By Gayle Pescud
I created Ghana Guide and Blog in 2008 to write about the reality of life in Ghana after having lived in Ghana for 2.5 years by then.
By 2008, I realised that my own views about “Africa” had been 100% influenced by the “news”, depicting either war or famine, neither of which represented the Ghana I knew. As a representation of “Africa”, the news showed one tiny sliver of a much bigger story. To take that sliver as the full reality was inaccurate and misleading. The news was useless as far as preparing me or anyone else with no prior Africa experience for what it was really like to live, work and travel in Ghana.
If others were planning to work and thrive in Ghana, they would be misled, as I was, by product “Africa”. They would prepare all wrong.
I created my blog to help dispel some of the negative stereotypes about “Africa” and hopefully provide some insight and guidance about what to expect when living in Ghana, specifically. My experience was that Ghana was virtually the opposite of the conflict-ridden or hungry continent stereotype.
For the most part, it was safe, peaceful and, while people lived in poverty, it was not in famine. There is a huge difference.
Ghanaians were exceedingly friendly and welcoming.
That’s not to diminish the reality of the conflict-ridden countries in Africa, and the poverty-stricken countries, they deserve their individual stories to be told, too. But even those stories will have good news, joy and laughter in them.
A mother will be kissing her baby on the forehead on a rickety old bus as you read this, somewhere in Africa.
But my blog was concerned with the place I had fallen in love with, Ghana.
You can find information about traveling in Ghana in the blog, and much about volunteering and working as well. I’m also the co-founder of G-lish Foundation which is a non-government organisation in Bolgatanga in the Upper East Region of Ghana.
After volunteering and working in Ghana, Cambodia and Vietnam on international development projects between 2005-2009, and starting our own non-profit in 2010, G-lish Foundation, I returned to Australia in February 2011 for 8 months. I had had malaria more times than I can count, my body was tired and I needed to regenerate.
Then, in late September 2011, my littlest brother-in-law, Jo, fell out of a tree he was climbing in Bawku and broke his spinal chord at the C4 level. He was 11.
I had been thinking of returning to Ghana soon, as we had an idea for a new project I had conceived while visiting customers in Australia for G-lish Foundation, but I wasn’t sure the exact date.
Jo’s accident made it critical that I return quickly, as the family needed support in the hospital to get medical attention.
In that last week in September he was taken by donkey cart to the local hospital Bawku, at first. Then by ambulance (after much negotiating) to Bolga Hospital, near where I had been living. Then by pick up truck (ute) to Tamale Teaching Hospital, 300 kms fro Bolga, because there was no ambulance in Bawku. Then by ambulance (after more haggling) to Konfo Anokye Teaching Hospital in Kumasi, several hundred kilometres further south. The challenge with this was that Godwin’s family had no base in Kumasi, nowhere to stay.
It was terrible timing that Ghana’s doctors went on strike a day or so after Jo was admitted to Konfo Anokye, resulting in him not getting any specialist spinal chord treatment during the first 3 weeks after his accident, the most crucial time in treating such injuries.
Godwin called me when Jo came to Bolga. I was in Sydney. I couldn’t believe it. I remember immediately asking family for money so Godwin could cover ambulance costs and the first costs, whatever they were, in hospital. I knew now was the time to fly to Ghana and I had to be fast. I think it was a week between that phone call and my landing in Accra in October 2011. Godwin came to meet me there and we went back to Kumasi on the bus together.
The thinking was that my presence would help at the hospital. I knew as much as the average person who reads and watches TV knows about spinal injuries. I had google. I would do what I could with what little knowledge I had to urge whatever doctor I could find (there was one defying the strike and giving us about 5 minutes attention/day) to treat Jo.
It was a horrendous few weeks in which Godwin and I, his parents and one sibling, took shifts in staying with Jo in hospital and helping him get through the pain however we could. I tried to distract him by practicing Frafra to make Jo laugh at my ineptitude, even though he was visibly in pain when laughing. But I think those days helped take his mind off the situation. There was no TV or anything like that in the wards.
This put a stop to all our plans at that time. Godwin’s family were (and still are) extremely poor, illiterate, living in a mud brick house on the edge of Bawku, a conflict zone, without running water. If we did not help, it’s likely Jo would have died, as there was no one to advocate for the treatment he needed, nor to pay all the costs. It would have been impossible. There is no one else in their family circles with the means to help.
It both broke my heart to see the child that had been one of the most wriggly and active I’d ever known, even by Ghana standards, to be paralysed from the neck down. It broke my heart to see a family that had just gotten to retirement, spend their what little savings they had and be the only carers for their youngest child. This was in a country with no social security, no nurses or home support for people with disabilities, no help at all, unless you had money, which this family did not.
It did, however, reveal more love than I’ve ever seen anywhere.
There was a day during those first weeks when we were all taking shifts in Kumasi when an inexperienced nurse pronounced that Jo would die. Godwin and I had arrived at the hospital shortly after this to find the family in tears. Rapid fire Frafra flew between Godwin and his Mum and Dad, Godwin then in tears. It was too fast for me even to pick up the odd word.
Knowing what I knew about paralysis, I assumed that they had been told Jo would not walk again. I assumed that was the reason for the tears. With this assumption in mind, I remember doing my best to console Mum and Dad, patting them on the arm, wishing I was fluent and could speak in their language, even though the right words were elusive even in English.
The pain was palpable then. We all cried for some time, ignoring the other people around us. They weren’t getting treatment for their loved ones either while doctors were on strike.
I remember trying to think of something positive about the potential recovery and being able to walk again, googling it then, trying to find something that may translate and have a good effect. As I did, that’s when Godwin explained that the nurse had said that Jo would die. I suddenly realised my mistake. I had assumed wrong. They were crying because they thought he was going to die, not because he wouldn’t walk again.
If you’d seen the situation at the time, the ventilator keeping Jo alive, the fear on his face, his inability to move any body part except his head, and you knew nothing about spinal injuries, you may easily believe the nurse’s words.
I knew enough to know he was not likely to die anytime soon, provided he was able to breathe. Godwin and I exchanged rapid fire English, clarifying what exactly had been said, the reason for the tears.
I was fairly incensed. I explained that the nurse was wrong and just inexperienced. I explained Jo wasn’t going to die. I said nothing about walking or movement.
Faces changed in an instant. Hope sparkled. Tears stopped. Tension eased.
What I remember feeling, sitting on those plastic chairs under the makeshift gazebo, is love. There was more love in that little family group and those painful hours of misunderstanding than I’d ever seen in any other moments and hours in my life.
While I understood intellectually that love was everywhere, and I had seen plenty of evidence in Ghana over the years, I knew it in my guts, then, more than I’d ever known it before in my life.
We all hurt. We have big hearts. We love. We connect. We come together. We’re stronger than we sometimes seen. Love is that force. It lives in the remotest corners of Ghana, Africa.
It’s a hangover from British colonisation that, in Ghana, Caucasians are stereotyped as blessed and more educated, even if they’re not blessed or educated. That stereotype is why the family believed me when I said he wouldn’t die then. I was seen as an authority. It’s also why doctors, even on strike, will care more if there is an educated-looking foreigner hanging around a family who otherwise would be ignored because the poor and illiterate are generally ignored by authorities.
This thinking is discriminatory and needs to change, but it is reality, and we had someone’s life in our hands. If my presence meant Jo got a little more help, we used it. I just had to be there. It also brought more attention to the others on the ward, including a boy who had a brain injury after being hit by a car in a village. His guardians couldn’t be by his side all the time as they had to work — Godwin’s family stayed with him, too. Over the years, Jo’s parents have become authorities on hospital procedures and go-to people for the new folks in hospital.
There was a day when we were sitting with Jo and he stopped breathing. He was on the ventilator in those first weeks. I yelled at the nurses to find a doctor, though I knew it might be impossible given they were officially on strike across the country. But a doctor came. Jo breathed again. If we hadn’t been there, then, I can’t imagine what might have happened. The nurses had been gossiping in their own corner, unsupervised for weeks.
There is a gaping hole in G-lish work for those weeks. But all our attention had to be on Jo. Together, we all did our bit and it probably saved his life.
Since then, Godwin’s Mum and Dad spent every night and day on shifts by his side until 2014 when he was finally released from a hospital in Bawku (where he was sent some months after being admitted in Kumasi) to go home and stay in his family’s home again.
I have never seen such commitment and sacrifice by parents anywhere. They now care for Jo at home and rely on help from us and a good relationship with the doctors who helped him in the final years in the hospital near home to advise on bed sores and catheter challenges and all the needs that arise as a result of a C4 spinal chord injury.
There is no help for people with disabilities living at home in Ghana. No one comes to help you or check or give support. There is no counseling for family or the injured. No emotional, financial or psychological support at all. There is universal medicare, but it doesn’t extend to home visits or cover serious injuries. If you have no family to help, you are doomed. As such, we have supported the family since then.
The good news is that Jo slowly recovered some movement over the years, now being considered a 2/5 and partial quadriplegic who can move his arms, his legs and his toes. He’s now 15. His voice has broken. He can sit up in his wheelchair. He can make phone calls to us on his parent’s phone, using all their credit. He can feed himself with his left hand.
When he fell, he landed on his right side, breaking both his right arm and legs. Because the doctors were on strike, they gave these breaks cursory treatment at the time and they were not set properly, causing pain now. He also had a catheter problem which is now causing pain, and we’re working on getting him an operation to correct that so he need not be in pain.
It’s an ongoing challenge, but Jo stayed positive almost all the time. He was cheerful by nature before that, and something of a naughty imp. He loved my pancake and pizza. That’s what he requested me cook when he stayed with us. I’m hoping one day, in Australia or Ghana, he might stay with us and I can make that for him again. And maybe, with technology, he might be able to walk unassisted one day.
While helping Godwin’s family look after Jo, we returned to Bolga in November and began G-lish work again, writing a project that got funded by the Australian High Commission. That project resulted in an exhibition in Sydney in 2014 and being able to sell recycled art pieces from G-lish around the world, generating very high incomes for the weavers and transforming our community.
I returned to Australia in early 2013 with Godwin Yidana after 7 years living in Ghana when Godwin got accepted into an MA in Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney.
We manage G-lish from a distance, but we really would like to return and do more work on the ground in our villages, not to mention spend time with Godwin’s family.
I could write much more about life and travel, especially after starting an NGO in Bolga. We have many stories of struggle, joy, heart-ache, danger and illness. Malaria plagued me often, not to mention a rabies scare, but I wouldn’t change anything. One day I might write the whole story. I wish I could go back and do the journey again from start to finish, minus Jo’s accident.
Meanwhile, I wish you all the best with travels and life in Ghana. Please feel free to contact me at gaylepescud(at)gmail.com with any questions.
Some of my favourite photos from Ghana. I chose them for the memories.
|Sunset in Bolga right by our first tiny room where G-lish began|
|I miss noisy guinea fowls. They regularly bombed our compound in Bolga.|
|Back in 2005 teaching colour theory with producersand Natalie|
|Typical basket seller going to market to sell baskets in Bolga|
|Godwin chilling in the hammock at Rainbow Village, Lake Bosumtwe where we took his Mum|
|The daily soccer match at sunset in front of Oasis in Cape Coast. Tina in the photo below took this photo!|
|Tina and I sleeping on the beach at Christmas at Green Turtle Lodge|
|The guys who rowed us to Nzulezu stilt village in Western Region|
|Boys near our house in Bolga teaching me to joggle|
|Little girls collecting the goats at the end of the day in Bolga|
|Pounding fufu! I miss the thud thud thud|
|Someone’s tro stopped in Bolga. I’m glad it wasn’t ours, for once. Goats looking on.|
|Coolest kids ever near our house in Bolga one afternoon posed for me.|
|Cape Coast during election time|
|The winning goal in the penalty shoot-out from our Peace One Day event in Bawku, 2008 and the reason why Godwin and I met|
|Dancing at a spot on the street in Accra somewhere behind Papaye|
|I think this was my first ever trotro. We troed it ALL THE WAY to Mole from Cape Coast, and then back again!|
|Axim Beach Resort down by the beach.|
|The first ever recycled Bolga basket made by Edna, the first ever recycled basket maker in Ghana|
|The first bunch of recycled Bolga baskets under G-lish Foundation|
|Gayle Pescud in a maize field in Bolga, 2009|
by Gayle Pescud.