A thirteen-year-old schoolboy, Sunday Agonkurigo, who lost his original face to fire in the Upper East region when he was just two weeks old is crying for help so society may see him as a human.
Born deprived but attractive, it used to be ‘love at first sight’ as neighbours took ready delight in picking him up from his bed for a play and for a peck. But the night fire left his face so disfigured and horrible it has been thirteen years of ‘fright at first sight’ and rejection anywhere he appears.
Starr News spotted him in March, this year, at the Goo-Atandaa KG/Primary School in the Bongo District during one of its problem-solving visits to the disadvantaged school.
“The first time I was posted there,” recounted the school’s head, Albert Atarizina, “he was the first person that approached me. I nearly ran away.”
“I feel very, very sorry about him. It makes the boy’s life very miserable. And because of his condition, his friends don’t want to play with him. I observe that when they are in class, people want to sit isolated from him. They don’t want to sit near him because of the condition,” he said.
According to one of the boy’s relatives, Pascal Ayamga, the boy was alone inside a straw-roofed mudroom when fire erupted and engulfed the lonely hut at nightfall.
His mother was fetching water not too far away and his father, Akensaka, was returning from where he had gone to answer to nature’s call when he saw his house in flames from afar. He raced down to the burning hut and, rather ready to die than watch his treasured son cremated alive, courageously scampered through the red flames as the baby whimpered.
He came out of the fire with the boy, both of them injured. The boy’s face, back, waist and hands had been scarred whilst the fire also blistered the hands of his father. His parents rushed him to the nearest clinic for first aid and subsequently took him to the Upper East Regional Hospital and the Korle-Bu Teaching Hospital where, as told by Ayamga, the father, a local livestock trader, exhausted all his lifelong savings to save his firstborn.
“Years after he was discharged from the hospital, he was sent to school. His fellow kids were running away from him as if he’s not a human being because of his eyes, because of his face. I, personally, have been advising him to not stop education because of those things,” Ayamga said.
Seeing Sunday’s face directly is more disturbing than viewing it on a photo paper or an electronic screen. A distraught observer described the facial ruin as the height of how ruthless fire, if not handled well, can be.
The scar on his face looks like ‘a mask of a teenage ape’ glued permanently to the face of a human for an effect. And, as common with masks, his eyes cannot blink. This is so because the fire did not spare the eyelids. His reddish, teary eyes are opened twenty-four hours a day. And they are dangerously not closed even whilst he is asleep. The eyebrows have been wiped away completely and his nose gutted and mangled by the same fire that left his right ear and right fingers deformed.
The disfigurement, happening so early in his life, has not only robbed his family of knowing his real face but also now stands as a barrier between him and his bank-manager dream.
“I want to be a bank manager tomorrow. But it pains me a lot to be like this today. I want somebody to help me to look the way my friends are,” Sunday, now in his third year at the primary school, told Starr News with grief.
At present, he wears a pair of dark glasses given to him by Starr News Upper East regional correspondent to protect his lidless eyes from dust and to reduce the stigma the facial scar is fomenting. Perhaps, the ‘protective glasses’ for now would also help draw his uncomfortable friends nearer to him and, through that desired company of friends in the school and in the street, restore and keep him on the path to his dream.
Sunday knows only a plastic surgery can change everything. He and his younger brother are being raised by their broke father alone as their mother is said to have walked away from her marriage in the middle of the crisis.
The once-happy hut looks isolated more than a decade after the devastating fire. There was an attempt to put the razed structure back in shape with a new thatch roof as proof, but the scar on the boy’s face echoes the misfortune and continues to torment his father who now borrows and sorrows.
“There was a time some people screamed when they saw him and wanted to hurt him as if he was not a human being. I got there when I heard a noise and rescued him. I’m taking care of him and his younger brother with borrowed money and with the little I get from some casual work I do. I was a petty trader before the disaster. Now, my business is no more,” said his father.
One of Ghana’s notable orthopaedic surgeons, Dr Francis Odei-Ansong, told Starr News the boy needed further healthcare so his condition does not go from bad to worse. He also entreated the public to not stigmatise him but rather help boost up his ‘sinking’ self-esteem by showing him love and support.
“Probably the face fell into the fire. He probably even inhaled carbon monoxide whilst his face was in the fire. He sustained a facial burn and might have also sustained some inhalational injury to the respiratory track and to the lungs. When someone suffers a facial burn and they are brought to the hospital, in many instances what kills them is the inhalational burn. He was lucky he survived.
“As he grows, the scar on his face contracts, and as the scar contracts, it drags the normal skin along with it. You see that some parts of the mouth are being dragged; so, he finds it difficult to close it. He’s developing contractures over the face. As the eyelid is rubbing against the cornea because of the scar formation on the face, his vision would be blurred over time. You see that the eyeball is red. He’s developing some form of abrasion conjunctivitis with that,” explained Dr Odei-Ansong.
He added: “It’s the combination of the charring and healing attempt with contractures over the face that is giving him that look and people are running away. It is nothing. He is a normal human being who has a deformity and I don’t think we should discriminate or dislike him. If people begin to run away from him and he gets isolated, it would not be good for his personal development.”
A burning candle is believed to have fallen and sparked the fire outbreak that turned the poor boy’s face into a monstrous ‘ape mask’. Concerned about the chain of domestic fire accidents in the country, Dr Odei-Ansong urged families to take preventive measures more seriously at home, with more emphasis on fixing a gas detection system than a fire alarm gadget.
“If you had only a fire alarm device in the house, no alarm will blow when the gas is leaking. The fire alarm has no benefit to saving lives but property. We need to get a gas alarm device because once the gas starts leaking, the alarm blows and you attend to it properly.
“If you go to some houses, the cylinder is in the room or in the kitchen; it is leaking; they have placed a block on it and they are cooking. It is a dangerous thing they are doing. The gas can fill the rooms and one spark would cause fire to engulf the whole house. It is only safe to keep cylinders outside the house in a box and in an area well aerated,” he stressed.