Oral History Excerpts

Kofi Nyarko
Ghana

Kofi Nyarko with one of his students in Ghana. 
Photo by Pamela Parlapiano

I was born on 17 July 1971 in Nyakomasi in the central region of Ghana. My mother died suddenly when I was six years old. It was a terrible shock and I did not really understand it until I was at the funeral. My feelings in the days and weeks following were indescribable. My father wasn’t really in the picture and died a year later from alcohol abuse. There was simply no one to care for me.

My mother had left four children, three girls and myself. A friend of my mother’s took my sisters to live in Kumasi right after her funeral. They stayed with her until they were old enough to leave home. I did not seem them again for 17 years.

I was given to my aunt, who had five children of her own, but I was never welcomed into the family. She put them first in everything. She made sure they were fed and only if there was some leftover food would I get anything to eat. Quite often I’d go to bed without food. I was neglected and sometimes I wasn’t even washed for three days at a time. I was beaten frequently. It was a terrible time. One of the sons tried to befriend me, but this would only get him into trouble. The others teased and tormented me. I was not loved there at all and I couldn’t see any point in living.

A few years later, I contracted leprosy, though I was unaware of it at the time. I just found that my skin was covered in red blotches. When I stepped on fire in Ghanian villages, accidents were frequent and I was burned a great deal, albeit unknowingly. This is what caused the damage to my hands and feet.

One day a traveling merchant saw me and recognized the signs of leprosy. He went with me to my aunt and asked her to take me to the hospital. She refused and told him that she didn’t have money to waste in such a way and was abusive to him. A week later he came secretly with some food for me and he took me to the leprosy hospital. No one from my village knew. I was 10 years old.

The leprosy hospital was a shock. It was the first time I’d seen anyone with amputations and it scared me and worried me. I was despondent about my future. I could only feel sad. Once more I lost the will to live.

I was in the hospital only a week before Brother Vincent, a Franciscan missionary, visited me and took me to the child care center in a Catholic mission called Ahotokurom. Here, at last, I felt part of a family and my life changed for the better. He did go to my village to verify my story and let my aunt know where I was but she never came to see me or to try to get me back. I only saw her again after I was grown to independence and went to visit her.

When I was 17, I moved to Ankaful camp, as it was then called. It was a place where many people who had been cured of leprosy lived – those who did not want to return to their hometowns. I was being fed from the community kitchen but learning to live independently. While it was very hard for me, I did succeed and I even began my secondary education. The problem was that many students did not want me to play with me. I was an ex-leprosy patient and I had disabilities. There was even a teacher who refused to mark my work. Thank God for two boys, James and Joseph, who did play with me. They made my life bearable. All this gave me a determination to help people with disabilities because when people reject you, life does not seem worth living.

I passed my secondary school examinations in 1993 when I was 22, but it would have been very difficult for me to continue my education because this would almost inevitably require me to be a boarder. With my disabilities, being a day student was difficult enough; boarding students would not have accepted me.

I then started to help one or two children at Ahotokurom who had special needs. Sister Pat then decided to set up a special educational needs unit and I began teaching there in 1995 when I was 24.

I met Lucy when she came from her hometown to have some treatment at the leprosy hospital. She understood my situation and, despite a great deal of discrimination and criticism from others, Lucy was strong in her commitment. She dismissed them all and we were married in April, 1994. So by God’s grace I was and still am a teacher at Ahotokurom and I am married with three children, two boys and a girl – Patrick, Nyarko and Mary.

In the year 2001, when Father Doug was visiting Ahotokurom he brought an invitation for me to visit England and spend some time in the parish primary school. I was shocked and couldn’t imagine how such an expense could be met, but when Sister Pat began preparing my official application, I began to take it seriously. It so happened that when I was waiting for my passport to be made available at the passport office, I met the very same teacher who’d previously refused to mark my schoolwork. He was working there now. He sneered: “What are you doing here?” I told him that I was awaiting a passport so that I could travel to England. He’d been trying to travel for many years and was shocked and couldn’t believe that someone whom he’d looked down upon so much should have such a privilege.

The symbol -- Gye Nyame

Introduction

The Oral History Project

Recovering Voices From
the Distant Past

Oral History Excerpts

Oral History Collections

Stigma, Identity and Human Rights
Conference on Robben Island

Oral History Guidelines

Terminology

Books Written by People Who
Have Had Leprosy

Contact Information

It is yet another example of how my life has been transformed – changed for the better, from a deprived childhood of suffering to the present day where I have a wife, a family, a home, a job and a wonderful trip to England. Ghana’s national symbol is the “Gye Nyame”. It means “Only God” or “Except for God” and that is what is behind the changes in my life -- “Only God”.

-- Autobiographical sketch by Kofi Nyarko for the Oral History Project