A Prayer’s Chance
Samuel Donkoh had just turned ten when he began to slip away. His brother Martin, two years his senior, first realized something was wrong during a game of soccer with a group of kids from the neighborhood. One minute Samuel was fine, dribbling the ball, and the next he was doubled over in spasms of laughter, as if reacting to a joke nobody else had heard. His teammates, baffled by the bizarre display, chuckled along with him, a response Samuel took for mockery. He grew threatening and belligerent, and Martin was forced to drag him home.
The episode marked the onset of a frightening metamorphosis. Martin couldn’t understand what was happening to his brother, for although he had seen many abodamfo (“mad” men and women, in the Twi dialect) on the streets, the conventional wisdom was that such maladies afflicted only those who deserved it — excessive drinking or drug use was a popular explanation — or were otherwise spiritually or morally compromised. Samuel, the sensitive, well-behaved son of devout born-again Christians, did not fit that mold. Yet over a few short weeks, without any apparent cause, his condition devolved into ever more unsettling and erratic behavior, punctuated by drastic mood swings and hallucination-induced fits of anger. Martin looked on helplessly. Satan’s demons, he concluded, had seized his brother. He pleaded with God to bring Samuel back.
That was in July 1998. The boys, who lived with their family in Tema, an industrial port city in southeastern Ghana, were on holiday from school and were almost never apart. “Before Samuel fell sick, we were doing everything together,” Martin told me when I met him last summer. They read books together, did their homework together, went to church together, and stayed up late together to watch their favorite soccer team, Manchester United, on television. They looked strikingly alike: both skinny, on the shorter side, with earnest, serious eyes. On those rare occasions when one ventured out alone, into town or to the crowded market where their mother, Agnes, worked as a petty trader, he was often mistaken for the other. Later, after the illness struck, Martin sometimes found himself the recipient of taunts and epithets intended for his sibling.