Saturday, 14 November 2015

Gilbert Agyare has a story: Part IV


[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 sprang 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 smile 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.


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.

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 when he had to start a new life; when he had to go through intensive orientation for the visually impaired; when he had to to live without sight. “When you’re going through that process, you deduce certain ways of doing your things. Your brain has to work faster than before. 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, also in the East.

Spurred on by a steely resolve to solve problems, 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 is 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 intense popularity, not least because of his gregarious nature. 

He gain notoriety, 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 could sense when the table was empty, and also, when they were 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 was 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 stone-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 sight. 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 Hall 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 get it and so had to ask for help. 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 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 eh…the horrible nature of their 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, in 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 too, 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?’ But other people will see you going straight into a gutter and just look at you till you fall before they'll 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 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?’, in a mocking and condescending tone] 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 automatically 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 this 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 a gutter I will 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 I'm 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.



Thursday, 12 November 2015

Gilbert Agyare has a story: Part II

"If I had seen it, I would have dodged"


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

I COULD NOT meet Gilbert until four days after I returned from Nairobi. A couple of mid-semester tests soon after my arrival kept me busy, and indeed I would have allowed my busy schedule to unleash the bane procrastination unto my plans of meeting him had it not been for Andre.

Andre had been texting me endlessly – even when I was in Nairobi – that he felt we should visit and get to know Gilbert. He told me that he similarly had a feeling about him and that, like me, he yearned to know more about him.

We showed up in front of Gilbert’s room one Thursday afternoon, knocked, and got a vociferous order from behind the door to ‘come in please.’ When we walked in, we found him standing in front of his bed, dressed up, a backpack strapped to his back.

He told us that he was leaving for Mankessim, a town in the Central Region – where he stays with his family. He was going away for the weekend, but would be back on Sunday. We had a brief conversation, and I remember him chortling profusely when Andre asked if he used a phone. “I even use a laptop!” he joked. “Don’t worry, there are a lot of misconceptions about blind people and so its natural for you guys to wonder when it comes to these things,” he added, and smiled.

We walked him to the street just behind Legon Hall, where we found a taxi that was headed out to a bus-stop at Okponglo - just outside of campus. From Okponglo, he’d need a troski (mini bus/van) that would take him to Kwame Nkrumah Circle, a loud, crowded bastion of business activity close to Central Accra, which is also known for being a hub of bus terminals. From Circle, he would board a bus that would drive him for about an hour and a half to Mankessim. We looked at the route and worried about him doing it all alone, but he told us not to worry, assuring us that’d he’d been on his own on such travels many times and that he would be fine.

As the taxi drove off, we watched in awe and wondered how such a young blind person could feel so at ease, so brave, doing things that even sighted people consider a chore.


GILBERT HAD BEEN resting on his bed, lying on his back. It was a Monday. The room was dark, but his laptop – which was placed beside him – was still on, and so it offered some illumination. Andre and I announced our presence and it was clear he was pleased to encounter us again. He sat up, on the edge of his bed, ready to converse.

We had gone to visit him with the hope of having a chat. We hoped to cure our curiosity, to find out more about him. My specific intention had been to first have a preliminary chat to acquaint myself properly with him and his situation, then to schedule an interview with him for a later date – by which time I figured I would have fixed my faulty voice recorder.

But it didn’t go according to plan. Andre’s understandable inquisitiveness led him to ask Gilbert a series of questions, from how he manages to use a phone and a laptop, through to how he manages to read braille. Then, probably carried away by Gilbert’s fascinating answers, as well as encouraged by his refreshing openness, Andre pushed the boundaries and asked the question. The question we had both thought was sensitive and so would come up in an interaction at a later date.

How did you become blind? That question.

After the words left his mouth, Andre impulsively followed them up with an apology. “I hope I’m not being too intrusive and please its okay if you don’t want to talk about it.”

Gilbert laughed. “Oh it’s okay, don’t worry,” he assured. “I have no problems talking about my past…

“I have not always been blind, I…”

Instinctively, I pulled out my phone in the spur of the moment and cut in. For some reason, I felt a sudden urge to record him. I asked. Fortunately, he had no issues. “Oh sure, why not?” he said, courteously inviting me to conduct an impromptu interview. I had no plan, no blueprint of questions, no idea of how to go about it – but I did it anyway. Deep down, I harboured a lingering hope that the spontaneity would be a blessing.

In hindsight, it turned out to be. Because what followed was quite intense.

He opened up, in a no holds barred manner, about the difficult subject, beginning a narration that took Andre and I on an engrossing excursion back to that day, that moment, when his life was changed forever.


FOR THE FIRST 10 years of his life, Gilbert could see. He once had the perceived might of sight. He could see the clear blue sky, the birds that chirp and fly. He could see a ball hurtling towards his foot on a dusty pitch, or an airplane humming as it scythed through the clouds above.

He had eyes. Two eyes, all in perfect condition. But they wouldn’t last.  He lost them. Studies have shown that the leading causes of blindness in Ghana are cataract, trachoma and glaucoma – all ruthless diseases that steal sight with deceptive patience. But Gilbert lost his sight to none of these.

He lost his eyes to a stone. A gut-wrenching exception.

The roller-coaster that is life can take such sharp turns, such sudden steep descents, at times when we least expect. The scary bit is that we never know. That’s the thing. We are all, almost always, at the mercy of potential disaster because no one ever knows what will happen in the next moment.

If Gilbert had known, he would have never turned when he heard his name that fateful day. But he had no say. The gods of fate had met and decided to cruelly bang the gavel of misfortune on his destiny. There was very little he could do. And so he turned, innocently, oblivious of the misfortune that was to strike.

Statistics say that 80% of blindness in Ghana could have been avoided. This suggests that the majority of cases are characterized by an element of prior knowledge, of prior control, of prior influence, of prior power to effect change. But, as far as he was concerned, at least, Gilbert had none of these. None.

It was too late. The stone flew into his face and invaded the socket of his right eye with a velocity that was as vicious as its ferocity. His eyeball could not withstand the crush. It raptured. He let out a loud cry, but what had happened was irreversible.

That was it. A split second. A decisive moment of impact. A tragedy in a flash.


THE BIBLICAL TALE of David and Goliath, for those who have heard it, is considered to be a feel-good story; one that inspires hope, one that fuels the courage to face daunting tests, one that ignites the will to triumph against the odds.

But for Gilbert, it is a story that he probably wishes never existed. That story, for him, is one that brings fright. Because that epic fight contributed to him losing his sight.

In 2002, Gilbert lived in Sunyani in the Brong Ahafo Region, a few miles north of Kumasi. He lived in a neighbourhood quarters built for officials of the Sunyani division of the Ghana National Fire Service. His father was a fireman who had settled there with his family; a wife and five kids, 10-year-old Gilbert inclusive.

In that same neighbourhood lived a boy named Amos. Amos was Gilbert’s coeval. His friend. They were stereotypical childhood buddies; they played together, fought each other, teased each other, loved each other, and hated each other at times. But they were friends, above all things, after all was said and done.

This friendship, though, would become eternally bruised on the day Amos came back from church and raved about a new story he’d heard: the story of David and Goliath.

A hive of neighbourhood kids encircled Amos that afternoon and buzzed in anticipation of his narration. He had the honey – the story they wanted to hear. He had heard the pastor at church preach about the story of David and Goliath – and the famed fable had aroused his wildest imagination and stirred up an urge of adventure. He told the kids about how the Pastor even went out of his way to perform a live demonstration of that occasion; of how David slinged the stone that sank into the forehead of the giant and floored him face down. Apparently, the pastor had done it flawlessly, with a sense of athleticism that fetched a loud roar of approval from the excited congregation.

Amos had been fascinated by that show and he wanted in on the fun. He wanted to be sure if he had grasped the process. He wanted to pull off a remake.

He was prepared, too. He already had a sling and a stone. Impatiently, he made away from the huddle of kids and found a free area where he could properly position himself to throw his body’s weight behind his arm. Then, he swung his sling and sent the stone hurling with foul force.


MEANWHILE, GILBERT WAS standing with a friend, heartily conversing, just a few blocks away. He had not been a part of the kids that Amos had hypnotized with his church drama story. That interaction had happened behind him, out of his ear shot, out of his sight. 

It was all none of his business.

But it would be soon.

“Gilbert!” one of the children called out, presumably to warn him to get out of the way of Amos’ experiment. The other children were scattering as the stone tore through the afternoon air. But Gilbert had not known. “I was not even looking in their direction,” he recounted. “My back was turned to them.”

He had not known, too, that that stone in flight was destined to change his life. “If I had seen it, I would have dodged,” he said.

But he did not see it. He had thought it was merely someone calling him. And so he turned. And it happened. 


Link to PART III

Link to PART IV:

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Gilbert Agyare has a story: PART I

Author's note:

The following is a long-form feature story; a result of many weeks of observation, interaction and writing. 

Because of its length (over 9,500 words; originally meant to be a magazine piece) I decided to break it down in parts due to the segmented nature of the content as well as the vertical length limitations on my blog. Thus, the one below will be the first of FOUR serialized accounts.  

It is set in the University of Ghana where (for those who aren't already aware) I live as a final year student majoring in Political Science.

It is not a sports piece, (un)fortunately.

I apologize in advance. ;-)



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

ANDRE WAS exasperated. But yet still, he was attentive enough to notice. And that was crucial.

It was a Monday afternoon, and the sun’s burning heat loomed with fury. We were in the middle of Mensah Sarbah Hall, right in front of the water fountain that has not had a single drop of water for as long as we can remember. We were there to meet a mutual friend of ours, Jude, to get learning materials for a course for which we were to write a test the following morning. We were desperate, and it didn’t help that our friend was delaying. That was why Andre Ankumah, my friend and course-mate, was exasperated.

As more minutes elapsed without us witnessing the slightest sign of Jude’s arrival, Andre could not bottle up his impatience. His complaints became loud and incessant and, coupled with the over bearing heat, it was all barely bearable. I tried to calm him down, but I could not keep up. 

I guess I should admit that it got funny at a point. Andre kept preaching a list of things he’d do and say to rebuke Jude, and some of those things were so ridiculous that I could not stop myself from laughing out loud at times.

Then, all of a sudden, his tone became subdued. “What’s happening to that guy?” I heard him whisper. I had by this time lost him, as I was going through my phone to answer some whatsapp messages. But I heard him, for some reason – perhaps because of a curiosity to find out what could have made him divorce his frustration so abruptly.

“Who?” I asked, my head searching our environs. Andre stretched his hands and pointed to our left.

That is when I saw him. Gilbert Agyare. 

Wielding his white cane, he was walking slowly, with a sense of conspicuous caution that betrayed his determination to look like he was in control. But he wasn’t. And it was obvious.

Bafflingly, people stared as he struggled. What was striking, and worrying, was that that was all they did - stare. Just that.

None of them stepped up to offer help or assistance. They just had their eyes locked on him, their faces sporting worried looks – as if they were sympathizing with him through some sort of telekinetic medium. They looked on as he took calculated steps, as he veered off from the pavement unto the lawn, as he momentarily paused to survey his path with his stick. As he looked lost.

Soon, the people staring had two more people to stare at, because Andre and I walked up to him.

Gilbert told us, in his arresting baritone voice, that he was a Freshman who had been on campus for just two weeks. This meant that he did not know his surroundings that much, hence the difficulty that had caused such a spectacle.

A resident of my Hall, Legon Hall, he had come to Sarbah Hall to purchase food to eat, after trying without success to find someone to send or escort him. Impressively, he had managed to come to Sarbah all alone. And he was planning on going back the same way.

Since Jude had still not arrived, Andre – who drives a car – suggested that we take him back to Legon Hall. We did.

On arrival, I volunteered to take him to his room because I knew where it was located. When he got settled, I told him that I would come see him later to check up on him.

While I walked back to Andre’s car, my mind was immersed in thoughts. It beat my mind as to why a blind freshman could have been left to fend for himself on such a big campus.


THE NEXT DAY, while on my way back from buying a few items from a provision store a few blocks away from my hall, I ran into Gilbert.

Again, he was alone. He was walking on the pavement isle that cuts through Legon Hall’s interior, flanked by lawns on either side. I went up to him and asked where he was headed to. “I have a lecture at the language center but I do not know where it is. I figured I’d walk to the Southern gate and ask for help,” he said.

Again, though he seemed perfectly fine and even enthused about the adventure of exploring campus on his own (he gave me a fascinating explanation about how he had used the Southern Gate twice and so had visualized it and safely stored it in his memory) I felt heartbroken. I told him, without hesitating, that I’d help him get there.

As we made our way to the language center, I found out, through conversation, that Gilbert is offering the very same courses I was assigned when I was a freshman: Political Science, Archaeology and Philosophy. It was interesting, too, to find out that he has dreams of becoming a journalist. The similarities I found between him and I drew me even more closer to him. During that walk, I asked him why he always seemed so determined to do things on his own despite his condition. His response was thought provoking. “I believe in making an effort to get things done, because though a blind person should never shy away from asking for help, I believe it is not right to be a bother, to be a parasite.”

While he told me a bit about himself, I noticed something peculiar about his personality: he was so confident and fearless, so defiant, and bore not the slightest sign of self-pity or inherent despair. Inspiration radiated from his speech, his demeanor, and it added to an unmissable natural charisma.

I found his resilience having a profound effect on me, and I thought a lot about it during my short walk back to Legon Hall, after I had helped him settle in his lecture room.

There was something about him.



I DID NOT meet Gilbert again until over a week later. The day after my last meeting with him, I flew to Nairobi for the CNN African Journalist Awards finalists’ program. The packed activities, coupled with the feeling of being overwhelmed by my first ever out-of-Ghana-experience, meant Gilbert faded away in my thoughts for those few days.

But ultimately, he resurfaced in my mind again the night before I was due to leave. After emerging runner-up in the Sport Category at the grand ceremony on Saturday October 10, and after having a lot of well-meaning, lovely people tell me to keep up and not rest on my oars, I found myself brainstorming while I simultaneously packed for the trip back home.

What next? I consistently asked myself. Because of intensive work on a project since February, I had not written any feature story the whole year. I rummaged my mind for clues as to what I could write on, a story that would inspire and challenge me, a story that was worth telling - then it struck me. Gilbert!

I had probably ran into him for a reason. He was not the first blind person I had seen – it is estimated that there are about 240,000 blind people in Ghana -  neither was he the first that I’d acquainted myself with. But there was something about him that pulled me to his personality. My thirst to find out more about him started growing. I was excited about getting back home, back to campus, and meeting him once again.


THE NEXT MORNING, at the airport, while waiting to board a flight back to Ghana, I was seated by Mr Shola Oshunkeye, the 2006 CNN MultiChoice African Journalist of the Year. We had a very educative conversation on journalism, and he imparted some really invaluable knowledge. He told me something that spoke to me. 

“You often hear journalists complain that there are no stories to cover,” he began. “That usually comes from lazy journalists. Because, trust me, there are stories everywhere. They are around as. They may not be the big or spectacular news, you know, the obvious ones, but there are everyday occurrences that are worth telling. You just have to look closely. You just have to be very observant of the smallest details about the things you see and experience.”

His words thrust me into a state of imagination. Then, immediately, I had an epiphany. Gilbert! Again. The signs were buzzing. Everything was pointing to him.

I began thinking. What if I spoke to him? What if I observed him and probed deeper into his character? Into his life? Into his experience without sight? I could not shrug off the feeling that he would have a story worth telling, a lesson worth elucidating.

I figured: Gilbert might not have a background that is usually considered newsworthy - you know, the usually sad, negative, sympathy magnets like a poor family, a hardscrabble childhood, maltreatment, and the like. 

I wasn't bothered about the possibility of not finding such themes. All that mattered was that I felt I was being inspired by a niggling curiosity to talk to him. And this urge was strong. 

Besides, I thought: not every story has to be spectacular. Every story, no matter how normal or inconsequential it seems, helps in understanding life in one way or the other. There’s value in every tale, however mundane, and someone has to be bold to tell that tale in order to unearth that value. 

And so, even on the back of the discouraging feeling that it all felt random and risky, I made a final decision to write about him nonetheless. I remember assuring myself, in my head: “Just write. Ask and write. Write about anything you find out. Don’t think too much about where it leads you or worry too much about not finding out anything interesting. You never know. Just write.”

To be very honest, I had no idea what I was going to find out. Or even, how I was going to go about it – I’m more comfortable writing sports stories, and so I wondered how I was going to make a connection that would allow me bring his story to life.

Amid all this contemplation, the only thing I knew for sure, at that point, was that I was determined; driven by something I found hard to place my hands on.


Link to PART II