Expat Life: My African Doctor

by Miss Footloose

I arrived in exotic Ghana puking my guts out. Not an auspicious beginning for a new expat life in West Africa, don’t you agree? But don’t worry, this was quite a while ago, the first time my prince and I lived in Ghana. (The second time was more recent, in Internet times.) I remember this unsavory event as one of my most memorable arrivals in a foreign country, and, I trust you know, I’ve done a lot of arriving and departing. Another arrival still vivid in my mind is here.

So, my man and I found our luggage on the belt and stood in line at customs. Our turn to have our suitcases inspected came as I was busy making good use of the barf bag taken from the airplane, one of several I had graced with my offerings on the trip over.

The custom official took one look at me and waved us through.

I was five months pregnant with our first child.

You may wonder what I was thinking going to live in Africa while pregnant, a continent away from family and friends. But it was my Life Path, my Fate, my Destiny, whatever you want to call it, so I went.

Soon after arrival I acquired my first African doctor. No, I do not mean a medicine man who kills white chickens and mixes up secret potions with the blood (a little saliva, some ashes, a dash of powdered bark — you get the idea). This man was a western-style physician, a gynecologist-obstetrician with an impressive string of initials behind his name, as well as the notation that he was a Fellow of the Royal College of Gynaecology and Obstetrics.

Doctor Kwarko, then, had received his education in England and had an excellent reputation in the expatriate community. At the time he was the only local ob-gyn man “approved” by the American embassy health unit, so there you have it.

Since the Ghanaian government had financed his medical education, Doctor Kwarko had done twenty-five years of government service in the barren north of the country (or so I was told). He now owned, in the capital of Accra, a brand-new private clinic, shining white and bright in the tropical sun. I reasoned that if you can practice modern medicine in the semi-desert for twenty-five years, under the most primitive conditions, no doubt, you’ve seen it all and done it all and you’ve got to be really creative.

Water is a precious commodity in the north of Ghana

Our daughter was born in Doctor Kwarko’s clinic on a Tuesday morning. I remember it well. I remember Doctor Kwarko very well. For one thing, he was one of the blackest people I have ever known – a deep, rich ebony black that made an impressive contrast with his white doctor’s coat. Only on this Tuesday morning he was not wearing his white coat.

Here I was, in the throes of labor and in he comes, wearing a white singlet, a white butcher’s apron and rubber boots. Don’t ask me why. He was quite a sight, and not one I had witnessed before. Rubber boots in the labor room? However, since I was rather occupied, I had no time to contemplate his bizarre appearance.

I was not having a good time. This birthing thing was not going quite according to the books I’d been reading. Not to bore you with the details and to make it short, I was knocked out and the baby was born with the help of forceps. I try not to picture the procedure. The image of a man wearing a butcher apron and rubber boots, sitting between my spread-out legs holding a huge clamp in his hands is not pleasing. But the gods were with me and all went well.

They never gave our daughter a little identification bracelet. She was the only white baby among a group of about eight newborns in the nursery. Not only was she the only white one, she was the only bald one. African babies are born with an enviable crop of hair. To tell you the truth, next to these brown beauties, my baby daughter, hairless and colorless, looked a bit pale and sick, which she wasn’t. Context is everything.

So that was the tale about the African doctor and his butcher apron.

baby fuzz

Here she is, 9 months old and still nothing but fuzz for hair. She wasn’t happy about having her picture taken, clearly.

Actually there is another little tale I’ll tell you here: Some time later, my nanny, the Ghanaian girl who helped take care of my baby, was in need of some medical attention for a minor problem of the female variety. Rose wanted time off to go to her home village, which would take her away from our household for at least two or three days. I had a better idea: She could consult the eminent Doctor Kwarko and I would pay for the visit, which was worth it, since she would be back in a matter of hours rather than days.

Rose, however, did not see things the way I did. She wanted to spend hours on a rickety tro-tro lurching across rutted roads to go to her home village.

Old Bedford Lorry

Tro-tro: An old Bedford lorry, (un)fortunately now extinct in Ghana. Painting by Kofi Aryee

Rose’s village boasted an American mission hospital staffed with white American physicians (one of whom was called Doctor Brown, I kid you not). She wanted an American doctor, not my excellent African physician to whom I had entrusted myself and my baby, the doctor “approved” by the American embassy, no less.

So, African Rose took off to her village to see her white American Doctor Brown, and of course her many relatives.

And so it goes in the minds of women.

* * *

Any interesting stories about doctors, births, babies? Hit that comment button.

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Oh, what a great story!

Both my kids are adopted from South Africa and came home sporting an amazing crop of luscious hair in comparison with all the pale bald Swedish babies…

Fi – I missed the word “adopted” the first time I read your reply, and I blinked at the implications…! I was very fair when I was young, but my son has brown eyes, brown curly hair and tans easily. I sometimes explain the difference away by saying it’s because he was conceived in Indonesia, which he was. It’s a bit awkward when people don’t see that I’m joking.

What an interesting story as always. I also had an African American doctor, but this time in Germany. When we arrived from South Africa, both my husband and I got a bad cold and after ascertaining where we came from (his English was quite bad as he had been in Germany for over 30 years) Dr Green told us we had “an African virus”! My husband colleague and wife who had taken a detour via Brasil, also had a cold, and were told they had “a South American virus”. Quite original and none of us really trusted his diagnosis that… Read more »

haha, I love that. The image of Rose going off to her village to see the trusted Western doctor.
I’ve seen my fair share of doctors wherever we’ve lived and it’s funny – before all our moves, if you had asked me, I would always have insisted on the “American-approved” one to make sure it was safe. Now I know that you go where the friends living around you go, no matter what nationality. We’ve had good ones and not so good ones, but it certainly didn’t have anything to do with anybody’s skin color:-)

I can do you hospitals, for the moment. I’ve just posted “Phoning Princess Margaret” on my blog, about our hospital in the New Hebrides, now Vanuatu. (Oh, there it is in the box below!) And I’m planning to do an item on being a house-father for six years, which naturally includes a couple of incidents of a child’s medical adventures. Being a man, of course I have experienced nothing remotely comparable to giving birth. Simply being present at a birth is traumatic enough, thank you. I persuaded my wife that once was enough, too! I’m glad for you, that you… Read more »

Ah, it’s a long story, Karen. I am something of a provocative figure in my little community, and tend to attract hate-mail from one segment of it. A post of mine in April 2011 called “One Angered Caymanian” includes a sample that illustrates the problem. Read it and you’ll see the problem! I can well do without that sort of thing.

Perhaps an early example of what’s now called “social proof?” You felt comfortable with a doctor recommended by your trusted circle (your embassy and the expat community) and so did she (her family and neighbours).

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