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.
Kwame Nkrumah once said, “Far better to be free to govern or misgovern yourself than to be governed by anybody else.” This statement directed against the British colonial forces oppressing Ghana at the time has inadvertently come to represent a way of life for one Stephanie Benson, modern heiress to the ancient Queen of Ashanti throne.
Sultry, sexy singer, mother of five, independent woman, and loving wife are just some of the hats worn by Stephanie Benson. Dressed casually in jeans today, this beautiful woman would cut a dashing poise in any setting. But don’t let the chiselled features, hour-glass shape and sexy pout belie the strength of character and steely determination that drives this woman towards her single-minded path for happiness.
The stories of a fairytale princess never normally go from rags to riches, not that Stephanie is short of a bob or two these days. But never did the Brothers Grimm or The Arabian Nights tell tales of beautiful princesses who gave it all up for love and a bungalow in Kent. Then again, these stories were written long before Princess Akua Ohenewaa Asieanem of Kokobin (a.k.a. Stephanie) was born. So, this daughter to millionaire pharmacist Samuel Benson and Queen Nana Achiaa Boahemaah II decided to marry an English bloke and live in the unsanctified world of unsanitised people.
It all started when Stephanie’s father died. She was sent to live with her strict uncle in England. At the age of 15, she thought that she had escaped the restrictive lifestyle of royal protocol but found out that although she was living in North London affluence, her movements were still constantly supervised and under the watchful eyes of her uncle and his employees.
When she had finished her schooling, she took up employment as her uncle’s secretary. Whilst there, she was sent on a computer training course where she met her future husband, Jonathan. It was more or less love at first sight for him, says Stephanie, and she recalls that it took slightly longer for her to warm to the idea.
“I was 19 when I went on my first date with Jonathan. And I ended up falling head over heels in love with him. I had also realised that my uncle would never accept it, so we had to meet in secret.” When Jonathan proposed Stephanie eagerly accepted. The night she rang her mother to tell her the news, her uncle insisted that she return to Ghana immediately.
Once there, a huge party was arranged and the place filled with eligible suitors. Despite thinly veiled attempts by the family to force her to stay, Stephanie quickly returned to England where she is now twenty years into her marriage. Five children later, a chocolate shop and factory in Tunbridge Wells, a record deal she walked out on, and a flourishing career as a singer, she still claims to be very much in love.
But who in their right mind would follow the little man’s dream in reverse – from riches to rags – and still loudly proclaim to be happy?
Why would anyone want to give up a life of luxury; personal servants, a 25-bedroom mansion, education in the best schools of the world and, an annual trust fund as big as most people’s lifetime earnings?
“My life growing up was really never easy,” she sighs. “My mother was never around very much. Our life was governed by strict protocols, customs, rules and old-fashioned traditions. I couldn’t just run up to her for a hug when other people were around, or even call her mom,” she says rather wistfully.
This enforced distance between mother and child is in stark contrast to the relationship she cultivates with her own five growing brood, aged 9 to 20 years old. Her busy day-to-day world is very much like any other mother, yet despite a hectic schedule, daily school runs, live performances, time in the studio, and helping to run the family business, she still somehow manages to share quality time with her children.
“I like to be a trendy mum. My children know they can talk to me any time. I am their mum, and their friend,” she says matter-of-factly. So what lessons on race, identity and culture does a black woman who grew up in the royal lap of luxury pass on to her mixed-race children, particularly when deciding on schools and where to live? None, apparently, and it works just fine. “My two eldest daughters went to a private school from the age of three and, as it were, they were the only black children there. They never suffered any harm from it,” she shrugs.
“The only time we had a problem was once when another child told my son, ‘We don’t sit next to brown people.’ My son didn’t understand what he meant and was quite upset by it,” she says now, visibly disturbed by the memory. “That was probably my mistake. I never really discuss racism with them. I never had a chip on my shoulder in that way.” This statement, which to many may seem both ignorant and cold, underlines the reality of Stephanie Benson’s world view.
She has never really seen herself as a ‘black’ woman as such. She has never really shared the same cares or concerns as the masses. What Stephanie Benson knows above all else is that she is in-line to the throne of the royal Queen of Ashanti. She carries within her the lineage of great warriors and daring heroines, and that knowledge of history coupled with determination is what propels her through life and gives her an edge on self-worth.
In fact, Mrs Benson comes across as fiery, rebellious and very, very confident. None of it is a front. She is a consummate professional and utterly charming with it, too. This strong, rebellious, single-minded ancestry is what she claims to pass on to her children, and hopefully, they in turn to theirs.