ACCRA — It was late Monday morning in June this year, and a 12-year old boy held the hand of a blind old woman as they stood by a traffic light in Accra. They were begging for alms from motorists.
“Let’s move to the next one,” the boy repeated to the old woman as they paused by car windows that day, arms outstretched in wait of a driver or passenger’s kindness. So went their routinue until a moving car run into them on a pavement near the Opeibea Junction in Accra, sending both the blind old woman and the young boy into an expected web of pain, police intervention and hints of willful neglect that would lead to the death of the blind old woman.
The two live at the CMB station, a part of the Accra central business district where some homeless migrants sleep in front of market stalls at night. The blind old woman belongs to the community of people with disabilities who usually beg on the streets of Accra. Some travel from far places. Officially, there is no data on them. They often utilize the services of children, who double as guides and beggars. Two months before that day, the boy’s father, a thirty-five year old biscuit hawker, had offered his son as a daily guide and beggar for the blind old woman.
An investigation for the Daily Graphic – which included interviews with eyewitnesses, police officers, family and friends of the deceased, examination of police and medical records – reconstructed details of the fatal accident and the life of the victim. The Daily Graphic is refraining from publishing the name of the 12-year old boy in keeping with journalistic ethics governing the identification of minors.
The Pursuit of a Dream
The blind old woman was identified as Martha Atimbire, a 69-year old widower from Tongo in the Talensi district of the Upper East region. She has two elderly children – a daughter and a son. Martha moved to Accra a little over ten years ago when she heard “there were opportunities to make money,” her daughter said. Widowed over 30 years ago, she stayed with her children until she felt they were old enough to live on their own. “We were very young when my father died. My brother was about 3 years and I was barely walking,” her daughter recalled.
When she first moved to the capital city, she stayed for about a month, begging for alms to see if the idea was viable. After, she returned to the village to inform her children of her decision to finally settle in Accra. They could always visit, she told them. “We see each other once every year and talk on the phone once a week or every three days,” her children said. They last saw her a little over a year ago.
The old woman, tall and gaunt with shiny black skin, had a frame that caused her to bend double whenever she held her white stick. She was quiet, her family and friends said, but occasionally made quirky jokes that got the children around her laughing. She was a staunch Catholic, an identity she displays with her daily insistence on wearing a necklace with a crucifix dangling openly on her dress. “She didn’t go to church in Accra, because there was no place to dress or prepare,” Richard Atindana, a boy who knew her said.
Before her death, she made an average of 25 cedis (less than $10) daily from begging. Out of that, she saved money, which she regularly sent to her children back in Tongo. She recently bought a sheep and other items to help her son pay a bride price. “She’ll send money to me and tell me to use it for my kids’ upkeep,” her daughter said.
A Fear of the Street
In Accra, Martha wakes up at 4am each day. It is around this time that most parts of the central business district start bustling with human activity. She depends on a guide for her basic needs: bathing and clothing, food and interpretation of the things she hears but cannot understand or see.
As she made the streets her workstation, she was acutely aware of the inherent physical dangers. She told her daughter of how dangerous it was to meander through traffic daily, the surrounding noise and the infinite dependence on a child to lead her through. A few years a go, a car lost control and knocked down a close relative who was begging on the street. That scared Martha a lot, her family said.
At 6am everyday, before setting off from CMB, she gathered information from other beggars on the places where traffic was bound to crawl, where motorists might get a moment to notice her presence and give her a handout. Her day’s movement was guided by word on the flow of traffic. She is often guided to an intersection near the TUC building in Accra, where she begs till the thick morning traffic thins out. She is then led to other traffic lights. Between 11am and 2pm, she usually makes a stop at Opeibea Junction, where a tribe of blind beggars congregates to chat or take a nap under a giant billboard near the OPEIBEA building car park. It was around this time, while she took a break and stood by a pavement with her guide, that a Mercedes Benz ML salon car wheeled out of control and knocked her to the ground.
Snap, then Silence
On June 2, the day of the accident, Martha left CMB a little before 6am. Aided by her 12-year old guide, she begged for alms at the intersection near the TUC building, then to a traffic light near the Nima Police Station before heading for the Opeibea junction. She had not eaten all morning. The guide often bought her food around 12noon.
At Opeibea, she stood on a pavement near a traffic light directly opposite the Silver Star Tower, one of her friends recalled. The guide held her hand. Behind her was Thomas Adongo, an elderly blind man who also hails from the Upper West region and calls Martha “my sister”. Thomas was also with a child guide.
They stood there for a while, occasionally moving towards cars when traffic lights turned red. Martha’s guide recalled buying plantain chips from a hawker and sharing with Thomas’ guide. It was around 11am.
Around the same time, the driver of a Mercedes Benz ML salon car was carrying two persons from the Tetteh-Quarshie interchange heading towards Accra, according to police and court records.
“On reaching Opeibea, the driver failed to exercise due care and attention, and as a result lost control of the steering wheel and knocked down a blind victim aged about 60 years who was standing on the Island pavement soliciting for alms,” a police case file noted.
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The victim was Martha Atimbire.
“All I heard was a sound. My sister fell on her guide, then they fell on me and we all came down,” said Thomas, who was standing behind Martha when the accident occurred. He also sustained an injury on his left arm.
From Casual to Fatal
At about 2:30 p.m., a police officer at the Airport Police Station was alerted to a damaged vehicle that was obstructing traffic flow at Opeibea Junction. The officer moved there to direct traffic.
There, the driver of a pickup truck approached the police officer to inform him about the accident. The driver, who was passing by at the time of the accident, picked and rushed Martha and Thomas to the 37 Military Hospital for treatment. The hospital refused to treat them without the driver who knocked them or a financial guarantor. He carried the victims to Ridge hospital, where he got a similar response. The victims were now in his car, he told the police officer.
The police later identified the driver who knocked them, filed a report and referred the victims to the Police Hospital in Accra.
Around the same time the victims were being sent to the hospital, news of the accident got to Daniel Ziba – the 35-year-old biscuit hawker whose son worked as a daily guide and beggar for the blind old woman. He rushed to the Police Hospital.
“By the time I got to the hospital, Martha and Thomas were already treated by a doctor,” Daniel recalled. Both had prescription drugs. An X-Ray result from the Hospital showed a bone in Martha’s left arm had shifted off its position. She was given a referral note for further treatment at the Korle Bu Teaching Hospital the next day. The owner of the car, who was present at the Police Hospital with the driver, gave Daniel 55 cedis (approximately $18) to cover Martha’s medical bills in Korle Bu. She promised to offer extra financial help should the bills exceed what she gave.
That night, Martha’s daughter received an emergency call informing her of her mother’s accident. She immediately left Tongo to Accra. She arrived the following day. Her mother was in pain, she recalled.
“The money given by the car owner was little, so I decided to take her back to the village for traditional herbal treatment,” Martha’s daughter said. She planned to set off the following day. To ease her mother’s pain, she massaged her fractured arm with hot water and “Mercy” cream.
Around 6am on Friday, June 6 – four days after the accident – they set off to the village. Martha was too frail to stand, so they hired a taxi to the Bolgatanga bus station at the Kwame Nkrumah Circle. They were denied a place in the first bus. “They realized my mother was too sick,” her daughter said. Two successive buses also denied them a place.
By 5:15pm, a 207 Benz bus agreed to carry the woman. They were the first passengers. The car got full in less than an hour. The daughter heaved a relieving sigh. Around 6:05pm, the bus made an about-turn from its course. Thomas was returning to CMB from his begging rounds at that time. He got a call on his cellphone. His guide handed him the phone. “That was when they gave me the news”, he recalled.
The 207 Benz bus had moved for less than 100 meters when Martha died, her daughter said.
Story was first published by Daily Graphic.