The African Lady With A Sideways Eye

It was 1996 , yet, twenty years later, I still see her face, her sideways eye, as she looked at me from two directions, regardless of what direction she turned her head.

I have been awake since 3:55 AM re-reading a book by a friend, Rob Baker, (Click link) an ethnomusicologist. Reading his stories about travel and work in Benin and Togo brought back a flood of old West African memories. I imagined myself in the Land Rover with him, and could see vividly what he was describing enroute, or in the villages as he describes what he is seeing.

We have many idealistic stories to tell about the resilient West African people. They are true, and reflective of any human experience. West Africa is an amazingly vibrant place, filled with exciting people. When Rob told a story of recording two elderly women as they taught some traditional cultural song rhythms the younger people were forgetting, I put the book down as some of my own memories flooded back.

Memories of three elderly ladies filled my mind. I’ll be honest, these are memories I struggle with.  I have never put these stories on paper to my recollection. But I have two sad stories, and one of hope, to share. I will break them up over three posts.

If you are looking for a African glory story, better walk away right now.

When we first came to FrenchWest Africa in 1995, we were taken under the wings by several seasoned pro’s deeply experienced in working isolated places for most of their lives. We first arrived to Ivory Coast, West Africa, on a Tuesday, having never been to Africa before, and on Saturday I was in the bush sleeping in a mud hut for the weekend with Milton Clark.

One of those early weekends  I was also in an Akkie (Attie) village, due South of Abengourou,  on the south west bank of the (K)Comoue  River, for a week with Lew and Vida Cass for a multi village conference. But this is not the story I wish to share today.  When packing to head out of the bush, Vida told her husband Lew that she needed to stop in a certain camp on the way out,  to check on a lady.

Traversing the forest roads, we eventually arrived at a small village where we stopped. Vida Cass grabbed her medical bag saying she would not be long (She was a trained nurse), but asked me to come with her, while Lew waited in the loaded car. We weaved through small huts eventually approaching a small one room home. “Ko-Ko” (Verbal equivalent to Knock Knock), we called out as we entered the courtyard. A few seconds later an elderly women, whom we obviously stirred from an afternoon rest, emerged from the dark doorway. The closer she came, the more horrified I became.  She sat us down, greeted us  in Attie (not knowing a word of French, and of course not English in French West Africa) , and I tried with all my might not to show on my face the shock or horror I was experiencing. This elderly woman would certainly get enough of those expressed looks, she did not need mine as well. Nothing can prepare a new international worker like me for these extreme sights. Nothing!

I sat there as Vida checked her over, put drops in her eyes, ointment on open sores, and had her drink down some pain killers.

She had head and brain tumors of some kind. The left side of her face was affected dramatically with her neck showing a protruding ball that pushed out almost five inches from her ear down to her shoulder. The tumors had also  pushed her nose out several inches, and it was now on a mound with her nose beginning to turn sideways to the left. Her left eye also bulged two inches forward out of her skull, long since past the socket, and that too was turned permanently to the left. She could no longer see straight ahead with that eye, only sideways. When she blinked it, it put shivers down my spine.

Eventually a neighbor lady saw us there, came over to help translate from French to Attie for Vida. Via her translation we learned of the sever pain from headaches she was experiencing.  Vida left another small stock of eye drops, and pain killers to help her suffering. But it was too late to do anything permanent for this precious soul. To top it all off, her son only trusted traditional medicine. He would get upset upon finding western medicine left by Vida. He would toss the medicines out. His neighbor lady confirmed that he was upset about her last visit. So this neighbour was now the secret medicine holder, who slipped over each day when the son  was gone, to administer drops, or pain killers on days that were exceptionally unbearable. That lady was suffering, and there was nothing any of us could do for her, little her son would permit us do for her.

This is what we refer to as bush worldview, bush culture, bush realities. All I did that day, and on a visit several months later, was pray in my mind as I helplessly watched Vida do what she could under such circumstances.

Frankly, I am embarrassed to write this. Such a sad response….  But I will hold on to Richard Rohr’s words.

“The ego doesn’t want to surrender….There is such freedom in no longer pretending to be something we’re not.” ~Richard Rohr

However, I prayed for three things. I prayed for her son not to  hear of our visits, or at least not to discover the medicines hidden next door. Then, I prayed for peace, contentment, and hope for her soul.  Finally, I concluding the prayer in my mind with a request for a speedy, merciful, and pain free death.  Some prayer, Eh? It was not a clean or eloquent silent prayer, how could it be when given on the fly in the face of such hardship?

It sounded more like this.

Dear God, please do not let her stupid, misunderstanding son find these medicines and toss them out again.  God, give her your peace and hope in her soul for the time she has left. Oh God, please take her , will you take her quickly, please?

It was 1996 , yet, twenty years later on, I still see her face, her sideways eye, as she looked at me from two directions, regardless of what direction she turned her head. Triggered because of Rob Bakers book today.

Life is a bitch some days.  You know it, and I know it.  However, rural Africans are still living a medical hell like we have not seen for a hundred years.

That eye, that mirrored a precious living soul, will never be forgotten .

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