April 1, 1994
Apr 1, 1994
35 Min read time
Out of the shadow of a wall 15 feet away a pair of men emerged and blocked the sidewalk.
In tropical Africa the sun goes down quickly, without twilight, so that night can fall almost without your noticing. I was in Togo, on the West African coast, where I once taught English to the children of subsistence farmers, and where the Togolese have recently risen up and tried to replace the military dictatorship of President Eyadema with a democratic government. In the chaos of the popular revolt sunset has become an important moment in Lomé, the country’s capital: no one wants to be in an unfamiliar neighborhood after dark.
The quarter where I was staying was bounded by the ocean, the border with Ghana, and a zone of deserted government buildings. As a border area it was full of bars and dance clubs; they were closed or empty. As an opposition stronghold it was off-limits to any policeman or soldier in uniform. And as the home, alongside poor compounds on the sandy back streets, of embassies, aid offices, and cheap hotels, it had become notorious for robberies of whites by criminals slipping back and forth across the border.
One night I found myself finishing a late dinner at a sidewalk eatery that was too close to my room for a taxi. There were two ways home: along the boulevard, which meant streetlights but no people, or through the pitch-black back streets, where families lived behind cinder-block walls. Even as I chose light over darkness and continued down the boulevard toward the ocean road, I felt it was a mistake to be alone. Across the boulevard, the residence of the interim prime minister, bullet-pocked from a military assault, stood abandoned behind a wall covered with anti-military graffiti. Along the sidewalk high security walls concealed the homes of wealthy Togolese.
Out of the shadow of a wall 15 feet away a pair of men emerged and blocked the sidewalk. I knew they meant me harm, and I still had time to turn around. Perhaps the two bottles of cold water I’d bought at the restaurant and was carrying, one in each hand, made me feel slow and defenseless. Or perhaps the idea that you don’t convict people of what they haven’t yet done, the urge not to act like an arrogant white or a spooked tourist, kept me walking into the trap.
“My friend,” said the bigger one. He stepped forward and grabbed my shirtfront and brandished a fist in my face. “You’re going to give me something!” He was tall, broad-shouldered, and enraged, and, feeling animal acquiescence before a stronger power, with my chilled hands I gave him something. As he fumbled my wallet open I realized that it carried all the money I had in Africa. I’d meant to pay my rent tonight, tide myself over for a few days, then wire to my bank for more; but I hadn’t seen my landlady and the money slipped from my mind. The wad he took out would have supported a peasant family for three months.
The big man’s skinny partner ran up the boulevard with my wallet. “I need the wallet,” I told the big man. “It has my identity cards. Please—medekuku,” I said in his language, and my fear tingled with fury at the sound of the plea. But the word caught him by surprise. Without a policeman in the entire quarter, the thief softened, called the skinny one back, and returned the wallet to me.
As they started to run the big man thumped his chest. “We’re the ones in control here.”
• • •
Menace and pleading can be very nearly the same thing—expressions of the same helplessness. On my return to Togo I got used to hearing both. Faced with the army’s guns and the world’s indifference, the Togolese, like other Africans, have begun to see things with a measure of desperation. “We don’t need whites in Africa anymore,” one man shouted at me. “You can all leave.” “You’re our only hope,” another said. “Why don’t you send the Marines to get rid of this dictator the way you got rid of Noriega? Doesn’t Togo matter as much as Panama?” “We’re the ones in control here,” said a third. The big man was wrong, or only right locally. No one is in control in a country like Togo: it no longer belongs to the Europeans or the dictator, but it doesn’t yet belong to its people. Some of them were my friends and their helplessness amid the chaos was no abstraction. Usually I felt helpless myself, but from time to time this feeling had a way of changing, like a shift in the light that changes one’s mood, into a sense of being indispensable. And then it was hard not to intervene.
For ten years I had tried, intermittently and somewhat feebly, to stay in touch with the peasant family whose compound I shared when I was a Peace Corps volunteer. Since Christine, the mother, was illiterate, and almost all her children were too young to read and write French, correspondence was a tenuous, sporadic thing. Once a year or so I’d get a letter in a plain brown envelope, addressed to “Frère Georges,” carefully penned and full of mistakes, from a child whose age I’d lost track of, thanking me for the money I’d remembered to send. The letter, in an attempt at the high French style drilled into them at school, was long on “distinguished greetings” and “God will guide you” and short on family news. Everything always seemed to be fine—which, I knew, meant that they continued to be desperately poor, that Christine continued to quarrel with her idle no-good husband Benjamin and to be miserable, that eight children continued to drain away what was left of her youth and yet remained her only reason for carrying on in the village.
But at the end of the ‘80s I began to get letters from Togolese friends who had been to Lavié and found disturbing things there. I heard that Lucien, Christine’s oldest child, who had systematically stolen from me until his little brother Claudie betrayed him, was in jail, and that Claudie was in with him. I heard that Emma, the oldest girl, eight when I’d known her and no more than 15 now, had become a prostitute. Then word came that Christine had finally done what she used to threaten in her darkest moods, left her husband and Lavié, returned to her home village near the capital. She had taken some of the kids with her and left the rest with Benjamin, who promptly pocketed the first seventy-five dollars I sent after her departure. Finally, about a year before I went back, a friend’s letter arrived with news that two of the children remaining in Lavié, Emma’s twin brother Markie and their younger sister Dové, were in poor health. They had some sort of problem with their feet; they couldn’t walk properly.
The Agbelis knew that I was coming back. So it wasn’t a complete surprise, when I got out of the public taxi at the edge of the village whose clustered mud huts gave way at once to the high grass and mountainous forest of the bush, to see Christine come running from under the big tree outside the house. She’d arrived two days ago and had apparently been waiting for me ever since.
During the long, empty months in Lavié Christine had been my closest friend. She was a beautiful, unhappy woman; she had spent years here in her husband’s village, bearing one child after another, nursing the sense that life owed her more—a dangerous feeling for a poor African woman. Rudimentary French got us part of the way across the enormous gap that separated me from Christine; her loneliness in Lavié and mine made us natural comrades when language and comprehension failed. But ten years later most of her French was gone, and once we stopped hugging and dancing it turned out that Christine and I had little to say to each other.
Dové was sitting on the steps outside the part of the cinder-block, iron-roofed house that had once been mine. Ten years ago she’d been a spunky five-year-old, skipping across the yard, singing to herself, living in the flicker of an African childhood. At a glance I saw that it was long gone. Dové was a beautiful young woman in a dirty purple skirt hitched up around her thighs. In the boniness of her legs her kneecaps were hugely swollen. She didn’t stand up as I approached, didn’t even look at me, and in my embrace she felt rigid.
A few minutes later the other kids ran into the yard, and Markie trailed behind them. He’d always been very bright—I used to call him professeur—and somehow his face hadn’t lost its confidence, its alert humor, in spite of what was happening to his body. Smiling, open-armed, Markie staggered toward me on the balls of his feet. His back was arched, his shoulders twisted together. He walked very slowly, very painfully, as if every tendon in his body was pulled taut. When we hugged I could feel that he was nothing but clothed bones.
The longer I sat with the family, the less I understood. Had the kids never seen a doctor? Never. There was no money for it.
We all sat in what had once been my living room, on furniture whose cushions had disappeared, and Christine began to weep in her tumultuous way. When she cried out the names of her sick children, I realized that this was her first sight of them since she’d left the village, and that their condition shocked and haunted her. I wondered if she was asking herself the question I never had the heart to put to her: how could she have abandoned them?
Prodded and scolded by her family, at whom she snapped, Dové allowed herself to be carried on the back of Claudie—out of jail and looking chastened—up the front stoop into the room. As she walked the last few steps to sit next to me I saw that her condition was even worse than Markie’s. She had to hold her arms akimbo above her head as she lurched forward on tiptoe. But what seemed worst of all was the shame in her downcast eyes, the bitter self-conscious smile. The light had gone completely from her face.
We went through my old rooms, where I used to stay up at night listening to the BBC until Christine would tell me it was time to blow out my lamp. As if to mirror what had happened to the family, the house was wrecked—mud wasp nests in the corners, Benjamin’s clothing scattered across the floors, filthy pots lying about the kitchen and a half-empty sack of meal slumped in the sink, the toilet shit-clogged and unspeakably rancid. On the grimy kitchen wall, just above the sink, the footprints where Lucien, the oldest child, had lowered himself from the ceiling to rob my rooms, were still there. No one had bothered to wash them off, as if the Agbelis were resigned to whatever the prints said about them. The struggle against neglect was difficult at best when Christine lived here; without her what remained of the family had rapidly deteriorated.
In spite of their infirmity, Markie, 17, and Dové, 15, continued to walk the half-mile to the village school, where Markie was doing well and Dové was struggling. They also continued with the household chores that begin for African children at age five—they could no longer fetch water, but they cooked and washed clothes, looked after their 12-year-old brother Mawuli, and in general filled in for their missing mother. Their father, being the man of the house, was obliged to refrain from cooking and cleaning.
When Benjamin arrived we exchanged greetings with a false heartiness, man to man, as old friends. He had lost a lot of weight and a self-pitying smile permanently occupied his wasted face. A driver whose taxi had always been out of service when I lived with them, he had been a drinker, dissipated, worse than useless to Christine, unable or unwilling to support his family. Now he no longer even feigned work—he confessed his idleness with the pathetic frankness of a defeated man. He had tried to get “Madame” to rejoin him, without success. Christine, sitting in her old house like an uneasy guest, maintained a correct, cordial distance from him. The nights of terrible quarrels that sometimes ended with Benjamin striking her were over.
The longer I sat with the Agbelis, the less I understood. Had the kids never seen a doctor? Never. Hadn’t they even gone to the little village clinic? They hadn’t. There was no money for it. How much could it cost, I wondered, and why didn’t the children’s uncle, Benjamin’s older brother, the village chief, help out? Why, given the incompetence of his brother, hadn’t he assumed his natural and traditional role as their father? Were Markie and Dové being punished as the children of that bad woman who had left her husband? According to Markie, the sickness had been climbing through their bodies for six or seven years, a wasting numbness invading first their feet, then their legs, their torsos, and now the lean sinewy muscles of their arms. Seven years! Why hadn’t anyone done anything?
I didn’t seek answers. Money—lack of it—would be the answer to everything, and the questions it didn’t answer for me, the ones about family responsibility, about the ancient bonds I once thought the essential fabric of this African village, the key to their survival against poverty and the onslaught of the modern world—these questions were reproaches that would take me into places where I had no right and perhaps didn’t want to go.
I never actually decided to intervene. I never calculated my available time and means, weighed the risks and consequences of interfering in the family’s affairs, reasoned why my money and effort should go to this family and not some other even more desperate one, and then methodically mapped out a plan that would remain viable beyond my stay. I didn’t do any of this. But these were people I cared for and who cared for me, and doing nothing wasn’t thinkable.
I asked Benjamin if it would be all right for me to take Markie and Dové to the hospital in Lomé. It was a delicate thing for an outsider, a white man from ten thousand miles away and ten years back, to arrive and take over an African man’s duties. I wanted him neither to be humiliated nor to refuse. But Benjamin, smiling his fatuous, pathetic smile, had no objections. In two weeks I would come back in a rented car and collect the kids for a trip whose duration I couldn’t predict—I assumed it would be no more than a couple of weeks. Christine insisted on joining her children in Lomé.
My best guess about the disease was polio—maybe they had contracted it from the same contaminated water. But I didn’t think polio spread through the whole body, and an American doctor at a Baptist mission hospital said that gradual numbness might be a sign of leprosy. So telling no one where we were going, not even the children, since even in Africa leprosy carries a strong whiff of disgrace, I started out in the opposite direction of the capital, to a village a few miles up the road from Lavié, where there was a leprosarium.
The children struggled out of the back seat and were looked over by a male nurse in a white smock who was missing a couple of fingers on one hand. This nurse, I decided, would know leprosy when he saw it. He grabbed their hands, folded their ears back to check behind, handling them in the rough, unceremonious way an African woman cleans her child. Markie and Dové endured it with fright in their eyes. And when the nurse announced that whatever they had wasn’t leprosy, their fear, instead of easing, deepened into shock. They stared at me as if I had insulted, tricked, and betrayed them. As we drove out of the leprosarium I heard the children muttering in the back seat: He thought we were lepers!
In the rearview mirror I saw the children nod solemnly and I knew that it would be impossible to extinguish the hope I had kindled.
I began to wonder what they thought. If they had a medical theory, they kept it to themselves. More likely they saw their illness as an incomprehensible invader, neither fair nor unfair, something to suffer and live with. I doubt that causes and cures were much considered at all until my sudden return into their lives. The illness was a fact, like the joyless sunlight. But now I’d come along with my money and my concern, and as we turned toward the capital I could feel their hope rising. When we stopped to buy travel bags in Kpalimé, a market town just seven miles from their village where I used to shop every Saturday, Markie said that it was his first time ever in the town. I thought I’d misheard him, but it was true. They had lived their whole lives within the village and the two or three miles of road to either side of it. What an adventure, then, for him and his sister to go to a hospital in the nation’s capital.
I tried to caution them against too much hope. I told them that hospitals didn’t work miracles, that we were going to try to find out what ailed them but weren’t necessarily going to be able to cure it. If it was polio, at best it could be arrested—never reversed. In the rearview mirror I saw them nod solemnly and I knew that it would be impossible to extinguish the hope I had kindled. With every mile their excitement grew. We picked up Christine in Alokoegbé, her home village, along with her daughter Emma and her first grandchild, and the usual greetings and miscommunications and delays had us flying along a clay road through the bush well after dark, the car jammed with Agbelis, the windshield fogging up so that I had to keep manipulating defroster, air-conditioner, and window. When we passed the German-owned brewery on the highway outside Lomé, all ablaze in fluorescent light and belching steam, I heard them murmuring in awe. In the outer suburbs traffic was heavy and mad; armed soldiers at roadblocks kept ordering us through a confusion of detours. As we drove into the city center, we were all in a kind of dream.
• • •
In the morning the Agbelis were nowhere to be seen. We had a 7:30 appointment with a specialist and by 8:30 the family still hadn’t turned up on the dirty, decaying grounds of Tokoin Hospital. I paced, went from building to building, paced some more, then got in my rented car and tried to find the neighborhood where I’d taken them last night to Christine’s uncle’s. This morning there were no street names or house numbers; every dirt street looked exactly the same, defined only by the shape of its potholes and moguls. I drove in circles for half an hour, tried asking a few startled children, realized I didn’t even know the uncle’s last name, and then raced back through traffic to the hospital, searched the grounds one more time—and found Christine, Markie, and Dové sitting on a bench outside the wrong building. They had arrived at 6:30 and been waiting for over three hours, and in all that time they hadn’t looked for me, hadn’t made sure they were in the right place—hadn’t moved. But they had been waiting. It summed up everything about the way they regarded the illness—the mix of passive fatalism and hope. Either I would find them or I would not. That was what it was like being poor. Fortunately, when I’d made the appointment the doctor had taken an interest in the case, which he called “humanitarian,” meaning I wouldn’t have to pay the hospital costs. We were immediately admitted past a corridor full of waiting patients into the little office where he kept hours two mornings a week. Dr. Asamoa was a heavy, indulged-looking man, faintly reminiscent of Peter Ustinov, garrulous, deeply sardonic. He had the good sense to examine Markie first—he’d seen the courage mustered in the boy’s face. When Markie took off his shirt and trousers I had a shock, and I think the doctor did too. Clothes had given his condition a sort of visual euphemism. In his underwear Markie stood exposed as the skeleton he’d become. Only his arms—skin and bone except for a little bulge of bicep that years of chores had given him—and his face—sharp-eyed, tense now, floating life-sized above the body on a little rod of neck—were at all normal. The rest of him belonged to Auschwitz, to Somalia, to the grave.
The doctor sat opposite Markie and squeezed, pulled, tapped, rubbed him up and down his body, asking questions in Ewé without much gentleness but kindly, so that Markie seemed to ease. Asamoa brought out a metal bar and banged it like a musical instrument, then placed its vibration against parts of Markie and asked more questions. The answers were generally “no” until Asamoa reached the face and hands. He told Markie to raise his arms; with a grimace and a groan Markie managed to get them halfway up.
Then the nurse weighed Markie: 27 kilograms. At age 17, five foot six or seven, he weighed just under 60 pounds.
It was Dové’s turn. She undressed to her underwear with more fear than shame. It was an unsettling and moving thing for me to see the body of a young woman who had grown up in my absence—whom I hadn’t seen since she danced shirtless and giggling at age five to my cassette of the Supremes singing “Sugar Pie Honey Bunch.” Dové was nearly as emaciated as her older brother, and all those hours she spent out of sight on the stoop, her sense of public humiliation, her crushed spirit, had atrophied her body even beyond Markie’s. But her breasts had grown in healthy and lovely. She should have been proud of them, already enjoying the looks of African boys. Instead Dové hoped that no one would look at her; and her breasts seemed to mock the rest of her body.
She weighed a few pounds more than Markie. As they put on their clothes they laughed over the difference: Dové took it as a sibling triumph and made fun of her older brother.
When Dr. Asamoa and I were alone in the room he said, “Yes, it’s what I thought, muscular dystrophy.”
For a moment I was speechless. “What does that mean?”
“It’s hereditary and terminal. It attacks the muscles even up to the face—so far it hasn’t reached their face or hands. Eventually they will die of heart failure because the muscles of the heart stop working.”
“They never live past the late 20s, early 30s. Sometimes sooner. Yes, it’s very sad. The last few years are the hardest, when they can no longer feed themselves.”
Dr. Asamoa meant this literally: a time would come when Markie and Dové would not be able to lift their hands to their mouths. He demonstrated with a gesture. It was very sad, it was sadder than death, it was worse than anything I imagined. When you think of all the ways an African child can die too soon, muscular dystrophy simply doesn’t occur. It almost seems a luxury. That Markie and Dové were still walking at all was one of those victories of the human spirit made possible by utter poverty.
The fact that all the medical attention in the world wouldn’t have cured these children only made my anger hungrier.
Asamoa went over the options, none of which would finally matter. Pieces of the children’s flesh could be sent to France for a biopsy to verify the diagnosis. They would need to stay in the hospital for a few weeks.
“That information helps me,” the doctor said. “It will give us scientific certainty. It does nothing for the children.”
An operation to sever their Achilles tendons, which had stretched taut in the effort to walk as their leg muscles wasted, might take them down off the balls of their feet and make walking easier. Medication could forestall cardiac arrest. Others in the family should be tested as well, since whether or not they had the illness they still might pass it on—not that it would matter, not that any African would decide against children because of genetics. And not that the younger kids who didn’t show symptoms yet would benefit from knowing they were going to end up like Markie and Dové. It was all a matter of scientific certainty. When I asked about wheelchairs, crutches, or the crude metal go-carts Togo’s more fortunate cripples hand-pedaled their way around in, Asamoa said that walking would keep the children’s bodies functioning longer.
“I’ve been conducting rural health tours,” he said, leaning forward with his elbows on his big thighs. “Two years ago we were in Lavié. If I’d seen these children I could have diagnosed them then, but my records don’t show their names.”
“Because no one brought them in! Doctor, they weren’t even taken to the village clinic. It’s a case of negligence. Someone in the family should have taken responsibility.”
“They don’t go to the clinic,” he said matter-of-factly, without reproach, holding my gaze, “because the clinic will tell them to buy such and such pills. They don’t go to the hospital because the hospital will tell them they need to pay for such and such an operation. And who will take care of the other children while the parents are away? No, it’s not negligence, not like in your country. It’s general misery.”
But I wanted to claim negligence, to blame someone—Benjamin, his brother the chief, even Christine. Someone had to have been responsible for this. The fact that all the medical attention in the world wouldn’t have cured them only made my anger hungrier. But Asamoa wasn’t offering any suspects.
“I have nurses here who die at home because they can’t afford to leave the children and come to the hospital.” The nurse standing beside him nodded wryly. “I heard of a man who became incapable of feeding himself and his family let him starve to death. They couldn’t afford to take care of him. One time I was in a village on a health tour and a woman comes into the clinic with cloth over her shoulders”—he rubbed his own shoulders and shivered— “as if she’s cold. I start to smell something, something terrible, a disgusting stink, I look out the window, look around the room”—he sniffed—“did a rat die in here? It keeps getting worse. Oh well, I ask her to take off the cloth so I can examine her. She doesn’t want to, but I insist. Off it comes—the whole arm is rotten with gangrene, up to the elbow. She tried to bandage herself. We rushed her to the hospital, she was lucky just to lose the arm. And listen: That wasn’t what she came in for.”
Dr. Asamoa and the nurse were beginning to laugh. His voice was rich with mockery, disbelief, despair. “I’ve become a lunatic! I see cases like that ten times a day and I get irritable, angry—a lunatic!” The nurse wiped laughter from her eyes. It was like a comic routine, Ustinov as a poverty doctor at the end of his rope, about to check into his own mental ward. “And the ministers of health and this and that—they know nothing of these things, we’re the ones who live it every day. That’s where negligence is. We discover 23,000 cases of brain parasite in the President’s home province and they say, ‘Thank you very much,’ and instead of telling the people there not to eat pork they sit on the finding because it’s an embarrassment. France is ready to provide resources for the problem—into someone’s pocket.” He leaned back in his chair. “I’m telling you—a lunatic!”
The nurse was laughing very hard, but Dr. Asamoa’s heavy mocha face with its spoiled lips had sunk into deep gloom.
The Agbelis’ room, down the dim hallway from the doctor’s office, was still being vacated by its last occupant, who happened to be a pastor from Lavié recovering from a spell of insanity. I went outside with Christine into an enclosed yard that looked out on the dusty hospital entrance, and we sat on a bench and I told her what I’d learned. Not all of it—I couldn’t bring myself to describe the way Markie and Dové would deteriorate until they couldn’t lift a morsel of pounded yams into their mouths. I didn’t tell their mother that they were very slowly dying. The rest of the news was already just about too much for her. When I tried to explain the concept of hereditary disease, I saw her eyes film over in bewilderment and protest. She swore that it had never happened to anyone on her side of the family.
“Their lives can be made a little better,” I told her. “That’s all. You have to tell the children that. They’re never going to be the way they once were.”
Christine looked at me and said, “Yo.” I was speaking French, the simplest French I knew, and I didn’t know how much she grasped. Even if she understood the words, the message seemed to hang suspended in the humid air between us.
• • •
The Agbelis settled into their room. It had two single beds, with a table between. It was a high, spare room, with a sink, and a toilet and shower behind a partition wall. A sign by the shower forbade guests from washing clothes there. Markie slept on one bed and Dové and Christine on the other. At the foot of each bed hung a chart showing the meaningless daily progress of their temperature from normal to normal. The toilet was broken, like every toilet I’ve ever seen in Togo. Every now and then Christine flushed it with water she drew at the sink into a plastic pail I bought for her; but the room still smelled faintly of urine. They had brought changes of clothes, but whenever I came by Markie was wearing the same red short-sleeved shirt and khaki pants and Dové the same sleeveless blue dress, and over time a musty, rank odor of old laundry seeped into everything. Yet the Agbelis didn’t seem unhappy to be confined here. The hospital fed them three times a day—usually rice and sauce with chunks of fish. They had real beds, and electric light, and peace and quiet. Tokoin Hospital was probably the most luxurious quarters they had ever seen. Dové was usually napping when I came by to visit. Her groggy smile on waking up was like the ghost of her childish grin from ten years back; and when I spoke she would giggle and hide her face in her cloth the way she used to. But with her mother and brother she was often irritable, refusing Markie’s challenge to walk upstairs and watch TV. Christine, who had no thought of going back to her village as long as her children were here, seemed to draw strength from being their mother again. Whatever sense of abandonment they had once felt was healing in the days and nights of the fetid room. Christine told me that when they left the hospital the children wouldn’t go back to their father; they would join her in her village.
Having done all I could, I’d done nothing, and I told them so. My mantra, half-truth and half-lie, was: ‘Your lives can be made a little better—that’s all.’
Markie was usually outside in the enclosure when I arrived, pacing or reading, the first to see my approach across the barred gate. Even in this confinement, Markie seemed energized by Lomé. Suddenly he had two dozen opposition papers to read, and I tried to bring enough to tide him over until the next visit, when he would want to discuss every article. Once I asked whether he often thought about his illness. “At the beginning,” he said, “I thought about it a lot. A lot. Now, I don’t think about it so much.” Since there was no middle school in Christine’s village, he was determined to go back to Lavié and graduate. Meanwhile, he occupied his days in the hospital paging through a French-English dictionary I’d given him, and trying to decipher the book I’d written about his family and his village.
In my decade away from Togo the thought of Markie had always brought the same image to my mind: a skinny little boy ambling, in the bow-legged way of his that was probably the earliest sign of his disease, across our yard in Lavié with a bold, knowing smile on his face, preparing to tell me that I was wrong, we couldn’t get to the moon on my moped. But from now on my picture of Markie will always be of an older boy, sitting on a hospital bed in dirty clothes that hang off his skeletal frame, his face floating above his body almost independent, almost free, mouthing to himself the words of an opposition newspaper lying open in his lap, and then looking up with a nod of comprehension.
I went on a trip to Ghana, and a trip to Kpalimé, and whenever I came back to the hospital they were still in the room. Bandages appeared on the children’s shins and they waited for news of the flesh that was being tested somewhere in France. They never seemed to resent my exaggerated freedom of movement; only, they wanted more visits and complained that I was always rushing off. They were content just to have us all sit in the room together, saying little for hours on end. And for everything beyond what the hospital provided—even if they wanted bananas, a newspaper, or a piece of cloth—they counted on me to give enough money to last until my next visit. If it slipped my mind, they would be left stranded.
Having done all I could, I’d done nothing, and I told them so. Out of more than ordinary politeness, they insisted that I was wrong. My mantra, half-truth and half-lie, was: “Your lives can be made a little better—that’s all.” And they would agree; but they never really believed it. Somehow the fact of being in a hospital from week to week eventually had to mean recovery. With nurses coming in every day to take their temperatures, and the doctor just down the hall two mornings a week, and a flush toilet (even if it didn’t work), and a steady stream of afflicted Togolese wandering around the grounds outside, how could they not be getting well? The operation Asamoa had proposed became a miracle cure, until he told me one day that it wasn’t feasible—in Togo it was minor surgery, a luxury for overworked surgeons, no one would perform it. Devastated, the family and I agreed that he shouldn’t have mentioned it in the first place. A week later, perhaps a bit conscience-stricken, he changed his mind again. The shifts in fortune bewildered the children.
They were on two prescription drugs, and one day they told me that they were beginning to feel better. Markie showed me that he could get his arms almost over his head without a great struggle, and Dové too. We wept and celebrated. It might have been true, it might have been the suggestive power of the hospital and the drugs—which still made it true. I didn’t care. I was desperate for good news. I needed to believe in a miracle cure nearly as much as they.
No one seemed to know when the Agbelis would leave the hospital. Christine was too much an African peasant woman to ask anything of a doctor or nurse. When I asked, even Asamoa didn’t know. So the days turned into weeks, and the Agbelis grew more and more used to their circumstances, and suddenly it was time for me to go home.
Having uprooted their lives, I had the sense of leaving behind a heavy, unmanageable obligation. I wanted to make sure that one of my friends would accompany Markie in the bush-taxi back to Lavié when it was time to leave (but who would take care of him once he was home? his father?). I wanted to give Christine enough money to refill their prescriptions (but in her village how would she buy the drugs? How would she get them to Markie in Lavié?). I wanted Asamoa to arrange for the tendon surgery (but how would they get back to Lomé for it? Where would they recuperate? And long after the surgery had become useless, who would feed them in their last years and weeks and days?). The doctor and the family told me the same thing: It’s not your problem. We’ll take care of it. But like an insomniac I tossed back and forth across the thin line between omnipotence and irrelevance.
Dové didn’t like being seen outside the room, so we said good-bye sitting on the bed that had become her home. This time she hugged me. She said that she’d dreamed of being in America with me: she was healthy there, and unafraid. Markie walked me to the dirt parking lot before he gave up and leaned against a support, waving, smiling broadly, letting me know that he would be fine. Christine walked out to the road and stood with me while I hailed a taxi. “It’s night,” she said. “Go home, be careful.” She braved a smile when I turned to wave, and then she went back into the hospital grounds where her children were waiting for her.
• • •
And now I am at my old task of piecing together the fragments of news that arrive from time to time. I sit in my study with a short-wave radio, its antenna wired to the outside of my house, and every morning at eleven I try to capture Radio France for reports about Togo, but they are sparse and grim. Kpatcha, a former student of mine who lives near the hospital, writes me once a month or so. “Markie and Dové will not be operated,” his first letter reported, in the English he learned from me ten years ago. “The doctor said that their body is physically tired to be operated. They have only to wait for the analysis from France before to be liberated. The medicine was very good for them. Markie and Dové put on weight. Their problem is to walk. The doctor’s proposition is to make them shoes so they can walk easily. Christine is waiting a letter from you to be sure that you have attain USA. She is become young and more beautiful than she was. I think she is free at hospital than the village. I think she has put away cares and become mentally free. I think they will be liberated soon.”
I wired several hundred dollars to Kpatcha. The day it was due to arrive at a bank in Lomé, Radio France reported that soldiers had ringed the building with tanks and were demanding that assets of theirs be released by the interim government. All the banks in the city had closed. Within a few weeks I got another letter from Kpatcha, this time in French. Somehow the money had made it through. “Markie is in Lavié and Dové is with her mother in Alokoegbé. They left the hospital in October. They are in good health but getting around is difficult for them. The doctors didn’t request the shoes as they’d said. There has been negligence on the part of the doctors. The doctors don’t want to tell the truth about the analysis that they’ve made. The problems are delicate about the health of the children. It is difficult to understand the position of the doctors. I think there’s a truth the doctors don’t want to say. They only told Christine to come back and see them on the 9th of December for the results of different analyses. You will be informed by my next letter. The children think continually of a cure. Christine thinks continually of a solution and cries for lack of money. She says that if she had money she would use it to find a solution to the health of the children. She was happy to see me in Alokoegbé.”
At Christmas, in the midst of a paralyzing general strike, Kpatcha wrote again in English: “The population is suffering. Some of them died by violence and sickness. Hospitals are no doctor. Normally Christine must come back to the hospital on 9th December to see the doctor but there is no lorry to travel. So I don’t see them since I brought them money.”
Lately I’ve been dreaming about Africa. I am in the dust and noise and confusion of a city where I have a vague but strong sense of danger, and where no one will speak with anyone else. I have contracted a disease and discover that it is muscular dystrophy. When I wake up, I know there is nothing I can do for any of them.
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April 01, 1994
35 Min read time