Sfigata in Wa

Easter week started badly and rapidly went downhill. After my encounter with robbers, more robbers, and the Tamale police, I asked my kind assistant Latif to get me tickets for the Wa bus to avoid advertising the fact that I was going to be out on the street early again. Hannah and I were supposed to be going to spend Easter at a remote hippo sanctuary that lies some 60 miles outside Wa by trotro, then 20 miles’ cycle ride from the village. It was supposed to be beautiful, but so isolated you had to pack in your own water and food. The ensuing story will demonstrate why this would have been an extraordinarily bad idea.

So Latif got up at 4, signed up for tickets, went back at 12 and got them, but then Hannah arrived back from Salaga with a bug and unable to travel. Problem. Should I go, should I stay? I was starting to feel as if the gods did not want me to go to Wa. I discussed with Hannah, and being incredibly nice, she said she was fine on her own and if I needed to go, I should. Wanting to get the survey done, I decided I’d go and try to work over the Easter weekend, skipping the hippo sanctuary.

So, up at 3.30 again on Good Friday, this time driven to the bus by a friend-of-a-friend taxi driver to minimise the risk of disaster. The bus left at 5.30 (apparently if you are not there by 3.30 to sit for two hours, the whole system breaks down), and by 11am we were in Wa. Wa is a small town, consisting mainly of a market and one of the campuses of UDS. There is a market where you can find decorated ceramic pots that can keep water cold on a hot day by evaporation, and which cost about 80 cents. It also sells texts for teaching secondary-school English, including the classics ‘The Woman Must Die!’ (about witchcraft and how to deal with female insubordination), and ‘Lonely Child Among Dwarves: Will He Survive?’ a page-turner which sadly turned out to be only part one of a two-part story, so we may never know. There is a glossary in the back, explaining words such as ‘eschew’ and ‘foist’, but the grammar and syntax leave much to be desired.

Wa also has the distinction of a large sign painted on a wall in the centre of town saying ‘DON’T SHIT HERE’, as if the usual ‘don’t urinate here’ signs had proved insufficient.

So I found a place to stay, dropped my stuff, went out and did four interviews with internet cafes and found an assistant to help me locate the rest the next day. I usually have minor heatstroke by the end of an average working day – dizziness, headache and tiredness – which is standard for a redhead working in 40-degree weather, but today something odd appeared to be going on, since by 4pm it was not starting to lift as it usually did.

There are storm drains down the sides of roads in Ghana, and I found gradually that it became harder and harder not to fall into them. This was definitely not normal. Then I suddenly had to drink four pints of water in five minutes. At this point I went back to the guesthouse and sat down. This was when I met Cesare, an anthropologist who had been working on mask rituals in the Upper West for a couple of decades and clearly knew his way around. He was waiting for someone who was late, which is a normal condition in the North, where phones work intermittently and all travel is a lottery. We chatted, and as he left I asked if I could take his number, since I was feeling odd and might need advice on finding treatment later if it continued. It did – half an hour later I had a fever and everything started to hurt. So I set out for Wa hospital, following the directions of the receptionist.

Wa was exactly where I had in mind when I imagined a sub-optimal place to get malaria. It’s a very long way from anywhere, and there is only one medical establishment that is, to put it generously, quite basic. However if you are going to contract falciparum malaria in Wa, Good Friday evening turns out to be the perfect time. Most people were at their villages for Easter, and what could have been a long and unpleasant medical experience instead was mercifully brief. Cesare, who was having a phone disaster like everyone else north of Kumasi, but to whom a friend had managed to get a text message to let him know I was sick, turned up at high speed midway through the experience, having left dinner to come and see if I was ok. Finding that I wasn’t, he kindly stayed with me while I got a diagnosis of malaria (the bad kind, which is all over the North, but which I had only at a mild level), and took me off to get some food so I could take the medicine.

Over the course of Easter weekend I discovered these things:

1) you can’t juggle with malaria. I had brought my juggling balls from Tamale hoping to have quiet time to practise, but became increasingly clumsy and ended up having to stop for my own safety as I kept hitting myself in the face.

2) you can’t get on a motorbike with malaria. It makes you dizzy and I found I kept fainting. Each day I would get up convinced that I could go out and do my surveys, and each day this would turn out to be over-optimistic. If I didn’t really focus when walking, I found myself going around in circles.

3) you can’t really do much with malaria. And this wasn’t even bad malaria. I sat around, drank a beer, learned about local initiation ceremonies, discussed witchcraft, met an ancient gentleman whose father remembered slave raids, learned about the cosmic insufficiency of aged motorbikes, discussed how nice it would be to eat really good Italian cheese; anything that could be done sitting down. I will remember this as an interesting Easter weekend years from now, when internet cafes are just a distant memory.

4) malaria really sucks.

I also got to visit Wa Tennis Club, where the Big Men hang out. The tennis club is an intriguing mix of nightclub and apocalyptic hellhole. Surrounded by a metal fence through which, it appears, people have tried unsuccessfully to drive vehicles at high speed, it has a small clubhouse and three concrete courts which at the farther end degenerate progressively into rubble. Clearly someone tried building a tennis club, then got bored and dropped a missile on it instead. This evening there was a party, so that outside the clubhouse a couple of huge speakers were blasting bad hip hop at warp level, and five or six young women were dancing enthusiastically on their own while the town’s Big Men drank beer and watched. Big Men are an ever-present phenomenon: they travel with an entourage, they come and shake hands when they arrive, but don’t introduce themselves (you are supposed to know who they are), and girls revolve around them optimistically like egrets around elephants.

Wa tennis club was clearly the place to be, but I was unable to appreciate its charms, particularly when my three-hourly wave of fever returned. Cesare, who was also there, had recently arrived from the bush where he had been helping manage an initiation ceremony that involved nine days of mass insomnia and chicken-sacrifice (‘cutting fowl’), and had not fully recovered. He is officially a Big Man in the area, having spent a long time earning this status, but prefers obscure baroque music and finds bar girls unattractive. So he too was approaching a hip-hop related meltdown when we finally got a lift back to the guesthouse. I have to accept that I am just not hip enough for Wa tennis club.


On Monday I finally got some research done. I got up at 5.30, feeling as if someone had kicked me repeatedly in the liver, and optimistically purchased a bus ticket back to Tamale for the next morning. This meant I had to complete six surveys in a day, which didn’t seem unreasonable. After my morning fainting spell I got on the back of my local assistant’s motorbike and off we went, miraculously managing to interview the owners of all six cafes. Wa now has ten internet establishments, but very little edible food or medical facilities. So as long as you stay healthy and bring your own chef, it’s a great place to get online. My interviewees, as always, were interesting, courteous and generous with their time. I turn out to have picked a sector with some extraordinarily nice people, which is fortunate given that researching it has involved all the things that put me in a bad mood (heat, incessant travel and more heat).

I returned a victorious nasara poga to the guesthouse. Nasara poga is my name in Wa, where they speak different languages from those of Tamale. It means white woman, but derives from the Arabic for ‘Nazareth’, meaning someone who follows Jesus, a Christian. Although the description is religiously inaccurate, I am clearly white – this has been pointed out to me. In case I had forgotten, it turned out the hotel receptionist had neglected to ask my name and had therefore recorded me as ‘white lady’ in the book for each day I had stayed there. Being a nasara poga, though, is better than being a nasara poga galanzo, which means ‘crazy white woman.’

I returned to my room and packed for the morning, still feeling dodgy but assuming the medicine was the cause. After hearing my pathetic story Cesare, who definitely qualifies as one of the kinder people I have ever met, and who doubtless had better things to do, had arranged to accompany me in a taxi to the bus station at 4.30am. So I prepared for yet another short night. I found in my diary for Monday, ‘Wa smells. I am glad to be leaving.’


Back to Tamale on the early bus. Halfway back is Damongo, a major town served by only the morning bus each day, which arrives there full from Wa. In Damongo, they let on as many people as will fit or pay, which are not the same thing at all and which occasioned a lot of high-volume argument. I ended up with an unidentified child on my lap the whole way back to Tamale, just to stop her from getting trampled. She was nervous of me, since a lot of the village kids here think I am wearing either extra skin or no skin at all, but soon fell fast asleep, as did my legs.

The fever still hadn’t abated, so off I went to a clinic in Tamale to get tested again. The best clinic in Tamale is better than Wa hospital, but is still somewhat lacking in charm. Its washrooms have neither paper nor soap, and hygiene is not at a premium. I wrote in my diary: ‘There is a toddler across from me in the waiting room, watched indulgently by her grandmother and the nurses, who are bored waiting for the doctor to come back. She is blowing into a small plastic water-bag and trying to pop it by stamping on it. But she is too light, so it doesn’t burst and she picks it up and blows into it again, stamps, picks it up, blows. The clinic is treating typhoid, cholera and hepatitis. The child sucks the bag. The nurses smile and watch.’

Another blood test, and I turned out to be more malarial than I should be, given four days of industrial-strength medication. The doctor shook his head, and said I had a very resistant strain – the first drugs should have seen it off. He helpfully added that he had seen people on every kind of prophylactic treatment coming into his clinic with this drug-resistant malaria, and that nothing appeared to be working at the moment. This was not calculated to instill confidence, so off I went back to the guesthouse to do some more interviews in case I felt worse later.

This time I was armed with some new treatment and a backup drug to be taken in a massive dose at the same time, whose directions were written only in French and Arabic. It was obscure, yet virulent. When I checked it out online, I found only one reference, saying ‘only to be prescribed in extreme cases due to potentially life-threatening toxicity.’ Fabulous, I thought, and washed it down with some orange juice.

By evening the new drug was living up to its reputation. My fever was worse, I was dizzier than ever, and I felt as if the whole Milan AC football team were kicking me in the liver. At this point I remembered that the university provides us with medical insurance that includes an emergency number for advice, and thought I might give them a call to see what it was I had taken, and whether the football team was going or staying. I got through to a very nice English doctor, who had never heard of anything I had taken so far, but pointed out that it might be smart to go to a place with more testing facilities in case I got worse. The service arranged for me to be flown out of Tamale to Accra on the early flight the next morning. They arranged online bookings, with Hannah included as an escort in case I continued to be bad at standing upright. Never one to pass up a chance to get up before 4am, I agreed.


By Wednesday morning, even my toes had fever and I had trouble keeping water down. So Hannah and I made our way to the airport, conveniently situated 10 miles outside Tamale. The experience started inauspiciously – the security guards were inexplicably horrified when we tried to pull up at the door, and waved us fifty yards or so down the road to the car park instead so we had to walk with all our things. We had been instructed that 5.30 was the latest possible moment we could arrive and still get checked in in time, so we had expected to find the place fairly active. Instead there was a lone businessman, his case in line at the check-in desk, and no staff anywhere to be seen. After half an hour or so, a small child arrived and started setting up a breakfast stand to sell omelettes. Around 6.30 a few staff started trickling in, and by 7 they were about ready to start checking people in.

This was when we discovered a problematic disjuncture. We had online reservations, made late the night before by the insurance company’s Paris office. In contrast, however, the airline’s booking system consisted of a dog-eared notebook with a list of passenger names in pencil. Hannah handled it as I was stupid, feverish, and fully occupied trying not to throw up on the floor: she later told me that informing them we had a booking reference number was as relevant as telling them she had a cow outside. The insurance people in London, when she called them, couldn’t grasp that there was no computer on which the staff could check our booking. The airline did not take cards, so we couldn’t pay for the tickets. Complete impasse. Then, success. We turned out to have exactly enough cash between us to pay for two tickets to Accra, and two were still available. So we did it the old-fashioned way.

Tamale airport is where I discovered that there is a Big Man saturation point. The only people who fly to Accra are Big Men, so that by the time everyone is checked in an unusual social situation occurs. Being a Big Man means you can jump the queue, but this becomes problematic when the others in line are Big Men too. So a kind of Big Man inflation occurs, and Bigness has to be re-calibrated. At one point a man walked in who was both physically huge and dressed in an elaborately bejewelled golden hat and smock, and barely made an impression. The staff played it safe by deferring to everyone except the women, and worked out their stress by trying to move me around the waiting area like a chesspiece, despite my explanation that I couldn’t stand up, and would throw up if placed near the small child cooking omelettes.

An hour to Accra on a plane is surreal after the 13 hours one spends going the opposite direction on a bus. Silent, calm, croissants.

In Accra, we were met and taken to what is reputed to be the best hospital in the country. I believed them: it actually had some toilet paper in one of the washrooms. The insurance company had been in touch to say that all the bills would go directly to them, and that they had people on hand to translate for me if necessary (after some discussion about how impressed I was that they had found Twi speakers in London, it had turned out they mistakenly thought I was in a French-speaking country). So all seemed to be going well.

I filled out a form at reception, and a few minutes later a brisk gentleman came out and asked me to go with him. Swaying slightly, I followed him to an air-conditioned office, where we sat down and he started to interview me about my payment arrangements. He was the finance officer: apparently the insurers had provided insufficient proof that my treatment would be covered. I called the local partner, who had been in touch about transport, and they denied all knowledge. Then I lost consciousness briefly, started falling off my chair, and woke up to find the accountant asking solicitously whether I was having trouble arranging payment. I called London on my cellphone, put them on the phone with him, and soon he was smiling. ‘Now you may go and wait for the doctor,’ he said expansively.

Two hours later, we were called for a consultation, and a nice doctor told me he was worried about my apparently drug-resistant status and possible dehydration. I would probably have to be admitted and put on an IV immediately, he said. Next I waited an hour for a blood test. Two hours later the results came back. By now it was lunchtime and the doctor was nowhere to be found. Seven hours later, and with only a packet of biscuits since the day before, Hannah started to lose patience. The place was completely deserted and silent except for an extraordinarily piercing but unexplained alarm that went off every five minutes, which after ten minutes or so a maintenance man would come in and silence, only to have it go off again five minutes later.

I have only fuzzy memories of the afternoon, fortunately. But eventually the doctor was located and told me that the second malaria medication appeared to be kicking in finally, but I had an infection that was adding to the fever. He prescribed drugs that, thankfully, were available at the hospital pharmacy, and at last we managed to leave, a mere eight hours after we had arrived.

So it turns out the best way to kill malaria parasites is to bore them to death. But fortunately everyone survived, and Hannah and I are back safely in our house with Auntie, who was horrified by our story, made that wonderful shocked Ghanaian ‘oh!’ repeatedly, and pointed out that the North is a barbaric place infested with muslim robbers, and we should avoid going back there. (In the North, they complain that all the robbers come from Accra.) Meanwhile, Latif has in my absence managed to gather data to complete the network study of all 29 internet cafes in Tamale, conducted one of the four interviews we lost when I was robbed, and created an underground investigation that may have identified one of the robbers, who was trying to sell my mobile phone to a dealer. So when I go back up north, there is some small chance we may figure out who has my stuff. Three cheers for Latif, Cesare and Hannah, who together deserve a Nobel prize for disaster management and should probably be put in joint charge of the Red Cross from now on.

I looked in a mirror this morning, for the first time in about a month (the room in Tamale was dark, and there were no mirrors in Wa). My appearance hasn’t exactly been a priority of late, but I found I was looking quite authentic – the robbers stole my sun block and my hat, so that now I am browner than I ever thought I could get – even my toes – and have lost about half a stone. I shall audition for ‘African explorer of the year’ and get a nice sash to wear.

One comment

  1. Nathalie · · Reply

    your malaria story. I feel like you relived mine minus the ghana part and plus the madagascar part….drug resistant strains certainly do suck as do the infections that seem to pop up simultaneously so that your liver will be sufficiently shot. Do take care and maybe when you’re feeling more energetic…do a cleanse…I know it helped me!

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