I Am a Mere Person
Life is sometimes an evanescent state in Ghana. John and I came back to Kumasi in 1974, after we’d been in Ghana for about a year, to find that one of my workers was very sick. I had a crew of men who helped me do a survey of the geology around the city. The man’s name was Awuni Frafra, the surname taken from the northern tribe to which he belonged. He was only 22 years old, at least a head taller than the other workers (common for people from the north) and strong and vigorous. Since he was one of the crew who didn’t speak any English, I knew him only as a hard worker with a shy smile.
The other workers explained that Awuni was lonely in Kumasi, away from his family for the first time, living in a culture and climate quite different from what he had known at home. He began drinking a lot of akpeteshie (liquor distilled from palm wine) and the previous Sunday had been really drunk. Monday morning he was ill and was excused from work. Throughout the week he became gradually sicker until finally he was discovered in his room having convulsions and paralysed on one side. He was admitted to the University Hospital and his condition had stabilized, although no one seemed to know what was wrong with him.
Then I heard that Awuni’s brother had come to Kumasi and removed him from the hospital. I asked whether anything could be done to keep Awuni in the hospital but was told that the family had priority in such a case. Awuni’s family believed that there was a doctor near their home who could cure him with native medecines and who, in fact, had cured others with the same illness. The doctors had released Awuni to his brother, who put him on a truck for the rigorous journey over three hundred and fifty miles of bad roads north to Bolgatanga and the family home. There he died.
We will never know what killed Awuni. It may have been bad liquor; it may have been a snake or insect bite, or it may have been disease. We will never know whether or not he could have been saved.
Punctilious in such matters, the Institute made arrangements to send a delegation to Awuni’s family to deliver the money owed him. He left an estate consisting of his last month’s pay, the money he had paid into the pension fund, and an additional month’s pay because he had died while employed by the Institute. Many staff members expressed an interest in going along on the trip, partly, I am sure, because it represented a free vacation.
The leaders of the delegation were all Ashantis, people from our region, including the Administrative Officer of the Institute. He was known as Abban, or “the government” because he was such a good talker! Two relatives of Awuni from Kumasi were offered a ride. From the work crew Mr. Kankam naturally went as the leader of the crew, and Raymond Abuska and Yaban Kussabi were chosen to represent the workers since they were both from the north. I asked if John and I might go and the Institute agreed. It was a very mixed group. In Ghana tribal identity came first, and the country had to deal with some 33 different tribes who had been united in the British Gold Coast by a line drawn on the map. The Ashanti’s were from a warlike tribe that had conquered much of the region and who gave the British one of their toughest challenges to conquer. In the north, the tribes were Muslim and had a very different heritage, but they were, like it or not, all part of the country of Ghana, which was trying to create a successful nation.
The group travelled north in an overcrowded Institute truck, watching the rain forest give way to the sparse vegetation of the north. The air became dryer and dryer as we headed toward Awuni’s home town. One of Awuni’s relatives kept getting sick out the window to the disgust of the Institute staff but mostly they ignored her and luckily for us she was sitting on the other side of the truck. There was much laughter and conversation to pass the time, and several stops for palm wine, fermented from hearts of palm trees and absolutely delicious. We were happy to sample some palm wine, drinking it from calabashes after dropping a small amount on the ground for good luck.
When we reached Bolgatanga, John and I were taken to the government rest house while the others scattered to make their own arrangements for lodging. That night John and I walked into Bolgatanga, a dry dusty city that owes its existence to the fact that it was named the regional capital after independence. Most maps of Ghana published in the rest of the world did not even show it, although it was a thriving city and the largest in the Upper Region. We ate liver kebabs with bread, butter and beer at rickety tables in an open-air bar on the main street. The dry air was very pleasant as the evening shadows brought the temperature down to a comfortable level.
The next morning we were collected by the Institute truck which drove about five miles outside the town on bumpy dirt roads. The countryside was typical savannah: widely-spaced trees rising from expanses of tall grass. We left the truck and walked another half mile on a thin winding path through fields to the compound belonging to Awuni’s family. The effects of the rainy season were still apparent in the sporadic patches of greenery and the small streams across which we waded. Huge baobab trees rose here and there above beds of rice, and termite mounds popped up at intervals looking like giant sand castles.
Awuni’s family lived in a typical Frafra compound with walls built of dried mud. There were five or six round rooms with low doorways and flat roofs joined together by mud walls, making a circle. Across the middle of the compound stretched another lower wall dividing the family portion from the area where the livestock and stores were kept. There was no sign of anything not produced right there except a few pieces of cloth and the metal heads on the farming implements. It was very neat and looked like it might be quite a comfortable place to live. All the members of the family who were at home greeted us, shaking hands ceremoniously. When our business was explained, messengers were sent to fetch the men who were off working on their farms. The children peered shyly at the two white people who were undoubtedly the first to visit anywhere in the area.
The delegation was ushered to a clearing under a baobab tree next to a field of millet. We were surprised not to be offered the customary drink of water on arrival, but they offered us nothing, perhaps because they had only stream water available and nothing to serve so many people in. Wooden folding chairs and stools were provided and they made a bit of fuss over John and me but we tried to stay in the background and turn the focus of attention toward the Institute officials.
We were joined fairly soon by Awuni’s father, a dignified and erect man who looked about ninety but was probably no more than forty or fifty, and the family elders. After a round of greetings a young woman with a baby was brought forward and introduced as Awuni’s wife. Since Awuni had never mentioned the existence of a wife and child there was some suspicion among the Institute staff as to the truth of her claim. They thought that perhaps the family had quickly decided that the benefits owed to Awuni might be greater if he left a widow. Since the amount of money was fixed, the Institute representatives didn’t bother to argue about her.
The group began a serious discussion. It was all in Frafra since Awuni’s family spoke noe of the more common languages. Raymond looked after John and me, translating as much as he could find time to do into English. He was also translating into Twi for the Ashantis who, supercilious in the formal Adinkra cloths (made of fabric stamped with patterns) they were wearing for this ceremony, certainly knew no Frafra. Considering that Raymond’s native language was yet another completely different one, we were most impressed with his facility. At one point it was clear that our presence was being explained. The attention of all the men was turned to us with much nodding of heads. They seemed pleased that we had made the journey, feeling that it did honor to Awuni. I made a short speech, which Raymond translated at great length, leaving me wondering exactly what I had said.
Finally, the conversation turned to the determination of the proper recipient of the money and a decision was finally reached. The cash was officially handed to the senior member of the family, who then divided it between Awuni’s wife and his father, with the larger sum by far going to his father to help reimburse him for the expenses of the funeral which had been held the week before, and the celebration of his life that would happen a year after his death.
We were parched and hungry sitting in the hot sun trying to understand what was happening. At last some pito arrived, a refreshing alcoholic drink made from fermented millet which is found all over the north, and some roasted peanuts. They may have had to wait until the money changed hands before they could afford any hospitality because the funeral had surely been a heavy expense for them.
The women of the family brought a guinea fowl (a small bird like a chicken), which they presented to the group as a gift, and a calabash holding a half-dozen small guinea fowl eggs which they gave to me, explaining that they were appreciative of our effort in coming so far because of Awuni. We in turn made a contribution of money to Awuni’s wife, which was accepted graciously. Before we left we asked to visit the compound. The Institute staff were anxious to be on their way once the business was completed but the family welcomed us for a quick look at their living quarters. Awuni’s mother was an incredibly thin lady sitting in the sun before her room. She allowed us to take her picture but most of the others were reluctant to be photographed and we respected their wishes.
After we had returned to Bolgatanga, Raymond told us that the amount of money delivered to the family should have been one hundred and sixty cedis but that the officials had kept thirty cedis for themselves, rightly assuming that the family would never know. We were shocked. I asked Raymond if he had been given a share of the money and he replied, “Oh, no,” adding as in explanation, ”I am a mere person.” Only those of importance had the authority to steal money, although I don’t believe Raymond would have taken it in any case. He tried to reassure us, saying “God will know.”
John and I talked about the matter for a long time. We decided to say nothing. We could have caused a scandal back at the Institute but that would have eliminated my value as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and probably would not have seen the money restored to Awuni’s family.
In spite of the negative note at the end, we felt fortunate to have had this experience that took us deep into the heart of the country where we were so grateful to be living. Our visit to Awuni’s family showed us the very poorest side of Ghana, where people who were barely managing to survive, at the mercy of the climate, illness and the greed of others, welcomed us and appreciated our presence.