Mother love in an African village

Is it worth saving a baby's life if everything else changes?

Published January 29, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Love, baskets of love for the baby Yao. Gardens of it. Oceans. In a village swarming with children, each of them vital and mercurial enough to remind your heart it can split wide open, Yao has made an impression on us all. All the volunteers. Each day, men and women, Africans and foreigners alike, set down our shovels or mortars for a moment, wipe the dust and sweat from beneath our eyes, and watch Minessi as she strolls by, tall, dark and regal, with Yao strapped to her back. Yao swivels his little head, working hard to take us all in with his enormous dark eyes. And what eyes! Compassionate enough to forgive a world's transgressions, alert enough to awaken a planet asleep.

Forgive my gushing. I'm in love.

We are building teachers' quarters in the village of Afranguah, near the Ghanaian coast. Every afternoon, as soon as we finish work, I tear back to the schoolhouse where we are sleeping, grab a bucket of water and a calabash bowl, and duck behind the woven reed screens that partition the showers. I dump calabashes of water on myself while I soap off the day's grit, leaving a few inches in the bottom of my bucket for a final whoosh of cool. Then, while the other foreign volunteers hang around the camp trading travel stories, I scoot down to Minessi's hut to spend some time with Yao before the evening meal. I'm determined to get to know the villagers during my time here. I don't want to breeze in and out like a tourist, exoticizing them from a distance. Neither do I want to come in like a missionary, imposing my values and ideas. I'm eager to forge real connections, based in mutual respect.

Usually Minessi is washing laundry or preparing fufu in the shared courtyard outside her hut. Fufu is made by placing a portion of boiled cassava or yam in a large bowl made from a scooped-out tree stump, then pounding it until it acquires a smooth, elastic consistency. The women throw their entire bodies into the pounding. Using heavy wooden pestles 4 to 5 feet long, they repeatedly fling their arms high above their heads and bring the pestles down with tremendous force. Each time I watch Minessi do this I am struck by the extraordinary grace and dignity of her movement. While most of the women in the village are short and stocky, Minessi's figure is tall and tapered, with wide hips and a long, elegant neck. Her arms are lean, sinewy ropes. Her pounding looks like a ritual expulsion, a fierce, elegant dance.

Minessi looks up at me as I approach. She smiles her languid, unhurried smile, and unstraps Yao from her back. Her skin is very black, and her wideset eyes tilt upwards slightly. It's obvious where Yao got his looks. The schoolteacher Amoah, an effusive, genial man whose hut is next to Minessi's, greets me with a warm cry of "Sistah Korkor, you are welcome!" (Korkor, which means "second-born" in Ga, is my African name.) Amoah's three children run up to me, and we trade exuberant greetings in Fanti. Then I sit on the low stool in front of Minessi's hut, take Yao in my arms and rock him, singing softly in his ear. He explains a few things to me in his own language, a kind of universal babyspeak which resembles neither English nor Fanti so much as the call of a rapturous bird.

Minessi speaks a bit more English than the other women in Afranguah -- her vocabulary extends beyond basic greetings. We often have conversations that go something like this:

Minessi: You like Yao!

Me: Yes, I do.

Minessi: You like Yao too much!

Then she begins to laugh, and her laughter is like a thunderstorm, starting as a rumble, low and distant, occasionally building to a full-on roar. Soon I begin to laugh, and Yao, too. The three of us spend many minutes like this, laughing together, for no reason at all.

But today our conversation is different.

"Minessi, listen." I hold Yao's mouth close to her ear. His breathing is raspy and labored. She listens for a moment, then looks at me, confused.

I imitate the breathing, exaggerating it for effect. She gives me a long, wary look, then shrugs. I let the subject drop, but not before kissing Yao's silky forehead and whispering in his ear that he's trying to scare me, and he should cut it out right away.

Two days later as Minessi takes her daily stroll past the construction site, she stops and gestures to me. I set down the short pile of cement blocks I am precariously balancing on my head and skip over. She looks at me for a moment with an anxious, indecisive expression, then whispers in my ear that she would like some money to buy medicine for Yao. Could I bring some to her house tonight?

Sure, I tell her, how much does she need?

But she doesn't want to talk about it now, in front of everyone. We can talk about it later. She hurries away before I've had a chance to kiss Yao.

When I come to her house that afternoon she is not pounding or washing or sweeping, but sitting with Yao in her lap, waiting for me. Amoah sees me approach and calls out "Sistah Korkor!" as usual. When she hears this, Minessi springs up and drags a stool out of her hut for me to sit on. She then disappears again and returns with a plate of fufu and some pepper sauce. She hands me the plate and gestures that I should eat. Yao reaches out his arms to me and gurgles in his throat like a dove. After I've eaten, I heave him into my lap. He looks up with a smile of purest delight, then sticks his fingers in my mouth and coughs. Minessi stands watching, not saying a word.

"Minessi?" I say at last. "You wanted some money for medicine?"

She glances over at Amoah, who is playing with his children and seems not to hear.

"Yes," she says softly.

"How much do you need?" I ask.


"Please tell me, Minessi. I want to help."

"Please, you give 1,000 cedis," she blurts, all in a rush.

I look at her for a moment in astonishment.

"That's fine, Minessi. No problem at all."

A surprising sting of tears rises in my eyes. Less than $2 stand between my darling and his medicine. I reach beneath the waistband of my cotton skirt for my money belt and pull out a small sweaty wad. Minessi stares as I peel off two 500 cedi notes, then watches my hands as I replace the rest. She drops her eyes.

"Thank you," she says, not looking up.

We have shoveled and carried and mortared and pressed and nothing is done and already our three-week stint in Afranguah is up. Materials are being left behind to complete the buildings we began. The village minister, a Ghanaian man named Billy Acquah Graham, promises it will be finished in our absence. I go to Minessi's hut to say goodbye. Yao's breathing is no better. It scrapes and croaks. I ask Minessi whether she got the medicine, and she nods. I tell Yao to get with the program and shape up. I hug him and Minessi and Amoah and Amoah's three children. Everyone squirms and laughs uncomfortably in my embrace. I tell them I'll be back to see them after my next project.

Back to Afranguah after a month's dusty labor elsewhere, I can't wait to see Yao. The tro-tro ride from Saltpond Junction is bumpy and crowded, but in Afranguah a cadre of about 25 children greets me with enthusiastic shouts. The children accompany me as I dump my luggage in Billy Acquah Graham's cinderblock house and run down the hill to Minessi's mud hut with its corrugated tin roof.

Minessi is in the courtyard, pounding fufu with a long wooden pestle. She laughs when she sees me with my entourage and shouts, "Eh! Sistah Korkor! You are welcome!"

I run up and hug her. Yao is on her back, and I cover his little head with kisses. Minessi leans the long stick against the scooped-out wooden pot and unwinds the cloth that holds Yao to her back. She hands him to me.

I look deep into his soulful eyes and am shocked to find them glassy. Then Yao coughs, a wrenching, guttural cough that sends a shudder through his whole body. I look up at Minessi in alarm. She starts at my expression, takes a step backwards.

"Yao is worse, Minessi, he's worse." I hear a shrill of panic in my voice. Minessi is silent. "What happened to the medicine?" I ask.

"It is finished," she says. "Every day, one spoon."

She goes into the hut and brings out a bottle, empty and carefully washed. I look at the bottle and see that it is a kind of drug store cough syrup, cherry flavored for children.

"Oh, Minessi, who gave you this?"

"Saltpond Junction. I tell him Yao is sick. He says it is the best. From England."

In Saltpond Junction, where you catch tro-tros to Saltpond and the surrounding villages, a man runs a stand selling cold "minerals," the Ghanaian term for soda, and other assorted goods.

"Minessi," I take her hand. "I want to take Yao to see a doctor. There's a hospital in Saltpond, right?"

She shrugs and looks at the ground.

"I'll pay for it, OK? For whatever he needs. But let's get him there as soon as we can. Can you go today?"

"I must tell my husband."

I'd forgotten she had a husband. Where was he all day? In the fields, perhaps, or with the group of men that hung around the bar, drinking apetesche. I was struck, not for the first time, by how little I knew about the people I considered friends.

"Tomorrow, then, OK? In the morning?"

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

When I step outside Billy Acquah Graham's house the next morning, Minessi is waiting for me. She is wrapped from head to toe in beautiful printed cloth, bright orange and stiff, as though just purchased for a festival. Yao is on her back, asleep. I lean close and kiss his soft cheek, listening to the low uneven motor of his breath.

The walk from Afranguah to Saltpond Junction takes about 45 minutes. The heat of the day hasn't settled in yet, and I enjoy the cool silence as we head down the dirt path through the fields of dry yellow stalks. I ask Minessi where she learned English, but she doesn't seem to understand the question, answering only "Yes." I ask her if she wants more children.

"No!" she says firmly. "Finished. Four children. Enough."

"Four children? I thought you had only Yao!" I realize I've never thought about Minessi's age. Her queenly bearing makes her seem older, but looking at her face now I see that she can't be past her early twenties.

"Three girls!" she laughs. "They stay with my sister. Cape Coast."

"Really? What are they doing there?"

"School. Her husband, he is guide. At the monument."

The "monument" in Cape Coast is an old castle with low dungeons where slaves once lay shackled in darkness, waiting to be shipped overseas. Perhaps the tourist income generated by the castle allows Cape Coast to have better-equipped schools than the ones in Afranguah, which have neither paper nor pencils nor books.

"You must miss your girls a lot," I say.

"I will go to them. I want to learn." She touches her hair and makes a gesture, twisting, braiding, arranging, long tapered fingers moving nimbly though the air. "Then I go to live at Cape Coast, too."

"You want to be a hairdresser!" I am pleased to be taken into her confidence.

"Then I go to live at Cape Coast too."

At Saltpond Junction we wait for two hours while the tro-tro accumulates passengers. I wander around outside; Minessi prefers to sit in the minivan, holding our places. She leans her head against the closed window, looking out.

None of the windows open, and the ride to Saltpond is bumpy and stifling. It's past noon by the time we arrive, the whole town wilting under a midday heat stroke. We walk to the hospital, the air dragging at our limbs. Sweat shines on Minessi's face. Yao is asleep.

The hospital is a clean, modern cement building with bare scrubbed hallways, rooms with beds, a waiting room with a few patients. It's nothing like the hospital in Accra, the capital, with its outdoor courtyard crowded with patients from morning till night.

A nurse sits at the reception desk. She discusses our situation with Minessi in Fanti for a while, then writes "cough" on the sheet of paper in front of her.

"His breathing, too, listen to it, it's not just the cough," I chime in. Minessi glances at me uneasily. The nurse adds a few notes to her paper, then tells me I should come in with Minessi and Yao to explain the situation to the doctor. I add that it was already going on when I left a month ago. The nurse looks at Minessi in surprise.

"Bohsom?" she says sharply, which means month. Minessi nods slightly, looking caught out.

We enter the doctor's office. I'm amazed by the low fees: only 200 cedis so far, less than 40 cents. The doctor is a young Ghanaian man in a white button-down shirt and wire-rimmed glasses. He wears a silver cross around his neck. Probably a recent university graduate doing his mandatory public service. He sits behind a broad desk, wearing a stethoscope. He speaks curtly to Minessi, and she replies respectfully, her eyes dropped.

"Bohsom eko," she murmurs softly in Fanti. One month.

The doctor brings his hands down on the desk in an impatient gesture, barking a response. I'm dismayed to see the Minessi cowering now, her elegant posture literally shrinking under this man's rebuke. She unwraps Yao and sets him, naked, on the desk.

"She feeds the baby mashed kenke. No milk," the doctor tells me in English. "Do you know what is kenke?"

Kenke, made from fermented corn meal, is one of the region's staple foods. I nod stiffly. Minessi avoids my eyes.

How can he speak like this in front of her? I think. Does he think she doesn't understand? If she's feeding him kenke it must be all she can afford. But isn't she also breastfeeding? I realize I don't know, and now I can't remember if I've ever watched her feed him. For a heart-stopping moment, I wonder if she's guilty of negligence. My mind flits to her other children: Why aren't they with her? I quickly push away the disloyal thought. She's wonderful with Yao, so gentle and patient. If she's stopped breastfeeding there has to be a reason, doesn't there? And cow's milk, which can only be found in tins, is certainly out of her range.

The doctor orders Minessi to remove a small pouch that hangs on a frayed red ribbon around Yao's neck.

"I too have my superstition." He winks at me. "I won't touch the baby while this is on."

Placing the stethoscope against Yao's tiny chest, the doctor looks up and shakes his head at me again.

"They feed the babies mashed kenke and then wonder why they grow pale and have no energy," his voice rings with disgust. "I tell them and tell them but they won't listen."

I hate him making Minessi a "them." Even more, I hate being a part of his implicit "us." He smiles at me ingratiatingly. I keep my expression coolly neutral, refusing to forge an alliance. In my periphery I see Minessi adjusting her orange cloth, looking sideways at the bare walls of the room. When the doctor turns his attention back to Yao, I try to catch her eye.

After the examination, the doctor again speaks sharply to Minessi in Fanti. She nods, expressionless, head down.

He turns to me. "The baby has pneumonia. It is lucky that he is alive. He will have to sleep two to three days here in hospital," he continues in a comradely tone. "One-hundred cedis a day to stay here. Not so much, eh? But she is afraid to bring him. Instead she will visit the witch doctor. Then she will sit in her house until the baby dies. They can never find money for the hospital, but they will always find money for the funeral."

Minessi is silent as we walk down the sterile hallway.

"That doctor was a jerk, wasn't he?" I say finally, but she just stares straight ahead.

In the pediatric section, which seems to consist of a room with eight cots -- six empty and two occupied -- they give me a prescription to fill. We walk into town to find a pharmacy.

It costs 2,500 cedis for ampicillin; 2,100 for paracetamol. Minessi looks on with a stunned, incredulous expression, shaking her head slightly as I fish out the money for the medications. On the way back to the hospital, she repeatedly removes the medicines from their paper bag and looks at them.

"Are you all right, Minessi?" I ask, but she doesn't respond.

Back at the hospital, she sits down on a cot with Yao. In a flat voice, she asks me to tell her husband to come tonight with clothes for her and the baby, and some water.

I begin to leave, but she stops me. "Chop money," she says, her face turned away. She needs money for food. I give her 1,500 cedis, and tell her to send word with her husband if she needs more. She takes the money without comment, and doesn't look at me as I go to the door.

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

Yao is well! He and Minessi stayed in the hospital a week, and now his eyes are clear and bright. His breath flows unimpeded, a strong sweet column of air. He lies on his blanket in front of the hut, flailing his arms.

"I'm so glad he's better," I say to Minessi, who is pounding fufu in a corner of the yard. She has been distant towards me since her return from the hospital. My feelings towards her have changed, too, subtly. I have an agenda now: to make sure Yao stays healthy. Where I once thought Minessi an ally, I now fear she may be an obstacle. I keep my tone cheery, attempting to neutralize the tension by ignoring it.

"Isn't it a relief that Yao is back? Maybe we could go together and buy some milk for him. I could set up some kind of a milk fund."

She continues to pound silently, the muscles in her back working.

"Sistah Korkor!" calls Amoah from across the yard. "You people know so much! Here we thought, the boy is fine. He smiles, he looks around, this is a healthy boy. And now we find that the boy was so sick. We know nothing!"

I sense, more than see, a bristling from Minessi. The pounding speeds up.

"Oh, no," I say. "Minessi knows a lot more than I do. She just couldn't ... She didn't --"

"No!" Amoah laughs. "She is a foolish African woman. Not smart, like you. Is that not true, Minessi?"

Minessi stops pounding, her pestle hanging in mid-air. "Yes," she says suddenly, loudly. "Before Sistah Korkor and her friend the doctor we know nothing. We do not know Yao is sick, we do not know Yao is well. We know nothing, we can do nothing. We must say thank you to Sistah Korkor." She turns to me, her jaw taut. The veins stand out in her neck and arms.

"Thank you, Sistah," she says, her voice low and shaking. "Thank you for the life of Yao."

She turns her back. The heavy thud of her pestle fills the air like a mournful drum, a rhythmic counterpoint to the other women pounding out their dinners in nearby huts.

By 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!"

MORE FROM Tanya Shaffer

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Africa Health Medicine