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[End Page 80]
My assistant, Boris, came flapping through my front door like an injured raven, one arm clasped to his side, the other flailing wildly. He was dressed all in black, head to toe, his nylon shirt sweat-pasted to his torso. Gobbets of red mud adhered to the hems of his trousers. He had been drinking; he moved sideways, unsteady, at an angle, with his head turned askew. His eyes were restless; he knew how unacceptable his message would be, and he wasted no time greeting me but came right out with what he had to say. Came out with it before he lost his nerve. [End Page 81]
"Madam, the family does not think you should keep paying."
He clamped his jaw around the words, spewed them out. He couldn't bring himself to look at me. His gaze swept along the floor, up the wall, across the ceiling. Down and up, back and around.
"Keep paying for what?" I was well aware of what he was trying to tell me but had no intention of making it easy for him. I wanted to hear him say the ugly words, to speak the rejection. The abandonment.
From six feet away I could smell the gin on his breath. Or the akpateshie.
"Jamilla," he explained. "The family does not think you should keep paying for her."
"I see." I did see. Because of that I pushed. "So Jamilla is better, then?"
"She is not better!" he exploded. Then, more softly, "She will not get better now." He murmured it sideways, addressing the wall like a shamed child.
He faced around with something close to anger, reminding me that Jamilla had been in the hospital for almost two weeks. All the doctors, he said, had just given up on her.
All the doctors. All two of them, both from Cuba. They'd been seconded to the town of Wa, in the northwest corner of Ghana, to pay off some kind of national debt incurred in the 1960s.
"Also the nurses." Boris sighed with relief at having delivered his message. He let out a long, slow breath, nearly a moan. His shoulders dropped, and he allowed himself to assume an appropriately funereal air. It was death, after all, that hovered behind his words.
"They have pushed her bed to the end of the ward," he continued.
This was a bad sign. There was no privacy on hospital wards in Wa. When patients were dying, their beds were shoved against an end wall to provide a modicum of seclusion, an extra six feet of isolation. There were, of course, no curtains, no private rooms. People died as they lived, in full view of everyone around them.
"I want to see her."
This was not quite true; I had little desire to become involved in yet another life-in-crisis-and-could-I-please-make-everything-right? But conscience pricked. Surely at least one visit was in order. The girl was Boris's niece. He and I had been friends of a kind for almost two decades, [End Page 82] and he had worked with me, occasionally, for years. Half trickster, intelligent, and exasperating, he'd been an invaluable accomplice in ethnographic escapades.
He knew me well enough to expect my anger.
Until that moment I had avoided the problem of Jamilla, not from a monetary point of view—I was taking care of her medical bills—but from a face-to-face perspective. I could have visited her at the hospital anytime in the previous two weeks but had been held back by experience. It wasn't a good idea to show interest, to jump to the rescue at the first alarm; there was so much need. I tried to keep myself as the person of last resort.
Ghana's early, Marxist-leaning governments had given the nation universal health care, but in the 1980s the World Bank and the IMF had put a stop to that. Now when someone fell ill, family members had to wrestle with medical bills...