Thursday, 31 December 2015

On CK Gyamfi: A rare honour




My first meeting with CK Gyamfi occurred under curious circumstances in November 2009.

I had entered Achimota School a year earlier as a naïve 14 year old who was still very much obsessed with football, a game I fell in love with during the 2002 World Cup.

It was within the calm, shady expanse of Achimota that I developed an aspiration to become a football coach. My life up till then had been dominated by a wide range of dream occupations. I had once wanted to become an action movie star – as crazy as that sounds – harbouring wild hopes of getting to emulate all my heroes; from Bruce Lee to Jet Li, from Jackie Chan to Chuck Norris, from David Hasselhof to Wesley Snipes. Later, I ditched it when I discovered that I loved writing.

I started writing from around age 10, amid the playful distractions of primary school. My infantile, fantasy-themed writing explored mostly subjects that I saw in blockbuster movies. My dream was to become a prolific author of fiction, and so I churned out story after story with boundless enthusiasm.

Later, after my heart sealed its vows with the beautiful game, I dreamt of becoming a footballer. I would spend days on end playing, practicing. But, by the time I entered Achimota, I had somehow become disillusioned with the idea of becoming a footballer. I don’t remember exactly why that was, but I remember starting to drift away from active play, suffering an inevitable consequence of piling on weight.

The decisive moment came during a cold, quiet January night in the course a prep session in my classroom. While my mates were busy studying, their heads buried in their books, I was seated behind my desk, my mind’s stubborn excursion into the realm of dreams refusing to be disturbed by the croaking crickets.

While my coevals were racking their brains around figuring out equations, I was stacking my brain with wishful thinking, all in a bid to figure out one thing: what I wanted to be in the future.

Then it happened. An epiphany. I wanted to become a football coach. The whole idea of influencing the game via ideas and strategies excited me. I had read about the game’s most successful coaches – most especially the Dutch master Rinus Michels and how he had changed the face of the sport with the invention of total football – and I was intrigued. The whole art of coaching gave me a surge of excitement.

That same night, I drew up a list of my life’s goals in a small notepad which I have kept till date. Among other ambitious bullets, I wrote that I wanted to become one of the most successful, most celebrated coaches in history. It was an exciting dream because I found that there had not been a single black man mentioned in the same breath as the great tacticians in the game’s history. I was baffled by it all. Why weren’t black people cutting it in coaching? I dreamt of changing that.

My Dad, Kwaw Anaman, who was just about the only person in the world who didn’t see my dream as laughable gibberish, told me that he wanted to take me go see a man called C.K Gyamfi. “I attended school with one of his eldest sons and I’ve gone to see him before,” my dad assured me. “I’m sure he would tell you a whole lot about coaching.”

I had, of course, heard of CK Gyamfi several times, though I had never paid particular attention. He was embedded in my subconscious because there was no conversation of Ghana’s football history without his naming popping up at some point. But I never was privy to the full extent of his achievements. I had heard him mentioned within a context of reverence, of deep respect, as one of the immortal legends of Ghana’s over 100-year-old relationship with the sport, but little did I know that he had been perhaps the most successful black coach in football history.

Just before the midterm break of the first term of my second year at Achimota, my father decided to take me to our hometown of Winneba for the first time since the early years of my life. I was beyond elated – but I would be even more elated when he told me we’d pass by CK Gyamfi’s house at Kaneshie on our return.

And so it happened. When midterm arrived, my Dad turned up to whisk me away from my hall of residence at Achimota, a building coincidentally named ‘Gyamfi House’ (though not in any way related to CK Gyamfi). After a brief stop at my Aunt’s at Achimota Mile 7, we set off for Winneba.

In Winneba, my Dad took me to the National Sports College, where we did a few enquiries and spoke to some people about life there and the prospects. The idea, my father told me, was to equip me with enough knowledge and present me with viable options just in case my dream of becoming a coach was still alive by the time I was due to enter Uni three years later. That same Sports College, I learnt in the course of my visit, was named after none other than the great CK Gyamfi.

***


We passed by the old man’s tidily kept Kaneshie-Swan Lake residence on our return from Winneba. I remember that meeting so well. We sat with him on his porch, where I remember being awed by a painting of a football pitch on the terrazzo floor – a beautiful artistic piece that sadly perished when the porch was tiled some years later during a renovation.

I remember him sporting a vintage cap-like hat, holding on to his stylish walking stick. He was a few months short of turning 80 but he looked so full of life, so energetic, so ebullient in his outlook. I had been very nervous prior to meeting him, but his demeanor proved more calming than intimidating. He was generous, and so our chat wasn’t onerous.  He spoke to us as if he’d known us all his life. I sat entranced by his stories, by his contagious love for football conveyed in his passionate tone, by the depth of his knowledge.

With an exercise book and pen in hand, and my father looking on, I wrote with voracious interest as C.K Gyamfi spoke. He talked of how he got his players’ trust, how he got his players to work for him and for the team, how he believed that the secret to successful coaching was a healthy relationship with the players. “Be a friend to them,” he told me. I felt it was profound how he emphasized that bit of building solid relationships with players, because I had been expecting a long, tedious lecture wading into the sometimes superficial world of tactics. I got the sense that he essentially thought that creating that link with players was the foundation – and it had to be done right to be able to hold the subsequent layers of tactical dynamics.

Before we left, CK, by this time so evidently engrossed in the interaction, told us that his memoirs were under production, and that he hoped it would hit shelves by the end of 2009. It was such a refreshing thing to hear. I couldn’t wait to learn more about him, about his story, about the way he thought.

When we left the compound, I felt like the luckiest boy on earth. It was such a rare opportunity to spend such a significant amount of time in the presence of such a monolithic monument, and I honestly thought it was going to be a one-off that I would cherish for the rest of my life. One that, in the future, I would wax lyrical about to my children. On a loop.

Little did I know that fate would bring us together again.

***



Four years afterwards, I visited CK Gyamfi again. This time, I went alone. This time, I did not go as an aspiring coach looking for pointers. I went there, rather, as an up and coming journalist looking to interview him. Looking to to tell his amazing story.

My dream of becoming a coach had fizzled out over the years, and had been permanently replaced by an aspiration to become a football writer. I had started to write about football during the short break between Senior High School and University, a time I spent consuming a lot of knowledge on my brother’s laptop amid the bliss of newly acquired wifi at home in Kumasi.

Football writing had basically been born out of an experimental decision to merge writing and football, two things that represented a fusion of my talent and my passion.

Months down the line, I had graduated from being a modest blogger to being a professional writer.

At that point in 2013, however, I was in between jobs. My idea of visiting, in fact, had been to have a great conversation about the 1960s – a golden era which saw Ghana flourish as a football nation. It was an era I had grown so fond of with every piece of information I unearthed.

In the course of our conversation, I asked to record him, and he was most gracious enough to allow me tap into his vast reservoir of footballing knowledge. I was so excited by the amount of information that I was able to extract from him that I suggested helping him write his story in full.

“Oh don’t worry about that,” he politely declined. “My memoirs are still in the works and I’m told it will be out by the end of this year.”

I left his house feeling so fulfilled. I held on to my nokia phone – which I had used to record him – like it was the Holy Grail while I was in a trotro headed home. I remember alighting at the Mall bus stop at Tetteh Quarshie and placing a call to my boss, Kent Mensah, editor of Goal.com – where I was freelancing at the time. “Boss! You cannot believe this! I got an interview with CK Gyamfi!”

Kent was so excited. He congratulated me and said he trusted that I’d take my time to write it in the best way I could. I told him I’d send the piece as soon as I was done. Later that night, and in the subsequent days, I sat down to listen to a playback of my recordings, and ended up writing and filing an over 2,500-word profile of him.

The piece did better than I had expected. Many people sent me facebook messages about how good they thought the interview was, and that felt really encouraging. Among these messages, though, were two distinct ones from two men whose surnames were ‘Gyamfi’. The first was from Edwin Gyamfi, the second from Duke Gyamfi. Both were messages about how they were glad that I had done their Dad proud with how I wrote the piece, about how it was the best interview about him that they’d read. For me, that was the ultimate compliment, the moment of fulfillment.

Later, Edwin kept in touch and, when he came to Ghana on holiday sometime in March 2014, asked me to meet him for a chat.

Our rendezvous, the Papaye branch at Osu, was emptying when Edwin walked in late in the night and introduced himself. We went upstairs and had a sprightly conversation about my career and how I met his Dad. He said he’d expected me to be a much more older guy, and that he was surprised that I wrote with a matured sense of delivery. He mentioned his father’s memoirs, and I immediately made him know that I was aware of it being in the works, though I found it a bit odd that it was still not out five years after I’d been told it was coming out soon.

Edwin then sounded out a suggestion. A request, if you will. “We’d love for you to have a look at my father’s original writings and see if you can turn it into a book.” At that moment, I remember thinking: “Wow, this isn’t happening!”

I knew how much of a big deal it was. I knew, too, how poetic it all seemed that the project that I’d been so eager to read chose to find its way to me – not as its reader, but as its writer.

***




It took months before things got back in motion. That was when Duke came down to Ghana. I first met Duke at his Dad’s at Kaneshie. Like Edwin, Duke also had that look of bewilderment when I introduced myself as ‘Fiifi Anaman.’ “How old are you?!” he joked, both of us breaking into laughter. We had an even heartier laugh when he offered me a beer and I told him I did not drink.

Duke’s visit was basically about updating me on status of the book: how CK Gyamfi started it, when it was started, the state it was in at that moment, and how he - representing his brothers – wanted things to be going forward. He then formally presented me to his Dad as the writer who was going to work on his memoirs. Because C.K knew me already, he readily accepted me and pledged to give me all I needed to make his project a success.

It was not until a month 2015 that I received CK’s original writings: a close to 57,000 word account of his professional experiences up until 1982. It was a gold mine, especially given the fact that it was at a point where his memory was fast fading. He could only remember selectively, or after long talk aided by pictures or texts. Sometimes, I could see physical pain on his face anytime he tried to remember certain things that happened in his event-laden life.

My original job, as prescribed by the legitimate instruction of my contractors, CK’s sons, was to put some flesh on his blueprint of recollections, while delivering it in my own writing style.

Along the line, when the project’s variables became more visible and an understanding of it became bolder, that role gradually evolved. It became more complex. It became about leading the production and direction of a coherent story by using all available sources of information - the most basic of which was the original writing. This meant that I was to write the entire project from the ground up by conferring with the information sources. In this regard, I was to determine how the story was to be told, which topics to accentuate and which ones to tone down on, how the narrative would flow, the chapter names, themes and scopes, the tempo of the plot, possible asides to construct from my conversations with him, and many other artistic factors. It was, admittedly, a mountainous task. An intimidating one, too. It filled me with trepidation many times, because here was the story of one of the most accomplished football personalities in history.

There was a haunting fear of a screw-up, an anxiety to do the subject the justice that it deserved, and this influenced the whole process. It was a slow, conscientious one, involving a lot of brain work and an obsessive attention even to the most stereotypically irrelevant of details. I wanted to justify the honour bestowed on me, to step up to the plate, by bringing something refreshing to Nana’s story. During the time of writing I did not have a job and so had a lot of free time to read up on a lot of art’s greats – across writing, painting, music and film. What I discovered of each master, was an ambition to be different, to stay true to an original feeling, an original goal. It resonated with my innate leanings. I had been given a lot of freedom with regards to style, so I planned to make this empowering license worthwhile.  And so, rather than just being guided by the story, allowing style to be bullied by the facts of the narrative, I decided to respond to my craving to be artsy by constructing the story accordingly. Certain parts of the story feature puns and alliterations and rhymes and many other literary instruments – some subtle, others bold, all in an attempt to tighten the story being told.

***

The other sources of information aside the original writing were many. For instance, in an attempt to fill in gaps, trying to bridge storylines and trying to correct chronologies and factual errors, I had to commit to painstaking research. The research part, though heavily stressful , came easily to me, thankfully, as I had been spending a lot of time at the Archives section at the Daily Graphic offices in town since November 2014. I’d been going there to read up a lot of info on Ghana football during the 50s and 60s – an era that basically had CK Gyamfi in the mix of everything. This meant I was well equipped with a great deal of knowledge about him and about that era – which was so critical in his story. This put me in a position to summon enough confidence to tackle the project.

I continued visiting ‘Archives’, but this time, went there with a particular target to dig CK Gyamfi-related information. The commercial transport route I would use – Mile 7 –>Lapaz –> Kaneshie – >Graphic Road – would see my trotro pass by his house anytime I went to do research. I remember staring at the house each time, wondering what he was up to. I would imagine the common sight: him, seated in his special chair inside his living room, his walking stick resting on his wizened legs, gazing into his large, flat screen TV, which would either be showing cartoons, or wrestling, or even the popular telenovela La Gata, with a quietude that felt so therapeutic, especially given the air of innocence that graced his face.

Sometimes, after each session, I would pass by his place to have a chat and show him some of the images I took from certain old newspapers. I remember how excited he was anytime he’d take my iPad and glance through the images, nodding, smiling. Such moments, when the calm, frail old age of his present became immersed in his youthful, glorious past, were so beautiful.

Part of my process of exploring other sources involved a series of interactions and transactions with Mr Harold Akwetey Quartey, the nephew of CK’s second wife, Mrs Valerie Quartey. Mr Quartey was of immense help. He had known CK since the late 90s and had been very close to him, almost like his right hand man, and had started to help the old man with his book along the line. In the process, he had rewritten parts of his original work, with additional information and research. When I was brought on board to ghostwrite the project, he was kind enough to lend me his files to scan through to use information that had not appeared in the original. I often visited Mr Quartey at his office, behind Multimedia Offices at Kokomlemle, and sat across his book-filled desk to have chats about CK, about certain portions of the story where I needed clarification (he was in a position to say a lot as he’d had infinite conversations with CK over the years, especially during times when he could remember every detail of what he wrote originally and could give additional perspectives). Our conversations were always so substance-filled and helpful, just as much as his writing was.

Also, I had to talk to the people close to him, the people who knew him, to get information that could help building his story. The principal source in this regard was the legendary Ghana defender Dogo Moro, who played with and under CK as part of the Black Stars from 1958 to 1963. I had struck a friendship with Alhaji, as I call him, when I first visited him as part of research for a book project I had started late in 2014. Alhaji gave invaluable insights into CK’s character and personality anytime I paid him a visit at his Kenyase home during my Kumasi trips. Sometimes, when in Accra and when distance did not allow physical meetings, I had long, rich conversations with him on the phone.

***



The strategy I adopted from scratch was to visit Nana as much as my time would allow me to, to have conversations with him with the hope of salvaging whatever memories he still had in connection with any part of his text. Nana was always very hospitable and eager to converse. 

Most of our conversations were not on record, as he struggled to talk with the coherence and flow he would have had no problem producing if he was younger and with a good memory. I talked with him about many things and made notes of what he said – which I would later construct texts out of, for incorporation into the story.

In all of this, the underlying aim was about getting to know him, about becoming deeply acquainted to the workings of his his thought process, his emotions, his demeanor and all the other idiosyncrasies of his personality. This was important because I was basically going to be him anytime I was writing. I owned the words and the style, but the story, with its accompanying thoughts and feelings, its soul, were solely his.  And I so had to live him – to live his thoughts and experiences. I had to be a method writer anytime I sat behind my laptop to do what I codenamed ‘CK writing’. Such writing sessions were many, spread across close to 7 months. There were times when I would sit for hours and only manage to write one paragraph; other times when my creative juices were most kind and so would translate to many words and pages. There was a lot of rereads, a lot of back editing, a lot of rewritings – all in a bid to chisel out the very best I could manage for CK.

And boy, did he deserve the best. This work had been in the infamous ‘pipeline’ for many years, and I got the unmistakable sense that its delayed completion worried him. Once, even, he told me that he had almost given up on it, resigning himself to the feeling that it was probably never going to be published. In fact, during my research for that Goal.com profile, I stumbled on an interview he’d granted to the Ghana News Agency in 2004, in which he’d claimed his memoirs was going to hit the market by the end of that year. 2004.

He always talked to me about how he had started a long time ago, about how he’d been told it was almost done one too many times, about how he really wanted it to happen. Anytime he said so, I felt a conferment of responsibility, from his heart to my conscience, and I would, without hesitation, promise profusely to do everything I could to make sure it materialized. He would look me in the eye and tell me about how he believed what I was saying. These conversations always felt like an exchange of trust, an establishment of legitimacy, and it spurred me on during the lowest moments of production.

CK made me feel motivated with how he opened his doors to me. Anytime I went there, he looked so happy to see me and would ask about how school and work was treating me. He always reminded me, with a congenial curiosity, that I looked familiar. I remember how he would joke about me having the same name of one of his favourite grandchildren. Once, I heard him introduce me to one of the ladies of his household as “my friend who is handling the writing of my book. I trust that he will do a good job and all will be well in the end.” This was from a man who was a good 64 years older than I was.

Anytime it was time to leave, he’d thank me for the conversation, for keeping him company, then he’d make me promise not to let too much time elapse until my next visit.

I knew the delicate underpinnings of having such a young, relatively inexperienced writer handle such a high profile project, and I’m sure he did too. But not once did he ever express doubt or convey a sense of insecurity around me or about my being in charge of telling his story. Duke would constantly remind me in text conversation that he and his brothers were totally sure of having me at the helm of such a project, not only because they loved my style of writing, but also because they respected one of their father’s most recognizable philosophies: giving young people a chance. Investing confidence and belief in youth talent.

Indeed, having Duke, Edwin and the rest of the brothers express confidence in my ability to deliver was great, no doubt, but feeling that vibe from Nana himself was priceless. Nana always made me aware of how he trusted that I would do a good job, and I would respond to this vote of confidence by giving him an assurance. This assurance was basically that I was doing the best I could to see to it that his dream of seeing his story published came true before he checked out of his amazing life of earth.

I grew deeply fond of Nana and found myself looking forward to our meetings, though they were, regrettably, few and far between. Well, at least not as much as I’d wanted.

Nonetheless, I lived for such moments like when he would burst out in laughter, almost to the point of tears, upon recalling a particular memory – especially about how he was stroked by his father or by Teacher Bruce, about his naughty adventures as a troublesome child in Okorase and in Accra, or much later tales about how some of his players would call him nicknames or gossip about him. I remember, too, the purity and the romanticist’s wonder that wrapped around his words when he talked about how much football meant to him and how football had changed his life.

On a dry August afternoon, one of Nana’s sons, Nana ‘Egya Alonso’ Gyamfi – who had been in the country for a while corresponding with me on matters concerning the book -  asked me to sit through an interview his father was granting to Top FM Sports – an interview that would turn out to be his last.

Because of Nana’s feeble memory, he struggled to have a firm grasp of the things he wanted to say, and so I was asked – as his ghostwriter – to help clarify some of the things that his tired mind was laboring to recall. He would listen intently, nodding with seeming approval anytime I was asked to come in and throw light on what he was saying. After the interview, he shook my hand, looked right into my eyes and said. “Oh Fiifi, thank you very much. You’ve really helped me. If it wasn’t for you…”  

This moment – though occurring in just a split second – represented something so powerful to my mind. I don’t think I can ever explain why. I’m comfortable with leaving it at that: a soothing Je ne sais quoi.

I left for Kumasi soon afterwards and so couldn’t stay in touch with him for about two weeks.

***



On my return to Accra, I was unable to go see him immediately due to the formalities of school reopening swarming me.

Then one night, while I sat behind my desk in my Legon Hall room, coincidentally working on the book, I got a call. It was Mr Quartey. “Fiifi, I hope you are well. Nana wants to see you.”

“Nana Gyamfi?” I asked.

“No, not Nana Gyamfi,” he replied. “I’m talking about the old man himself.”

I told Mr Quartey that I would steal time the next day, Friday the 28th of August, to go see the old man.

That night, before retiring to bed, I kept wondering why Nana had asked to see me. It was strange. I had heard him ask of me, heard him send his regards, but he had never once particularly asked to see me. Was something wrong? My instincts couldn’t shrug of the oddity.

I turned up at his residence the next day, entered and realized that he was not seated at the Living room. That was yet another oddity. Mr Quartey slipped into the hallway and later reemerged, his face dead pan. “Let’s go in,” he said, tailing his words with a signal. “He says I should bring you over. He’s not well.”

I remember seeing Nana struggle to get up from his bed to take a seat by its edge. I had never been to his bedroom, but I did not have time to steal a quick visual tour as I was overwhelmed by concern. I was asked to sit in a chair by his bed. He extended his hand, as always with an accompanying smile, to shake my hand. “Ei Fiifi, how are you doing? I didn’t hear from you again since that last meeting. Where were you hiding?”

“Oh Nana, I went over to Kumasi to have a little rest ahead of school. But I’m back now and I hope to spend much more time chatting,” I said. “I’ll be in Accra till year’s end so we’ll chat till you tire!” I joked.

I asked if all was well and he told me his leg aches had gotten worse, that he was unable to walk well. His face lost its glow and his voice dimmed in liveliness while he slowly recounted how unbearable the pains were becoming.

Then, he changed the topic. “Is everything ok with the book?”

I sensed apprehension in his voice and it unsettled me, so much so that I struggled to articulate a response. I think what I felt in that moment was panic, because in truth, the project had experienced a hitch at a stakeholders meeting shortly before I had gone to Kumasi. And so things had stalled. And I felt guilty. He did not deserve that, I thought.

Mr Quartey, perhaps noticing my difficulty, cut into the conversation, offering a background of why Nana had wanted to see me. Apparently, Nana was worried about progress on the book, and, especially as he felt his health recede, wanted to know if everything was okay.

I felt even worse because I knew just how much the book meant to him. And so, immediately, I assured him, almost out of impulse – because I hated seeing him worried – that all was well. That all was still on track. That I was almost done.

Then, again, I reiterated my regular assurance, but this time with a sense of desperation. I really wanted to calm his fears. “Nana, I know how close this project is to your heart and hearing you say you want it done inspires me to carry on. I promise you to go through with it, to finish it, to make sure you get to see it as soon as possible.”

After saying this, I felt a surge of adrenalin, not least because I saw him nod. I felt renewed energy:  I wanted to get back to the project and get done as soon as I could just so I could present it to him. I wanted to see him happy.

I told him I’d come to see him early the next week and he said he very much looked forward to it. He said his usual thank you and reached for the parting handshake. I said my thank you too. “Your legs too, will be well, Nana,” I said as I got up to take my leave. “I’ll be praying for you.”

That was it. The last time I was privileged to be in his presence.

***

Tuesday morning. I logged unto facebook and saw a friend of mine post that CK Gyamfi was gone.

I could not believe it. I did not want to believe it. A day before, I had called Mr Quartey to seek clarification about a discrepancy I had found while researching early 1972 to aid me in writing a chapter about Munich. Before asking my questions, I asked if all was well with the old man. “No, all isn’t well,” he said. His tone was plain. “His leg pains got worse and we took him to the hospital.”

I told Mr Quartey, from whom I got a sense of pessimism,  that I did not believe that the hospital thing was ominous, and that I was positive he’d get well soon. I had, after all, heard Nana complain about his legs many times and not once did I ever feel that it had a potential to be fatal. I always saw it as ‘one of those things’, and indeed, we had once had a laugh about how it was a haunting hazard of his addiction to overhead kicks during his hey days.

He looked a fairly healthy, handsome old man, all the time – even to the last time I saw him in his bed. I always got the sense that he had so much life within him, though he exuded an aura of loneliness sometimes.

And here I was, on a Tuesday morning, lying on my bed, trying to convince myself that what I’d seen on Facebook was an inaccurate report. Shortly before then, my body trembling with shock, I remember exclaiming, cursing expletives of disbelief, thinking it was all a bad dream. I remember some of my floor mates storming into my room to ask what was wrong, but I could not utter a word of explanation. I did not have one.

I later called Mr Quartey. “Hi Mr Akwetey,” I greeted, barely concealing my impatience. “Yeah, Fiifi,” he responded.  His voice was solemn, a heart breaking confirmation even before the inevitable words that followed. “Yes, it’s true,” he said. “He passed around 2am this morning.”

Afterwards, I could barely speak in an organized way. My questions were many and meaningless, and I remember wishing I could be as calm and composed as Mr Quartey on the other end of the line. 

But I just couldn’t. For me, his demise seemed too sudden, too out of the blue, and though he was 86, I had never prepared myself for his exit. The shock rocked me, dampening my mood for the next few days.

I entered a state lethargy, locked up in a lull of constant reminiscing. Trying to recollect my encounters with Nana was a painful process because I realized that I had not paid particular attention to many things, most certainly because of my misguided belief that he was going to be around for much longer. I took many things for granted, postponed many conversations, and I regretted them so much.

But, I realized – upon reflecting on our last meeting – that he probably knew he was on his way out when he asked to see me that Friday.

In hindsight, I deciphered that he wanted to leave with an assurance that I was still committed to the project, that I’d see it through to the end – even if he would not be around to see its completion.

I’m glad that I was able to make a promise.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Gilbert Agyare has a story: Part IV




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[All photos were taken by Kennedy Danso, a friend and course mate also in Legon Hall, who is a budding photographer]


I VISITED GILBERT twice in the next few days. The first time, a quiet, chilly Saturday night, I walked in on him seated on one of the desks in his room.

There were two other people in the room – a lady and a gentleman - both of whom he later introduced as good friends. The guy, who was seated on a chair by the bed, was well-built and wore a jalabia. The lady, who was lying on Gilbert’s bed, was slim and light-skinned, and she wore a bright looking African print outfit. The two seemed to be in a good mood as they watched a loud, seemingly action packed movie on Gilbert’s laptop.

As for Gilbert, he had arched his torso on his desk, as if to give the impression that he was asleep. But he wasn’t. I knew because I saw him giggle at a point, then his voice became a bit audible. It was unusually soft and measured, and so I immediately assumed that he was on the phone with someone he liked. Girlfriend perhaps? I smiled and stared for a while before alerting him of my presence.

“Oh bra Fiifi, how’s it going?” he said.

“I hope I’m not disturbing your conversation with the Mrs,” I teased.

He laughed. “Oh, that’s not my girlfriend. But it’s one of my girlfriends!”

The girl lying on the bed immediately sprung up and laughed out loud. “Ei Gilbert!” she exclaimed, in a manner that sounded part-teasing part-astonishment.

“Oh, I told Fiifi when he was here the last time that I don’t have one girlfriend,” Gilbert responded. A mischievous smiled licked around his lips. “So he knows.”

I laughed, too. “Yes he did,” I told the girl.

She looked at Gilbert and shook her head, still smiling.

Gilbert had told me in our last conversation that he had a girlfriend – who is sighted - and indeed hoped to marry one day. He however said that because he had a natural mistrust for sighted girls, citing previous experiences in infidelity and deceit, he had resorted to openly sealing a back-up option: a blind girlfriend. 

Andre had led the unanimous outburst of laughter after that fascinating revelation.

***

FOUR DAYS LATER, I visited Gilbert’s room again. He was not around. On his bed lay a guy who – like Gilbert when I’d last seen him  – was on the phone. He had his back turned to me as he spoke into his phone in a hushed tone. He had given me an order to come in in the first place, so I presumed that he knew I was standing, waiting for him. It was after I stood for close to 10 minutes without him turning or speaking to me that I realized that he probably was not aware of my presence. I had to give him a gentle tap on the back to get his attention.

“Gilbert has gone for a lecture,” he informed me as he turned. I could not help but notice that he looked very much like Gilbert. “Are you his brother?” I asked. He gave a dim smile and feebly nodded. He was looking at me, yet was not making eye contact. I found it a bit odd. “Older or younger,” I probed further. He smiled again and said nothing. I smiled back. “Please tell him Fiifi came around,” I said. “No problem,” he replied, and rolled over on the bed, so that he faced the wall again.

I heard him resume talking on the phone as I slowly closed the door and made my leave.


***

THE NEXT TIME I saw Gilbert, I asked him about the guy. He said he was not his brother, but just a friend. Apparently, he is blind too – though his is partial. That explained why he had not noticed me standing and waiting, I thought to myself.

Also, I found out that he is on the same block at Legon Hall as Gilbert. “There are about seven blind boys on this block,” Gilbert revealed as he sat to talk to me. He was, like all of the times when I'd seen him, dressed in a simple lacoste shirt and a pair of khaki trousers, his feet covered with loafers. "Among them is a senior of mine from Okuapeman. He was the senior school prefect in his final year,” he added.

I was astonished. Then impressed.

“Wow,” I said. “A blind school prefect?”

“Yes!” Gilbert said with a heaviness of tone that exuded pride. He bared his teeth and smiled. Then he said: “He won the elections overwhelmingly. He beat all the sighted candidates. He was really popular and turned out to be one of our best prefects.”

“What about you, though, Gilbert?” I inquired. “Did you go for the position in your final year?”

He smiled again, hesitated a bit and said: “You see, I wanted to. But I realized that not everyone liked me. Some of these things are like that, you know. I studied the system and sensed that if I went, I’d lose. So I decided to let it go.”

Gilbert had just returned from a provision store around his block. In his company was a friend of his, who he said was his junior at Okuapeman and in fact is still there. He had come to visit him.

“I’m not surprised to see you here at all, bra Fiifi,” Gilbert said. “I came to see you in your room a few minutes ago but was told you were not around, and so I figured you were told and decided to come see me.”

“Oh really?” I asked. I had not known he’d come to see me because I was returning from town and had decided to pass through his place.

“Oh, you can ask my friend, I came there with him,” Gilbert said. “Yeah, Room H5 right? We were there not long ago. Someone from the next room said you had gone out,” his friend weighed in. He, too, looked at me without making eye contact. Gilbert later told me he is also partially blind.

Gilbert then got a phone call. “Ok, ok,” he seemed to be saying. “Please hurry up because things are really rough here. I’ve got to be the most broke guy in the whole world! I have nothing. I’m totally impecunious!” he said, following it with stifled laughter.

He had been speaking in Twi, but had said ‘impecunious’ in English, with such impeccable pronunciation. Gilbert loves and knows his words. As I stared at him, my mind shuttled back to the day of our first interview, where he had described himself as ‘gregarious’. I remember observing that he had a command over his English and how he articulated it.

In a conversation in relation to this, he had told me that he felt he was a natural-born broadcaster, destined to reach millions with his skills. “I’ve been told by some friends of mine who are journalists that I can do a great job on radio,” he had said. “I think so too because I listen to most presenters and I realize what they are doing is nothing extraordinary. I can also do it. I can do news presenting, sports, name them. Either in English or in Twi. I’m good at it and I have a passion for it so I know I will be there one day.”

He had then proceeded to give me a spirited freestyle commentary (in twi) of a hypothetical game between Real Madrid and Barcelona that gave me Goosebumps.  “I love football a lot,” he had said afterwards. “I’ve loved it since I was about five years old. My dream was to become a commentator, but little did I know that this would happen to me. Had it not been for my eye, I would be a commentator by now. Of course now I can’t see so I can’t run commentary, but that has not stopped me from showing people that I can do it. When I was in Cape Coast, some business men working for a local branch of Barclays Bank loved my freestyles so much that they made me record them unto CDs which they bought from me!”

“The last World Cup I saw when I could still see was the 2002 World Cup. I remember it so well,” he had looked so excited. “I remember Ronaldinho! His long hair, big teeth and all – I remember people teasing him about him not being good looking but that didn’t matter because he was so good!”

Since Gilbert lost his sight, his love for football has had to make do with experiencing the game through listening and imagining. The voice of commentators have become his eyes, their words translating to motion pictures in his mind's eye. His inability to see the 'Beautiful Game' has in no way diminished his passion. 

He had told me that he is an avowed fan of Spanish and European champions Barcelona, and that it was one of his biggest wishes to catch just a momentary action glimpse of Lionel Messi; the club's talisman who is heralded as one of the greatest to ever play football.

The nimble-footed Messi came into worldwide prominence about three years after Gilbert became blind. This means that Gilbert has never set eyes on the Argentine. He has no idea how he looks like or how he plays like. But that has not stopped him from idolizing him.

“I wish I could just see him do all that magic the commentators chronicle endlessly,” he had said, followed by a pause and a sigh - a deep, if-wishes-were-horses kind of sigh.

“From what I’ve heard, he is incomparable as a footballer.”



***


NOW, GILBERT WAS speaking to someone – his brother, I suspected – who was bringing him money because he was cash-strapped. “Around 8 o’clock? Oh ok, no problem,” he continued. “I’m now even about to take some mashed kenkey.”

His friend was seated on the bed, massaging the kenkey in a deep cylindrical bowl while he added water intermittently. I decided to ask him a question to while away the time Gilbert was spending on the phone. “How was Gilbert like in school? Was he popular?”

He smiled. “Oh yeah he was. Gabby was really popular. Even up till today, all of the teachers say good things about him and still speak of him.”


***

AFTER HE GOT OFF the phone, Gilbert asked if I had started writing a profile on him. “Yes,” I answered. “I’m hitting close to 5000 words already. You did speak a lot during that last meeting!”

He laughed. “If you don’t restrain me I can talk and talk all day!” he reeled with glee.

“Maybe, next time you come here, you can bring the article on a pen drive so I can save it on my laptop and use my Microsoft Word audio player to listen to it,” he suggested.

“No worries, will do that,” I said. “But if you want to listen to it right now, I have it saved in my mail and I can open it on my phone and read it to you.”

“You do?!”  He sounded excited.

“Yes,” I replied as I went through my phone to access the mail and the file. “Should I start? I’ll read the portion describing the sequence that resulted in you becoming blind. I want you to alert me if I mention any fact that is not accurate,” I added.

“Sure!”

So, I started reading. He stared at the ground as I read slowly, and he seemed so attentive, so pensive, that it made me a little nervous. But, he would nod in between paragraphs, and that felt really comforting. There were times when he would smile, other times when he would cut in and offer a correction or a suggestion. There were times, too, when he looked bewildered, and so I would explain my choice of words and style, spelling out the impact I was looking to achieve. “Oh ok! That’s interesting!” he would say. 

“Are you a poet? You write and sound like one!” he teased afterwards.

In between reading, I could see some of his block mates stopping by the window as they passed by to peep and eavesdrop. We were interrupted too –  twice, in fact – by friends who came to visit him. Both were blind. The first entered and made a lot of deliberate jokes to distract our interaction, but they were all in jest. The second, too, burst into the room in a hilarious manner and sat for a while to listen in. Both of them, though, seemed to be as outgoing, amicable and fun-inclined as Gilbert himself.

At the end of my reading Gilbert gave me more details that he felt would add significant dimension to my construction of his past. Then, he said: “You’ve written this very well. Your style is different.”

I felt proud that he liked it, and told him I’d see him one last time to get more details. I suggested writing another article on him, and he was open to the idea, even after I shared the relatively unorthodox method I planned to adopt. The method was basically an experiment of spending a whole day with him, in his company – though not close to him, but monitoring from afar. It felt like an ambitious plan, because it did not seem mainstream. “That’s very interesting! I would love to do that. Even if you want to do it without me knowing, I have no problems. I’m an open book and I don’t hide anything,” he said. “I even told you about my two girlfriends!” We both laughed hard.

When I said my farewells, and walked out the door into the corridor, I felt him following me. After a few steps, I decided to turn around for confirmation, and I was right. 

Behind me, he was walking slowly and quietly and calmly, but he wasn’t after me. He was going to a room about three doors from his.

I stood and watched him enter the room, and later, come out with two of his friends.

He slipped in between them and put his arms around both, and, as they strolled in unison back to his room, they all looked so happy.

They could not see me, but I was there, staring, the camaraderie of their shared challenge causing a strange stir in me.

Suddenly, I felt happy too. So happy, that I felt an urge to cry. But I had no idea why.


END.




Footnote: In no way was this piece written to disrespect Gilbert by making him an object of pity and sympathy. It was, too, not a go at creating a storm in a teacup,  to make his story seem more important or than it is.

Rather than that, it is a tell-it-as-it-is exercise born of curiosity, a simple attempt to chronicle a series of experiences and encounters while using them to tell an ordinary everyday story; a normal human story - one that is not contrived or agenda-laden. Everyday life, or reality, is a phenomenon that is neither scripted nor rehearsed, it is natural and spontaneous, unfiltered, filled with a mixture of elements: the positive and the negative, the extraordinary and ordinary, imperfections and the unexpected - and this is the premise (a reflection of reality) that inspired this article and honed its structure. And so, critically, even though it was written with a style and texture normally reserved for works of fiction (see style inspiration below), no facts were tampered with or any experience filtered to make any character ideal or a situation deliberately dramatic or relatable. 

Style inspiration: The inspiration for this article's title and style (the bold tones of New Journalism and immersionism) was drawn from Gay Talese's seminal 1963 Esquire Magazine profile of Frank Sinatra titled 'Frank Sinatra Has a Cold'. The philosophy of New Journalism deeply inspires me because I strongly believe that writing is art and art involves exploration, dynamism and experimentation, even though within the conversation of journalism, there's a prevalence of conservatism in that respect. In essence, I believe real stories can be written in an entertaining way without facts being compromised


The idea behind this profile is the belief that everyone has a story to tell: that story may not fulfill the expectations of convention, but it is certainly worth telling and sharing. It is my hope that people recognize that, just as Mr Oshunkeye said, 'there are stories everywhere'. And so lets all be attentive; let's all strive to care, share and learn.





Friday, 13 November 2015

Gilbert Agyare has a story: Part III


"He told me to forget about the word 'sight' " 
---------


[All photos were taken by Kennedy Danso, a friend and course mate also in Legon Hall, who is a budding photographer]


GILBERT WOKE UP in a hospital room at the Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital in Kumasi. His eye – “You know, it’s like an egg, and it got broken,” he said – was operated on. Twice.

After the second surgery, the doctor turned up by his bedside and cast a shroud of gloom on his life. His right eye was gone, the doctor announced, and the left would follow suit soon. Apparently, when one eye fails, the pressure the other one has to bear causes it to deteriorate overtime, eventually failing too. That stone Amos threw had marked a slippery slope, a ruthless domino effect, that was to take Gilbert’s sight from him in the long term.

“He told me to forget about the word “sight”,” Gilbert said. “That I should forget about ever seeing the world again and rather concentrate on my books and on becoming the best I can be. He also told me to learn about blind living to enable me get somewhere in life.”

The ensuing months of being one-eyed were pain laden. Gilbert would shuttle between Kumasi and Sunyani regularly for treatment. He was given tonnes of drugs, but the pain in that dead right eye just wouldn’t flee. “Anytime the sun came up, my eyes would start aching badly and I would start having discharges,” he said. “I remember lying face-down on the floor sometimes and pressing my eye against the floor just so I could cool off the burning sensation. It was very discomforting.”

This left him confined indoors, cut off from the outside world – a situation that curtailed a chunk of his childhood normalities. He had to pull out of school, losing friends in the process. All this, while his other eye steadily slumped, leaving him down in the dumps. Those were difficult times, but Gilbert had his family to protect him from the threat of despair. “Normally when you get into such situations, before you will feel sad, one of the factors that contributes immensely is how the people close to you, your family, handle it,” he explained. “When the family decides to treat you differently, that’s when you feel sad. But when they decide to treat you the same way, there won’t be problems. My family didn’t change.” And that was critical.

But, even more critical was the fact that Gilbert, like now, could fall on an admirable strength of character, a powerful resilience that seems to shine from the deepest depths of his nature. And, given the scale of what he went through, this fortitude seemed God-sent, appropriate, a small trace of justice and meaning. It helped him cope and gave him hope - especially when the other eye checked out of functioning two years after the stone incident.

Gilbert remembers that fateful day; the day the last remnants of sight in his eyes fled forever.


***


ONE MORNING in 2004, Gilbert woke up and suddenly felt the world blank out. He panicked. His mother rushed into his room and did something that she’d done severally since her son lost his right eye.

As a means of checking the quality of his eye, the state of it, Gilbert’s mum had been visiting his room, holding up a number of her fingers for her son to call out the exact numbers. Sometimes, she’d use colours. She did it regularly.

That day, she repeated it and the results, as expected, were heartbreaking. Statistics say that one person becomes blind worldwide every five seconds. Gilbert’s time was up. He was to join a world blind community that is now estimated by the World Health Organization to be around 39 million. “She put up a colour and I couldn’t tell which colour it was,” Gilbert remembered. “That was how we both knew it was done.”

Of course, they both knew that that moment would come one day, but when it came, it was difficult. You can never be too ready for things like that, no matter the amount of prior knowledge. “I remember her saying ‘I don’t know what to do! This is so strange. This is something so strange in my life’” Gilbert recalled. “She had somehow attributed my whole ordeal to superstition; she thought maybe Amos had been sent by some evil spirit to come and ruin my life. And so, for instance, she always made us go to pastors for help. I went through the hands of many pastors, all to no avail. One day, I told her ‘We can’t do anything about it because my situation is physical’. I told her if God would heal me, then that was fine, but I did not believe in those pastors.  I did not believe that they could do something about it. It got to a point I told her I wouldn’t go to see them again. I told her if she would go on my behalf then fine, but I myself wouldn’t go anymore.”

Gilbert admitted that he was kid who “didn’t know or understand much during those times,” but he distinctly remembered the fact that he accepted his reality early, with very little self-pity or brooding. “There was pain, but I rarely remember being sad or depressed. Naturally, I’m not an emotional person,” he said. Then, he continued, with the benefit of hindsight: “Besides, when you get into certain situations and you don’t accept the fact that currently, that’s the situation in which you find yourself, you can’t work towards solving that situation,” he explained. “Because if you go to Rome, you have to do what the Romans do. When you become blind, first of all you have to accept the fact that now, you can’t see. No matter what you do, you cannot fix yourself into your old situation. That’s where you are now.”

This rare stoic mindset came in handy at a time where he had to start a new life. When he had to go through intensive orientation for the visually impaired. When he had to learn to live without sight. “When you’re going through that process, you deduce certain ways of doing your things. Your brain should be faster than how it was. You have to adapt,” he said.

Gilbert started learning about the ways of the blind at the primary division of Ghana National Secondary School. That school, an all inclusive institution (opportunities for the physically challenged), was in Cape Coast - where his family migrated to from Sunyani sometime after the stone accident. 

He later continued his orientation at the  well-known Akropong School For The Blind in the Eastern Region. After two years at that school, Gilbert successfully passed his Basic Education Certificate Examination and gained admission to the Okuapeman Senior High School.

Spurred on by a resolve not to see his difficulties last, Gilbert adapted fast in his blind training. By the time he got to Senior High School, his intelligence, coupled with his ever- stubborn willingness not to be weighed down, had seen him make a great deal of progress. He was one of about 30 blind students among over 3000 sighted ones at Okuapeman. “When I was at Okuapeman, I was not using a white cane,” he said. A white cane is the stick blind people use to survey their paths. “I used to walk alone and do everything on my own. When you saw me walking around you couldn’t even tell that I was blind.”

Of course, that ease of navigation stemmed from a familiarity with his environment – something that took time and conscientious effort to achieve. “The way I would even go past gutters, you wouldn’t believe it,” he laughed. “I think blind people live by flashbacks,” he explained. “Always, we commit the paths we take and the places we go into memory so we can do it alone without help or with minimal help the next time.”

This, he reckoned, has significantly sharpened his memory. “My memory has become stronger. I’ve even observed that those who are totally blind are more intelligent than partially blind people, especially in academics, because of the memory factor. Due to the fact that you can’t see anything, the mind if always working overtime. What it means is that the function of the eye has been added to the memory. The mind is doing double work.”

Gilbert studied Government, History, Literature and Akuapem Twi as his electives at Okuapeman. He recalled walking up to the blackboard at times when teachers were not in class to teach his colleagues. During his time there, he attained popularity not least because of his gregarious nature. 

He became notorious, too, for being someone who always fought for his rights. He was alert and outspoken, difficult to subdue or outwit. People often say blind people are sensitive about their rights because not being able to see triggers an inevitable paranoia, especially given the tendency of humans to be deceptive and exploitative.  “I remember sometimes when I’d get to the dining hall and I’d ask if there was a vacancy on a table I wanted to sit on. The people on it, knowing very well that there were vacancies, would say no, just because they didn’t want me sitting by them. I can sense when the table is empty, and also when they are lying. It got to a time I would get there and I wouldn't even ask and I’d sit. They couldn’t share the food without giving me. Naah, it's impossible,” he said, shaking his head. “When you fight for your rights too much, people see you as arrogant, but that's okay because that's their opinion anyway. I always fight for my rights because when you are quiet, people will take you for granted."

***

YEARS LATER, and after passing his WASSCE with distinction, Gilbert gained admission into the University of Ghana. He has been here for a few weeks. Observing him, it is easy to notice that, 13 years after his sight got slighted by a sling and a stone, he seems to have moved on, to have mastered the art of seeing without seeing. Braille is a breeze for him. He uses a laptop that has an audio software that guides him. He is able to use a phone – “I’m able to search for contacts by typing in the names because I know the keypad very well. When someone calls, I answer and try and make out the person’s voice.”

Gilbert has chosen not to be vindictive towards Amos, the boy behind that fateful throw. He spoke of how, despite the fact that his mother antagonized Amos, he forgave him long ago and decided it was futile accommodating bitterness. There was no time, really, because he was busy trying to figure out how to overcome the storm of challenges that his loss of sight heaved on his life. “There is no bad blood,” he said. “There was one time when we went back visiting Sunyani in 2010. When we got there he was sent for to come see me after all those years, but he did not come,” he recalled. “I don’t know if he still felt guilty or it was deliberate. But there are no issues. What’s done is done.”

Gilbert said he is always looking forward and never looking back. “If I ever go back (to seeing again) that’s fine. If I don’t, it’s fine too,” he said with a grin. Basically, he does not want to labour his mind or vex his spirit with wishful thinking or chronic moping, because he genuinely feels in his heart that he can have a great life regardless. “My blindness is not something that can serve as a hindrance in my life. For me, anything that I want to achieve, I think I can achieve it without the eye. If it were to be that the losing of it has been an obstacle or a restriction in my life, then that would have been a different case. I rather want to think about how I will move forward in life than to think about my eye. Because, what’s the point?”

Gilbert is excited about life in Legon. He said he is yet to fully acquaint himself with the whole of campus. “I’m new here and my environment is relatively alien. I’ve not fully surveyed this campus – and it’s a big campus too. For instance, the road leading to NNB (a lecture hall south of campus) is very complex and I’m always thinking about how to keep it in my mind and do it myself.  But you see, this is only my first semester. There is time and there is hope. I remember when you guys first met me, Andre asked me if Azamati (a very popular level 400 blind student) was partially blind or totally blind.  You see, he has been here for close to four years and so knows all the corners. I will get there once a bit of time passes because I’m determined. Once I get into my stride there will be nowhere I wouldn’t be able to go. As time goes on I will become a pioneer on campus. I’m still learning. I know, for instance, that after you exit the Southern gate, the likes of Sarbah and CC (Central Cafeteria) are to your left.  And once you pass right you go to the Language center – where you took me the last time. You’ll see by the time we get to second semester you'll spot me walking around everywhere alone.”

The problem, though, is that Gilbert can never truly do things fully alone, though his smartness and outlandish determination has seen him significantly cut down the rate at which he depends on other people. I told Gilbert that I’ve always imagined that one of the biggest problems about being blind would be the loss of total self-dependence. That is, I’ve always felt that blind people – no matter how experienced they are – always need some degree of help, and that might feel terribly limiting. Gilbert agreed. He admitted that having to depend on people was one of the hardest things he had to deal with in the beginning. “There were times when I needed something very urgently and I couldn’t go there and had to ask for help and the people I’d ask would drag their feet.  I would then remember my old state and think: If I still had sight, I would have gone there myself, I would have gotten this stuff on my own without seeking for any assistance.”

The problem with being eternally confined to depending on people on the daily is that people are diverse in social attitude and aptitude. Some are nice, others are plain cold and rude. Gilbert, who admitted that he never hesitates to seek help, said: “There are some people when you want to seek help from them, the kind of attitude they would show…the horrible nature of the attitude makes you sometimes feel sad. Look at it this way; it’s like you having money in the past and not having it anymore. You always remember your hey days and go: Ah, those days when I used to have money I would have sorted myself out without having to go through all of this. It’s the same with having sight once upon a time and not having it anymore.”

Gilbert has met all manner of people in his quotidian routine of asking for help. “There are some people when they meet you, you wouldn’t even have to ask for help and they’d come closer to offer assistance. They’ll go, ‘oh, hello, do you need some help?’ Other people will see you going straight into a gutter and just look at you for you to fall before they tell you ‘sorry’.”

He recounted an anecdote from the day Andre and I met him. “That day, I was hungry, but no one was around for me to send. And even, you can’t just get up and send anyone just like that. So I said ‘lemme go’. I took my white cane and started moving. I had passed through the Southern Gate about two times so I had studied the place and pictured it in my mind. That morning we’d gone for a lecture at the Central Cafeteria – and I had been told CC is very close to Sarbah Hall. So I had an idea. Slowly, I kept moving and asking. I remember asking a certain lady who said: “Oh, Go forward.” Just like that. She didn’t even say “Oh, let me help you.” She just said, ‘Go forward’”

Was the lady not considerate enough to notice he was blind and thus needed help? Gilbert dismissed any attempt at giving her the benefit of the doubt. He thought it was a no brainer. “If someone sees you and you are blind, the person should see. You don’t need a DNA test to ascertain it!”

“I’ve heard a good amount of derogatory comments,” Gilbert continued. “I’ve had people comment sarcastically; “Na ono nso, ooko hen?” ['He, too, where is he going?’] when they see me struggling. Sometimes, I can feel deep within me that people are staring. There are some people, too, when they see a visually impaired person or a person with disability they feel superior to them; they feel they are better.”

But Gilbert is not worried about cruelty he is subjected to at times. He chooses to be a relentless optimist. “Back in SHS, I did not have anyone who helped me so when I came into University and I wasn’t assigned any help, it wasn’t anything new to me. I’ve been independent since I can remember. I still go by my business as usual. I don’t feel segregated or discriminated against: primarily because whenever you feel that way, your attitude also changes - because you always want people to help you. If you meet someone and the person is willing to help, you have to accept. But if the person is not, you don’t have to force it because it’s voluntary and not compulsory. People are here for their own duties and they have their own business to take care of so you have to understand. I don’t feel resented or offended just because I don’t get people to help me. Not at all.”

Help or no help, Gilbert has a spirit of fearlessness that drives him to get up and get doing, even when he has no idea of the location of the place he’s going. “I will never be in a situation where I want to go somewhere and I won’t go because I don’t have help,” he said.  “No. Even if my destination is in the bush I will still go there. I will manage and struggle and before I realize I will be there. When I fall in the gutter I willl get back up and take it as a lesson; no problem at all. In the end, I know when I go there I will not die; that I will definitely come back.” 

This spunk, though, is not infinite – it has a limit. Gilbert said that there is one thing he will never risk doing without help: crossing a road. “Some roads are large and always busy and when you joke, you won’t go scot free,” he said, his voice burdened with grave emphasis. "I’ve promised myself never to risk it.  Because you don’t know the misfortune that could happen – and I’ve not achieved what I want to achieve in life too."

Those last words were uttered with utter bottle, and it was infectious. Gilbert maintains a fiery fidelity with a belief that he will be great in future. It probably offers a degree of explanation for his striking strength of spirit. “You know there are people who can see your fortunes; where you’ll get to in life, what you can be. I’ve been told by several people, in the form of prophesies, that I’ll be a famous person; someone who will occupy a big position. All the time, I keep feeling that that thing is there waiting for me. I always sense that there is something ahead of me, something I’ve not yet achieved, so therefore I’m always working diligently towards that," he said.

I asked Gilbert a question that in my heart felt very difficult, but in my curiosity-driven head felt necessary. Does the fact that he will never be able to literally see the results of his anticipated greatness ever worry him? His answer was selfless and sagacious. “It doesn’t bother me because even if I don’t see, my generation will see. There are times when what you will do, you yourself won’t benefit from it. Other people will come and benefit. So when people come after me and they find out that there was someone called Gilbert who occupied this position or who did this; that one alone is a plus.”

We had reached a point in conversation where I wanted Gilbert to let me into the experience of being blind. I wanted to understand the state in which he’s been for the past 13 years. What do blind people see? Darkness? White light? Is there tangible substance to their vision, or its all blank? How does it all work?

I shut my eyes and told him that all I could see  - which is not even technically possible, if you think about it, because one can’t see with closed eyes – was a darkness that was pitch black, with very minute violet coloured dots scattered across. “Is it the same for you?” I asked. He laughed as I struggled to explain, as I grappled with the words to carry my point across. “Ok,” he began. “You see, when you are blind, people have this perception that you are in darkness, but its not true,” he explained. “How are you in darkness when you are imagining your surroundings all the time?”

“Besides, you can feel things. When it is day, you can feel it. When it is night, you can too. When Im going somewhere and there’s a building, I can feel it…I can feel that there is something huge in front of me. When there is someone in front of me, too, I can feel the person’s presence, just that I won’t be able to tell who it is, unless I catch a whiff of their perfume or natural scent. You know people have natural scents right?” he continued.

I looked at my phone and realized that we had been speaking for just over an hour.  Andre and I were due to attend a Human Resource Management (under Political Science) lecture at 3.30pm and it was almost 3, and so we said our goodbyes to Gilbert, who in turn said he was going to take a nap as he had no lecture to attend for the rest of the day. I told him I hoped to start writing a long-form feature on him soon. He was excited. “That’s great,” he said, his face creased with a heartwarming beam. “I’m ready to give you any information you need to make it a great article. I enjoyed this conversation.”

As Andre and I angled into the corridor just outside of Gilbert’s room, we both looked at each other momentarily, without saying a word, and continued walking. Gilbert’s story had had us dumbfounded.

“Life!” I finally managed to say.

“Oh chale!” he responded, shaking his head.