The rapid mushrooming of fiery faith-based organisations with promises of heaven and paradise (and their continuous banishment of Satan) who see into the preternatural and are able to spiritually diagnose every problem, from Malaria to Cardiovascular diseases, have ensured that in today's Africa, no occurrence is happenstance. This mentality takes on a new importance if the problem being tackled defies comprehension and the only thing that science can do is to name it.
In this all-knowing world where nothing occurs by chance and everything has a spiritual root, a child suffering from cerebral palsy is likely to be moved from one prayer-camp to the other. Even when the cause of the problem is known, even when the parents are educated, this itinerant search for a miraculous cure will still be embarked upon and taken seriously. It is within this setting that Farida N. Bedwei's Definition of a Miracle (iUniverse, 2010; 389) is placed.
Zaara suffers from cerebral palsy; the disease attacked her when she was two-weeks old. Now her visiting maternal grandmother from Ghana claimed her prayer group had identified the root cause of the disease; it's none other than Zaara's auntie. With this knowledge coupled with the fact that the family had moved to Ghana from Britain meant that the search for Zaara's cure, or more specifically the destruction of the workings of this auntie, will be fervently undertaken. And in a country of countless prayer camps and countless believers, where invitations to such miracle services come in droves, the search could be long and tedious.
However, what makes Farida's book - based largely or loosely, I cannot tell but the obvious similarities are there, on the author's life - is her apt depiction of the psychology of the supposed 'patient' for whom the miraculous cure is being sought. Thus, regardless of the 'well-meaning' intention of the parents - here, her mother - the experience of moving from one prayer camp or service to the other, and so from one failure to the other, on the person involved is usually not examined or considered in the larger scheme of things. To the parents, the 'patient's' need to be healed and be 'normal' like 'any other person', surpasses all other considerations. So focused are they on this that they lose sight of what they have; in this story, what Zaara's mother, in her quest for healing, lost sight of was that she had a precocious child whose mental faculties were sharper than most children her age. But precocious as Zaara was, she couldn't avoid the 'it-might-be-me' syndrome which usually affect people who are usually 'different' and seeking help. For moving from one miracle service to the other and not receiving the healing the people there claimed to have received, Zaara began to think that perhaps it was her fault, that there was something inherently wrong with her that deflects this healing from reaching her. Again, the psychological trauma is disregarded. Society's attitude towards such people, referring to them as 'sicklers' (people who are sick) and therefore treating them as if their mental faculties have, in addition, been affected was another source of worry to Zaara who was frequently treated as such but was quick to show such folks, openly or subtly, her displeasure. Another source of worry is the lack of disability-friendly public spaces and structures.
On the family front, this relentless quest for a miraculous cure by a British-trained lawyer in secluded churches leading to the compulsory drinking and sprinkling of holy-water had a toll on Zaara's family. Coming from a two-religion family - with a Muslim father and a Christian mother, this previously amicable and harmonious existence was put under threat when Zaara's mother became zealously religious to the extent of accusing her sister of being a witch and quarreling with her husband at every turn. Every question became a source of argument between her pesky parents.
However at school, Zaara fitted in well just as she did at home with her siblings. At the local school she attended, she outperformed everybody and was made all sorts of friends. Her classmates, who initially looked up to her weirdly, suddenly warmed up to her; the cultural shock she suffered rippled out of existence. Overall, these were what Zaara defined as a miracle: acting as any other child would act; having parents who helped her fit into her surroundings; and avoiding the fate that almost always befall people with disabilities - the life of a street-beggar.
My only problem with the book is a problem I have with most first-person narrative novels. Zaara seemed to know more than she would have known and she also didn't divulge her source. It's as if she always knew. Sometimes she judged people's emotion and concludes on people's thoughts. Finally, a little more proof-reading would have helped.
Regardless of these, this book has a lot to offer. Like Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night time, we get to understand the issues from the 'sufferer's' point of view. However, more than Haddon's, in this story the 'sufferer' is not only fictional but that the fictional character shares her disability with the author.
About the Author: Farida Nana Efua Bedwei was born in Lagos, Nigeria, and spent her childhood in Dominica, Greenland and the UK before her family moved to Ghana in the late eighties.
She got Cerebral Palsy when she was 10 days old, and was home shooled by her mother until she was 12 years old when she entered mainstream school for the first time. To the surprise of all, she excelled and has risen to become one of the top software engineers in Ghana. (Source: back of the novel)
* Last year I interviewed Farida on this blog and she talked about changing perceptions with this book. I hope yours get affected, positively, after reading this book.