Friday, January 8, 2010

Eleven years ago today my life changed forever.

Eleven years ago on this day I was huge. My ankles resembled over stuffed sausages, my cheeks hid my eyes.

I sat on a wooden bench in the Trust Hospital of Accra, sandwiched between many others in my bloated condition. The front door of the lobby was ajar, the power was out and air-conditioning was a far off dream. I wore chaley-wote (flip flops) and a multicoloured boubou, a tent dress that held me and my little one in, barely containing us as the sweat trickled down my back, my arms, my rotund tummy.

The sounds of the busy street permeated the hot waiting room, honking of cars, shouts of street hawkers and clouds of gritty dust made their way in amongst us.

After the lobby-wide morning prayer where we were all asked to stand (health status permitting), each of us was sent from reception to another cash kiosk where your appointment must be paid for in cash before joining the queue. Once paid, with our receipts in hand, the hours passed while we waited, some in silence, some clicking their teeth in exasperation, some chatting quietly, brought together by their shared predicament. So many women, so few doctors.

I was a volunteer and the only non-Ghanaian, non-African, non black lady in the building, apart from a Russian nurse that I’d heard about and had only seen once in my numerous pre-natal check-ups. I was not anonymous. But I was used to it.

Nine months before that, I had come home from a typical day at work. For me it meant moving around within the bustling craft market, sitting and chatting with the wood carvers, the painters, the trinket pushers about their needs and opportunities.

I took a tro tro into Osu, and walked up from the main road to the compound I shared with my husband’s family and various tenants. 54 of us in all.

The ladies sat out front of the compound gate, by the small shop that had been set up by a tenant, selling cokes and sweets and tiny plastic wrapped portions of peanuts and sugar and laundry soap powder.

They watched me approach and called to me. When I reached the group they were debating and jostling and laughing and it seemed I had provided the subject of their conversation.

“Kobi mami, (the name given to me affectionately in Ghana, as the mother of Kobi)

“Your face is looking tired”

“Yes look at her eyes!”

“And the walk. It is true.”

Me, clueless: “Good afternoon. What is it?”

In unison after a few giggles, “You are pregnant!”

They were all convinced also, in that African way, that it was a boy.

It seemed absurd. The consensus out of nowhere, the thought, the idea. Despite not having felt very well over the past few weeks, I shrugged it off. Later in the evening, we sat in our ‘chamber-and-hall’, the two rooms we had in the compound, connected by a doorway with a curtain, the overhead fan incessantly whirring above us. I turned to my husband:

Me: “Can you imagine, Aunty Maude and Josephine were outside with the other ladies when I came home today. They all said I was pregnant!”

Husband: “Well I’m not surprised. You are. I can sense it. It is good news, no?”

Me, with my cultural baggage fully in hand, wondering a.) how the hell does everyone know but me, and b.) how can this be my husband’s reaction, if it is indeed true?!
I headed to the pharmacy the next morning for a test. They explained that if you bought the test, they would do the test right there, and off they sent me to the grimy little bathroom in the back hallway. They took my urine to another room and came back with the positive symbol on the little stick. And there it was. They told me in a matter of fact way.

“Please the test is positive.”

“You mean I’m really pregnant?!”

“Yes please. Do you need a receipt for the purchase?”

So I walked back out into the baking heat of the street, dodging between the open gutters underfoot and the hive of life around me. I felt in a bubble. I could hear nothing. The world was just me and my news. The truth that it took a test to convince me, but that my African in-laws had known by intuition.

I was at once amazed, frightened, ecstatic and numb. My baby boy was on his way.

In the hospital on January 8th, 1999 I was very aware that my due date had passed and that there were dangers involved. My little kicking baby was in the breach position, and after giving my ribs a bashing for the past couple months, had not turned inside me.

My choice to stay in Ghana through the pregnancy haunted me on that hospital bench on that hot dusty day. What if I’ve compromised my baby’s chances? But he was a Ghanaian baby. His father wanted us to be here. His aunty, my angel Aunty Maude was a nurse and she wanted us there. She had always made me feel secure, calm. The hospital was a two minute walk from the compound, at the foot of our road, right on the main strip. It was a highly recommended hospital. But today there was a power outage. There were not enough doctors. The patients, like cattle, filled the hot pen. What was I doing?! Taking this whole African thing too far. I wanted to call my mom, so many worlds away. I had chosen a life that held no familiarity, no reference point for everyone I’d known back home.

So this was me, and I had shuffled up the benches over the hours, closer and closer to the door of the doctor’s office, until it was my turn.

I went in and was greeted with the doctor’s broad smile. He seemed tireless.

“Madam Holli”

“The boy is stubborn! I thought we’d have seen you in the delivery ward by now!”

He helped me up onto the rusty examination table and felt around with his warm hands.

“Ok, madam. He has not moved. The time is late. We will have to do Ceserean birth. You choose – tomorrow or the next day? I will make the booking.”

Oh my God. I had never envisaged a full operation in Ghana! The hospitals, the risks! The absurdity of choosing your child’s birthday?!

“Please, can my husband and aunty come in to the surgery? Will I be awake?”

“Sorry, no and no. This is a serious surgery and visitors cannot be permitted. They can visit you afterwards, during visiting hours.”

I knew right then this was not going to be like any of the C-section births I’d heard of in Canada. What happened to bringing your own music in, hubby with you, holding your hand, family in the waiting room to burst in a few minutes after the birth?!

My pulse pounded in my temples. There was no time, no other option in sight. I couldn’t run home to Canada. I’d have to trust this doctor and face this within the framework I found myself in. Baby nudged me back out of my paranoid frenzy, from within.

Me: “Tomorrow please. What time should I arrive?”

Doc: “You have to stay now, I will have them book you into the ward”.

I’d need to bring my own bed sheets, toilet paper, drinks, food, soap and towels, on top of all the normal things like newborn diapers and a carry home outfit for the baby….

My head was spinning. I told him my house was very close and I needed to go get my things.

So I walked back out into the baking heat of the street, dodging between the open gutters underfoot and the hive of life around me. I felt in a bubble. I could hear nothing. The world was just me and my news.

I was at once amazed, frightened, ecstatic and numb. My baby boy was on his way.

To be continued...
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Expat From Hell said...

Your bravery and courage are inspiring. I am hanging on this story, Holli! Don't wait too long before the next installment! EFH


I'm a lurker on your site but I had to tell you this particular post moved me. When I was in GHana I had an opportunity to visit, for just a short moment, the hospital. I saw the benches, the sick and weary...sitting in the heat fanning themselves and I wondered what it would be like to have to endure that. You just told me. I admire you and your strength and ability to keep an open mind.

LMJ said...

wow!! I can't wait till I read the rest!

This brought tears to my eyes as I felt your worry. I was scared to death to give birth, and I did it here in America.

I gave birth 3 months ago, and I'm still trying to forget the contractions. I had everyone with me. I cannot imagine being a lone in another country.

Hans and Shinta said...

You are one good writer, girl!! WOW! I can't wait to read the rest of the story.

OdetteO said...

Thank you for sharing yours & your son's story. I can't wait to read the rest!

Anonymous said...

Best Post ever....moving story...please, please write soon....can't wait to read more.

yummymuddas said...

you captivate us with your writing Ms Holli, I always wait for what is to come next. However this particular story has a special place in my heart as I am sure it will for many, his African lullaby still plays in my head (however I am sure the words are messed up but the tune is there lol) I am truly blessed to have this memory one I will cherish always.
I now sit on pins andneedles awaiting your continuation of this beautiful love story you are so passionately sharing with all of us!
We miss you here in Canada but you’re a strong woman who made the right choices as they were your destiny, cherish them always and never look back! Now....hurry up with the rest of the story would ya! xoxo
your friend always Ro

DL Hammons said...

That was beautifully written and hynotically compelling. Making us wait long for the next installment would be just plain cruel!


Char said...

you are a very brave and strong woman

Debbie said...

amazing story so far..what a journey..can't wait to read the rest!

Derik said...

Good story. I'm excited to see how the next part goes. Very pronounced way to use repetition, and effective, I think.

Elisabelle said...

I can't wait.....

Expat mum said...

Gosh - it's bad enough having your first baby in breach but to be having it in a place everyone assumes is not to the same standards......
Can't wait to hear the next part.

yny said...

Wow! What an amazing story. I'm Ghanaian and I'd be nervous about giving birth here. You are one brave woman :)

Rachel said...

Love your blog. This part about your experience at a Ghana hospital at such a pivotal moment in your life is especially interesting.

I just started this travel blog for women and I'm collecting photos from women travelers like you. Submit a photo of yourself in an interesting place in Ghana and some tips for other women travelers who are going there, and we'll link back to your blog.

Visit our blog: and get in touch at:

Looking forward to hearing from you,

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Kaela said...

I too live in Ghana and am married to a Ghanaian. Your story really resonated with me. A year ago, our son was born my csection in the US after I was pushed by my husband and in laws to go home for the birth. It ended up being a very dangerous birth. I always kind of wonder if we would have survived the birth if we had stayed in Ghana or if the birth would have gone better if we had decided to stay in Ghana like I wanted. Thankfully we are all not happy and healthy and back in Ghana. Thank you for sharing your experience.

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