Death in Ghana

A simple succession of events in an African village leads to a tragedy -- and a traveler's haunting sense of hopelessness.

By Tanya Shaffer
Published February 23, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

The events were these:

At the main crossroads, near the village of Gowrie, in the Upper East Region of Ghana, my English friend Katie and I sat on the shaded cement porch of the fisheries building, waiting for a tro-tro to take us to Bolgatanga. We'd been with Aroko's family for a week. It was Monday, market day, and we were about to head to town to buy tomatoes, rice, palm oil and tinned milk for the compound. The air was still and very hot.

Aroko was leaning against the fence nearby, talking softly with a friend. He pulled up to us on a bicycle. "A small boy fell in the water and we are going to get him out," he said, and set off.

"Ooh," we said, and frowned.

"That's worrying," said Katie.

Half-standing, we watched the bicycle disappear down a dirt path between the high millet stalks.

"It must be far, if he's going on bicycle," Katie said.

"Mmmmm," I concurred. We sat back down.

Small groups of people began to pass, heading down the same path, some cycling, some running, others walking purposefully. Small children shot by. Now we thought we should go too, but we'd just sent a man to fill our water bottles. So we stayed, discussing CPR and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Neither of us was quite sure how these were done. Katie thought it was one breath to 15 presses, but that didn't sound right to me.

People continued to pass.

My copy of "Staying Healthy in Asia, Africa and Latin America" explained CPR and mouth-to-mouth, but it was in my bag, at Aroko's father's house in Bolga. We thought they were two different things, one to do with heartbeat and the other with breathing.

The man returned with our water.

"Should we go?" I inquired vaguely. The stream of people had all but stopped.

"We don't know where it is," said Katie, glancing toward the place where the path disappeared into the dry stalks. I raised my arms to let a hint of breeze cool the sweat.

Aroko and his friend returned.

"Is he OK?" I asked, relieved.

"The boy is dead," Aroko said.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

"You were in an extraordinary situation," my friend Colin said, eight months later, back home. He sat on the couch in my mother's Berkeley apartment, tracing with his fingertip the edges of a photo of Aroko's mother smilingly gutting a fish. "You're not brought up in a place where things like that happen. Besides, what could you have done?"

This is what plays in my mind:

A 7- or 8-year-old boy (or 6?) walks into a dark cement
irrigation tunnel with water up to his neck, holding a fishing net, slips and
is unable to regain his balance, clutching at the cement walls, slippery with
algae, trying to scream, water filling his lungs as he gasps, his heart
pounding, and his friends sitting on the grass eating groundnuts and swinging
a rope strung with fish and eels, the day's catch, as 20 minutes go by, 30, an hour, and they start to wonder, "Where
is Azureh? He's been a long time." They call "Azureh? Azureh!" They wade
in and try to peer into the tunnel, calling his name into the hollow echoey
place. No response and they're afraid to
enter -- they try throwing in a rope, they talk some more, call his name.
Finally one runs for help.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

"You're not used to that kind of heat," said my mother, closing the
refrigerator door. "And you shouldn't do CPR if you're not trained."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

This time I rise and follow Aroko down that path -- one foot in
front of the
other, the high dry grass scratching my calves, my legs heavy in the heat,
taking hat and sunglasses off, wiping away sweat, putting them back on. We
follow the voices, come out to the spot where people stand on either side of
the canal peering into the tunnel. Above them on a bridge, where a
wheel, secured by a heavy iron chain, controls the dam, people pound
against the chain with a rock, trying to break it so the wheel can turn to
lift the cement gate; the water from the reservoir rushes through and carries
the body of a 6- or 7-year-old boy out of that dark stone tunnel into air
and light and waiting people of all ages standing on the bank shouting and
gesticulating as if these things could bring him back.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

"There would've been choices at every step," Colin said. "If you'd
then you would've had to decide whether or not to dive in. Then whether or
not to interfere. To try procedures you're not sure how to use."

"If he was in all that time, he would've been long dead when you
said my mother.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

As we see the body emerge, carried on the swell of water, Katie and
I push
our way through the crowd, "Is there a heartbeat?" "Try mouth-to-mouth" -- "Oh
God, did you check for vomit?" "Is his chest rising?" If only I had that book!

Fear of raising false expectations, disapproval of touching the
dead, chill
of putting your lips against his cold ones, wondering if there are amoebas in the water and knowing it's useless, he's been in so long; what makes you think you can -- but you've got to try, because what would you be if you didn't try? Trying
more for you than for him, and if that's true, who the hell are you to
practice your peculiar cultural rites on the body of this boy?

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Here is what happened after Aroko said, "The boy is dead":

We changed locations. We were sitting beside a chain-link fence,
under a
tree. Two men were talking, a few feet away, sharing an orange. A repeated
phrase of English jumped out of the Frafra conversation: destiny to die in
water, destined to die in water.

Aroko pointed to a boy across the street, his big belly sticking out above brown shorts, skinny legs, to one of the neighborhood boys who smiled shyly and said
softly, "Namba," as he passed the compound every afternoon, carrying water or a
bunch of groundnuts or a string of fish. Aroko said, "The boy was like this."

An orange peel hit Aroko's arm. He looked up.

"Eh!" called the man. "Azureh was tall. He was never like this boy."

Tanya Shaffer

Tanya Shaffer is a writer and actress who lives in San Francisco. Her most recent solo show is "Let My Enemy Live Long!"

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