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.