So, as I have mentioned in previous posts, my new novel that I am working on ( Drumbeats) is about Jess 18, who flees to escape her stifling family to Ghana as a volunteer teacher and nurse in the African bush. She’s on a gap year before going on to university and a career. The book is about love and loss, adventure and tragedy, and it’s the story of coming of age, growing up, and finding yourself.
I myself did actually spend a gap year in Ghana and taught at a school in the bush, so the setting is authentic.
The school I worked in was quite privileged, a secondary school, and many of the parents were wealthy by Ghanaian standards, professionals, doctors, politicians, engineers, etc. I was eighteen and not a trained teacher so it was often hair-raising. The pupils could easily become hysterical for very little reason, like a gecko running into the classroom, when they were in fact an extremely common sight. Then the girls would shriek and jump onto the tables. Several times there were snakes, sometimes dangerous species, slithering into the classrooms. It could be pretty un-nerving! But I loved teaching although it was hard work, and for years afterwards my former pupils kept in touch.
The most striking memories, though, are of the work I did in the bush villages around the school, at Kakomdo and Ebubonku. I took first aid and did what we now call “primary care”, basic nursing and teaching first aid to the villagers. Ghana was a very poor country with a low literacy level, and many families in the bush villages were living in great poverty, so the work was essential.
Many children in the bush suffered from kwashiorkor, or malnourishment and starvation. They also had tropical sores which attracted flies and quickly became infected in the African heat, so a large part of my job was to dress the tropical sores and teach families how to cope. If these wounds were left unattended the children eventually either became very ill, suffered blood poisoning or lost a limb. Infant mortality was high and I saw death there many times, and horrifying sickness. It was especially dreadful when the victims were young children, babies and toddlers. I tried hard to nurse the sick, tend the wounds and provide emergency care, without proper facilities and medicines. I worked hard to offer training, and scrounge equipment and supplies for medical care.
Malaria was a constant danger and I tried so hard to persuade the villagers to use the mosquito nets which I managed to rustle up for them, with a great deal of nagging to charity organisations. But they were often diverted to other uses. It was frustrating. Malaria pills, quinine, proved difficult to acquire for the villagers, they were like gold-dust. Many people relied on traditional medicine and practices to “protect” themselves and their children from the dreaded and ubiquitous mosquito.
Parents often painted their children with chalk dust and hung special beads around their necks “to ward off evil spirits”. It was a huge task to educate the families about hygiene, welfare and nutrition. A large number of the population lived in huts made of mud or adobe. They had no running water or electricity, just buckets of water collected from the village well (if they were lucky enough to have one) or from the river, and kerosene lamps for light. Cooking was done over open fires outside the huts in the blazing sunshine.
Meals were an education to me: groundnut stew with rice, chicken and fufu pounded in huge bowls with beaters, gari, yam, papaya, mango and coconut. Tropical flavours and so exotic to me at the age of eighteen in the 1960s.
My over-riding impression was that the people of Ghana, however poor and lacking in material things, were happy, joyous and generous. They would literally want to share their last crust with a stranger. And that was why it was important to try to nurse the sick children and treat their families with respect and dignity, even in the midst of squalor and poverty.
But I was in West Africa at a time of civil war and danger. I was caught, literally, in the midst of gunfire, in Upper Volta (now Burkina Fasso), in Mali and in Ghana itself. Many times I was in fear for my life. I looked down the barrel of a machine gun and felt weapons held at my throat. I was held captive for a time without food or water in the intense heat, wondering if I would ever see home again. And these experiences fed into my story, Drumbeats.
I chose the title because at night when my day’s work was done, I would stand on my balcony and look out over the bush, over the pawpaw and mango trees, palms and jungle vegetation, and listen to the talking drums, the dondo and the kpanlogo djembe, and wonder what messages they were sending between the villages. This was the memory which gave rise to my novel, Drumbeats.