This is installment #15 about my experiences in Ghana, West Africa, as a Peace Corps Volunteer working with cashew farming families from December 2011 to December 2013. It’s part of a collection which starts with an introduction here. The events described below happened later in my stay, but I’ve decided to move it up and out of sequence so I can share the story now.
Getting to know the women in my community has been much harder than getting to know the men or the kids. Women typically receive less education, so their English speaking skills are often very poor.
Cynthia is 23 and an exception: she speaks English well. I’ve come to rely on her more and more to help me translate at community events. She notices opportunities, too, and stops by my house to ask if I want to go along with her, taking me football matches and other gatherings, often of younger people, that I wouldn’t have otherwise even hear about.
She is feminine and coquettish. On Boxing Day, she cat-walked thru my gate in high heels, a short skirt and sparkly top, rhinestone sunglasses and a cascade of hair extensions. “You look like a movie star!” I exclaimed. Stephen and the other men on the porch made disapproving noises after she left. “Women waste money on these things!” he exclaimed. I just laughed. The men deride it, but their heads turn no less quickly.
Cynthia’s little girl, Abena, is about three years old, adores her mother, and is very prone to tantrums. Abena cries when Cynthia leaves for work at the cashew plant in the morning. Sometimes, like the other women, Cythia gives up and puts the child on her back and takes her to work with her.
The weather has changed; we’re probably into the shorter dry season now, and it’s become cooler. A lot of people have become sick with flu-like viruses and colds. I had some of that myself; stomach cramping and mild fever that lasted a couple of days. So when Cynthia doesn’t seem to be feeling well, I think she might have caught it, too.
Matthew is sitting on the porch with me on a Sunday afternoon, going over some paperwork, when we see Cynthia leave the neighbors house and come towards us, crouching as she walks, as if her stomach hurts. The neighbor follows behind her, shouting to Matthew in Nafaara, and his wife runs out and shouts, too.
“I will take her to hospital,” he says to me suddenly, and steps quickly off the porch, “I will be back soon.”
Cynthia gets on the moto behind Matthew, then her husband gets on behind her. Three people on a motorcycle is a common mode of transport when taking someone to the hospital: the person who’s ill or injured is put in the middle so that the person behind can help hold them on.
I’m still thinking that Cynthia’s got the same bug everyone else has been getting, but then the look in her eyes unsettles me and my fear for her rises. Her eyes rove over the neighborhood, as if she is taking it all in, as if she’s not sure she’s going to see it again.
Matthew returns eventually. He tells me that they took her to “the new clinic” in Sampa, a small hospital not far from the main hospital. “I will visit her tomorrow,” I tell him. He doesn’t say what’s wrong; I don’t ask…the answers are often so confusing, they’re not worth much anyway.
I go to clinic on Monday morning and begin making inquiries. The place is packed. As an oburoni wandering around, I get lots of attention, though, and eventually I’m taken to a ward where Cynthia has a bed. She’s got an IV and is resting quietly. I squat next to the bed and she invites me to sit with her instead. She asks about her daughter. I sit and we talk a while. She says she is feeling better. I ask her if they have a diagnosis, but she doesn’t answer and I think she doesn’t understand my question.
The doctor is making rounds, so I tell Cynthia I will return in the afternoon and I head to the market. I meet the other volunteers for lunch, then we spend some time shopping together.
After wandering the market for a couple of hours, picking up a few things and visiting with merchants who have become my friends, I return to the hospital.
Cynthia tells me to sit and I do. She curls up, her legs pressed up against me as if she likes the warmth. She picks up my hand and looks at it. “I like your fingernails,” she says. I know it is because of their paleness. I pickup up her hand and look. “They are the same as yours,” I tell her, for they are in truth shaped very similarly.
Cynthia’s husband comes in and they have a short conversation, then he leaves again. A doctor comes in and talks to another patient. As he leaves, a folder laying at the bottom of Cynthia’s bed catches my eye and I pick it up. It’s her medical record. I open it, wondering if anyone will tell me not to. Stapled inside is an ultrasound picture; it must be from when she was pregnant with her daughter. There are several pages of records, but most are written in a scrawl that’s extremely difficult for me to read. I flip through the pages, “I can’t read this,” I tell her.
Then I find a temperature chart, with dates. I can see that her fever spiked a short while after she checked in, and has gone down this morning. I see two drugs mentioned; one is amoxicillin, and I don’t recognize the second. I flip to the next page, and there is writing I can read. It says that she arrived yesterday complaining of abdominal pains. And then I see the words, “self-induced abortion”.
I wish I’d read that page in detail and committed as much of it to memory as I could, but instead I close the folder and put it back on the bed. “I can’t read much of the handwriting,” I tell Cynthia again, “but I can see that you’re getting antibiotics, so you must have an infection, and you had a bad fever.” She is apathetic.
We sit for a while longer. I tell her that I took some of my piecey-piecey fabric to a tailor to have a dress made. She smiles, “Hey! Mama likes our cloth.” She tells me that the American cast-off clothing sold in the market is also called “false clothing”, then points out that the young Ghanaians like false clothing and the Americans like the real thing. I realize how much I like her sense of humor, and how it’s one of the things that make it easier to talk with her. I do wonder if she is on painkillers, though; she seems affectionate and more upbeat than I would have expected.
I walk back to the station, feeling confused and sad. I wonder what she did to herself. It’s painful to realize, again, how I am only aware of what happens on the surface, and that much of life here is still hidden from me.
I call another volunteer who’s made contacts with women’s healthcare providers in the country and knows more about the situation in Ghana. Her village just buried a 22-year old who died from complications of an abortion she sought in another region. She in contacts her doctor friend in the North to ask for info.
I learn that elective abortion is illegal in Ghana, so women resort to methods of injuring themselves so they can go to the clinic for a “therapeutic abortion” to then save their life. Some women don’t make it in time before pelvic inflammatory disease sets in, and then sometimes it’s too late to do anything but administer morphine until the end.
Self-induced abortions in Ghana are carried out, as they are anywhere, in a variety of horrific ways: inflicting injury with improvised instruments, blunt force trauma, drugs, caustic compounds.
I don’t know what method Cynthia tried. I will never be able to talk to her about it; for now it seems that the best thing to do, for her sake, is to pretend I don’t know. When an oburoni shows too much attention in a matter, it can trigger unintended consequences.
On Tuesday, I pedal the bike to Sampa to visit Cynthia again. Her sister is with her now also, and they are sitting outside. She looks better, though subdued. Her sister is loud and a little pushy; Cynthia hurries back into the ward to get a chair for me and they won’t listen to my protests. I don’t stay long; I ask if they would like me to bring them lunch, and they say they would. I go to town for a while and bring three take-away containers of fried rice and chicken. They thank me profusely and I pedal home.
Wednesday I can’t go to Sampa. Thursday, I leave Kabile for Kumasi, but I want to visit Cynthia before I go, so when a car picks me up on the road, I ask to be dropped at the junction. At the clinic, they tell me she has been transferred to the hospital, so I pick up my bags and walk back down the dusty road to the hospital.
At the hospital, it takes some time to find her. A nurse helps me, searching the women’s ward, then a woman calls to me through the window. Cynthia is in the maternity ward now. “Oh, is she pregnant?” the women’s ward nurse asks us. The other nurse doesn’t look at me, but answers, “Daabi,” [no] and says something about an “operation”. She takes me to the maternity ward.
Cynthia is resting quietly. She still has an IV. I can’t tell if she’s better, worse, or the same. “Are you going to Kumasi?” she asks quietly, noticing my bags. Yes, I tell her. “Buy me something,” she teases. I ask her what she wants me to buy. “Anything.”
I don’t visit for long. I go to the station. I get the car to Kumasi. I fret and worry and rant to myself, try to hold back tears, and struggle to accept how very little power I have in the world, while wondering if even that acceptance is an evasion of a kind.