Opinions Tue, 6 Feb 2018

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My favorite tuo zaafi and breast cancer

Circa 2014, I had just been posted to a small health facility belonging to the Catholic Church in a faraway land.

Having lived and schooled in Eastern Region most of my life I had no idea how Upper West Region was, to talk of even working there.

So when the news of our postings came and I realized I was posted to the region, I was completely unhappy and wished I could reverse it.

My reasons were simple, I had heard so much falsehood about the region - how impoverished it was, how difficult life was over there, its people and culture and how authorities there treated professionals with so much disdain. So nothing, I mean nothing was motivating me to go there.

After numerous deliberations and consultations, I finally decided to pack my stuff and make that adventurous journey to the land I never wanted to be.

After almost 16 hours of vehicular travel from Accra, I got to the facility around 6pm, the staff and some community members helped pack my luggage into my single room apartment.

Afterwards, I was left alone in my room wondering what I was going to eat and how I was going to have a sound sleep in this new environment.

Whilst in there trying to figure out how I was going to survive the young night with such hunger and extreme exhaustion, I heard a knock – it was a middle aged woman, say 45 years, she greeted me and said “ youngman, I presume you must be very hungry, kindly take this bowl of Tuozaafi(TZ), I hope you like it”.

Immediately she left, I opened the lid out of curiosity. Wow, the delicious smell and appearance of the meal stimulated my appetite astronomically. I told myself this woman might have been sent by God.

Went to one corner of the room, sat on the floor with my legs crossed akin to a mallam about to perform fake rituals, I gobbled up as though I hadn’t eaten in 2 years.

The taste was awesome. It was arguably the best Tuo zaafi (TZ) I had taken all my life, the greenish nature of the “dawadawa” flavoured “ayoyo” soup gave it a distinctively aromatic smell which wouldn’t go away three days after washing my hands.

The next day I went to her, thanked her for the food and asked her to keep her extraordinary culinary skills up. From that day till the day I left the facility, I lost count of the number of times she fed me with TZ.

She became like a second mother to me. She taught me lessons in Dagaare, and Waala, the history and culture of the Dagaabas and many others things which I will reserve for another day.

One late afternoon, while rehearsing my Dagaare lessons, I heard a knock on my rickety consulting room door, it was the 45-year-old nurse. She wanted me to check a swelling in her left breast which has been there for the past 2 years.

She narrated it started as a small lump some 2 years ago but she did not take it serious. To her, it was too small to cause any serious medical complications.

So I took her through a thorough history and Clinical Breast Examination (CBE) to ascertain the nature of the lump and if there would be the need for further investigations.

It was a firm mass, quite a big one with irregular edges, strongly attached to the breast tissue and I could not move the skin above it. I thought to myself, what could this be? Myriads of diagnoses started flooding my ‘medically amateur brain’.

She was then referred to the only premier hospital in Northern Ghana, Tamale Teaching Hospital (TTH) for a mammogram, breast scan and tissue biopsy.

After a long journey of tests upon tests, it was finally arrived at that she had a cancer which had already spread to the lungs and the spine and she will need both chemotherapy and radiotherapy as soon as possible.

As I write this, I can recall the depression and devastation written all over her when she handed me the two paged report of her condition from TTH.

That never stopped her. She fought the condition with much alacrity. She would buy every prescribed medicine, pay every medical bill, and follow the Physician Specialist’s instructions without query.

But like Chinua Achebe once said “when suffering knocks at your door and you say there is no seat for him, he tells you not to worry because he has brought his own stool”- her efforts were quite too late.

I remember how she lost all her natural hair and nails due to the side effects of chemo and radiotherapy. She started reducing drastically in weight. She could not feed nor drink well.

Despite all those innumerable efforts, the cancer kept spreading with the speed of light, she started losing it until after 2 years when she finally gave up to death’s call.

When I heard news, I felt disappointed in life. How? How can life be that unfair? Such industrious and selfless woman. A doyen of health care delivery in the region.

That day, I became very doleful but later had to seek consolation in the first line of Presbyterian Student’s anthem which is also a verse in the Holy Bible (I don’t know the exact verse but I think its Philippians something something) which states “For me to live is Christ and to DIE is GAIN”.

I prayed she gets a resting place in the bosom of Abraham.

This was how death took my second mother from me. Since then I have never tasted any Tuozaafi like hers, never!

May your soul rest in perfect peace Maame Nurse. Till we meet again, fare thee well.

NOW, SOME BASIC FACTS ABOUT BREAST CANCER (National breast cancer foundation, US)

- Breast cancer is a cancer that forms in the cells of the breast

- Breast cancer can occur in both men and women but far more common in women

- Breast cancer is treatable, early detection is key

- Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths among women

- On average, every two minutes a woman is diagnosed of breast cancer and one woman will die of breast cancer every 13 minutes.

- One in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their life time.

- Every woman above 18 years must learn how to do the Breast Self-Examination(BSE)


(i) A breast lump or thickening that feels different from surrounding tissues

(ii) Change in the size, shape or appearance of the breasts

(iii) Changes to the skin over the breast, such as dimpling

(iv) A newly inverted nipple

(v) Unusual nipple discharge.

(vi) Unusual feeling of pain in the breast, and others

Kindly report to the nearest health facility if you see any of the above symptoms.

Note: early detection is key.

Thank you for reading

The writer is a Clinician and a Public Health Enthusiast.

Email: uk.victus@gmail.com

Kindly share!

Columnist: Kojo Tordjo Victor

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