General News of Thursday, 31 July 2014


Blind, Battered and Shattered: Pains and death of one woman that went unnoticed

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 routine 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 three 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.

[Watch the moving video]

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 ago, 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 every day, 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.

Martha Atimbire with her guide begging

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.