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Sick in West Africa – and saved by a stranger

The life of a European volunteer in Africa is rich and rewarding. But along with many new tastes come many new bacteria, not to mention the fear of malaria or parasites. Christian Cummins, working as a volunteer journalist in the charismatically chaotic capital Accra, got sick and it ended up being one of the most life-affirming experiences he had in Africa. Here is an excerpt from his memoir “A West African Summer”:

Sadly, our little group of volunteers was gradually breaking apart as people left to get ready for the upcoming university year. In a few weeks I’d be in the green mountains of Austria. Amid the dust and traffic of Accra I had become obsessed with the idea of Alpine air and fresh running water. We decided we’d blow our budgets on one final slap up meal together in a Chinese restaurant in the Western section of town, Osa, the well-paved, well-lit district of four-wheel cars driven by Ghanaian businessmen and foreign diplomats. I was a place we rarely visited.

We’d been looking forward to the date for days, but shortly after lunchtime I had started to feel a bid dodgy. In order to leave plenty of space in my stomach I had forgone my daily portion of the filling street food, Wa-Chi, a carbohydrate bomb of rice, noodles, cassava and fiery pepper and tomato sauce. Instead I`d just taken a portion of roast potatoes that had been sizzling on a tiny low stove which, I decided later, was a little too close to the pavement and the adjacent open sewer.

I’d been feeling queasy ever since. The sewers seemed to smell more pungent that afternoon, the humidity seemed more oppressive and everyone seemed to be speaking too loudly. But I was looking forward to dinner with my friends so I ignored these warning signals and made my way to the restaurant. There were large tanks of fish and a spotless white tiled floor inside and the room was air-conditioned, a rare treat for us. All the volunteers were already sitting around a big round table and had already ordered. A polite waiter was hovering nearby so I quickly made my order and tried to join the boisterous end-of-term conversation. Yet suddenly and dramatically the whole room started to spin and my friends’ voices seemed muffled. I stammered an apology and staggered towards the toilets where I was violently sick.

I was in trouble. I kneeled there in a cubicle in the first pristine clean toilets I had found in months, resting my head on my hands on the toilet seat, feeling as if I might die. I was sweating but cold. I had almost fainted. Eventually I gathered my strength and shuffled back to the table where I was shocked by the concern in my friends’ faces. They all stopped talking and looked up at me. “My God, Christian,” said Jo, “You look as white as a ghost.” Suzie asked to help me home. I should have accepted but I felt I would be ruining everyone’s night so I tried to pretend that it was nothing serious and I’d take a taxi home alone. It was a stupid decision; the room was still spinning and the voices were still muffled.

Outside I vomited again, this time into an open sewer, then, after cleaning my mouth with a napkin from the restaurant that I had shoved in my pocket, I hailed a taxi. It was a clapped out car driven by an old, gaunt kind-eyed man with a soft voice who, when I told him the address, proposed the lowest price I’d ever been asked and whisked me away. He looked at me through the rear-view mirror with his sad eyes and thin face that folded into concerned lines. I don’t know why I remember his face so clearly – I could barely focus on anything – but I do. We were in a traffic jam and he chatted away with me in that sweet soft voice, asking how I was enjoying life in Ghana what I was doing there and whether I played football? All the time he took surreptitious glances at me in his mirror. He must have seen I was sweating because he kept winding and unwinding the window for me, making sure I got some air but didn’t get cold. By now even the windscreen seemed to be spinning and I was slumped in the back seat. At one point, still stuck in the traffic jam somewhere in the slum neighbourhood of Teshie, the foreboding warmth rushed up my throat. I gestured desperately and my driver pulled over. I dragged myself over to an open sewer and wretched my guts out. I remember the toxic smell of the bile, the acidic heat in my throat and then the stink of the sewer and the poisonous steam of hundreds of badly serviced vehicles stuck in traffic. This was misery.

Then I remember very little. I must have passed out. I remember half waking and noticing that the taxi was driving over the rough, axle breaking ground near our house on a road where brand-new cars refused to drive. I remember an arm around my shoulder and I remember feeling freezing under a river of sweat, I remember a door opening to our house and all the time that soft voice.

The next day I woke up feeling weak and disorientated but undeniably alive and jolly fat Julie, the owner of the guest house where I was living, was looking at me from the end of the bed like a cooing mother. “You gave us a shock,” she said, “but you will be just fine. I make you some warm tea.” I asked about the taxi driver. I hadn’t even paid him. “How did he know where I lived?” I had only named the junction at Brigade. We usually gave specific instructions when the taxi reached that junction: “down here, 5th on the right” etc. Julie didn’t know. He must have taken me to the turn off at Brigade as I told him and asked where a young white person might live. He’d asked Julie for the same ridiculously low price and, when she had paid him, wandered off into the night. He was my knight in tattered clothing and I always hoped I’d see him again one day and thank him properly, but of course, I never did. But it is my strongest memory of Ghana.

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