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A W itch’s Finger I dislike visiting 37 Military Hospital, because it reminds me how poor most people in Ghana are. I actively avoid the slum areas, with their teetering plywood shacks, open sewers and leering young men. After school, I stick to the bowling alley, the shopping mall and jazz nights at the Golden Tulip Hotel. Our maid, a trembling old crone who’s always moving my clothes around so I can’t find them, stumbled on her way home from the market. By the time she hobbled the three miles back to our house (still with the basket of mangos on her head that my mother wanted), her left leg was swollen to twice its usual size. My father drove her straight to the hospital, where she now lies shirking her duties, and it is somehow my job to visit her each afternoon with some small token from our family; yesterday flowers, today an Austrian sausage. I suppose the hospital reception is okay; a smart enough desk, two bright pretty local women with sticky lipstick smiles. But when you enter the waiting room, slum-dwellers and their miseries are everywhere. The half-man (one arm, one leg) lighting a cigarette with surprising agility. The two gossiping women, skinny as rails with rotting teeth and purple eyes. The pile of rags that turns out to be a small boy curled up asleep, one polio-shrivelled leg hooked under the other. I can already taste the smell I associate with the shanty towns: rotting sores, dried tilapia, stale wee, and now, sifting under these, the sharp tang of ammonia they use to clean the floors. Someone has wedged open the window with an old shoe and, just outside, a couple of bone-shakers painted with orange stripes to indicate taxi duties, are parked beside a scrawny almond tree. I hear Suzie laughing, as we zip past one of these desperate-looking vehicles on the Tema-Accra motorway. ‘Watch your back tyre, Sir, the sticky tape’s peeling off!’ The almond-tree leaves are as still as gravestones and I am certain I can see the painted window frame blistering before my very eyes. Usually I love the dry season. It means Labadi beach and tennis matches and pool parties. I check my Rolex. In about twenty minutes I can get back to my air-conditioned life. As I find a seat on the low bench that runs the length of the room and wonder briefly, headily, whether to leave the meat at reception – but no, my mother might check – a teenage girl with Hausa markings staggers in and collapses on to the bench beside me. She is shaped like a whale, her huge brown belly too big for her faded t-shirt. There is a baby in there, I realise with a sudden thrill. That girl is no older than me and there is a baby inside her! The sweat courses down her temples and she makes an astonishingly loud groan. Halfman glances up, than back at the floor. A gecko scuttles under the bench. Then it is quiet again, the distant sound of the road the only backbeat. But it doesn’t last. Pain squeezes her again and she clutches the edge of the bench, her mouth opening in an angry snarl as her neck snaps back and, finally, the sound of her agony escapes her. I jump up, startled at the viciousness of it. I have never seen a person in so much pain before, never seen a woman in labour. And my first thought is, I will never have children! Then the hospital waiting-room is suddenly far too small and I dash back out to the reception. ‘We need a doctor in here,’ I say importantly, into the startled faces of the lipstick ladies. ‘There’s a girl-’ and, right on cue, another agonising cry. ‘I think she’s about to have her baby,’ I say, a little breathlessly. I am in a real-life drama! The elder one gives me an uncertain smile. ‘We have checked her in, Madam. Someone will be along shortly.’ ‘OK,’ I say, somewhat reassured. But as I walk away, they talk together in Twi and I catch the tone. They think I am overreacting. They have seen it all before. Disconcerted, I return to the boiler room. I look around for another seat, but there are none, just the tiny space next to Whale Girl. I go and stand beside the window, hoping to catch a breeze. Whale Girl shifts uncomfortably, but seems unaware of me or anyone else. Her eyes look past the window, past the almond tree, past the two taxis. Another spasm shakes her whole body and she bites down, another hideous noise escaping her clenched teeth. Just looking at her, I fight a wave of nausea. There is a listless-looking couple on the other side of me, the man bleeding from a head wound, and I wonder how long they have been waiting. I tap the woman on the arm. ‘Why is no-one coming for that girl? Where are the doctors?’ She


looks as though she is stirring from sleep. ‘There are no doctors,’ she says sluggishly. ‘No doctors?’ The panic in my tone rouses her. ‘None available,’ she amends. ‘This is a busy hospital. They come when they can.’ ‘But this woman is about to have a baby!’ I protest. She shrugs. She mutters something. It sounds like, ‘God willing’. I look back at Whale Girl, her face and neck wet with the exertion of torment. I hesitate, make a decision. I go back over, sit beside her. ‘Hello,’ I say. ‘I’m Rachel. Can I get you-’ Another spasm shakes her body and my words are lost in her now unrestrained cries. When she quietens to mere whimpers, I take her dark hand in my pale one and put my face close to hers. ‘It’s okay, it’s okay.’ I am terrified of her pain, but I tell her what my mother always tells me when I am ill. Her eyes are wild, unfocused. ‘No!’ she cries, ‘Please, witch, I no want die today!’ I drop her hand, a little freaked. Me and Suzie used to fall about laughing at talk of witches. It doesn’t seem so funny now. ‘You’re not going to die,’ I say and I’m certain of this. No-one dies in childbirth anymore. She screws up her face and I realise another pain is coming. My whole body clenches as though it is coming for me. Her silence this time is worse than the screams. When she slumps again, I quickly ask her if I can get her anything. ‘How about some water? You look so hot.’ ‘Water,’ she says, so low I barely catch it, but I snap open my handbag and hand her my water bottle. She makes no move to take it, so I unscrew the cap, hold it to her lips. She drinks. A look of relief floods her face and I feel something change in me, grow softer. ‘I can’t wait to meet your baby,’ I say, and I realise I mean it. Her eyes land on mine for the first time. ‘I de call him Kojo. Abena if she girl.’ ‘What lovely-‘ ‘No, please, no!’ she screams and I realise she is once again lost to the agony. Then she gives a shout that chills me: ‘My baby de come, he de come now!’ The receptionist pops her head into the waiting room. ‘Rachel Weiss for Mrs Ahenkorah? You can go through now, room 328.’ I look at her and to the corridor beyond, and freedom. I never wanted to leave a place so badly. But I cannot find it in me to go. ‘Tell her... I may be a while,’ I say. Whale Girl’s lips upturn slightly and I hope she is smiling. I address the receptionist. ‘She says her baby is coming now. Please get a doctor in here!’ She looks from me to Whale Girl and does seem a little startled by the state of her. She is a jumble of sweat and matted hair and exposed flesh. Her face is twisted and grey. ‘I’ll speak to the nurse,’ she says finally, and disappears again. I push back Whale Girl’s hair. ‘Where is the father?’ ‘He de work,’ she half-sings. ‘Or they go sack am.’ I want to batter her husband’s boss. ‘You know, you’re not alone. You won’t have this baby alone, I’m here.’ She starts to nod before her eyes roll back in her head and another spasm takes her. I find myself screaming too, screaming for a doctor to please come and help. A nurse finally hurries in, looking harassed. ‘Thank god,’ I pant, ‘this woman is about to give birth, she needs a bed and-’ ‘She’s not ready yet, plenty of time,’ snaps the nurse. ‘I’ll be back in an hour.’ She makes to leave, but I grab her sleeve. ‘Please! Can’t you give her something for the pain?’ For the first time, she pauses to look at me. ‘This is Accra, not London, Obroni. We don’t have the funds for such things. I have to go, there is a man having an amputation.’ Normally I am stung when they call me Obroni – like I am not a true African because I have snow-coloured skin. But right now I do not feel like I belong and the word fits. I watch her hurry away and try to be reassured. She is a nurse, maybe she is right. Maybe Whale Girl has an hour. I take Whale Girl’s hand again, give it a gentle squeeze. ‘Still here,’ I whisper. It is like a recurring nightmare. The woman’s spasms, her cries of agony, her shouts for help that gradually become less strong as no help comes and the pain takes over, until she can only whimper and tremble and moan. For one wild moment I think about calling my father. He works for the Embassy, surely there is something he can do. There probably is. But I realise almost immediately that he will not do it. ‘You see, Rachel,’ I hear him saying, ‘we cannot mix ourselves up in local issues. And god knows, Africa has its issues. But local issues need local solutions.’


I close my eyes for a moment, hands resting on my bag. My purse is in my bag. My purse. I go back to the reception and push a wad of fifty cedi notes towards the nearest lady. ‘Please,’ I say. I know this is more money than she will see in a month and, though her face registers distaste, she has it in her pocket before I can blink. Then she looks right at me for the first time and picks up the phone. As she speaks, she continues to study me, her expression a mixture of curiosity and something else I cannot define. ‘Yes, we have an emergency in the waiting-room. Yes, Doctor, right now. Thank you.’ She turns to me. ‘Someone is coming,’ she says and a sob of relief escapes me. The woman’s eyes widen and, as she passes me a tissue, I realise what her expression shows. It is admiration. When I return to the waiting-room, the doctor is already there. He is helping Whale Girl lie down on the bench with a nurse. ‘No time to move her,’ he says. ‘It’s posterior-’ He notices something, then adds quietly, ‘This girl is from James Town, isn’t she?’ ‘The worst side,’ agrees the nurse. The doctor sighs and takes me aside. ‘Madam, I must warn you. We see a lot of women from James Town. Most do not survive the birth. I will do my best but- The sanitation is so poor, the women drink, drugs when they can get them... This one shows signs of drug addiction. Does she work for your family?’ ‘No,’ I whisper, ‘Just- Please save her.’ She interrupts us with a yell. ‘It de burn, burn!’ And then I see the top of the baby’s head, pushing, pushing out of her. He has thick black curls. Then he disappears again. There is a pause, another scream and there he is again. The other patients start to gather, drawn by this astonishing sight and I feel supported by them, as though they can somehow help me to help Whale Girl. I squeeze her hand and tell her her baby is coming. ‘He’s almost here,’ I whisper, trying to will colour back into her grey, contorted face. ‘Just a bit longer, hold on, hold on...’ Then the head pushes all the way out and the shoulders too slither out, the doctor catches the baby, another person suddenly in the room, head, body, arms, legs, fingers, toes. It is a little girl, after all. But something is wrong, there is no cry, no sound in the room at all. The baby’s black face grows ever darker. Fuck, I think. The doctor looks at me sharply and I realise I spoke aloud. Then everything flips into fast motion: the doctor rubbing the baby with a towel, calling for suction equipment, attempting to clear its airways. Then the oxygen cylinder and finally actual mouth-to-mouth. Long before he gives up, I know the battle is over. He wraps up the infant and gently hands her to her mother. ‘Hold her close so she can be comfortable until her heart stops beating.’ I focus on staying upright; it seems to take all my concentration. Whale Girl’s tears mingle with her sweat and now with the blood of her baby. And she looks at her baby and then at me. Her eyes are glazed over again. ‘Witch, please make you no chop my baby.’ I look back down at it, still as a doll and realise she isn’t going to open her eyes. I never felt so useless. ‘I’m sorry,’ I say. ‘Her heart de beat,’ she responds and her tears fall on its closed eyes. She listens for a long, awful moment. ‘Now her heart stop,’ she says. She kisses its eyelids, its nose, its mouth. ‘Goodbye, Abena,’ she says. And, like an echo, I whisper, ‘Goodbye, Abena.’ That was my first death. You always remember the first. As you watch a body still, breath evaporate, skin shrivel to bone, it brings fragility crashing into sharp focus. And for a moment terror flows through you, the world tilts and a little bit of you starts bleeding. No-one can see it, but you can always feel it, like a witch’s finger resting on your heart. Hours later, when I get home and my mother asks me how Mrs Ahenkorah is, I struggle for words. ‘I don’t know. I didn’t see her today, I-‘ ‘Really, Rachel, I know you don’t appreciate the value of a good servant, but take it from me, in Accra they’re as rare as apples.’ She sighs the martyred sigh of the long-suffering mother and then adds, ‘By the way, Suzie rang. She wants to go to the mall.’ © Omma Velada (2,500 words)


A Witch's Finger