An 8-year old girl’s struggle to cope with cerebral palsy in a community where people suffering with the disease are routinely misunderstood and viewed as incapable of contributing meaningfully to the society is the theme of the debut novel Definition of a Miracle by Ghanaian writer Farida Bedwei.
The book is steadily catching the attention of readers and garnering praise for the author.
Farida who was born in Lagos, Nigeria, spent most of her childhood in Dominica, Grenada and the U.K. before her family moved to Ghana where Definition of a Miracle is set. She was 9 years old at the time.
She was diagnosed with cerebral palsy when she was 10 days old. Cerebral palsy refers to any one of a number of neurological disorders that appear in infancy or early childhood and permanently affect body movement, posture and muscle coordination. Because of the condition, Farida was home schooled by her mother until she was 12 when she entered mainstream school for the first time. To everyone’s surprise, she overcome the odds against her and excelled academically and has risen to become one of the top software engineers in Ghana.
Although it is not autobiographical, Definition of a Miracle ushers readers into the world of persons with cerebral palsy and provides a heart wrenching portrayal of the physical discomforts and psychological pain caused by public intolerance that people like Farida have to endure on a daily basis. The story revolves around 8-year old Zaara, the daughter of a Christian mother and Muslim father, both from Ghana and both educated at a prestigious UK university, after migrating from their homeland to England to further their education.
The youngest of three children, all born in the UK, Zaara is diagnosed with cerebral palsy at birth, much to her parents’ shock, especially her mother, Ayorkor who is traumatized by the disclosure. The doctor’s attempt to persuade her to arrange institutionalised care for the baby leaves her appalled and enraged to the point that she had to be restrained from attacking him. As far as she is concerned, where she came from women look after their children themselves and do not throw them away just because they’re sick. Behind her intensely emotional reaction is a deep love for her sickly baby and it sets the tone for Ayorkor’s protective attitude towards the child, and her almost manic determination to do whatever it takes to find a cure for her, even at the risk of jeopardising her relationship with her husband.
Eventually the pressures of everyday life in London and increasing tension in the home prove too much for Zaara’s parents and they decide to return to Ghana with Zaara and her siblings. It is a homecoming that is fraught with continuing tensions and turmoil as Ayorkor and her husband who, up until Zaara’s birth, had been living harmoniously, begin to bicker and squabble as they struggle to adjust to life in Ghana. It reaches a point where Zaara and her siblings fear their family is disintegrating.
Meanwhile the couple have to cope with the clash of cultures which becomes painfully obvious as they try to raise their Westernized children in a society steeped in ancient traditions, and where diseases like cerebral palsy are viewed as spiritual ailments caused by evil spirits, bad karma or witchcraft.
Out of desperation and undying love for her daughter, Ayorkor succumbs to the conventional wisdom of her culture that suggests Zaara’s only hope for deliverance from her ailment lies in the hands of tribal elders, native doctors – or alternatively religious crusades led by fiery preachers and where people speak in tongues and become consumed by the Holy Spirit.
Going through the culture shock, Zara searches for her place in a community where she’s often stared at and talked about, and is paraded from religious crusades to prayer houses in the hope of finding a cure for her condition. Few people seem willing to accept her for who she is. Through it all, she discovers her inner strength and gradually comes to terms with her disabilities.
Farida’s writing style is simple and unpretentious. The narrative, written in the first person, is conveyed from the perspective of a precocious Zaara recounting her harrowing life experiences with sobering candour and disarming wit and humour. To a great extent, her ability to see the lighter side of life despite the trials she faces underscores her youthful courage and her determination not to give in to discouragement and despair.
“I wrote this book for two reasons; to give the West a different perspective about Ghana and Africa as a whole, and to give my countrymen and women a new perspective on people with physical disabilities,” says Farida. ” Most people do not know the difference between physical and mental disabilities. So, it is assumed that, just because you walk funny, slur your words a little or gesticulate in an inelegant fashion, you are also mentally impaired. If you don’t force them to reckon with you, society will not regard you as a thinking person. I’ve been in a lot of situations where I felt my thinking abilities were being questioned because of my physical appearance. Whilst I made sure it didn’t happen again with the parties involved, it gets downright irritating always having to prove that you are on an equal footing with everyone else.
“I want readers to have a totally different perspective about the physically-challenged, after reading the book. They should realise that we have the same wants, needs, expectations and emotions as any able-bodied person. We’re just like everybody else – just trapped in uncooperative bodies.”
Definition of a Miracle lays bare Farida’s pride in her homeland and her affection for her people. Like many African writers, she takes umbrage at the Western media’s tendency to focus predominantly on negative aspects of life on the continent.
“I want people to realise there’s more to the African continent than the safari, diseases, wars and poverty. I got tired of reading the western world’s take on the ‘African Story’, which is usually filled with wars, famines and diseases. Sometimes, after hearing an account from the foreign media about your town, you wonder whether you are in the same town they are talking about. The quoted HIV infection rate is so high that you’d expect our friends and family members dropping off, at least, once a month from AIDS. Yet, most of us don’t know anyone with the disease. There’s another ‘story of Africa’ that talks about the mundane lives of the middle class; the professionals who are striving to get ahead in their careers, the husbands and wives going through average marital challenges, the rebellious teenagers who are trying to outsmart authority figures. These stories won’t get told unless we, who live these lives, tell them.”
For Caribbean readers who have an interest in the region’s cultural and historical links to Africa, Definition of a Miracle vividly portrays Ghana’s age-old social and religious customs (and its more recent passion for Christian fundamentalism) some of which will have a familiar ring in many of the islands, especially those with French-Creole cultures where many folk traditions retain a strong West African flavour. By the same token, you get a sense of how far Caribbean people of African descent have drifted from their ancestral moorings under the pressures of Western influences.
For her part, Farida has fond memories of the time she spent living in Dominica and Grenada. In 1981, when she was 2 ½ years old, her father who worked for the UNDP was posted to Dominica. He took his family with him.
“Growing up, I remember going to carnivals, watching revellers dance in the Wob Dwiyet, children dressed up as the sissero parrot doing dance formations, and being carried on my mother’s back on a trek to the Boiling Lake. It probably sounds very exotic and exciting to most, but those of us who grew up there took it all for granted. The islanders were largely very friendly and warm. During that period, I was homeschooled, so I didn’t have much contact with the other children on the island. It was only when my sister went to children parties, or children of other expatriates came by our house, that I played with them.”
In 1984, she and her family left Dominica for the UK and spent some time in Manchester and Scotland before moving to the Comoros Islands.
“The UK was a totally different environment. Though it is one of the most disabled-friendly places in the world, the weather was colder and the people weren’t as friendly as the Dominicans. For me, moving to Grenada a couple of years later was kind of like going back home. We spent the first few months living on a golf-course (our compound was separated from the course by a fence), before moving to Richmond Hill, where we had a panoramic view of the island. Our house on Richmond Hill was less than a kilometre away from the prison, which at the time, held Bernard Coard, who had overthrown and executed President Maurice Bishop a few years back. From the bedrooms, you could see all the yachts and other luxury boats which frequently came to the island. I particularly remember seeing the QE2, which anchored a few hundred feet from the port for a few days.”
The publication of Definition of a Miracle is just one of many accomplishments which have won Farida praise for her courage in coping with the tremendous challenges that she has had to overcome since her diagnosis with cerebral palsy. Through sheer grit and determination and with the love and support of family and friends, she was able to rise above her physical impediments and excel academically and professionally to become one of Ghana’s most respected software engineers.
More recently, she has been involved in the development and management of value added services for the major cellular network providers within Africa. She is very passionate about poverty alleviation and other means of helping the disadvantaged in society.
“From an early age, my mother always told me to remove the words “I can’t” from my vocabulary and replace them with “I’ll try”. And that has been my mantra throughout my entire life. I muttered it the first time I took my first step, entered mainstream school, entered a computer training school, got my first job, went away to university to be on my own for the first time in my life, wrote my first book…I tried and I excelled. It wasn’t easy but when you have nothing to lose, and people don’t expect you to amount to much because of your limitations, sometimes you just have to prove to them and to yourself that you can exceed expectations.”
Definition of a Miracle is available at Amazon.com
Check out Farida on Facebook.