My Favorite Tuo Zaafi and Breast Cancer Story

breast cancer tuo zaaf

When the news of our postings came in 2014, I was completely unhappy and wished I could reverse it. I was posted to a small health facility belonging to the Catholic Church in a faraway Upper West Region. Having lived and schooled in Eastern Region most part of my life, I had no idea about Upper West; talk less of working there.

My reasons were simple; I had heard so much falsehood about the region; how impoverished it was; how difficult life was over there (people and the culture) and how authorities there treated professionals with so much disdain. So nothing, I mean nothing was motivating me to go there.

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Following numerous deliberations and consultations, I finally decided to pack my stuff and make that adventurous journey. After almost 16 hours of vehicular travel from Accra, I got to the facility around 6 pm; the staff and some community members helped pack my luggage into a single room apartment.

I was alone in my room wondering what to eat and how I was going to have a sound sleep.

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Trying to figure out what next, I heard a knock; it was a middle-aged woman, say 45 years; she greeted me and said “Youngman, I presume you must be very hungry; kindly take this bowl of Tuo zaafi (TZ). I hope you like it”.

Immediately she left, I opened the lid out of curiosity. Wow, the delicious smell and appearance of the meal stimulated my appetite astronomically. I told myself this woman might have been sent by God. I went to one corner of the room, sat on the floor with legs crossed akin to a fetish about to perform fake rituals; I gobbled up as though I hadn’t eaten in 2 years.

The taste was awesome. It was arguably the best Tuo Zaafi (TZ) I had taken all my life. The greenish nature of the dawadawa, flavoured ayoyo soup gave it a distinctively aromatic smell which wouldn’t go away three days after washing my hands.

The next day, I went to thank her for the food and asked her to keep her extraordinary culinary skills up. From that day till the day I left the facility, I lost count of the number of times she fed me with TZ.

She became like a second mother to me. She gave me lessons in Dagaare, Waala, history and culture of the Dagaabas and others things I will reserve for another day.

One late afternoon, while rehearsing my Dagaare lessons, I heard a knock on my rickety consulting room door; it was the 45-year-old nurse. She wanted me to check a swelling in her left breast which has been there for the past 2 years.

She narrated it started as a small lump some 2 years ago but she did not take it seriously. To her, it was too small to cause any serious medical complications.

So I took her through a thorough history and Clinical Breast Examination (CBE) to ascertain the nature of the lump and if there would be the need for further investigations.

It was a firm mass, quite a big one with irregular edge. It was strongly attached to the breast tissue and I could not move the skin above it. I thought to myself, what could this be? Myriads of diagnoses started flooding my ‘medically amateur brain’.

She was then referred to the only premier hospital in Northern Ghana, Tamale Teaching Hospital (TTH) for a mammogram, breast scan and tissue biopsy.

After series of tests, it was confirmed she had a cancer which had spread to the lungs and spine. She will need both chemotherapy and radiotherapy as soon as possible. As I write this, I recall her devastation when she handed me the two paged report of her condition.

That never stopped her. She fought the condition with much alacrity. She bought every prescription, paid every medical bill, and followed the Physician Specialist’s instructions without query.

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But like Chinua Achebe once said, “when suffering knocks at your door and you say there is no seat for him. He tells you not to worry because he has brought his own stool”; her efforts were quite too late.

I remember how she lost all her natural hair and nails due to the side effects of chemo and radiotherapy. She started reducing drastically in weight. She could not feed nor drink well.

Despite all those innumerable efforts, the cancer kept spreading with the speed of light. She started losing it until after 2 years when she finally gave up to death’s call.

When I heard the news, I felt disappointed in life. How? How can life be that unfair? Such industrious and selfless woman. A doyen of health care delivery in the region.

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That day, I became very doleful. But later had to seek consolation in the first line of Presbyterian Student’s anthem and from the Bible; I don’t know the exact verse but I think its Philippians something something. It states: “For me to live is Christ and to DIE is GAIN”.

I prayed she gets a resting place in the bosom of Abraham.

This was how death took my second mother from me. Since then I have never tasted any Tuozaafi like hers, never!

May your soul rest in perfect peace Maame Nurse. Till we meet again, fare thee well.

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SOME BASIC FACTS ABOUT BREAST CANCER (National breast cancer foundation, US)

  • Every 2 minutes a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer and one woman will die of breast cancer every 13minutes.
  • One in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their life time.
  • Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths among women
  • The cancer is a cancer that forms in the cells of the breast
  • Breast cancer can occur in both men and women but far more common in women
  • Breast cancer is treatable, early detection is key
  • Every woman above 18 years must learn how to do the Breast Self-Examination(BSE)

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  • A breast lump or thickening that feels different from surrounding tissues
  • Change in the size, shape or appearance of the breasts
  • Changes to the skin over the breast, such as dimpling
  • A newly inverted nipple
  • Unusual nipple discharge.
  • Unusual feeling of pain in the breast.
  • And others

Kindly report to the nearest health facility if you see any of the above symptoms.
Note: early detection is key.


By: Kojo Todjo
Email: [email protected]
The writer is a Clinician and a Public Health Enthusiast.

Kojo Tordjo tuo zaafi


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