When I heard rumors of a new contender for the world’s tallest man in northern Ghana, I set out to find out if it was true. The only problem? Measure it.
A local hospital in northern Ghana told 29-year-old Sulemana Abdul Samed during one of his recent check-ups that he had reached the height of 9ft 6in (2.89m).
It would make him the tallest man alive, but there was a catch – the rural clinic couldn’t be sure of his height because they didn’t have the right measuring tools.
Diagnosed with gigantism a few years ago, the young man was on his way to a monthly appointment to deal with the complications of life as a giant when he was asked to stand up straight against a measuring board.
A shocked nurse told him, “You’ve grown bigger than the scales.”
Better known to all by his nickname Awuche, which means “Let’s go” in Hausa, he was stunned by the spectacle he caused.
He wasn’t surprised to learn he was taller, given that he never stopped growing – but it caused dismay from the staff, who were unprepared for such a scenario.
The duty nurse called her colleague, who in turn called another for help. Before long, a group of nurses and health care assistants got together to solve the puzzle of figuring out her size.
One suggested they find a pole and use it as an extension above their stick to measure its height – and that’s how they arrived at their estimate.
When I first met Awuche a few months ago on a trip to northern Ghana, where his fame had spread to the grasslands of the region, I had no tape measure on me to check its size.
So, in order to settle the matter – and armed with a 16ft tape measure – I returned to the village of Gambaga last week.
The plan was to lean him against a wall, mark him by the top of his head, and then determine his height using the tape measure.
“The way they measure me, I can’t say everything is perfect,” admitted Awuche – pleased with my plan to get an exact measurement.
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It turned out to be taller than most houses in his neighborhood, but after a good search we found a decent building with a fairly high wall.
He took off his shoes – large slip-on shoes specially made from car tires and nailed together for him by a local handyman because he couldn’t find shoes that fit him.
One of his neighbors climbed on a wooden stool to reach Awuche’s height so he could mark the wall with a piece of charcoal.
After checking the line, we firmly stretched the tape measure from the marked line down to the floor as Awuche watched in anticipation.
“Awuche, the tape measure says 7-foot-4,” I said.
Wearing his inimitable smile, he replied, “Wow, so what does that mean?”
“Well, the tallest man in the world is 8ft 2.8in, he’s barely a foot taller than you.”
I was referring to Sultan Kösen, 40, who lives in Turkey and holds the current Guinness World Record.
“I keep growing. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll reach that height too,” Awuche remarked – not at all upset at the discrepancy with the number given to him by the hospital.
“Every three or four months I grow… If you haven’t seen me for three or four months and you see me, you will realize that I have grown,” he explains.
This height increase started to become noticeable when he was 22 years old and living in the capital, Accra.
Awuche had moved there to try his luck in the town, where one of his brothers lived, after finishing high school.
He worked in a butcher shop, saving money to take lessons at a driving school.
But he woke up one morning confused: “I realized that my tongue had dilated in my mouth to the point that I couldn’t breathe. [properly]”, he says.
He went to a local pharmacy to get some medicine, but a few days later he realized that all the other parts of his body had started to get bigger.
When family and friends from his village visited the city, they all noticed his growth spurt and it was then that he realized that he was gradually becoming a giant.
He started towering over everyone – and he sought medical help as the growth was leading to further complications.
He was left with an abnormally curved spine, one of the main symptoms of his condition, Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder affecting the connective tissues of the body.
This results in abnormally long limbs.
More serious complications involve heart defects.
Doctors say he needs surgery on his brain to stop the growth.
But Ghana’s public health insurance cannot cover this, providing only basic treatment.
For each hospital visit, he still has to collect around $50 (£40).
His health problems finally forced him to return to his native village six years ago and give up his dream of becoming a driver.
“I was planning to go to driving school but even when I move the seat back I can’t hold the steering wheel…I can’t stretch my leg because my knee will hit the steering wheel.”
He now lives with his brother – and gets by after setting up a small business selling mobile phone credit.
His height also reduced his social life.
“I used to play football like all the other young men, I was athletic but now I can’t even walk short distances,” he explained.
But Awuche isn’t letting his problems get him down. He’s full of soul as his tall, slim figure weaves through the dusty paths of the village – smiling when people call him.
He’s a bit of a local celebrity.
A group of old people sitting near a shed exchange jokes, children wave, women come to kiss him and make jokes.
Some people want to take selfies with him – even strangers come in asking if he’s the giant they saw on social media.
“I usually say, ‘Yeah, come closer’ – we get up and take some nice pictures,” says Awuche.
He is very grateful to his family for their emotional support, saying he does not know of any other relatives, including his three brothers, who are showing any signs of his condition.
“None of them are tall, I’m just the tallest man.”
He would like to get married and have children one day but wants to focus on his health first.
His first priority is trying to raise money for plastic surgery to treat a serious skin condition on a leg, ankle and foot caused by the overgrowth of the limb.
But looking at his bandaged toes, Awuche refuses to be discouraged by his predicament.
“This is how Allah has chosen for me, I’m fine. I have no problem with the way God created me.”