Inspector Darko Dawson of the Ghana Police Service in Accra is called to a polluted lagoon when the body of a young man is discovered, already in a state of decomposition. In the heat of Accra, it is difficult to determine the time of death but it is not difficult to see that he died of a stab wound in the back that destroyed the lung.
The call to the police has come from a nine year-old boy, Sly, who, by calling the authorities, has broken the main rule of the street community: never talk to the police. The site of the body dump is known as “Sodom and Gomorrah”, the nickname for Agbogbloshie, the most dangerous slum in Accra. “Roaming the open land bordered by the Ring Road on the west and the edge of the Odaw River on the east were a few grazing horses and a herd of placid, foraging cows, brought all the way from the northern territories by migrants who had lived as nomads. It was a bizarre mixing of rural lifestyle with the urban slum. Only in Accra, Dawson thought. Only in Accra.”
When other children of the street are found, all killed in the same way and with mutilations specific to each killing, no one doubts the presence of a serial killer. With as many as 60,000 children living on the streets, there is no dearth of possible victims. There is also no dearth of suspects including a street child who poses great danger to the younger children and a sociologist who sees the children as statistics for his dissertation.
The children on the streets of Accra have come to the cosmopolitan city because it is here that money can be found. They don’t understand until it is too late that the money is in the hands of those who keep to the parts of the city where the children are unseen. Even those who claim to be working to save the children don’t see them as valuable human beings. In the pants of one of the victims, the police find a business card. SCOAR (Street Children of Accra) is a group led by Genevieve Kusi who has established a refuge for the children to use by day. When one of the leaders of the group is brought to the attention of Darko, the man explodes, referring to the children of the street as worthless. “These aren’t street children we’re dealing with, Inspector Dawson, these are street vermin.”
Darko cannot forget Sly, who has disappeared from the streets of the slum. Hosiah, Darko’s son, is in desperate need of heart surgery, something beyond the financial reach of his parents. When Darko thinks of Hosiah, he thinks of Sly, the same age but with such a different experience of life. He is surrounded by the faces of children.
Inspector Dawson has an enviable home life, a loving wife, an adored son. But he is not a man without complications. He is haunted by an addiction. He can be consumed by a rage that brings him close to crossing the line when dealing with suspects. But he is a good man to the core and he will do his job to the best of his ability as long as he serves in the police service.
WIFE OF THE GODS is an outstanding book, one of the best I read in 2010. CHILDREN OF THE STREETS is its equal although the books are different. In the first book, the author tells a story that straddles the worlds of Ghana – the country that still holds to some of the old ways and its superstitions but one that is also firmly placed in the twenty-first century. The western world is introduced to the practice of trokosi, young girls being given to the priests at shrines in payment for answered prayers, a practice that can still be found in some parts of Ghana.
CHILDREN OF THE STREETS is, to the shame of all nations, a twenty-first century story. The abandonment of children is the result of the abandonment of the belief in the collective societal responsibility toward the young. The number of children, from early to late teenage years, who are abandoned to foster care systems or who are runaways forced to work the streets for food and a bed, are not confined to other nations. They are in every city, hiding in plain sight, terrified they are going to be returned to the places from which they fled. Armah, Darko’s mentor, tells him that sometimes, in murder cases as with medical problems, it is necessary to take the long view. “Sometimes you just have to let the disease declare itself.” ( If this is the philosophy of the author, Kwei Quartey, M.D., his patients are most fortunate in their choice of doctor). In the case of throw-away children, there isn’t anytime for patience.
Dr. Quartey is a masterful story-teller. He knows he is writing for a readership that likely knows little about Ghana in particular and Africa in general. He guides the readers to a grasp of the culture and the circumstances in which his characters live by making the introduction of this information an integral part of the story. We are being taught without realizing that a lesson is being presented. Darko and his wife, Christine, are two of the most likable and “real” characters in mystery fiction.
The book is not without some lighter moments. My favorite is this exchange.
“Between seven and ten o’clock last night, where were you?”
“With my friends. We went to a chop bar in Ussher Town.”
“What’s the name of the chop bar?”
“Jesus Is Coming.”
“When will that happen?”