Ghana Life: White Man’s Graveyard

The British colony of the Gold Coast, which became the Dominion of Ghana in March 1957, was known in historical times as the ‘White Man’s Graveyard’ because of the high mortality amongst European immigrants caused by the endemic tropical diseases. The main killers were malaria, yellow fever and cholera. In the late twentieth century however, Europeans serving in Ghana’s three great universities: at Legon, Kumasi and Cape Coast, could avoid these diseases by standard precautions, and the White Man’s Graveyard had been transformed into a healthy environment in which Europeans might live and raise their families.

Before travelling to Ghana in February 1971, the author lived in England where he and his family members had all become accustomed to suffering from one or two common colds every year. In Ghana, common colds became a distant memory and the next twenty six years passed without any recurrence of colds or influenza. Yellow fever and cholera were avoided by means of periodical inoculations and malaria was kept at bay by means of a daily prophylactic pill. While these precautions caused some inconvenience they provided complete protection and decades of healthy living. Space was reserved at Kumasi Cemetery for foreigners but it was needed only on a few rare occasions.

Europeans in Ghana in the 1970s and 1980s ran the greatest risk to their health from accidental injury. If the event occurred during working hours it might be possible to get good medical care at a private clinic, but for injuries sustained at other times there was usually the prospect of a long wait at the accident and emergency department of a local state hospital. In this situation, Europeans were forced to share the sparse medical services provided for the population at large. Here one joined the long queue of farmers with cutlass wounds and snake bites and schoolchildren with malarial fever, diarrhoea and pepper-induced stomach ulcers. It was one of the few situations in which the expatriate community was compelled to witness and share the suffering of the indigenous people.

In the twenty-first century, the economy of Ghana has been making steady progress towards middle-income status and it is to be expected that some of the new-earned wealth has been spent on improving living conditions and medical services. If this is so, then the health of the indigenous population should have improved. At the same time there are indications that the malaria virus has become resistant to the prophylactic pills of yesteryear. New formulations are offered to the intrepid traveller but with nothing like the confidence of the 1970s. In this changed situation it seems that the locals might suffer proportionately less sickness and the visitors more, a convergence that does not please everyone but manifests an element of justice in offering fairer, more equal, chances of avoiding the graveyard.

Article Source: by John Powell

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