Walking back to happiness
After illness, William Gyampoh finds reasons to be thankful
By Dan Hayes
The first thing I notice about William Gyampoh is his walk. He’s deliberate, precise, every step has to be considered and then executed. All the while, cars fly past him, but he remains un-fussed: the eye at the centre of the storm.
I fall into conversation with 54-year-old William on the way back from a walk of my own. He’s come out for a breath of fresh air. I ask him if he minds some company. He tells me he began limping badly three years ago and went to hospital to find out what the problem was. The doctor laid him down and examined him before concluding that he had had a stroke. “I didn’t even know what a stroke was,” he says.
He blames his illness on “drinking and smoking too much”, and says he hasn’t touched a drop ever since. But even now, several years later, William is still recovering from its after effects. This is a process which is presumably never pleasant, but in his case seems particularly gruelling to me, since he lives alone.
“I know a few people to say hello to but they don’t know anything about me,” he says. “I just do my own thing. No one else comes and sees me.” He is visited by carers in the morning and evening but the rest of the time occupies himself with walking. Lots and lots of walking. But William’s walks aren’t the kind I’m used to. It takes him such a long time to get anywhere that, by necessity, he’s limited to the estate he lives in.
Over the course of the next hour we make our way around his neighbourhood — Stannington in north west Sheffield — following William’s well-trodden route: up Oldfield Road, across Oldfield Terrace and back down Stannington Road. It’s a distance of at least a mile and a half. As we chats he often finds it hard to find the right words. “I forget lots of things since my stroke,” he says.
It’s a bitterly cold Thursday evening when we meet, but William has made no concessions to the temperature. He’s sleek in a pair of black trainers, black tracksuit bottoms and a grey hoodie, unhampered by a hat or gloves or the sort of substantial coat January demands. The temperature on my watch says it’s 2℃. Isn't he cold, I ask. “Cold? I’m not a cold person,” he teases. “When I walk, it keeps me warm.”
As we walk up the hill, our breath forms in plumes before our faces and we swap exercise stories. These days, when I find the time, I go running, I say. He used to be a bodybuilder, but hasn’t been able to go since his stroke. He wants to go back to the gym to use a treadmill so he can practice walking straight and lift his legs properly. “I want to straighten myself out”, he says. “To balance.”
He tries to walk twice every day but sometimes thinks the better of it if it’s too cold or slippery underfoot. In the morning he stretches, first his arms and then his legs. He does some at home and some out on his morning walk. He then repeats the same circuit without the stretching in the evening. I keep assuming that he does all this because it’s advised for his recovery and beneficial for his general health. But he actually does it because he wants to.
“It keeps me occupied,” he tells me. “If I didn't have anything to do, I would get really bored at home.” His carers spend less time with him than they used to after their hours were cut, but he doesn't seem overly concerned. You seem happy, I say. “I am happy,” he replies. “Very happy.”
I find out William was born in Ghana but came to the UK when he was 22, over 30 years ago. When he first arrived he lived in Battersea in London but relocated to Sheffield roughly a decade and a half ago. “When I first came to the UK, I came to enjoy myself,” he says. “Ghana is nice but you can’t really compare it to England. Everything is different. The weather, for one. It doesn’t get cold like this.”
In West Africa, he patiently explains, the only real deviation from “really hot” weather occurs during the Harmattan season — a period of the year when a dry and dusty wind blows from the Sahara desert to the Atlantic ocean. He says if you’re not careful during the Harmattan your lips can end up “a bit dry”. Hearing this in mid-January Sheffield feels like listening to a work of science fiction.
In the seven years I’ve lived in and around this city I’ve never looked around Stannington before. I’ve driven through once or twice and seen pictures of Deer Park flats: three, fourteen storey red brick tower blocks rising precipitously from the hillside. The towers are surrounded by a wider estate of lower-rise modernist housing which straddles either side of the busy main road. The estate might not be the prettiest but the countryside it’s nestled into is stunning. Across the Rivelin Valley below us you can see Bolehills and Crookes. Earlier, as the sun descended behind the Peak District hills, the valley is bathed in honeyed light.
For the last eight years William has lived on the thirteenth floor of Woodlands, one of the three Deer Park towers. Until he had his stroke he worked as a carer himself, but afterwards he had to stop everything. He is better than he was but the doctors have never even alluded to the prospect of a full recovery. “Some people who have had strokes are in wheelchairs,” he tells me. I ask him whether he is grateful not to be like that but that’s not what he means. He’s just grateful, full stop, he explains. There’s so much to be thankful for.
One of the things he’s thankful for is his daughter — Offeibea, named after his mother — who is now 15 and lives in Pitsmoor with her mum, William’s former partner. He visits her every Friday without fail and they spend time together after she comes home from school: nothing elaborate, just hanging out for a few hours before he gets a taxi back to his flat. “I really look forward to seeing her,” he says.
Other than that, his weekly trip to his church and the walking, William watches TV. Especially sport. Especially football. By a happy coincidence we both turn out to be Liverpool fans. I confide that people sometimes say that my glasses and baseball cap make me look a bit like Liverpool's German manager Jürgen Klopp. “Hmm,” he says, remaining diplomatically neutral on this. He talks with pride about Liverpool’s triumvirate of African players: Sadio Mane from Senegal, Mohammed Salah from Egypt and Nabi Keita from Guinea. “And I love Klopp,” he says. “Always smiling.”
As we turn the final corner the city lights below us twinkle and we can see William’s block straight in front. Ahead the pavement narrows and William tells me to be careful. He stops and listens for cars before assuring me it’s safe to continue. To be honest, I’m more worried about him walking down this stretch when I’m not there, given his limited mobility, but he doesn't seem too worried. “God has been good to me,” he says.
When we get to his building he tells me he normally climbs the steps to his thirteenth floor flat, but this time he takes pity on me and offers to go up in the lift. As we get in, and the harsh electric lights illuminate my face, he does a double take. “You do look like Jürgen Klopp,” he finally admits, laughing. I walk him to his flat and before we say our goodbyes, we resolve we’ll stay in touch. Does he have any plans for the weekend, I ask? “No, not really,” he replies. “More walking.”