This is Africa

I had been in Accra, the capital of Ghana, for just over a month, working on a documentary film project in a slum just outside of the city centre. One of the largest and fastest-growing cities in Africa, Accra was a city that constantly excited and challenged the senses.

I generally walked the same route every day that took me past a vacant piece of land filled with building rubble, rubbish, and occupied by squatters. One day I noticed a man lying on his back on the land, not far from the footpath where I was walking. Dressed in rags, he was not much more than a living skeleton, staring at the sky with glazed eyes.

Confused and helpless I continued walking, my mind attempting, but unable to comprehend what I had just seen.

Who was this man? How long had he been lying there? Why was no one helping him?

For the next few days I continued walking the same route, and each day the man was there, lying in exactly the same position. I could see that he was now muttering incoherently, and occasionally his limbs would flail out uncontrollably.

This was quite a busy street, and there was a continual flow of foot-traffic. Street vendors were selling their products literally only a few metres from this man … but everyone seemed oblivious to his presence.

I was constantly being challenged by the poverty that surrounded me, and the hopeless situation faced by the many homeless, poor and the insane. But this was different. This man was dying – severely dehydrated and starving to death in full view of thousands of people who were doing absolutely nothing. And here was I doing exactly the same … absolutely nothing.

I approached the street vendors and people around the area, asking them how we could get this man to a hospital. But no one had wanted to help me. I was basically ignored by everyone and was told that I shouldn’t worry about it.

I was alone and angry, and really didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t believe that people could go about their daily business just a few metres from a dying man and do nothing.

I continued to walk this daily route for about another week, and each day the man was there, lying in the same spot, slowly dying. Each day I promised myself that I would stop and try to help the man, but each day I found myself making another excuse to continue walking.

But one morning as I walked, I saw that the body was motionless – the man was lying on his side, his face turned to the ground. I thought he was dead.

I rushed back to the hostel where I was staying and returned with one of the local hostel staff. The man’s clouded eyes were open but motionless, his body was covered in flies, and small red ants were feeding from the numerous open wounds he had all over his body. Upon closer inspection however, we could see his chest slightly raising and lowering – somehow he was still alive.

There was a social-worker staying at the hostel, a local Ghanaian man named Edem, so we ran back to see if he could advise us on what we could do to help this man. Edem was shocked when he saw the man’s condition. He runs a local centre for HIV orphans, but he told me later that he has never experienced anything quite as horrific as this.

I knew we needed to get this man to hospital quickly, but I didn’t realise how difficult this was actually going to be. “You can’t just call an ambulance,” Edem replied to my very obvious question. “This is Africa.”

The only way to get this man to hospital was in a car, but Edem was extremely reluctant to use his car, and for good reason. “If he dies in my car and we arrive at the hospital with a dead body, I will be accused of murder.” I couldn’t believe it, and I told him so. “This is Africa” he again replied.

He also told me that if you took someone to hospital, it was your responsibility to pay the hospital admission fees, plus all medical costs.

I began to realise that there were many reasons why the people that I had approached hadn’t wanted to help. Perhaps I wasn’t fully aware of the reality that these people find themselves in, involved in their own daily struggle just to survive, to feed themselves and their families. They may have wanted to help a dying stranger, but they first need to help themselves.

Edem told me that the only possible way to get this man to hospital was to go to the police, and get them to take him to the Police Hospital. So we drove to the nearest police station, which was not much more than a run-down concrete shack.

Edem started to explain the story to the disinterested officer. Not understanding the local language, I just nodded my head in agreement. Edem then changed his language to English, “he is almost dead – he is 99% dead.” The officer then asked “so he is not dead?” Edem repeated “No, he is 99% dead.” Never could I have expected to hear the words that were about to come out of the officer’s mouth – “If he is not dead, then we can’t help you.”

I couldn’t believe it. This made absolutely no sense to me. As we walked back to the car, my mind was spinning trying to work out exactly what had just happened. Obviously the police didn’t want to get involved in a case with a living person, as they would be required to take responsibility for him and the potential risks if he died on the way!

We went to a second police station. Again Edem told the story about the man being 99% dead, and again the response was exactly the same. We waited at the station for almost an hour, trying to convince anyone that would listen that this man needed their help. Just as I was about to give up, a senior police officer walked into the station, distinguishable by his dark green uniform. I decided to give it one last chance and told him our story…

He explained that it would be impossible for the police to help us, particularly because they didn’t have any money to pay for the hospital fees. I told him that I was willing to pay for all of the hospital costs, which gave him no more possible excuses to say no. With that, he ordered two younger officers to go with us, to help us get the man to hospital.

We drove back to the dying man, and attempted to stop any passing buses or taxis to take the man to the hospital, but nobody wanted to help us. Realising that the only way to get the man to hospital was in Edem’s car, we somehow managed to lift him onto the back seat. Edem and I got into his car in absolute silence, and the police followed us in a taxi.

The stench coming from the man was incredible. It was the smell of death, combined with weeks of stale urine and human waste. I will never forget the trip to the hospital. Edem drove with his foot heavily planted on the accelerator, his hand permanently on the horn, and his face almost pressed up against the windscreen – the tension in the car was incredible.

We arrived at the Police Hospital, and loaded the man onto a trolley. He was taken away, while Edem filled out the hospital paperwork. We paid the admission fee, then Edem had to leave to go back to his waiting family. I was now on my own.

I sat and waited, and after some time someone began calling “David Edem, David Edem”. I slowly realised that this was being directed at me, and walked up to the counter. I was given paperwork to sign, and saw that Edem had written the man’s name as “David Edem”. He later told me that they forced him to make up a name for the man, so he decided to combine both of our names – from that moment on, the unnamed man was referred to as David Edem.

I walked to an open area behind the hospital, where David Edem was being scrubbed down – washed of his weeks of neglect and abandonment. Looking at him lying naked on a stretcher, a living skeleton covered in wounds and welts, I started having my first doubts about whether I had actually done the right thing by trying to “save” him …

He was taken back into the hospital, and placed naked onto a rubber mattress. It was then that I was further confronted by the realities of life here. The hospital provided basically nothing -I had to volunteer to buy nappies and bed sheets, and was then given a long prescription of required drugs to buy from the pharmacy.

At least this provided me with a well-overdue moment of light relief. I handed the prescription over the counter, and waited as a pile of medicine was returned my way. Looking down at one of the boxes, I saw it was an “anal suppository”. Right at that moment the pharmacist asked me “Will you be administering the medicine to the patient?” I couldn’t help myself … “I certainly bloody hope not!” I was met with a blank and confused stare.

I returned with the medicine, and handed it to the nurse. I looked down at David Edem lying in the bed, and wondered if it would be possible for a human being to survive after being through as much as he had. I asked the doctor this question directly, and his response was “This we can’t know, it depends on the will of God.”

The will of God? The fact that most conversations would inevitably lead to religion was something that I was having difficulty getting used to in Ghana. “But this is a hospital, with doctors, and medicine. What does the will of God have to do with anything?” Again, I only received a blank stare …

This routine continued for 5 days. Each morning I would go to the hospital for a couple of hours to see David Edem and buy whatever medicine was required. I would ask the doctors about his chances of survival, and each day I was told that it was up to the will of God.

My imagination began to run wild. I would imagine David Edem fully recovered – a healthy and functioning human being. Maybe this was just an attempt to disguise my personal guilt of having left him suffer for so many days before I attempted to get him to a hospital, or my social guilt from being born privileged, middle-class and white.

But whatever it was, these scenes that I conjured up in my imagination were smashed each morning as I returned to the hospital to see David Edem lying on the hospital bed. He was naked apart from a nappy, staring blankly at the ceiling through clouded eyes, and from his mouth came the incessant chattering of a mad man. They had tied his arms and legs to the bed with dirty rags, to stop his limbs from flailing involuntarily.

At night while back at my hostel, I began to question exactly what I was doing, and what my motives were for doing it. Who was David Edem? Where was his family? Did he even have a family? How did he come to be lying in the middle of an empty block, slowly starving to death? In Ghana it was still quite common for people to take the law into their own hands, and many times criminals were set upon by the public and lynched. Perhaps David Edem was a criminal that had been badly beaten and left for dead?

Perhaps I was attempting to save the life of a thief … a murderer … a rapist … But what if he wasn’t a criminal? What if he was a loving father, a loyal husband, an honest man … Did it really matter who David Edem was? Was his life worth any less if he was a criminal rather than a loving family man?

But I didn’t have to concern myself with these questions for too much longer. When I arrived on the sixth day I was greeted by an empty bed. David Edem had passed away during the night, and they had taken him to the hospital morgue.

I felt totally numb – this was not how the story was supposed to end. Though I could not imagine how a human being might have recovered from the condition that he was in, I had always maintained hope that he would somehow survive.

The doctors told me that he had passed away due to severe starvation and dehydration. Basically, his entire body had just shut down.

I was taken to see the head of the hospital, and he told me that unless the family came forward to claim the body, David Edem would be buried in a mass grave with all of the other unclaimed bodies. He said that there was a much better chance of the family coming forward to claim a body once a patient had died. Alive they must pay for all hospital bills and medicine, but when the person was dead, they could hold a funeral and would actually be given money by family and friends.

A human being here is worth more dead than alive.

I left the hospital with a thousand doubts and a thousand questions. I was sad, angry and confused. I couldn’t begin to imagine the suffering that David Edem had endured in the last phase of his life.

And what part had I played in this? I had walked past a dying man for over a week, and done absolutely nothing. And then when I finally did manage to get him to hospital, had I allowed him to die in dignity, or just extended his suffering by another 5 days?

I guess in life we just do what we think is “right” at the time. We must make decisions and deal with the consequences.

RIP David Edem