By Rebecca Czekalski
Humanist Service Corps Volunteer
The people in my life who know me have always told me that resiliency is among my strongest traits. In my family, we refer to it as being “German stubborn” because my mother’s father’s family hails from Germany and every last one of us is stubborn to the teeth. If you want to get me to do something, tell me I can’t do it.
Education was not highly valued for anyone among the Independent Fundamental Baptist movement. We are mainly lower to lower middle class, and most men work in the trades – carpenters, plumbers, roofers, car salesman, and the like. Women are not encouraged, and are often actively prevented, from getting an education. My first failed courtship told me that I would never be smart enough to have a bachelor’s degree. Three years later, I mailed his mother a copy of my BSN diploma. I distinctly remember being told as a young teen that I would never be more than a wife and mother, and that education would be wasted on me. I now have three master’s degrees. I was told I would never make it to Korea and was not smart enough to learn a foreign language. I taught biology and English is Korea for five years, did tuberculosis work there, and became fluent in the language.
Telling me I can’t do something is never a good idea, because once you engage my “German stubborn” I will work 20 years to prove you wrong. I remember being asked in the interview process for the Humanist Service Corps (HSC), “what would make you quit this project?” and replying, “Nothing. I decide when I am done.”
That being said, I got to wondering recently about resiliency and the ability to carry on in spite of intense hardships. Working on the health screening project in Kukuo village for the last several months, I have had the opportunity to form some wonderful relationships with several of the residents of Kukuo. There are two women in particular who have had a huge impact on how I view the world. It is the resiliency in the face of unimaginable grief and trauma that really drew me to them. As we have visited and gotten to know one another through multiple translators over the last few months, I have stood in awe of the “German stubborn” that these amazing Ghanaian women possess.
Fatima was the first resident of Kukuo that I met, way back in September. Matan Gould introduced me to her when I went out with him one week to fetch water for her. Fatima was 94 years old at the time, and was struggling to get enough water to meet her daily needs. Per Matan’s promise to her, someone from HSC has fetched water for Fatima every week since September. Usually, it has been me with the assistance of a moto, because it is amazingly difficult to fetch water by walking and carrying it.
Fatima has been in Kukuo as a victim of witchcraft allegations for more than 20 years. Fatima comes from a polygamous community and another wife of her husband had a son tragically die in a moto accident. This wife accused Fatima of using magic to kill her son. Fatima fled to Kukuo, leaving behind her son and all her family. Her hope and what keeps her going is a desire to be united with her son and grandchildren. Her hopes were high when she was targeted for reintegration earlier this year. Unfortunately, her village refused to allow her to return, even all these decades later. Moving her son and his family to Bimbilla was explored, but is currently on hold due to difficulties in helping him find reliable employment.
Fatima turned 95 in April. Like most Ghanaian senior citizens, Fatima’s legal identification, in her case, an insurance card, lists a birthdate that is more an approximation than anything else. She could truly be anywhere between 75 and 95, and no one has any way of knowing. When I came out to give her a gift of a rooster and a hen to go with the brood of chicks she already had, she showed me one of the ways she holds on to hope. One of the very few times her son visited her in Kukuo over the years, he brought her a small painted pot. Despite being very poor and having only one other pot, a study cast-iron one, Fatima has refused to use her painted pot from her son. She keeps it so that she can use it for the first time when she cooks him dinner in his home when she returns to live with him. Seeing that pot among her things and what it represents gives her something to hold on to as life thwarts her dreams at every turn.
With the help of an interpreter I told Fatima about writing this piece and gained her permission to tell her story. She agreed. Fatima said she liked what was written about her after we read her the entire piece. Fatima said, “if she is ‘German stubborn’ then I am ‘Ghanaian stubborn.’” I asked if she wanted to add anything about how she keeps going with all that has happened in her life. She said that having people who are on her side means the world to her and helps her get by. Before HSC started working in Kukuo, Fatima did not feel supported by anyone. She felt ostracized and invisible. Having someone care enough about her well being to come and fetch her water every week was a reminder to her that she is supported and valued. Since December, the family of one of the Kukuo Health Screening Volunteers has adopted Fatima. This family now makes sure that she has enough water on top of the water that I fetch for her, and also that she has enough to eat. They even buy her firewood from time to time when she is too tired to go to the forest to gather wood and carry it home. After 20 years in Kukuo, she finally has supportive people by her side.
The other woman I have really gotten a chance to get to know is Memunatu. Memunatu is also a victim of witchcraft accusations. When Memunatu’s husband died, her sister-in-law accused her of witchcraft. Memunatu retained her innocence, protesting fiercely that she had nothing to do with her husband’s death. Her declarations of innocence were of no avail, as she had to run from the town that very night with a mob on her heels. Memunatu’s daughter was convinced of her mother’s innocence and fought against the accusations until she, too, found herself at risk of being thrown out of the village. Memunatu’s daughter convinced her husband to move the family out to Kukuo to help support Memunatu. Memunatu’s sister joined them when she feared she would also be the victim of witchcraft accusations. They have all built a life in Kukuo together over the last 30 years, and have become accepted within the community. Memunatu’s son-in-law is the town fitter (motorcycle repair man). Four years ago, Memunatu was walking through the courtyard that connects her mud hut with the mud huts of her sister and daughter. She stumbled and fell, breaking her hip. She has not been able to stand or walk since that day.
I met Memunatu when one of the Kukuo Health Screening Volunteers was unable to get her height and weight because it hurt too much for her to stand. I went to go see what was wrong with her, and why she was having so much pain and difficulty in bearing weight. When Memunatu fell, her family was unable to get her any healthcare. She does not have insurance, and was in too much pain to get to the health clinic, which would only have sent her on to Bimbilla. Because of this, her broken hip was not treated and healed poorly, leaving her unable to stand or bear weight. Having hip replacement or repair surgery now would most likely kill her. Memunatu had been carried to the shade of a nearby tree and placed there by her daughter every day, before the daughter went to the farm. Her daughter would then carry Memunatu back into her hut every evening upon the daughter’s return.
Memunatu and I began discussing what would make her quality of life better. She desperately wanted to be able to move around while her daughter was at the farm, but a wheelchair would cost more than her family would make in an entire year between their farming and moto repair business. HSC began looking for a wheelchair for Memunatu. I had initially suggested a hand-crank wheelchair for her, and while there was some concern about her being strong enough to use it, HSC began to explore this option. I designed a program to strengthen Memunatu’s arms using water bottles filled with sand in place of traditional weights, which are unavailable in northern Ghana without special ordering them from Accra. HSC found a man in Tamale who makes hand-crank wheelchairs, but Memunatu’s application was rejected due to her age. She is 84, according to her identification card, but this could mean anywhere from early 70s to early 90s. There is no way to know for sure.
Being rejected was a huge setback for Memunatu, who was very excited about the possibility of a wheelchair allowing her to regain her mobility. HSC began exploring other options, such as used wheelchairs from hospitals. Our medical supplier from Tamale knew a man who sold wheelchairs, including commode wheelchairs. I went back to Memunatu and we discussed what would be her priority in wheelchairs – commode, hand-crank, or hospital-style. We had ruled out used wheelchairs after seeing their condition. Memunatu had never dreamed of a commode wheelchair, and after looking at pictures and talking about all of the possible advantages and disadvantages, she decided that a commode wheelchair would best meet her needs. I asked family and friends to donate to getting this wheelchair in lieu of getting me a birthday gift, as HSC being a non-profit cannot solicit donations for any one specific person. Fortunately, my family and friends were very generous, and I was able to deliver Memunatu’s wheelchair within two weeks of her making a final decision on the style. Memunatu is now rolling around town to visit her neighbors of thirty years, and no longer has to wait for her daughter to return from the farm to take her to the bathroom. The children of Kukuo have started taking turns pushing Memunatu around in her wheelchair.
I recently showed Memunatu this piece and asked her permission to tell her story. She agreed, and said she was grateful her story has had as happy an ending as it has. She knows many other women who were not supported by their families and died alone and lonely in Kukuo. She said she is grateful to have her family with her and is happy that HSC is willing to try to make her life easier. She loves having her wheelchair after four years of forced solitude. I asked her if she has anything she wants to add about resiliency or how she finds the strength to get through each day. She asked, “What alternative is there?”
Both of these women are amazing examples of strength, fortitude, and resiliency. They have managed to hold on to hope and to rebuild their lives after having lost so much. They are a testament to the bonds that support humans in our time of need. One theme that underpins that hope of both women is the relationships that have given them strength in their darkest hours. They show us the power of human interconnectedness and the need to support one another. Or as Memunatu would say, “What alternative is there?”