”
“Oh, sorry, he passed away while we were taking care of him,” the duty officer lied.
“I-want-my-money back,” the young man demanded.
“Calm down, brother,” begged the duty officer, attempting to quash the situation.
“I-WANT-MY-MONEY BACK!” the young man repeated, deliberately this time. “Cos I can’t pay for the treatment to come back thirty minutes later and find my father dead.”
“The money has been processed,” said the duty officer, apologetically.
“What? You let my father sit here all day outside this door, waiting. Now he’s dead. And you want to chop my money?”
Then leaping at the duty officer, the young man grabbed him by the throat and shoved him up against the wall. The whole place heaved and held its breath. “Don’t let me do anything I will regret,” the young man warned.
Just as other patients and their families looked on in admiration and horror; footsteps came rushing into the emergency ward. Two guards rushed pass the old man’s dead body to find their colleague dangling by the neck and choking up against the wall.
“My brother,” one of them said, holding on his truncheon like a gun. “This is the Military Hospital. You don’t have to do this.”
The young man turned to look at him and it seemed as if the “military” word brought some sense in his head. Releasing his grip from around the duty officer’s throat, he allowed the elder man to slide down the wall and onto his feet.
Again, the room sighed a sense of relief. One of the guards, the bigger, uglier one, took the angry young man by the elbow. He could tell that the boy was about to cry and gently escorted him from the emergency ward, as the other two men calmly followed. They stepped across the old man’s body with the son gently weeping and asking for his money back. That was the last anyone on the ward saw or heard of him as the room erupted in excitable chatter.
He had sat outside waiting all day in life, but it was only in death that an attendant came to wheel the old man away. They would take his lifeless body to the hospital morgue, where his family would pay to keep him on ice until the funeral.
It was about two hours later that a woman on a makeshift stretcher was rushed in through the same open ward doors. Flanked by a bevy of activity and a whole lot of praying, it was clear from her grey dangling dreadlocks that the latest patient was a senior citizen. However, under the cover of a thick red, gold and green blanket, it was neither possible to see her body or her face. From the conversation, it appeared that the woman had fainted. Above her uneven breathing stood a divot Rastafarian sister, waving arms and chanting obsessively, while a younger man speaking in Twi sought to get attention from the hospital’s emergency care staff.
The commotion had brought four or five of them out, peeking from around a closed door. When the man rushed up to them, it soon became apparent that he had not brought with him the right paperwork to have the sick woman seen to immediately. He tried to explain. The woman had suddenly taken ill. They had panicked, and rushed to the hospital for treatment. Could the emergency care team not see her first, while he rushed home to get the forgotten papers?
No, they said. That’s not how we do it. He was to return home to fetch the correct paperwork first, before they could see to the sick elderly woman he had brought in for emergency care. He could either take her with him, or leave her waiting on the overcrowded ward alongside the rest of the sick people. The choice was his. He chose the latter.
The hours passed. For it was to the mountains of Aburi that the young man had to travel. Luckily, at night, the roads were clear by Ghanaian standards. So, he collected the appropriate paperwork, took a puff on a spliff to claim his nerves, and drove nonstop all the way back to the 37th Military Hospital. As he entered the ward, he could see very well that his employer was alive. He walked straight to a room at the end along the corridor, where the group of doctors had spoken to him so abruptly. He was not even going to knock this time. The spliff had given him new courage. As he held out the forms in his hand, impassively, the doctors and others turned to look at him surprised.
Eyeing the young man with a mixture of scorn and irritation, a senior doctor who recognised him from earlier, took the papers, grudgingly. He glanced at the document in his hands, and when his pupils focused on the name written there, he did a double take. His eyes clearly bulged. It was as if the papers had suddenly become too hot to handle, and he quickly passed them to another colleague, indicating that she too should look. “Rita Marley,” the woman said aloud. “The Rita Marley?” she questioned again. And on hearing the name spoken aloud twice, a sudden clarity rushed to their brains.
They had left Rita Marley, wife of legendary reggae singer, Bob Marley, unattended on a stretcher in a corner of a dirty, overcrowded ward for more than three hours now. With the magnitude of what they had done etched across each one of their faces, they ran blindly from the room to attend to the sick woman. No longer was she just a nameless Rastafarian elder, whom they naturally assumed to be poor and worthless. She was the former wife of an international superstar, a legend in her own right, and a long-time friend of Ghana. They went to work with gusto. To save this woman’s life was now their ultimate concern. How would it look to the outside world, if Rita Marley should die from neglect in their emergency care?
The young American white couple a few doors away from me are leaving Ghana today. So I’m told. “Too poor,” they say. “One minute, water no lights. Next minute, lights no water.” They’ve had enough. After five years of working to improve education in this country, where their two children were born, they’re packing their bags and hauling their doll-like offsprings back to the good ole US of A; Colorado, I believe.
I’m relaying this story to you, second-hand; from one of their hired help. For in the two years I’ve lived here, I’ve never actually seen the parents, but their children have fascinated me. Here they are in my yard with their Ghanaian nanny. Lovely, well-mannered kids. Never say a word to me. They just stare. Though, I hear, they’ll point out “Rasta house” to anyone in passing. They speak Twi, too, apparently. But I can never see them without thinking of those ‘Children of the Damned.’ Remember that film, ‘Village of the Damned‘ or the sequel with those scary looking blonde-haired, blue-eyed kids? I know it’s wrong, but that’s what these two remind me of…
They share the same milk-white almost luminous, pale skin tone as the children in that movie – even though it was in black and white, if memory serves me well – combined with the brightest of fine, blonde hair, cherub-like features, and these piercing blue eyes; all of which really sets them apart in this sub-Saharan environment. Yet they seem to have no problems at all walking around all day under a scorching sun that never seems to darken their skin but just bleaches their hair even brighter.
Then a few weeks ago, it hit me like a rock when I met their mother in passing. Imagine a tall, powerfully built, Amazonian woman the colour of wet sand, with thick, kinky auburn hair not too unlike my own, and firm, strong, long arms and legs, and you will get the picture. I’d been looking out for two white parents all this time, but this woman was clearly not white. Being biracial (half Ghanaian and half Norwegian) didn’t make it any easier to imagine how this ‘black woman’ could have given birth to these two ‘white children’, until you met her husband.
This slim, pale, blonde American man with a touch of clever around the eyes and a sense of something fragile in him had clearly passed on a visual stamp from his side of the gene pool. But it was their mother’s physical strength and vitality that had infused these kids with an almost alien-like durability in this white façade that made them totally stand-out. It made them “pop” as folks like to say these days.
Picture Beyoncé painted ‘white-face’ but with that same African body and spirit and energy, and you might get close to what I’m trying to convey. It’s what one of my academic friends used to refer to as “that look” in “people of ‘dubious’ ethnicity.” It’s what had kept me fascinated by these kids all along without really knowing why. I could just sense that there was something else. Something else underneath that had made the surface appearance almost like a mutation. The 25 percent African blood visually muted but very much there in every other respect. Fascinating. And yet it often happens the other way around, but where society only ever sees ‘Black.’
Just goes to prove the myth of racial purity. Am I making sense? I’ll miss them when they’re gone.
What is it with black women and wigs? All over the internet ads now appear for ‘wigs for black women’ aimed at an African American audience. Even Google have got in on the game. Right across West Africa today, the majority of women wear wigs or weaves as part of daily life. And the same is true of black women in the Caribbean and parts of Europe, making wigs for black women big business for someone.
My own mother wore a wig for all 47 years of her life in England. I still for the life of me can’t understand why. Why at twenty-one years old she would suddenly decide to hide her own natural hair and start wearing any one of a dozen Winnie Mandela-style curly afro wigs in public?
It wasn’t as if she didn’t have hair to style in a reasonable fashion. For in the early years, at least, before too much wig wearing ate away at her scalp like a cancer, she had a head full of “good hair.” But the more she wore wigs was the more she grew wedded to the idea of never being seen in public without her “hat-on,” as she called it.
Growing up in my mother’s house, there was always the faintly musky whiff of real human-haired wigs in the air. I developed an aversion to false hair early. “Work with what you’ve got,” I’d tell her. “What are you ashamed of?” But she wasn’t one for hair salons or other vain excesses; she’d have you know. She had two kids to feed and a mortgage to pay all on her own, and the state of her hair was hardly the most important thing on her mind.
“Look how great that lovely actress Carmen Monroe looks,” I’d plead. “And she’s practically your double. Try a crop.” But we spent years fighting that particular battle, my mother and me. And still, whatever argument we got into, invariably ended with me trying to persuade her to dump the wigs, and free her mind. What are you ashamed of? But it never worked. As the years rolled on, she grew to despise my dreadlocks even more than I still hated her ‘real human haired’ wigs.
Then after the cancer took hold, and the chemotherapy had taken its toll, she became even more psychologically dependant on the wig as a kind of crutch to feign normality, while she laid up in bed wasting away.
We even buried her in a damn wig in the end. Against my better judgement, it was, but “Sis” begged and persuaded me that “the mum we knew and loved, wouldn’t have wanted a seat on the right-hand of God, without her hat-on.” Too true, I suppose.
So, there you have it. My mother, wigged-out all the way from England to the grave. I wonder how many other sons or daughters have said as much. What say ye?