It happened yesterday. I was in a meeting room at the London offices of the charity AfriKids listening to Paul Apowida be interviewed by the BBC and I shed tears – twice.
A brief summary of Paul’s life story will help explain why: Paul was born in a remote part of northern Ghana. Shortly after his birth, his parents and half a dozen other relatives died suddenly. With no other explanation available and in line with their deep-rooted cultural beliefs, the rest of his family and their community decided the newly born Paul must be to blame because he was an evil spirit who had come to inflict death on them – a spirit child. The only way to stop him taking more lives was to kill him. So he was poisoned and left outside in the sun to die. His life was only saved because a nun heard what had happened and found him just in time.
Fast forward twenty-seven years, which included another two attempts to kill him, another two rescues, growing up in an orphanage four hundred miles from home, a flourishing career as an artist, six months on the frontline in Afghanistan serving with the British Army, helping AfriKids with a successful campaign to save other children from suffering the same fate he did (which his autobiography is an extension of), and you get to yesterday and his interview with BBC Africa.
After telling the interviewer, Akwasi Sarpong, about his extraordinary life, Paul was asked about his art: what is his favourite thing to paint? Paul pointed to the painting which has become the cover of his book and said, ‘Mother and baby.’ Why that, Akwasi asked. Because, Paul said, he puts into those paintings how he feels about his own mother – Paul is the baby in the paintings and she is the woman holding him. The picture shows Paul’s mother cradling him, looking proud, loving and protective. At this point what had already been a highly emotional story went onto another level, because Paul said he misses her, he hopes she’s proud of him and the man he has become and of the things he has done with his life, that he knows she’s with him and that he hopes to see her again one day. Bear in mind Paul doesn’t remember her – she died when he was a few days old.
Maybe it’s because I have a young child. Maybe it’s because I lost my father when I was very young. Maybe it’s because I’m a softie. Whatever, this moment reduced me to a tearful wreck. And I wasn’t the only one. When the interview ended, everyone in the room needed a few seconds to pull themselves together. Akwasi raised a few smiles when he said that was great…but now Paul had to do the same thing again for TV (the first interview was recorded for radio).
Of course, it was harder for Paul than anyone else so he and I popped outside for a break and a chat. I asked him if he was ok to do the TV interview, bearing in mind what he’d just put himself through. ‘I’m ready,’ he said. ‘I’ll do what I have to.’ And he went back in there, did the second interview and when he was asked again about the painting of a mother and baby, he put himself through the same emotional wringer a second time, speaking with the same courage, pride, honesty and dignity as he did the first time. And I cried again.
Paul’s book, Spirit Boy, is published on 26 November. It is very, very special.
The hardback can be ordered here and the ebook here.