To See a Small World: The Blind Farmers of Ghana
“It is only the leper that has no hands - we must work.” Asiah Anafo faces straight ahead as he speaks. It is early but the sun is hot and he sits in the shade of a mud wall in his compound. Big beads of sweat trickle down his stubbly face and pool in the deep, tribal scar on his left cheek. At sixty, or thereabouts, Anafo is no longer young, but is still strong. Through his stained and patched tunic, his arms are thin but heavily veined and the tendons in his hands are like wire. He is head of a large family, a farmer, and a man with responsibilities. Yet, he is now, like his wife, totally blind. The Anafos’ story is the story of thousands of Ghanaians living in the poor north. It is how an everyday Africa, not just the Africa of famines and wars, endures.
“I have always been a farmer”, says Anafo. We did live in Kumasi and Accra for some time, but were always to return here, to the land". “This was my fathers’ place and he is buried here in this earth just as I will be.” Anafo taps the dusty, sand-like soil with his staff as if this is a comfort. “It started about seven years ago… at first, things became cloudy in my left eye and then gradually the world went darker". I was scared. I went to a doctor - all the way to the capital - but he said it was too late and I was going to go blind".
“The doctor asked if I lived by a river and swam and bathed in it. Of course I did. Then I knew that a fly had crawled into me and eaten my eyes. I panicked a little - I had a family to support. But my only plan was to pray to God to survive - I had no insurance for this… ”
Anafo’s case is not rare. In the sweaty evening, the men go down to the White Volta to wash. Water here is precious - especially just before the rains, but also a simple joy. It is here that Onchocerciasis finds many victims. The black fly breeds in the wetlands and it’s bite spreads microscopic worms that travel through the body and eventually sever the optic nerve. It is preventable but there is no cure. There are an estimated 1.2 million people in the region at risk from so-called River Blindness.
In this traditional place where blindness is still seen as a curse, the effects on proud, independent people like the Anafu’s can be devastating. Sight Savers International and its local partners work hard to retrain farmers to continue their work despite their handicap. As well as his land, Anafo makes rope to sell at market and his wife mills rice. Simply, if the Anafo’s don’t work they will not eat.
Arigu is a large village of perhaps a couple of hundred people. All farm the tired land. There is food here, just not much. People might eat meat once a moth if they are lucky. They are tall and thin and cheerful and what they have, they will share.
The Anafos’ compound is a collection of little mud castles. Round, squat-turret like rooms topped with dusty thatch, off a central courtyard. Here, some of the members of the extended family live. Most of their children have gone to the city to find work; some have left their children with their grandparents. Their youngest son, James, 18, spends hours each day bringing two precious plastic containers at a time from the river on his bicycle. It is the same water that blinded his parents.
The days are filled with the chores of survival of an African village - working the land, sweeping, cooking, talking, collecting water and finally eating. For the blind, those certainties are a comfort and a rhythm as much as the chickens scratching and telling the children to be quiet.
The rains are very late and Anafo has spent many days clearing the hard ground ready to plant his maize and groundnuts and beans. He knows though that if it doesn’t rain soon, the eventual harvest will be too late and the whole family will be hungry.
For Anafo, a deeply traditional man who sacrifices to his ancestors, blindness is an extra burden. The role of head of the family weighs on his shoulders as heavily as the unyielding sun. His extended family is twenty-four members. They are scattered throughout the region and while not all rely on him for food, he alone makes decisions.
A grandchild leads Anafo to the fields around the compound. The child’s easy stride contrasts with the blind man’s jerky and careful steps.
The complexity of farming has been broken into stages. Anafo dismisses the fuss: “I manage. I measure the ground by my arm… I dig, I plant and I move forward… ” It is as hard as it is frustrating. “To be true, now I am blind, I cannot open my eyes or force God to do it either. I am angry in the sense that I cannot move freely. My legs are there, my hands are there - but some others don’t have even these things.” Once in position, Anafo uses his cane to ‘feel’ the worked earth from yesterday. He finds a channel and with the hoe, inches forward, clearing the scrub, touching, and sensing all the time.
“It was a big shame,” he says as he works, “Last week a new chief came - everyone was drumming and laughing and we could not see him”. It makes him smile to know that in the West, the blind use dogs for help -, “Dogs? We sometimes use children but my children and friends all have their own land to work.”
In the clear dawn light, Asumpaheme, Anafo’s wife, puts a calabash inside a bucket and places them carefully them on her head. Her hands quickly feel where she left her stick and she raises herself, and her cargo, back straight, and moves slowly out of the mud and thatch compound in search of water. Tap-tapping past the big Baobab tree, singing softly to no one in particular she balances down the earthen slope to scoop water from a muddy puddle that seeps from an erratic underground source.
At noon, Asumpaheme sits in her hut full of cobwebs and delicately strokes her scrawny cat and its kitten. They are timid but glad of her gentle affections. “My hands are more sensitive now” and she coos after her pets. How important is that soft touch and all the love of the village in those fingertips. “I have been blind for five years now. I watched my husband first and then me… I was angry at the changes but I have no power and a strong faith in God, and he protects and provides. But once, coming home from church, I fell in a hole!” She chuckles and her shoulders shake as she remembers. “I can’t cook now but every morning I sweep the yard and wash everything. It’s not difficult to let someone else do the work… ” But it is her lightness of spirit that shines in her blindness. She is strong, and you know, unspoken, that she is the bedrock of Anafo’s world.
Felicia, Anafo’s younger sister, is always close to her, always the one teasing and tripping her, joking and playing and bringing children for her to comfort and strap to her back. Every afternoon she sits with the neighbours, some of who are also blind and they set the world straight.
As they sit together in the afternoon, Anafo and his wife sort maize seeds, silently rolling them between their fingers and rejecting the lumpy ones that they know will not grow. Around them, the sounds of the kitchen as someone pounds grain. In the distance, the children in school chant their singsong lessons. This is entirely their world now. A small world for they cannot travel more than a few hundred metres, not even to the river.
“I met her at market, it was a love match” says Anafo shyly. He smiles. A soft smile that has already become a laugh to his wife. “There was a big party - we killed two animals… ”
Six children. More than thirty years. Yes, they can remember each other’s faces from then. “When I was young I liked to wear a white shirt and a hat and trousers. White was my favourite colour” says Anafo. These are painful things to hear from a proud man in dirty rags and yet there is no bitterness in his voice. “Akanjebojne” he says finally. You can’t fight with God. As dusk settles, the women start to cook and Anafo delicately feeds his chickens, tossing them seed after seed, rolling each one between his fingers. Asumpaheme taps by with her stick, a neighbour’s child on her back. She pauses and, just for a second, reaches for him and lays her hand on his head. And then the intimacy is over and she moves off - softly singing to herself. Singing to the land, the candyfloss clouds and the Baobab tree. Singing for the rains to come.
© Stuart Freedman