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238 days later

Posted Dec 27 2009 11:39pm

When we landed everyone was smiling, everyone was kind. After so many hours and an uncomfortable sleep most of the passengers were home and I was so much closer.

I love small airports without jet bridges in tropical places. I was grateful for the jet walkway in Frankfurt where they said it was twenty below, but the immediate welcome of the African air with all its subtle scents, and a view of green stretching out for miles was wonderful. I was slightly disappointed when the immigration officer looked at my 36 month visa and gave me 60 days but my high held and I made my way through customs to the taxi, determined to get to Clement as soon as possible.

The driver loaded my bags in the back and I slid into the passenger seat. It was 4:40pm. I asked him to take me to whichever bus station would likely still have buses leaving for Kumasi. When I told him that I was going to meet my husband after almost eight months of separation he smiled and enthusiastically promised he would make sure I boarded a bus. I was beaming and he was kind. There was plenty of traffic in Accra and we chatted easily as we waded through it.

I asked him how he felt about the new president (Atta Mills) who was elected last December and he said he hadn't noticed any changes. He said "Just give us education, food and health care and we will be satisfied. But," he said, "the hospitals are terrible. People really suffer there." He said when his wife was eight months pregnant she started bleeding and he rushed her to the hospital. She was losing blood quickly, soaking through her clothes and becoming dizzy. He was told to fill out paperwork for her admission. He said he thought he was going to lose her and as he spoke I heard in his voice and saw in his face the raw place that remained. No matter how he begged for a doctor to examine her, he was firmly told to finish the admission process first. He gripped the steering wheel and said he was entirely powerless. The doctors told him, "We do not kill people. If someone is going to die then they will die it is not up to us." It was over an hour before the doctors saw his wife but fortunately they did an emergent c-section and after an extended hospitalization of each they both survived and recovered completely. He said you are not treated well unless you can show that you can pay for everything. He said that he knows doctors in Ghana are better than other parts of Africa but he said he just prays that he and his family stay healthy. Just before we turned into the bus terminal he told me that his wife had lost a full-term baby during labor prior to the pregnancy with the hemorrhage. This must end.

I did not start the conversation about health care. I did not tell him that I am a midwife until he finished his story. The fact that these stories are ubiquitous and seem to find me everywhere communicates a message I can hardly ignore. I understand. I must do my piece. Persist. Joan Chittister says, "Persistence is the antidote to powerlessness." Persist despite all rational fears of failure and notions of inadequacy. My friendly taxi driver delivered me to the OA bus station, stayed until I had my ticket in hand, and departed with a warm hand shake.

I boarded a mostly empty bus and took my seat next to a middle aged woman. For the three hours it took the bus to fill I dozed and waited and day dreamed. Finally, at 2am I stepped down and after circling the bus a few times to locate my bags also found Clement and Ernest. Clement looked new and familiar and different and so good. When we reached home Ethel was awake and had warmed bathwater for me. In my over exhausted but joyful state I hesitated to test the solidity of the beautiful vivid dream. I was back at long last to my husband in our room with our bed under the mosquito net and the sounds of the night wafting through the open windows along with the breeze.

The next morning I was assured of the reality of my surroundings by a sore throat and fever. At least Clement was just as real too. I slept a lot and ate the food that Ethel placed in front of me when she woke me to eat, and I got better.

A couple days later I received a call from Muntali's brother. Muntali was the young teen I befriended last spring in the orthopedic ward who had his right arm amputated due to cancer. His brother called to say he had died in July. He had kept my phone number, which I had given Muntali on a slip of paper so long ago, and had been calling it periodically since July until he finally got through on December 21st. He said simply, "We gave him to God." I said, "I'm sorry" and "thank you" and that was it. I imagined my sweet Muntali with his long thin legs crossed flipping the newspaper and smiling brightly. I thought of his vibrancy and imagined the suffering he must have endured after I left. I thought of his family grieving him; he was the baby by many years. I thought of his brother holding that paper with my number and how through all their sorrow he thought of me – a stranger – and wanted to make sure I knew what happened to his little brother. I was equally saddened by the death of Muntali and awed by his brother's profound kindness calling me for months to let me know.

After I recovered Clement, Ernest, Ethel and I decided to take a trip to the Coast. Though I had more than my fill of travel, Clement, Ernest, and Ethel were eager to get out of Kumasi for a few days before classes resumed so we settled on Ghana Spirit, a small quaint spot on the beach. It was worth the nine hour journey by trotro and taxi. We spent four lazy days in the water, sun, and shade. Clement played soccer on the beach with boys from the neighboring village. Ernest joined the fishermen pulling in their nets. Ethel and I read and slept and we all took walks on the beach.

The day we returned I was rocked again by horrible nausea, stomach pain, and fever. Despite the smell of raw fish and a toddler's dirty diaper in the trotro, and an abundance of potholes, I managed to keep the contents of my stomach in my stomach. But, when I didn't feel better by 11pm Clement, Ethel, Ernest all accompanied me to the hospital for a malaria test. It was malaria. Malaria comes on fast and hard, and easily convinces you that you will never be well again but thankfully the anti-malarials usually start acting just as quickly. Ernest and Ethel definitely did not need to accompany us. I knew we would just spend a few hours waiting but they insisted and simply waited with us, and then shared my relief at the diagnosis. Even here I am flooded by gratitude for the love which surrounds me. So here I am, back in this place where life's exposed edges and its naked fragility always exist in symmetry with its beauty and depth.

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