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.
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.
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?