This is my third trip to Africa, but not until this week did I really get to see the way most Africans live. In 1989 I spent eight hours in Tangiers, got held up three times and went running back to Spain w/my tail between my legs. Then in 1997 I spent a week in Cairo, which was my first solo trip into a third world environment in a wheelchair. (btw - 'Third World' has been labeled a derogatory term by many and is supposed to be replaced by 'Developing Nation' or 'Low Resource Environment'. But here in Ghana they say, 'Third World') I took an all-night bus from Tel Aviv and would have been totally screwed had it not been for the help of a German and a Cypriot who carried me up stairs to a guest house not far from Tahrir Square where the Arab Spring riots took place. Seeing the Pyramids was amazing, but I'll take a pass on the muggings.
This trip to Ghana, however is getting closer to what I'd envisioned all my life. First and most obviously EVERYONE here is black. And I'm not talking about a huge majority - I'm talking EVERYONE. In three weeks, aside from airports and hospitals I have seen exactly four white people. Two of them were French expats working an agriculture gig in Garu, and the other two were professional football players I saw yesterday at a charity football match at the Accra Sports Stadium (Michael Ballack and a Danish striker who's name I can't find) It's the most homogenous population I've ever experienced in my life. Even Denmark and Taipei have black communities. If there is a white community in Ghana, I missed it.
But even here in Accra, the capitol, everyone kept telling me I had to head north to see the real Africa. One thing I know about living in third world environments is that the cities are all pitts and the countryside can be magical. So it was with great pleasure that I booked a flight to the northern city of Tamale, about a four-hour drive from the Bakino-Faso border. But booking the flight was not as simple as going on-line and buying a seat. I had to go to the airport and find out which carrier would take someone in a wheel chair. Antrak, the first airline I spoke with flat-out refused because they didn't own an airplane lift. Starbow, the next company in line also refused, but this is where we (my Ghanian contact Gifty, a physical therapist, was with me) started pressing and telling them what they were doing was illegal. They asked me if I would be flying with a doctor (very common request for disabled persons at third world airports) to which I scoffed and Gifty stepped in assuring them I was quite healthy.
Eventually they allowed me to buy a ticket, but they told me I had to climb up the stairs of the plane by myself. When I showed up for the flight, I saw the lift that takes disabled passengers up to the big jumbo jets parked just outside the gate. When I asked why we didn't use it, I was told it was owned by the big airlines and it would cost $300 a flight to use. So instead I climbed up the stairs on my butt and slid along the floor of the plane to the first open seat in coach. Thank god I had good elastic in my sweat pants!
It was a short one hour flight, but the option of taking a bus would not have been very practical. It's a 30-hour trip that in recent years has been menaced by bandits who take everything - including the bus - and leave the passengers stranded. Lately the police have been waiting for groups of 100 cars to cross through the jungle and they move them in one slow caravan. So instead of riding magically through the jungle you are in a 20-hour traffic jam.
Tamale has a dinky airport with a huge runway, so although it can take big planes (doubles as an airforce runway) the actual airport has virtually no services. There is one computer, one clock and one big scrren TV showing BBC. And of course, no handicap lifts. So once more on my arse, along the plane, down the stairs and into my chair.
My contact in Tamale was Dr. Dziffa Ahadzi, a resident at the Tamale teaching hospital. I grabbed a cab into town and met her while she was giving an exam to an elderly patient. As soon as she was finished she gave me an extensive tour of the 'old' hospital which was in it's last days as a brand new and very impressive 2000-bed hospital would be opening on Friday. Nearly everything in the huge hospital complex was accessible so I rolled around exploring, while Dr. Ahadzi attended to other patients and students.
Now this 'rolling around' was quite simple but only because I am now rolling on a relatively new wheelchair. The chair I brought with me from Portland experienced yet another melt down, but this time it was quite serious. My left front wheel was continually loosening and impeding the large wheel, as well as forcing me nearly out of the chair. Gifty and I were directed towards a welder who said he could do a spot weld and fix the problem. We took the chair to him, but I was unable to observe the process. When he came back several of the main pieces were snapped in half and he informed me he thought he had the wrong kind of torch (not one for aluminum). So I took the pieces back, bought a few washers and rigged up a solution that temporarily appears to be holding. But I did NOT want to travel deep into Africa on a gimpy chair. So Gifty found a reasonable substitute and I've been riding on a borrowed chair for about a week. It's quite wide making most bathrooms inaccessible, but it's really stable and I'm not afraid of falling out when I see a curb.
The new chair was also riding in a much more agreeable city. Tamale has very little traffic and the roads are well maintained and dry. For the first time since leaving France nearly a month earlier, I actually did a workout. If I ever come back for an extended stay it will certainly be in Tamale, not Accra.
Dr. Ahadzi found a guest house that was a bit pricey and not at all accessible, but for two nights it was fine. It also had an American TV channel on the cable so after dinner I planted myself in front of the tube and mindlessly watched NCIS and CSI.
In the morning, another doctor picked me up and took me to the lecture hall at the teaching hospital. I was on the morning lecture itinerary along with an ophthalmologist from New Jersey. The ophthalmologist opened up with some graphic slides of eye operations that although quite gruesome, drastically improved hundreds of lives. I was up next and spoke to the group of 70 medical students and ten doctors about the goal of the IRF and why Andy and I started it. I then went into a practical talk about what happens when you are the victim of a spinal cord injury. I've given this talk to medical students and physical therapists in the past. Oddly enough the PT's are well versed in SCI, but the med students know nothing more than the anatomy. The actual devastating effects to the patient including bowel, bladder and sexual function are all news to them. Usually I finish up with a couple of slides from India, Turkey or some difficult area for SCI patients. But seeing as I was in the most difficult country I'd ever been to, I decided to leave those slides out.
After lunch I got to speak to a very dedicated group of physical therapists then conducted a series of with doctors and physical therapists. Eventually I got to go on the Internet for an hour before I had to say good by to Dr. Ahadzi and head back to the guest house. Although Tamale was quite different from Accra, it still was not the Africa I'd imagined. That would come in the morning.