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 MensahSarbah 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.
But, admittedly, 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’s 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 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 the 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’ programme. The packed activities, coupled with the feeling of being overwhelmed by my first ever international trip and 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 book 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. AGilbert! 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 and unearth it.
And so, even on the back of the discouraging feeling that it felt 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.
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 back pack 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 campus. From Opkonglo, 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 consider a chore.
To be continued December 5, 2017