Yesterday I woke up early—like, ungodly early. A week ago I got a puppy, whom I adore, but he seems to think 4:30 in the morning is a perfectly reasonable time to wake up and start playing. I put up with this until about 5:30, at which point I threw him outside and crawled back into bed. I fell asleep and had a crazy/silly dream, then woke up about an hour and a half later in a better mood and ready to start my day. But then Kofi knocked my door.
Sunday afternoon Kofi and Ama left to take Kennet to Dormaa, a city about three hours away with a large hospital. Kennet had been sick for about a week at this point, and he just kept getting weaker. Sandra, his six-year-old sister, told me the plan was to take Kennet to the hospital Monday morning, but Ama changed her mind and decided he needed to go Sunday. I was relieved; Kennet had been very sick for days, and it was unlike anything I had seen before. Since Dormaa is so far, and they left late, Kofi didn’t return until around 9:30 pm Sunday evening. As usual, Ama stayed at the hospital with Kennet.
Around 7 am, Kofi knocked on my door, which was unusual. He greeted me good morning, then remarked that he didn’t see me when he returned home the night before (I was in bed and I heard him arrive, but I didn’t get up to talk to him). He said he thought I had gone out or something. This was a weird comment, because he knows I never go out at night, and if I happen to be out in the village after dark, I always return way before 9:30. Then he made another comment that made no sense, and I asked if he was OK. He said, “I have to go to Dormaa because Kennet has gone.” Again confused, I asked, “Gone where? To another hospital? Or is he coming home?” His voice breaking, Kofi said, “No, Kennet is dead.” It was the kind of moment where your heart stops and everything in front of your eyes spins and there is a sudden ringing in your ears. I grab the door frame to brace myself and say, “Kennet . . . died?” and Kofi said “Yes, they called me this morning and told me so I must go to Dormaa now. I just wanted you to know.” It’s at that point that I notice Kofi is dressed in all black, and there are an unusual number of people in the house, so it starts to hit me that it must be really true. Then Sandra comes running up, with her usual bundle of energy and big smile on her face and she proudly holds up Oliver and says, “Mam B, I bring your dog!” I thank her and then stand on the porch to watch Kofi, Sandra, and their entourage of family and friends slowly walk away from the house towards the station.
With the family in Dormaa all day, the house was completely empty and I had a lot of time to sit and try to process what had just happened. My first thought was ‘I should have made them take him to a hospital sooner. Why didn’t I make them take him to the hospital? I knew how sick he was.’ I arrived home Tuesday with Oliver. When I left a few days before that, Kennet was fine. More than fine, he seemed absolutely healthy. I remember how just a week and a half ago Kofi taught me how to make palm nut soup. It’s a delicious soup and one of my favorites, but it is quite a process to make it. Plus it’s really rich, so people don’t make it very often. It’s a treat when you get it. Kennet and Sandra came home and when they heard what we were making Kennet started jumping up and down singing “Abe nkwan! Abe nkwan! (Palm nut soup! Palm nut soup!)” It was adorable and made everyone laugh. So when I returned last week with my dog, I was saddened and confused to see that Kennet was sick once again.
But Kennet wasn’t sick like I had seen any child sick before. He suddenly couldn’t walk, and his mom carried him everywhere tied to her back. When she needed a break, Kofi would take over and tie Kennet to his back. It is very rare for men to carry children tied to their backs this way. The day after I returned I was washing dishes outside and Kofi came over to talk about Obama’s win the night before. He had Kennet tied to him. I asked why Kennet was being carried everywhere, and Kofi said “His legs and hands are paining him so he cannot walk. He is sick again.” I felt his forehead for a fever, but didn’t detect one. Kennet barely glanced at me, and when he did, he eyes were unfocused.
As the days went on, Kennet became more and more weak. He stopped crying altogether, but would faintly moan and whimper most of the time. Ama began to make an herbal medicine out of tree barks and plant roots to rub on his limbs to try to ease his pain. Nothing seemed to give him any comfort. Saturday night, the whole family sat together in the living room. Ama propped Kennet up in a chair so he could feel like “he was part of the conversation,” she said giggling. That’s one thing about Ama, she loves to laugh. Even when her child is terribly ill she finds something to laugh about. It’s then I can look at Kennet completely, not obscured and hidden behind a two-yard tied to his parents back, and I see just how sick he is. His limbs are like twigs, his stomach large and distended. His cheeks are hallowed and his eyes are very yellow, moving slowly back and forth not focusing on anything. He sits there unmoving for a time, then begins to whimper for the comfort of his mother again. She picks him up and lays him down on the couch with his feet resting on my legs. I try to talk to him, but he doesn’t acknowledge me. I whisper to him, “Stay strong Kennet. You need to get better!” This is the last time I see Kennet alive.
As the day goes on, I shift from blaming myself to wondering why things like this happen to good families, to sweet, innocent children. Kofi and Ama are model parents, and Kennet was full of love and light. I remind myself that’s why I’m here, to try to save babies from avoidable deaths. But at the same time, an internal struggle rages—if loving, rich parents can’t save their baby, what can I possibly do to protect others from a similar fate? It seems like a losing battle, but at the same time it’s one I am more determined to fight, for Kennet.
Finally, around 7 pm they return. I am dreading this moment. What can I possibly do or say to comfort Ama? One minute, the house is quiet. Then, as she walks in the door, the whole house echoes with Ama’s cries of grief. I have never anything so terrible and so sad as a mother grieving the loss of her baby. I can’t describe it, but it’s enough to cripple you, to make you want to lay down on the floor and cry forever. Slowly, she begins to calm down and I brace myself and come out of my room. Ama is lying on the ground in front of her room, surrounded by quietly weeping women. I think facing the room she shared with Kennet was too much, and she can’t even get her keys out of her bag to open her door. Eventually, one of the women does it for her, and they encourage her to take a bath. Meanwhile, I go to the living room, where Kofi is sitting with the men. Eventually, Ama and the women come to join us. People come in and out of the house all night, paying their respects to the family. Ama is so distraught she can barely acknowledge them. I spend two hours there, which feels like a lifetime, and then I finally take my leave and go to bed.
Oliver woke me up early again this morning. I tried to go back to sleep, but I couldn’t. I Kennet’s face keeps floating into my mind, and I keep thinking of how I will never again hear him call out “Mam B!” in his sweet little voice first thing in the morning. As I started to write this blog, I heard singing. I looked out the window and see a single file line of women coming through the fog to the house. They were singing a hauntingly beautiful song, and the scene is so surreal and terribly sad it sends chills over my entire body and makes me start to cry immediately. They kept coming, dozens of them, and formed a semi-circle in front of the house, continuing to sing. Then a pastor said a prayer, and after he finished the women dispersed. Now, a line of men is making their way to the house to pay their respects. The family is well respected and well liked in the community, so I suspect there will be many visitors throughout the day.
I was just about to post this when I heard Sandra outside my door ask “Kennet wo ha? Kennet wo ha? (Where is Kennet? Where is Kennet?)”
This is almost too much to bear.