Report by Manasseh Azure Awuni, November 2011
A boy in the hospital bed
Kwadwo Njorfuni does not look like someone who will survive another day. His breath seems to be failing; and as he struggles to breathe, you can count all his ribs from a distance. But the thirteen-year-old boy, who is paralysed from his waist downwards, has defied death and endured suffering with peerless stoicism. He even has the hope of going back to school one day.
kwadwo’s ankles and knees are draped in white bandages soaked with discharge from his sores. As his father turns him over on the bed to give a clear view of what he calls the “decay” of his lower back and buttocks, he writhes in agony as the rags which cushion him are all soaked and stuck to his skin. A catheter is also inserted into him to drain urine from his bladder since he cannot walk to the washroom.
He has been in the hospital for four months now and though the medical authorities speak of some improvement in his condition, his sores look far from healed. The health authorities here say they do not have the capacity to work on the cause of his paralyses – a fractured spine. So, unlike other patients who see improvements in their conditions, Kwadwo and his family only hang on to faint hope- an expectation of some miracle.
“Sometimes, I wish my son never stepped into the classroom. I would have preferred a son who could neither read nor write to the suffering Kojo is going through now,” Mr. Njorfuni Wajah, Kwadwo’s father, says with a vacant and distant stare as if trying to see beyond the walls of the hospital ward, back to the day it all started. It is a day he dreads to remember, but which he cannot forget.
The Banda Tragedy
Njorfuni Wajah did not go to farm on Friday, November 21, 2008. Quite apart from the fact that the dry season had set in and there was not much work to do, Friday is Njorfuni’s “bad day.” For many people with similar traditional beliefs, such days are sacred; they neither fish nor farm. On that fateful morning, Njorfuni Wajah decided to meet a friend at the market square of Banda, a town in the Krachi West District of the Volta Region. His son, Kwadwo, had eaten his breakfast of rice bought from a nearby vendor and had left for school.
Sahadatu Ibrahim, a senior high school leaver, was the Class Three teacher at Banda English Arabic Primary School in November 2008. There are only two trained teachers in the school – the head teacher and his assistant. The head teacher does not teach, so the fate of most children of this school is left in the hands of pupil-teachers and volunteers from the community. On that Friday morning, the Class Three teacher had just finished marking the class register and was on her way to submit it in the office when the unexpected happened.
“It took all of us by surprise,” says Yeyie Sei Selisah, the assistant head teacher. “It had not rained in a long time. Neither was there a storm that day. All we saw was that the walls collapsed.” The walls were obviously weak, he admitted.
Why the building collapsed or how it collapsed, however, did not matter. What mattered most were the lives of the pupils, as teachers and older pupils made frantic efforts to rescue the victims. They were swift, but too late to save all of them.
One pupil, Godwin Ayensu, 11, who sat near the collapsed wall, died on the spot. Another pupil, Sumaila Labil, fell into coma. Ten pupils, including Kwadwo Njorfuni and Sumaila Labil, had to be rushed to safety. Unfortunately for the children, the road from Banda to Krachi was (and still is) very deplorable and the absence of an ambulance meant that they had to make do with an equally deplorable “Benz bus.”
“Kwadwo did not look injured. No part of his body was bruised, and since he was not crying, we thought his was not as serious as the rest. For three days, the doctors saw nothing wrong with him, except that he said he could not sit or stand,” Kwadwo’s father recounts. “It was on the third day when I pressed my hand against his back that I realised his backbone had a problem.”
Health authorities at the Krachi Government Hospital said the extent of injuries sustained by six of the children, including Kwadwo and Sumaila, could not be treated there so they referred them to the Volta Regional Hospital in Ho. But the Krachi Hospital had no ambulance so they had to send for an ambulance from Ho. The ambulance arrived after four days, the seventh day after the accident. Sumaila was still unconscious.
Injured Children abandoned
Kwadwo’s father says no official of the Ghana Education Service (G.E.S.) or the district assembly accompanied parents of the injured children to Ho. And since the parents were not financially prepared, they became stranded when the Volta Regional Hospital again referred them to the Korle-Bu Teaching Hospital in Accra.
Mr. Kwaku Larbi, a presenter on GBC’s Volta Star Radio, says the plight of the children reached the station through someone and the station decided to appeal for funds to assist them. Kwadwo father says an old friend he met in Ho hinted him about possible help if the media were brought in, but the situation was so critical that the parents could not wait for external help. Kwadwo and Sumaila were, however, the only children whose parents could afford to take them to the Korle-Bu Teaching Hospital. The rest received treatment and left without the recommended surgeries. They did not have money to pay for surgery.
Sumaila regained consciousness after almost two weeks. The health authorities at Korle-Bu said he needed to undergo a brain surgery but his mother said she could not afford it. When the physical condition improved, he left. But Kwadwo’s condition had worsened and he had to undergo the surgery.
It was one month and three days after the wall collapsed and fractured his spine that Kwadwo Njorfuni had his spinal surgery at the Korle-Bu Teaching Hospital. The appeal made on Volta Star Radio had attracted the sympathy of the Krachi West Constituency Member of Parliament, Hon. Francis Osei-Sarfo, who according to Mr. Kwaku Larbi, donated GH₵ 1000 to help in the treatment of the children. Mr. Larbi recalls that half of the amount was given for the treatment of Kwadwo while the rest was shared among the other victims. Kwadwo’s father has confirmed receiving that amount but says that it was not enough. He says he sold almost all his valuable assets to survive the sixty-six (66) days he spent at the hospital with his son.
But he was happy that after the surgery, Kwadwo could sit and was doing well. That was, however, not the end of the story. Kwadwo was asked to return in six months for a medical review. He did not have money to go. And that was when the trouble started.
Pupils still suffering after three years
It is time for Information Communications Technology (ICT) in Class Three and a volunteer teacher has only five words written on the board. More than fifty pupils, who seem unperturbed by the tides of deprivation, are seated around him. More than half of the pupils sit on the floor while some share the kitchen stools they have brought from home with their colleagues. But they seem lucky. At the Nandikrom D.A. Primary School, also in Banda, the pupils were busily working on their shelter, which had its roof blown away the night before, when I got there in the morning.
Chairs or no chairs, these pupils look grimly determined to make an impact as they recite after the teacher: Computer! Mouse! Processing! Information! Monitor!
“How many of you have seen a computer before?” I ask after the exchange of pleasantries. No hand goes up. “How many of you have seen a mouse before?” I ask again. Half a dozen hands shoot up immediately. And they look utterly disappointed when I tell the first boy that the little troublesome rodent he has seen in his mother’s room is not the mouse being referred to here.
The classroom has no walls separating it from the other classrooms. It was in this classroom that a wall fell and killed a pupil and injured many others three years ago. The structure was initially built as an open pavilion and later walled with mud bricks to separate one classroom from the other and also to save the children from rain. But after the accident, all the walls were demolished, leaving the structure as open as it was when it was first constructed. This classroom has no traces of any falling wall. But the remnants of that fatal day in November 2008 can be found in Class Six, where some of the pupils who were injured are.
Fourteen-year-old Sumaila Labil, who was unconscious for two weeks after the accident, could not undergo the recommended brain surgery. Sumaila is now mentally deformed, but manages to go to school. “He sometimes threatens to beat up his mother whenever his sickness comes,” says the assistant head teacher, Mr. Sei.
Tekoyabe Sanja, a fourteen-year-old girl, is visually impaired as a result of the accident.
Thirteen-year-old Nakoja Nlebekuma is not in school. I trace him home only to find out that his injured ankle, which could not undergo surgery, has still not healed after three years. It is the reason he is not in school today. “Sometimes, it is as if someone is using a pin to prick my leg,” he says.
Tebore Faustina, 16, still feels pains in her left elbow while Sambia Solomon, 15, says his left foot and teeth have not stopped aching since the accident.
Emmanuel Lamptey, 12, says he still feels the effect of the accident in his thigh and shoulder while 15-year-old Abdulai Yusif, who says a falling brick hit his head in the process, still suffers from headache.
According to information I gathered, the G.E.S. and the Krachi West District Assembly, which collaborated to transport the children from the school to the hospital, abandoned them afterwards. Checks at the Krachi Government Hospital indicate that the G.E.S. and the assembly have not paid the cost of treating the ten pupils who were rushed to the hospital in 2008.
The Krachi West District Director of Education, Mr Bernard Akarah, says the G.E.S. has no insurance policy to support such pupils: “The G.E.S. has no insurance cover for students who suffer injuries of any form in schools. When it happens, we appeal to individuals and organisations to help, while we report to our superiors, which we did. Beyond that, there’s nothing we can do.”
This is the fate of many students in Ghana. The risk of school children is compounded by the poor educational infrastructure across the country. According to the Ministry of Education, there are more than 5,000 “schools under trees” across the country. In these schools, classes are held under trees. A great number of school buildings are also death traps due to the lack of maintenance. As a result, accidents from weak school buildings are a common occurrence.
In December 2008, one month after the Banda tragedy, a similar one occurred at the Odumase Presby Junior High School in the Eastern Region, when a classroom collapsed. One student was killed while three others sustained serious injuries. The school was built in 1888 and had seen no rehabilitation since then. Two years later, Airtel Ghana, a telecom company, tore down the remaining structure and built a new block for the school. The telecom company also built a library, which was named after Bernard Narteh, the 13-year old boy who was killed in the accident. The three survivors, like Kojo Njorfuni and the nine pupils of Banda, have not received any help.
The Boy in the Wheel Chair
After six months, Kwadwo Njorfuni could not return to the Korle-Bu Teaching Hospital for the medical review because all attempts by his father to get some money, after defraying part of his previous debts, yielded no results.
“I wrote to the district assembly and appealed to the education authorities, but no one gave me any answer,” says Njorfuni Wajah. Kwadwo has since been paralysed and developed bedsores and other infections that threaten his life.
A nurse in Banda, who stumbled upon his condition early this year reported to the district health directorate and they decided to send him to the hospital for treatment. After four months in the hospital without much improvement, Kwadwo was discharged. Mr. Kwaku Larbi, the presenter on Volta Star Radio, recently helped to secure Kwadwo a wheelchair. It was presented to him in October, 2011, a month before the third anniversary of his endless slideshow of doom and gloom.
Dr. Felix Doe, the Krachi West District Director of the Ghana Health Service, has very little hope in the ability to reverse Kwadwo’s situation. “It will be difficult for him to walk after being paralysed for three years without any medical attention during the period,” Dr. Doe observes.
Njorfuni Wajah’s pain is the level of neglect he has suffered from authorities of the G.E.S. and Kwadwo’s school. He says since he returned from the Korle-Bu Teaching Hospital, no teacher from Kwadwo’s school has paid him a visit.
The assistant head teacher of the school says it is true no teacher has visited the boy, but insists it is justifiable. “That man is behaving as if we are responsible for his son’s suffering,” he says.
Kwadwo is, however, hopeful that one day a saviour somewhere will help him to achieve his dream: “I want to be able to walk and go back to school,” the emaciated boy says, leaning back in his wheelchair.