Features & Reviews

Yaa’s Legacy: Under the Odum Tree

She had been taken to the main, nearest, health clinic with the necessary facilities to treat critically injured patients. The news of the accident had spread like wildfire, due in part that there had been a number of casualties. The wounded were transported to the local clinic, but those with critical, life threatening, injuries had been transferred to the Regional Hospital in Kyebi or the District Hospital in Suhum. Since she was unconscious at the scene but was realized to be alive, she was taken to Kyebi. As luck would have it, one of the nursing sisters at the hospital was a distant cousin of Yaa, and had recognized her, amidst her injuries. She sent word to Maame Abena Mansa, who as you can imagine was worried sick when Yaa didn’t arrive back as usual in the evening after she left, that Yaa was alive and well. The good news was that most of her injuries were superficial – she had no broken bones, and her recovery was speedy.

In a little while, she was able to make the journey from the regional hospital to Pameng, where she was nursed back to full health. However, there were some related, I suppose, psychological and physical effects.  In the first instance, she bore a large scar that run the length of her left shoulder and upper arm. For that reason she never wore halter neck, sleeveless or short sleeved blouses from then on. Secondly, she promised herself never to board a mammy truck again, which given their ubiquity as the main source of transport, especially in rural areas, was more of a challenge.  But the main thing to take out of this, was that even through this horrific accident it was still not yet her time to leave the asaase, and it was possibly after this incident that Maame Abena Mansa begun to believe that Yaa was here to stay after all.

Not long after this, Ghana was gripped by the famine that was spreading throughout the sub-Saharan African continent. It is often referred to as the worst famine to hit the country since anyone can remember. There are a myriad reasons given for why it happened. Some would say that it was a drought, and not a famine. A drought is caused by climate and weather conditions affecting crops. While this is certainly true, because the rains had failed for a couple of seasons, a great amount of the blame for the drought / famine was due to poor agricultural practices. Certainly a large proportion of the population lived in rural areas and survived on subsistence farming, with crop rotation being the primary method. Traditionally, this had been done through mixing different crops on the same piece of land. This had the benefit of keeping the productivity while controlling pests and diseases. What traditional Ghanaian farmers did that was different was that there was a fallow period, every seventh year, where there was no planting or harvesting. As the population grew, these fallow periods became shorter and finally become non-existent.

Another reason was the government instability. Between independence and the famine, Ghana had gone through as many as four coup d’etats. The effect of this instability was most felt in the state cooperative infrastructure. As a case-in-point, the state farms, once the bread basket of the country, were lying derelict due to mismanagement.

All this was well and fine, but to the common person, without any interest in the goings on of the capital, Accra, Yaa was more concerned with how to feed her two children, now by herself since Opoku had left for Australia.

To her and the people of Pameng, all they knew was that there had been the longest dry season in memory, the scorching sun had killed all the plants and burnt the crops. There was a failed harvest. All the rivers, streams and watering holes had dried up, and even the wells that had been kept for emergencies had run dry. Older people who always could remember times when it was worse, could not.

Disease spread during the famine. Traditional healers, who were the main source of medical health, had to work without access to their herbal remedies and plants which had been depleted by the famine. In the absence of medical intervention, all they could do was comfort the sick and pray to their ancestors for a quick and painless death. Also these traditional herbalists were more likely to be old, and an unfortunate consequence of the famine was that the elderly tended to die of famine related diseases.

Another group at risk were babies and infants. It was around this time that the term ‘kwashiokor’ became widely known. When my mother and grandmother reflected upon this period, one thing that haunted them, they would say was children with their dry skin, pot-bellies and vacant eyes, as they waited for death to come. This had been a disease no one knew about. The term ‘kwashiokor’ is from the Ga language, and literally means “the sickness that babies get when the new baby comes along”, reflecting what happens when babies are weaned too quickly, due to the lack of the basic amino acids needed for growth and development. With the wide abundance of food, this disease had never been encountered in Pameng or the surrounding areas, and it took the visit of the district healthcare workers to diagnose and give a name to what was otherwise an unknown, and terrifying, disease.

As the name suggests, those at risk to ‘kwashiorkor’ are children who have been weaned, since they replace the nutritious breast milk with a diet lacking of essential proteins. As such, Yaa had to pay particular attention to her first born son, Bernard, who was most at risk, being a toddler at that time. Kwashiokor has no cure, apart from introducing protein gradually into the diet, and even if you do recover there are long standing effects in future, for example stunted growth, susceptibility to cancers and other related conditions due to the deteriorating effect the disease had on the liver and kidneys, and so it was best to prevent it. But in the absence of animals and fish and other protein sources, due to the famine, this was a monumental task. People began to forage for, and eat, roots and leaves. It is said that through adversity, strength and resilience comes. My grandmother and some of the older women realized that mushrooms were abundant, and these were a well-known source of protein, and so for the duration of the famine, the people of Pameng survived by substituting protein with scavenged mushrooms, making sure to choose the non-poisonous kind! And this exemplifies the resourcefulness of the people. The proverb, “However long the night, dawn will break”, is apt, and it would appear that the famine left as fast as it had come. Before long, village life had resumed and everyone went about their daily business and busy-ness of sowing, reaping, and attending harvest festivals, naming and marriage ceremonies, as well as funerals, which were now a celebration of life, not the mourning of an untimely death.

Soon, news reached Yaa that Opoku had finished his Masters program in Australia. Opoku, on his part was extremely happy to be finally reunited with his wife and two sons, one of whom, he felt, he barely knew since he was but a newborn of a few weeks when he left. As he reclined on his aeroplane seat, he thought back on his life. He realized that, from humble beginnings, he had lived a very charmed life so far. His thoughts took him back to what couldn’t have been a distant memory, since he was too young to remember, but could have become entrenched in him possibly because he had been told the story so many times. When he was a few days old, before he had even been named, as was the custom family from far and wide came to visit and see the new born. The story goes that one distant great-uncle, who was spiritually gifted, or was said to be a wizard according to some people, but not in his hearing, came to visit. He didn’t stay long since he had travelled from far, and said he wanted to make his long journey back to his hamlet. He took a look at the gargling baby, asked for a pen, took the pen and then placed it gently into the baby’s little hands. Then looked into the baby’s eyes, and said “somo din na Ɛ di wo bƐ ko ekyiri” – ‘take this and hold on tightly to this’, referring to the pen, ‘for it will take you places’.

He tried to get comfortable; remembering this flight from Sydney to Perth was the first of four that would eventually take him across 3 continents and 10 time zones. With stop overs in New Delhi, Jeddah and Nairobi, the journey usually took about three days. However, this time he was on his way to Harare for an interview as a Research Officer in an agricultural station in the Matopos Hills located in south east of Zimbabwe. There was a much quicker way to get to Zimbabwe from Australia, but this would involve travelling through Johannesburg. Then again, this was not possible due to restrictions of travel through apartheid South Africa. He had kept this detour a secret from Yaa, since he didn’t want to get her hopes up. He drowsed to sleep dreaming of the possibilities.

When he arrived in Ghana, he was met by his brother at the airport, and then driven to Pameng where he was reunited with Yaa, and his two boys. He noticed how thin everyone was, and remembered that he had arrived just after the worst famine to grip Ghana. He was happy that his family was all okay. His friend, Amidu, who he had gone to university with and bumped into, quite unexpectedly, at a Melbourne train station, and gone for beer to catch up, had not fared that well.  Three of his brothers and sisters, as well as his elderly parents, had all succumbed to the famine. He had heard stories of whole villages being wiped out, so when he arrived in Pameng and saw that life was almost the same as he had left it almost three years ago, he had a lot to be thankful for. He had more reason to be thankful a few weeks later because he found out that he had been offered the job in Zimbabwe. There was a catch, however, he had to report to his duty station in two months! Two months! To organise passports, visas, flights for himself, Yaa and the kids in two months, was indeed a tight schedule. The next day, he made the long tedious journey to Accra to the passport office, and then the Zimbabwean High Commission. At the High Commission he presented his job offer documents, where there were surprisingly efficient, and was offered his family visa very quickly.  It was when he arrived in Bulawayo that he found out that Ghanaians made the largest African expatriate community.

Shortly after settling into life in Zimbabwe, they found out that Yaa was pregnant. As time went by, Yaa found this pregnancy a bit harder than the others. She was often tired and out of breath. The general practitioner examined her and told her that she seemed fine, and put it down to general pregnancy related stress. Not all pregnancies were the same, and the symptoms she had were perfectly normal in other pregnant women. She might have had relatively ‘easy’ pregnancies, in the past, she was told. She was advised to rest and take care of herself, and prescribed some folic acid, vitamins and pills to help with her nausea. In Zimbabwe, there was a lot time for rest. Sometimes too much rest, she thought. After being used to years of waking up at the crack of dawn to attend the markets and sell her wares, she was unaccustomed to living in house with a domestic helper and a gardener, and she found that she had nothing to do but rest during the pregnancy. After what seemed to be an interminably long wait, she was glad to go into labour on Christmas Day.  She was driven to the nearest hospital, the Mpilo. When she arrived she was taken into the labour ward.  As she was laboring she was found to be losing a lot of blood, so the doctors were called, who noticed she had an irregular heartbeat, and the stress of the labour was causing her heart to distress. She was too far along to have a caesarean, and the doctors feared that subjecting her to an operation might do more harm than good. So she was made comfortable, and the midwives cajoled her to deliver naturally.

As was the thing around that time, Opoku had driven Yaa to the hospital and then left, awaiting the news of the birth. In the morning, he was puzzled that he had not heard any news from the hospital, which he thought was curious. But he thought nothing of it, as his day was filled with going to a neighbour’s house for a Christmas meal and celebrating his son, Bernard, who had turned six that day. He placed a call to the Mpilo and asked for the labour ward. When he introduced himself, there was a pause, and what he thought was an audible sharp intake of breath. The nurse, who answered the phone asked him to wait while he was transferred to the doctor in charge. The doctor, without beating around the bush, told him that his wife had had a difficult labour, but she had delivered a daughter. His daughter was stable, but his wife was in a critical condition. He ended by saying that they were being kept in for monitoring. He could come visit them anytime he wanted.

Ma Ncube, who helped around the house, had kindly agreed to look after the boys while Yaa was in hospital. As Opoku made his way home after picking up the boys, he walked by a shebeen, a drinking bar. He smelt the sour sweet aroma of chibukwu. As he walked into the dark shebeen, there were men sitting in on stout stools arranged in a circle. He nodded his hellos, and people responded likewise, or shouted out “Salibonani”. Someone shifted along and made space for him to sit. Chibukwu is drank in a circle, passed from left to right. It is usually served in a large calabash pot, and has to be shaken before taking a swig. He sat Eric on his right knee, and Bernard on his left, was passed the calabash of chibukwu, shook it a couple of times and he drank the refreshing, but potent, corn beer. As the chibukwu made its way along the circle, people continued their conversation. Before Opoku had walked in, they had been discussing the recent Highlanders versus Dynamos football game. Everyone around these parts supported Highlanders, so they were happy that their team had won 2 to 1 on the previous Sunday, after conceding an early goal.

As a rule, albeit an unspoken one, politics was never discussed in a chibukwu circle, and so other topics were offered. Very soon, it became personal, and a few men spoke about how they spent Christmas and the New Year. Most of them had made the, sometimes yearly pilgrimage to their homesteads to see their families. It became apparent that Opoku spoke Ndebele falteringly, and with an unfamiliar accent, therefore someone asked him where he was from. He told them he was from Ghana. Everyone smiled. They liked, no loved, Ghanaians in Zimbabwe. The leader of the independence revolution, and first Prime Minister, Robert Mugabe, had spent time in exile in Ghana. In fact, the first lady, Sally was Ghanaian. Opoku told them that he had recently become the proud father of a baby girl, a sister to these two boys with him, on Boxing Day, but there had been some complications. His wife and daughter were being kept under observation in hospital. They drank quietly and congratulated him on the news, for births are always a joyous occasion, no matter how they come. Someone in the far end of the circle, asked where they, his wife and daughter, were being looked after. Opoku responded that they were in Mpilo. Ah, he replied back, you don’t have any worries, my friend! Because the Mpilo Hospital was known to be the best hospital around Matebeleland, and some would say the whole of Zimbabwe! When the calabash pot next came around to Opoku he duly took a swig after the perfunctory shake of the pot. He was about to pass it to the next person, when the man said, he should give his sons a drink as well. Because, in Ndebele custom, boys are born men, and it is after all a joyous occasion in celebration of the birth of their new sister! Eric was asked to take a swig, after the man had shaken the calabash pot, which was too heavy for him to lift. Then the man held the pot to Eric’s lips, who took a huge swig, and made a face because the drink was very bitter, and he was unaccustomed to it. There was rip-roaring laughter around the men. “Eish, ingxosi”.  Gently, a bit at a time, laughed the man. The drinking continued, till late, and one by one people made their good byes. Opoku said his goodbyes, and made his way, gingerly, unsteadily, carrying his two boys home.

When Yaa awoke from her drug induced sleep, she at first wondered where she was. After taking in the unfamiliar surroundings, and noticing the beeping monitors and dim lights, she remembered where she was. A nurse noticing she was awake, motioned for her to not make any sudden movements. Yaa beckoned with her free hand to her lips, and the nurse made her drink some water through a straw. Slowly, my sister, drink slowly, the nurse said. She fell back asleep, and the next time she woke up she was being gently caressed by Opoku. Looking at him, she saw that he was cradling a swaddled baby. You gave birth to a girl, he said, placing the baby in her arms, as she sat up in bed. What should we call her?  Lorraine, she said. Let us call her Lorraine.

The nurses had been calling the baby “Tendai”, which means “Thanks to God”, in Ndebele, because they thought that it was a miracle that she had survived. Most of the nurses had experienced the all too familiar maternal and infant death during childbirth. They were even more astonished when they heard that Yaa had delivered two boys previously with little medical intervention, given her heart condition. When Yaa was being discharged and she was asked to register the birth of her daughter, it seemed fitting that she was registered as “Lorraine Tendai Baffour-Awuah”. She was born on Zimbabwean soil after all, so what greater way to stamp her daughter’s identity? The registrar, a large affable woman with one of those infectious laughs, remarked: what a lovely name! She looked at the baby, made cooing sounds as she played with her. Do you know my niece is Tendai too? She struggled to pronounce the surname, so asked Yaa how it was pronounced. Baa / ah / fu / ooh. A / woo / aah. She said phonetically. “Baa/ah/fu/ooh A/woo/aah”, the registrar repeated back. Eish, you Ghanaians have some interesting sounding names oo! By the way, what does it mean?  Yaa looked at her, a bit perplexed at her inquisitiveness. She continued, in Ndebele tradition your name usually relates to your family totem, or conveys some religious significance. For example, my name is Ndlovu, and means “Elephant” and we are related to the Zulus with the same clan name. You know that the Zulus and Ndebele are from the same people, right? My husband is a Moyo, and his totem is the heart. And I tell you he wears his heart on his sleeve, oo! When he was courting me he followed me around for months until I eventually gave in! She burst out laughing gleefully, chortling, at her own, private joke.

Oh, I understand what you mean now, Yaa said. I am from the Akan tribe of Ghana, where we have similar naming traditions, and Baffour Awuah comes from the saying “nea wu su fre, sƐ wu boafo a wu a”.  It is roughly translated to whom you turn to when your help is gone. The registrar looked at her, and said, Eish that is beautifully profound. What did I say?  Didn’t I say that you Ghanaians have the most wonderful of names?

Yaa then made her way back to the ward. She enjoyed the short stroll, and although unsteady on her feet, the fresh air was invigorating. She paused to smell the flame lilies and proteas flowers in bloom in the garden connecting the hospital wards to the administration block where she had just been. The grass was being mowed, and there was that new smell of freshly cut grass, that she was becoming familiar with – manicured lawns were something she was unused to in Pameng.  When she eventually arrived back at the ward, the nursing sister in charge came rushing to her. We were worried, since the registrar told us you left almost an hour ago. I am sorry, Yaa said. I must have been distracted. I took a walk by the gardens. Oh, okay. I have some good news, you are being discharged today, and your husband is coming to pick you up in a couple of hours. She placed Lorraine in the crib by her bed, while she gathered and folded up her things. She looked down at her beautiful, longed for, daughter, who was sound asleep. She wanted to watch her grow up and eventually get married. She thought about her two boys, how she missed them. It seemed like a lifetime since she had last seen them. Opoku had said that they wanted to visit, and see their new sister. But she had refused – hospitals are no place for healthy boys. Eii, from now on Christmases are going to be special oo, with Bernard and Lorraine celebrating birthdays on Christmas and Boxing Day. Yes, she had a lot to live for. There were a lifetime of Christmases to celebrate. It was not yet her time to go, to leave the asaase, no not yet. Not yet.

About the author

Bernard Baffour-Awuah

Bernard Baffour-Awuah, a Ghanaian-born lecturer in statistics and demography at an Australian university, grew up in Zimbabwe and Scotland. He is interested in African literature, especially the complex narratives underlying our oral traditions that sometimes get lost when translated into the English language. This is his first published piece of non-academic writing.


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