The van raced down the paved road on its way to Accra, the capital of Ghana. Passengers squeezed shoulder-to-shoulder. Baskets of tomatoes, mounds of colourful cloth and old car parts occupied the floor. Augustina Akafo sat in the back seat, her eyes staring blankly out the window; she was thinking about leaving her husband.
Her two-year-old son sat beside her, sobbing and fatigued. With the radio blaring and the driver weaving in and out of traffic, the van thumped as one of the front tires exploded.
A passenger panicked and clutched onto the driver. The van swerved. Passengers screamed. The van flipped into the ditch, rolling seven times. Blood leaked from inside the crumbled van. Bodies were scattered. “Raymond!” Augustina screamed as she attempted to search for her son, but she couldn’t move. More than a year after the accident, Augustina remembers lying on the floor of her uncle’s house, Raymond crying as he peed on the concrete surface, his urine seeping into the woven mat she lay on. She winced as pain from her leg pierced through her tiny body. She wanted answers.
“Why me?” she asked silently.
At 33 years old, she was in a physically abusive marriage, had three young boys, no money, an incomplete education and a secret she couldn’t forget. She said it would’ve been easier to be one of the 17 dead passengers. But she and Raymond were among the four that survived and she believed it was for a reason.
Augustina was born into a large family. They lived in Ashaiman, a large town in the Greater Accra Region. Her father remarried several times and had many children with each wife.
Augustina was the bright child, the smart one. She knew the answers and was the teacher’s favourite. She dreamed of going to senior high and university, but she is a girl. At 17, she graduated from junior high and was devastated when her father told her there was no money for her to attend school anymore.
“I wanted to study agriculture, it’s what I’m good at. I wanted to graduate and become something great. I hoped to work for the government.”
With her dream of being educated out the window, Augustina left her home and moved in with her aunt in a nearby town. She came from a Christian family and it was expected she would marry a Christian man. At 19, she fell in love in a Muslim man. After a few months of dating, Augustina realized she was pregnant. She hid her pregnancy for six months. When her aunt found out, she was furious and embarrassed by her niece. She wanted the baby aborted, but it was too late in the pregnancy.
“I was in love and I wanted to marry my boyfriend, but my family wouldn’t allow it. I felt so alone and confused.”
In May 1998, Augustina gave birth to Maria. Augustina’s boyfriend proposed and she panicked. She did not want to disappoint her family even more. So, she left her “secret” with her aunt and ran away.
Augustina married her Christian husband in her early 20s. He was married before and his ex-wife fled to escape his abuse.
“I didn’t think he would hurt me. We were in love and I knew it would be different,” Augustina said.
They had their first child, Emmanuel, soon after they were married. They farmed together and lived happily as most newlyweds do.
“After Emmanuel was born, he started to drink. He would drink a lot. He would come into the house at night and beat me so hard. I would scream and run away and no one would help. No one believed me.”
But Augustina stayed with him and she gave birth to Desmond and Raymond.
The beatings son got worse though and Augustina wanted out. She planned on running away with her boys to Accra, a two-hour drive from the village. But then the accident happened.
Augustina was rushed to the hospital after the crash. She suffered head trauma and a broken leg. Raymond endured minimal injuries.
“Raymond’s head was hit during that accident. There was no blood and he did not go to the hospital, but he cried all of the time. It was four months before he was happy again,” said Augustina during a recent phone interview.
One week after the accident, she and Raymond returned to their home in Agbenyagakope, South Ghana. Her husband refused to help his ailing wife or provide for his sons. Augustina left the village and moved to the closest town, Caesarkorpe, with her uncle’s family. When she arrived, she insisted the cast on her leg be removed.
“I asked the herbalist to wrap my leg in the traditional way with sticks and herbal ointment. I did not trust the doctors in the city.”
Unable to cook, farm, bathe herself or her sons, she laid on the floor for six months, depending on her family for help. During the night, her husband would sneak into the room and ask her for sex.
“He expected me to sleep with him even when I could not move. I hated him. I would cry when he touched my body. Then he usually left.”
Augustina received similar treatment from her herbalist. He attended to her leg three times a week. His preferred method of payment: booze and sex.
“It’s just the way some men are here. I am a woman and they think they can have anything they want, even my body.”
With no money and three boys unable to attend school, Augustina thought of ways to escape. She knew it would be months before she could attempt to leave. So in the shadows, she brainstormed her and her boys’ future.
After four months of lying on her uncle’s floor, she could take a few steps with the help of a cane. Six months after the accident, she was walking farther.
In December 2010, seven months after her accident, Augustina packed her belongings into one bag. Without telling anyone, she and her children escaped into the night on the back of a motorcycle.
“I had to move to Accra. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but it would be better than what I had. So, we left.”
Augustina lived with her step-mother for six months and helped her around the house. She saved her money and in June 2011, started her own business selling food on the roadside.
She has saved enough money to send her boys to school and rent a tiny room that has enough space for her cooking supplies and a large woven mat, where she and her children sleep.
“It’s difficult for me to have no husband, but it was harder for me with a husband. I do not want a husband right now. I can’t take anyone who will disturb me. I just want to keep the boys.”
Augustina is teaching her children to speak English after they return from school. They all speak Dangme, a local language, but she knows English will help them in school. She wants them to be able to finish school and she hopes she can someday do the same. She dreams of studying agriculture and business at the University of Ghana.
And after more than 10 years apart, Augustina hopes she and her daughter, Maria can be reunited as a family.
“When I think about my life, I am sad and happy. A lot of terrible things have happened. But I have so much to be thankful for. I know that there is a plan for my life and that gives me hope.”
Augustina and Kara Cousins became close after the accident and Kara would sit with Augustina for hours everyday chatting. When Kara returned to Ghana in May 2011, she visited Augustina and the boys often in Accra. The two continue to talk via phone on weekly basis.