For my first 8 weeks I was exceptionally healthy in Ghana, my only problems being a couple of headaches when I had forgotten to drink sufficient water during the day. But on the Tuesday of week 9, I had a sore throat and a bit of a cold and didn’t feel up to going to work. I lay in bed and sweated and for the first time, felt cold. The next day my throat was better but my nose was running and I stayed in bed most of the day. By Thursday I felt okay and went back to the orphanage, not fully appreciating that my strength was down. I found I got particularly irritated at the slackness of the staff and found it hard to cope with the children’s demands.

On Thursday evening Rose the ‘cook’ (I use the term loosely) asked me if I would eat raw vegetables. Given that I hadn’t had a vegetable from her, apart from yams, the whole time I was there, I replied that I would, as long as they were washed in fresh water. I should have said “pure water” but I presumed she knew what I meant. So dinner that evening consisted of a bowl of plain rice and a pile of something green, leafy and shredded. For flavour there was a side dish of pepper that was too hot to even consider. The leafy vegetable was bitter and disgusting, so I mixed it in with the rice to try to make it palatable, wishing once again that I had alternatives to this awful hostel food.

That night I suffered. Painful reflux of that bitter taste, over and over again. And in the morning, a bout of diarrhoea. The bitter taste repeated again on and off through the next day – another day when I had no patience for the inability of the other adults to get their act together.

On Saturday I thought I was okay. Richard took me to Lambardi, Ghana’s most well-known tourist beach. He calls it Lambardi Pressure Beach, because there are so many people crushed together and so much pressure to buy things, but the real name is Lambardi Pleasure Beach. In Ghana, ‘l’ and ‘r’ sound almost interchangeable, so I’m still not sure whether his misnomer was a joke or a mistake.

I lay on a wooden lounger for hours not doing much. Eventually we were joined by Richard’s friend Johannes and two young female relatives, who all went for a swim. As night began to fall, I started to shiver in the sea breeze. One of the girls also complained of the cold, but she was wet and used to 35 degree temperatures. I held a towel around my bare shoulders, thinking it odd that I felt so cold, but it didn’t occur to me that I was sick.

We climbed into Johannes’ car, which was unfortunately air-conditioned, and left the beach. At this point Johannes suggested going into town for something to eat. I wasn’t hungry (although I hadn’t eaten all day), but agreed. By the time I got out of the car I suspected something was wrong. My body was aching all over, I felt feverish and tired. I asked to sleep in the car while the others went to eat. They left me to it, but soon came back as Richard hadn’t been able to settle, due to worry about me. By now my skin was extremely hot to touch and we got to Richard’s, I was unable to stand by myself. Richard and Johannes had to support me to walk from the car to the house.

Richard’s sisters were shocked to see the state of me. One of them rubbed me all over with an ointment rather like Tiger Balm or Vicks and they put me to bed. Johannes offered to come back any time during the night, if necessary, to take me to the hospital. I slept fitfully, feeling alternately like throwing up and running to the loo, but managing to hold it all in until the early hours. In the morning I could barely stand, but my clothes were drenched in sweat and I needed a wash, so Richard bathed and dressed me before going to get his (currently unlicensed, unregistered and not-quite-working) taxi and taking me to the hospital. I have to say that you really know someone loves you when they see you at your absolute worst and they take such tender care of you.

We arrived at 6.30am and had to wait until 8.30am for a doctor. During that time I was barely aware of my surroundings. I had blood tests and it was confirmed I had malaria. I was given three days of an anti-malaria agent and a confusing array of other medications and sent home. For the next two days I felt weak but gradually started to get better. I wasn’t well enough to go back to the hostel, so stayed at Richard’s.

At this point Rose at the hostel started phoning and hassling me to come back to unlock my room so that a new person could share with me. I’m sure she thought I was only pretending to be sick so that I could stay with my boyfriend. Johannes was kind enough to take us back to the hostel on the Tuesday, where I packed up my stuff and left. No way was I going to stay in that hostile environment while I was unwell.

By Wednesday the chestiness and nasal congestion had cleared up, but the stomach cramps and diarrhoea had got worse. My appetite, which had been returning, disappeared completely. I felt worse than ever.

Back to the doctor for more tests. I think the blood test showed the malaria was gone – certainly they didn’t give me any more anti-malaria medicine. Instead I was told I must have picked up a bug from something I’d eaten (those damn leafy greens, I’m sure!!) and given another array of antibiotics and symptom relievers. I won’t go into detail about the difficulties of uncontrollable diarrhoea and African toilets – that’s something I’d rather forget.

I continued feeling wretched, with violent stomach cramps and diarrhoea for the next few days; the medication didn’t help at all. By Friday night I was beginning to think I might not make it. In the middle of the night Richard bundled me up and took me back to the hospital, where I was admitted and put on a drip. I came off the last drip at 4pm, still feeling weak and unwell, knowing I had to be at the airport in a few hours to catch a flight to London. I still can’t believe I made it.

The school slackness continues

School holidays in Ghana began on 6 April, but some schools were scheduled to have 4 weeks’ holiday, while others had only 2 or 3. I was told the orphanage school would be resuming on Tuesday 24th April, but when that day came, only a handful of students (and teachers) turned up. I was delayed in Togo (that’s another story!) so didn’t arrive until the Wednesday, when I was surprised to see hardly any kids around and none of them in uniform. School simply did not happen. Instead Madame Rose’s family (2 of whom are teachers) had gathered at the orphanage and sat around in classrooms cooking meals and chatting, while I ran around trying to look after the orphanage children.

Madame told me that school hadn’t started because “the children couldn’t be bothered coming to school” so they would be starting on Monday 30th instead. This made absolutely no sense to me and seemed like a ruse for Madam’s daughters to get paid (saying they’d turned up for work) without having to do any work and without Madam having to pay any of the other teachers.

Monday 30th came and a smattering of children turned up for assembly. Madame’s daughter righteously told them off for not coming to school the week before, and then they were ushered into Religious and Moral Education, which means prayers and singing, led by one of the senior students. Then it was break time, after which nothing happened. No bell for lessons; kids wandered around playing all day while the teachers sat around talking. Once again, there were no teachers present other than Madame’s daughters. And so it was all week.

My young friend Enoch told me earnestly, “We’re going to seriously start studying next week.” I can only hope that was the case.

Orphanage scandal update

After the drama 2 weeks ago, when Madame Rose was taken away for questioning and the orphanage was effectively closed down, things returned to a semblance of normality the following week when school started back. Madame Rose had been allowed to return to the orphanage, but had had to go to the Police Station each day for further discussions.

It turns out the issue did not concern the two children who went to the US the previous week after all, but rather, an adoption of 3 siblings that took place in 2008. Madame showed me the paperwork and it seems the adoption was arranged legitimately through an adoption agency. There was a document relinquishing all parental rights, ostensibly signed by both parents, although the same person had signed for both (ie someone had written the equivalent of “John Smith and Mary Smith” where the parents were to sign) and the signature was witnessed by Madam Rose. Nonetheless, it seems that the birth mother had had no problem with the adoption until very recently, when the two parents came into conflict with one another. The father had been receiving annual updates on the children but had failed to pass on the news to the mother; I imagine they had other gripes with one another as well.

I never got to hear how things ended up, but the general feeling at the orphanage was that it was no big deal and would soon blow over.
The interesting thing for me was hearing the locals’ opinions about the whole thing. The idea that everyone in the West is rich is so entrenched that most people thought the birth mother should be happy that her children had gone to America. Others thought the American adoptive mother could easily send the children back, either for good or for a few days to sort things out. There was no understanding that adopting a child is a big deal for a Westerner and the cost is prohibitive.

Enoch, the young boy whose family I befriended, had been telling me for a long time that his mother would be overjoyed if he could go to America. His mother told me the same thing, until I explained to her that adoption means that the child becomes the son or daughter of the new parents forever. She had been under the impression that kind Americans came and took children away, looked after them and gave them a good education and then brought them back when they turned 18. (Madame Rose had told her this.) Once she understood adoption, she said she would never allow it for her children.

Exam chaos

The first week of April was exams week in Ghana. The exams are set by the government, so I was looking forward to seeing a bit of structure in the school system for a change. Silly me!

The first thing that changed was that the bell didn’t get rung for break times, because every class started and finished their various subject exams at different times. Once a class stopped for a break, it was hard to round them up again, so the day was totally chaotic. I watched some teachers sitting in front of their classes calling out the multi-choice questions, then stopping to wander across the compound to inspect some fish that a woman had brought in for sale, then popping back to continue with the questions.

I was asked to help with the new entrants’ class, reading out the Social Studies exam to the 5 year olds, while Madame Lucy did the under fives. The first problem of course was that they couldn’t read, so I had to point out to each of them individually which question we were up to, and which was option A, B or C. I couldn’t continue onto the next question until everyone had circled an answer with the previous one.

I read the questions carefully, just as they were worded, in English, on the paper. But the children weren’t content to listen and interpret the question. They kept asking questions and effectively asking me for the answer. I refused to give any clues, but Madame Lucy butted in now and again, angrily shouting at them in Twi until they knew what to do.

I was intrigued by some of the questions, such as, “What is the correct time for swimming? A. Morning; B. Afternoon; C. Evening.” The Religious and Moral Education paper was even more blatant. “Who created the earth, sky, trees and animals? A. Humans; B. God; C. Sister.” Although the answers were fairly obvious, I watched many of the children circle seemingly random answers as they watched my face for clues and I refused to give any. Meanwhile on the kindergarten side of the room, Madame Lucy was angrily shouting at the children in Twi and at times picking up their hands and circling the correct answers for them.

Once the painful process was over, Madame Lucy dismissed the children and sat down to mark the exams herself. A totally meaningless exercise!

I have to add here that I’m sure not all schools in Ghana are this bad. There is currently a campaign underway to have all teachers registered by the end of this year or next (can’t remember which), after which unregistered teachers won’t be able to teach. Government schools do have trained teachers, but there is a plethora of private schools, many of which seem to be just money-making rackets set up by people who haven’t a clue.