Category Archives: africa

First Came Jollof Rice

The Great Jollof Rice debate rages on amongst the people of West Africa. Whose is the original? Whose is the best? Is the original the best? Does it matter? There was a social media story last year about a pair of west African students (I believe one Nigerian and one Ghanian) in London who ended up in a brawl over an argument over jollof rice. Clearly, this is an emotive subject for my people :D.

Jollof rice is a one-pot dish, principally with a base of tomatoes, onion and red peppers with fluffy rice packed with umami flavours. That is the basic recipe but there are probably hundreds of variations of that. The word jollof originates from Senegalese language Wolof meaning ‘one pot’. Most believe it originate from either Senegal or the Gambia but its popularity spread across west Africa and probably inspired the Cajun Jambalaya too. Nigerians and Ghanians arguably cook it the most. Being Nigerian, of course I think the Nigerian jollof rice is best.

In Nigeria, Jollof rice is a national dish eaten by every tribe. It is the most popular party/celebration dish. In the southwest, it tends to be cooked in a very spicy tomato base and served with sides of fried/grilled meat, chicken or fish, moin-moin, plantain and some vegetables. In the north, it tends to have vegetable in it and usually some dried fish cooked in too.

I think one of the reasons the husband loves me so is my cooking and jollof rice is one of the dishes he loves. It is one of my favourites and my little girl loves it too so it is a regular on our dinner menu at home. It has always been well received when I have served it to our non-Nigerian guests and I have had a few recipe requests lately. When you google jollof, over 100,000 hits come up so there is no shortage of recipes. Jamie Oliver even dabbled with cooking jollof (probably best not to appropriate such an iconic African dish Jamie!). There is no right or wrong way to cook jollof  as long as you stick to the basics and I enjoy the many variations of it. It is the food of (African) gods. Mine is based on my mama’s recipe which always had lots of veggies and on special occasions coconut milk added in. Not heavy on chilli. I love healthy eating so I like to add in beans too. Here is my recipe which serves 4. Hope some of you try it and give me feedback on how it went.

 

Ingredients

  1. 1 standard mug of rice (Basmati best but long grain rice easiest for novice cooks)
  2. 2 standard mugs of hot water
  3. 175g tomato passata (or tinned chopped tomatoes)
  4. 1 medium-large onion finely chopped
  5. ¾ sweet-pointed red pepper finely chopped
  6. 1 tablespoon of tomato paste
  7. 3-4 cloves of garlic finely chopped or crushed
  8. Scotch bonnet pepper
  9. 3 tablespoons of sunflower oil
  10. 1 tablespoon of palm oil (you can do it without but more authentic with. Found in African/Carribean food aisle or shops)
  11. 1cm slice of fresh ginger (or half teaspoon of ground ginger)
  12. 1 stock cube
  13. 1 teaspoon curry powder (African/Carribean food aisle)
  14. ½ teaspoon dried thyme
  15. 1 tin of precooked mixed beans or ½ mug black eyed beans (if fresh, soak in hot water a few hours before needed then boil for 20-30 minutes in lightly salted water)
  16. 2 large carrots, peeled and diced
  17. ½ mug of peas
  18. Large handful of green (runner) beans chopped
  19. ½ mug of Sweetcorn
  20. Salt and pepper to taste

 

Method

  • Measure out the rice into a sieve and rinse in cool water and leave to drain on the side.
  • Put the oil in a medium pot with a lid on medium heat. Add the onions and fry until starting to soften. Add in the chopped red peppers, garlic and fresh ginger. Fry for a couple of minutes.
  • If you like chilli, add either ¼ or ½ half of the scotch bonnet pepper, very finely chopped. Otherwise, throw in a whole scotch bonnet when you add water to the rice, taking care not to break the pepper. That way it gives your jollof a wonderful aroma and you can choose to add a bit of the pepper to your plate later.
  • Add in the rice, tomato passata and tomato paste. Add the curry powder, thyme, some salt and blackpepper. Stir until well mixed.
  • Meanwhile, put the stock cube in the same mug used to measure the rice and pour over the boiling hot water. Use a spoon to stir ensuring the stock cube is fully dissolved.
  • Add the stock to the pot. Add in another mug of hot water.
  • Stir all the contents in the pot and put the lid of the pot on. Once it starts to bubble, turn down the heat to the lowest setting. Do not stir at this point
  • Check your rice after 10 minutes. When the rice still has a little water in it but has a bit of bite, it is time to add in the carrots, the runner beans and drained cooked beans at this stage. Stir once and lid back on for about 4 minutes.
  • Add the sweetcorn and peas. Cook for 1 minute. Check that your rice is fully cooked then switch off the heat and leave to stand for 1 minute.
  • Serve with sides of choice. Mine would be a hard-boiled egg, smoked mackerel and coleslaw. Fried golden brown plaintain if you have it.

Enjoy!

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WWF, footie and Ayo

Three words you wouldn’t usually find together in one sentence. Ayo is a game played in Nigeria. In Hausa, the same game is called dara. I was taught how to play it whilst visiting a relative’s house and I fell in love with the game. One day, my mama travelled to Lagos and came back with one for me. It is one of the best gifts I have ever been given. It comes in a wooden case and inside are 12 holes. The exterior of mine was embellished with hand-carved patterns in the wood and it was beautifully stained a deep brown/red. It smelled of the oil used to stain it and the playing stones were seeds from a tree native to the South of Nigeria. There are many variations of it, as with all the best games. Classically, at the beginning of the game each hole (called a house) would have 4 stones and each player takes turns to pick up the stones of a house belonging to them and place a stone per house until you got to the last stone in an empty. After the opening play, the aim is to reform a hole of 4 stones which is then won by a player. This sounds dead boring but I promise you it is not. Because all the holes don’t start out empty, there is a lot of dropping and picking stones, forming big ‘houses’ (holes with lots of stones) and when you learn the patterns, you can win a lot of houses. A bit like Monopoly where the better player acquires houses and eventually the losing player has no house to play with. Watch it played here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-1M7qf05ud4

Like I said, I fell in love with the game so I studied it and worked out all the winning patterns over time. Eventually, like a chess player, I could read the game 2 or 3 moves ahead of my opponents. My stepdad was a competitive and passionate man. In the evenings after dinner, we would sit in the living room, either playing Ayo or watching his favourite show WWF. When my Ayo first came, I wasn’t very good. Neither was my sister or the young cousins who lived with us. My stepdad was familiar with the game so in the first few weeks, he won pretty much all the time. My sister and I were competitive too so losing wasn’t easy for us but we took losing with grace. Not my stepdad. He would whoop and fist pump after each round he acquired someone’s house. The more he won, the worse he was. He would goad us, laugh in our faces and even did this thing where he pretended to wipe your face. Oh, we would get so frustrated! I remember having to fight the tears so hard and I think I complained bitterly to my mama behind his back too. Bear in mind, I was probably 6 or 7 and my sister about 10 years old. However, cultural rules were strict and we could not behave badly when we won. Neither could we refuse to play when he wanted to. As the days passed and we lost game after game and had to endure his behaviour, our determination to become good grew. Slowly, we began to win more rounds. Then more matches. Happy days when we got so good that we won most of the time. The tables were turned. We tried to be respectful children but it was impossible to hide our victorious smiles. We sat politely but inside we were doing cartwheels and fist-pumping. We had a good old giggle as we lay in bed after lights out, relishing getting our own back. Before long, he grew bored of losing and lost interest in playing with us.

My stepdad didn’t watch a lot of TV but he enjoyed sports, wrestling in particular. WWF used to be on TV on weekend evenings. My sister and I became keen wrestle mania fans. Back in the day, we liked the Undertaker, Tan Tanka, Yokozuna, Bam Bam Bigelow and the Hart brothers (I forget the name of the cute blond one every young girl was in love with). As soon as the opening credits played, we would leave whatever we were doing and sit in front of the TV with my stepdad. My mama would shoot us disapproving glances and find somewhere else to be. There was something brilliant about the deep voice over the loudspeakers announcing each wrestler then their ‘theme’ music would be played and the wrestler would make their grand entrance to chants and boos from the audience. The Undertaker was for me the unforgettable one. He dressed all in black, never spoke, never looked up and had long greasy hair covering his face. His music was creepy and he came with a coffin! Woah! That blew my mind back then. I used to imagine he came with a coffin that had a dead body in it. On the rare occasion, he would glance up, his eyes shone with an other-worldliness. I was scared and excited in equal parts. On special fights, not only would he beat the opponent, he would put them inside the coffin. What?! Awesome!!!

My stepdad’s favourite WWF wrestler was 1,2,3 kid. Young man, slight frame but very athletic and won a lot of fights. I remember his name clearly because my stepdad would get very excited if it looked like his guy was in danger of losing. He would passionately bang on the table and shout ‘c’mon’ at the TV. When the excitement got too much, he’d be on his feet and would literally jump on and down as 1,2,3 kid got on the corner ropes and flung himself down at his opponent. In the excitement, he would forget his name and call him 1,2,3,4. That made my sister and I laugh so hard and we would try to correct him in between gales of uncontainable laughter. We needn’t have bothered, he couldn’t hear us over his shouting at 1,2,3 kid to finish the other guy.

Whilst on the subject of TV excitement, international football was something else we shared with my stepdad. The most memorable footballing moment for me was Atlanta ‘96, the Olympics when the Nigerian Super Eagles won gold. This was the Kanu, Samson Siasia, El Rufai era. The golden years of Nigerian football. The first few games were good but as we all started to believe in our team, the matches became bigger and bigger. The final few games were epic. The whole of Yola was talking about the Super Eagles and there was a festive atmosphere everywhere. On the evening of the final, everyone had plans for where they were going to watch. People congregated in homes that had generators so that if NEPA (electrical supplier) cut power, we would still see the match. Our home was one of the congregation points. There must have been about 20 of us crowded around the TV. Even mama had caught football fever by then. At kick off, there was absolute silence. It felt like all of Yola was holding its breathe. I cannot remember what the score was but with every goal, you could hear the cheers echo across town. The winning goal came very close to full time. I remember we were collectively leaning forward and whispering go go go! A genius footballer, one of our eagles got the ball and dribbled it past a few defenders and then blasted the ball into the back of the net. And we all erupted!!! I don’t think I have ever felt electricity like that since. Every cell in me was vibrating with joyous energy. The cheers kept coming all around the town in waves, late into the night. We were all screaming and crying with joy. There was hugs and kisses all round, even for my stepdad who didn’t do public displays of emotion as a proper Fulani man. Now that is one moment I will never forget. One of my fondest memories of my stepdad.

Primary Six

In the Nigerian school system, we spend 6 years in primary school. Majority of children would sit their common entrance exam for secondary school in Primary 5 and if they passed, would skip Primary 6 and go straight to secondary school. My mother was the type of parent whose kids would complete all six years whether they passed or not. So, although I sat and passed my common entrance in Primary 5, I knew I was coming back to Primary 6. We went from about 50-60 children in Primary 5 to less than 20 in Primary 6. Our classroom was in the administrative block, away from the rest of the classrooms. We felt very grown up, practically teenagers.

I was a precocious child, mature beyond my age. Despite being tiny back then, I was easily the most outspoken girl in my class. This outspokenness in combination with my natural exuberance and good academic record meant I was a shoo in for Head Girl, leader of the prefects. It still makes me laugh that I was head girl because I was smaller even than the kids in Primary 3. That didn’t faze me one bit. I loved the challenge!

Our main duty as prefects was to organise morning drop off, assembly and break times. We had to make sure all the children were lined up per class and that they stayed in line and quiet during assembly. As Head Girl, I would lead the team of prefects patrolling the drop off area and it was our job to tell the parents if they were unacceptably late and even turn them back with their children still in their cars. Looking back, I am not sure how appropriate it was for us to essentially discipline parents. Perhaps culturally the teachers found it too hard to be so strict and they left it to fearless Primary 6 prefects to do. We also kept discipline in the playground during break time. Children being children, it was so hard to get them off the swings and slides and back to class. We ruled with iron fists. Somehow, we wielded enough authority that the rest of the school listened when we spoke.

Being head girl was tough yes but in truth, it was fun. By Primary 6, we had a very close-knit circle of (girl) friends. We had a laugh from the time we were dropped off until we were picked up. The first couple of girls to come would wait by the drop off, forming a welcoming party. The next girl to come would be carried to class ceremonially on a 2-person arm-throne and then we would all return for the next girl. That way, every morning, we treated each other like princesses. We would chat non-stop in between assembly and lessons. For lunchtime, we all stopped bringing in food from home (being so grown up) and were given break money instead. We would leave school grounds and go and buy food. In Yola in the 90s, there was no such thing as fast-food. Our options were local food sold to workers. Our favourites were moin-moin (bean cakes) and we discovered a lady who sold fried yam and tomato sauce. I don’t recall what we talked about back then but I remember how much laughter there was anytime we were all together. We would eat our food, sitting on the veranda outside our classroom and watching the little ones playing in the playground. We would play it cool with the boys in our class, falling silent when they approached as if we were sharing deep secrets.

Break times for us grown ups was competitive games. We had outgrown the playground swings, climbing frames and slides. In vogue during our time were clapping games and next level hopscotch. The clapping games involved a lot of very fast precise movements done by 2 or 4 girls in tandem (the boys never played, they probably weren’t dextrous enough or were too busy kicking a football about) whilst singing a rhyme. Check out this video on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gbmNYD_YjzY). Then there was the game called 10-10 (ten ten) or walle in Hausa. The rhythm was produced by clapping and it started out sedately with a leg kicked into the ‘playing field’ and could be done in twos or bigger groups. The player had to avoid being played out by kicking out a different leg to the rest of the players. A bit like rock, paper, scissors using legs. And the pace built and built until it became quite frenetic. Very addictive game. As Yola is so dry and sandy, it could get quite dusty but that didn’t bother us. Brilliant game!

It fell to me to organise our leaving party in our final term of school. I don’t think preceding years did much to mark this momentous occasion but my friends and I wanted to do something special. I went to the headmistress to ask permission to throw a party and she said yes with no hesitation. Our party was on the final day of school. We decided what food we wanted and went to the market one lunchtime to ask for prices. I remember writing the list and working out how much money we needed and who would cook what. A few boys agreed to contribute but mostly it was a girls’ affair. The boys thought it was too girly to have a party.

We were given use of a room and brought in a tape player with the current hits on cassettes. We made the room look pretty and spread out the food on a large table. There was jollof rice, coleslaw, fried chicken, cupcakes, lots of sweets and soft drinks. My sister even gave us the beautiful Barbie cake she had made in her Home & Nutrition class. With the music turned up loud, we ate, drank, danced and had the best time ever, oblivious to the boys looking on in envy through the windows. We scrawled messages of friendship in marker pens on each other’s school shirts and found corners of furniture to leave our mark on.

At the end of the day, after all the fun, as the school bell went one final time the tears came. We were all going to different secondary schools. Despite making promises to keep in touch, we knew it would never be the same again. In those days, no one had email access or mobile phones. Keeping in touch needed a lot more effort. To be honest, I have forgotten half the girls in the group but I vividly remember the sadness in my heart as I hugged each of them goodbye and watched them get in their cars and drive off. I haven’t seen any of them since then. I found one of the girls on Facebook but 20 years on, we rarely have anything to say to each other. Still, I had a wonderful childhood and a big part of that was school and the friends I made there.

Boarding School…In the Beginning

Here in the UK, when one mentions boarding school, you evoke the image of an old stately building sitting in vast manicured lawns with the occasional 200-year-old oak tree and outdoor tennis courts. The sort of private institution attended by the children of the wealthy and the odd scholarship working class kid. I went to boarding school. Of a totally different class. In Lagos, Nigeria. Yes, I was in Queen’s College Yaba (QC or QCY we fondly call it). QC is one of the best public secondary schools in Nigeria. It is also infamous for a breed of QC girl – stereotypically loud, someone who puts on airs and is into their material wealth. In reality, most of us are normal down-to-earth girls. However, there is a certain QC-factor many of us carry with us for life.

My mama is an ex-QC girl but my (older) sister was in a reputable military school in the north so we all expected that I would join her. I was all geared up for it. I sat their specific entrance exams and went on a week-long interview. Despite my best efforts, I didn’t make the grade (my parents weren’t military enough apparently). Luckily, I did well enough in my national common entrance exam to have been offered a place to Queen’s College. As my mama considered whether to appeal against the decision of my sister’s school to change the rules after a gruelling recruitment process (which I excelled at), I had one of my vivid dreams where I saw me checking into QC. Weird because I had never been or even seen any photos of the school. It felt like a vision of my future and I told my mama I was happy not to fight for my place at the other school. I was going to Lagos.

We got to Lagos a week before and had to go through a series of tedious administrative processes…full medical, bank tellers, school uniform outlets, book purchases. Mama even braved the markets (she hates markets) to buy the endless required items on our many lists. I was excited and nervous and already, I missed my sister and home. A big positive was that my grandparents still lived in Lagos then and their home at least felt familiar. On that first Saturday, we all had to get to QC before 6pm. We left home after lunch (which I barely ate) and as we got onto the 3rd mainland bridge, we hit traffic. My heart sank into my shoes. I felt a darkness descend over my soul and I thought I was going to be sick. To make matters worse, the traffic was all headed in the same direction so the agony of anticipation was prolonged.

It was utter chaos. Have you ever been on a farm when cattle have to be corralled and branded/tagged? Being the granddaughter of a farmer, I have and I can tell you it’s not a nice scene. Cows are not docile like sheep and I think they are cleverer too so once the first lot have been through, they moo a message back to the herd and the rest all go a little wild. They start to struggle against the humans try to feed them through the metal paths. Their nostrils flare and dribble and their eyes take on a wild rolling look. It is not pretty! Combine that with all the shouting men, the mooing, the smell of branded flesh, cow pee and poo…you get the picture. This was how the scene I was faced with felt.

Parents were giving up waiting in the long traffic queues leading up to the school gates. There were people everywhere in the streets surrounding QC as everyone but the drivers disembarked and grabbed luggage, buckets, school bags, brooms and mops. Irritable drivers honked as people staggering under all that load wandered in and out of traffic. Older students spotted returning mates and there were squeals of joy and excited chatter as friends were reunited after the long summer holidays. In the middle of all the chaos were the newbies. Me and my fellow JS1 girls. Silent, quivering wretches whose young faces bore expressions of doom. In our shiny new uniforms and shoes. Taking it all in, dragging our feet, praying for salvation. At least, that was how I was feeling.

First, we had to find the administrative block and queue to submit bank tellers, get registered. All JS1 queued to get to a marquee to be allocated a house (I drew orange for Obong House and not the blue for Obasa my mama had been in). Then we had to find our House station where we had to hand over the cleaning supplies, sign in and be told our dorm and then the senior girls had to root through our bags to fish out any contraband. This process took ages! By the time I was fully processed, it was approaching 6pm and the dean had reached a climax as parents/siblings said goodbye and tired senior girls continued to check everyone in.

I had to make two trips across (dormitories, dining hall and library were separated from the administrative, class rooms and staff quarters by a gated wall). I found Obong 6 (dorm 6 in Obong House), dumped the first lot and hurried back to find my mama. It was time to say goodbye. I gave my mama the longest hug, inhaling her familiar smell and fighting back the tears the threatened to fall. Mama was misty-eyed too as she kissed me and promised to be back on visiting day 3 or 4 weeks later. I gathered up my bits and pieces and with leaden feet turned and crossed over, using up all my will power to stop myself running back and begging mama to take me home. At the gate, I turned and waved one final time and I swear I felt like a dead man walking to his execution. I made my way back to Obong house, claimed an empty bunk and sat on it.

I don’t know how long I sat there for before Zara, my lifesaver found me. Zara is actually my mother’s second cousin but for ease of explanation, in QC she was my cousin. She was a senior girl, in SS1 when I started in QC. She found me in all that confusion and gently guided me through the process of finding a mattress for my bed and making the bed, finding an empty locker and arranging all my belongings in it and putting my bathing things together in my bucket. She sorted out my life and earned my eternal gratitude and then she disappeared back to her House (Obasa, on the opposite side of the dorms). I can’t remember if I had dinner that evening but I remember meeting the other junior girls. The JS1 girls all looked as lost as I did and that made me feel a tiny bit better. I was relieved when it was lights out. As I slid into bed onto my crisp new sheets in my crisp new nightie, I was overcome with sadness and homesickness. I didn’t think I could bear it. I wept into my pillow until sleep swept me into oblivion. I wonder how many other JS1 girls did the same?

Here We Go Again

lilywhite

The past few month has seen a lot of talk about racism in the media. Particularly in relation to the Oscars. With it, a lot of eye rolling and people saying they are fed up of black people going on about discrimination and playing the race card. What about the Muslims, the gays, the transgender, the browns, the women, the poor? It is a constant source of irritation and sadness for me when these discussions kick off and people start shouting at each other. My first issue is no one wants to listen. This is why racism and the many other forms of discrimination continue to thrive in our societies. Societies that are ashamed to admit a lack of progress and would rather hide what they consider dirty laundry out of view. As if out of sight is really out of mind. Well, it is humanity’s shame and face it we must. Because if we don’t face it then we won’t ever fix it.

On the Oscar issue: yes, it is inherently racist. Why? Because up until recently, majority (94% according to many internet sources) of those who are eligible to nominate and vote for the winners are white and ¾ of those are men. Human nature, and this is evidence-based, is such that if a selection of talented actors/actresses/directors is presented to a person, the voter will look for common traits to identify with the nominees. The easiest trait to identify: skin colour, gender and other physical attributes. So stands to reason that if 94% are white, they are more likely to nominate and vote for white people. There was a blog by a young black woman who works in the entertainment industry published on mumsnet. The reaction was one that had my gnashing my teeth. Many (white, brown and black) suggested that it was not the correct forum for such a discussion. I was dismayed. If mothers are not the people who need to be educated about the ills of discrimination and who need to be encouraged to socialise their children into seeing beyond colour, then who exactly is going to be the catalyst for change?

mother and child

I cannot for the life of me see which other group yields more influence when it comes to such a fundamental change. As a soon to be mother, I see it as absolutely my job to teach my child to see the inner qualities of every person they interact with and judge them based on their actions and words and not the things over which they have no control over.

queue jump

In Nigeria, there is blatant racism still. The fairer your skin is, the more socially desirable you are in many circles. The more foreign your English accent, the more educated you are perceived to be. Being resident in Europe or America or Asia elevates your self-worth. Doesn’t matter if you do the most menial of jobs abroad or have very little education over there. I was born in Nigeria, left as a teenager and I have now officially spent more of my life outside of Nigeria then in it. I see the discrimination clearly. Sure I am a highly educated and successful professional but most of the strangers I interact with don’t know this. To many it is all superficial. I get asked my opinion on things that are well outside my area of expertise and even when I am confessing to having little knowledge, my opinion carries weight. I get better customer service because of the way I speak. I get less abuse from those who like to abuse their positions of power – the police, road safety, customs and immigration officers. When I go into shops run by foreigners, I watch how they treat ordinary Nigerians with barely disguised rudeness or contempt and how those Nigerians do not complain about it. I speak up sometimes to the surprise of those Nigerians and I get told I am ‘feisty or fiery or outspoken’ with amusement or admiration depending on the age of the Nigerian I am defending. I have been in situations where a non-black person has walked into the place, seen the queue of Nigerians waiting to be served and decided that their time was more valuable that the locals and cut to the front. I wait to see if the officials say anything, rarely will they ask for the person to do the right thing. If nothing is said, I am never afraid to tell the person that there is a queue and we were all in it.

The other manifestation is through skin bleaching. It is so prevalent in Nigeria and indeed many other societies. People, mostly women, spend a lot of money on creams and lotions containing dangerous toxins which ‘whiten’ their skin. Some of the more expensive products do a good job and give them fairer skin that looks natural and healthy. Most do not. It is so ugly to see the patchwork that results from some of these products. You see women prancing around with their face and neck a Caucasian skin tone, their arms brown and their joints black as nature intended. It is so unnatural that it sometimes looks like a comedic caricature. Sadly, for those who do it, they look in the mirror and think they look more beautiful. Heart breaking to me because some of the most superficially beautiful people on the planet are all shades of brown and black. There is nothing more beautiful to me than flawless golden or deeper brown skin. I see photos every day and wonder how those who bleach are unable to see the beauty in brown skin. Of course this is all about superficial beauty. Maybe that is where we fail. We are too preoccupied by the outer image and fail to see the beauty within. I truly believe that for a person to be truly beautiful, their soul, their heart and their mind must have a positive nature. That is why I find beauty in the eyes – a person whose eyes glow with love, happiness, kindness and warmth is a person I naturally gravitate towards.  That is why there is nothing more beautiful to me than a baby (human or other mammals). That luminosity that is unspoilt by life and its many hardships, that bright light.

name spelling

Here in England, racism is everywhere. I have a surname that has 3 syllables. Pronounced exactly as it is written yet many won’t even attempt to pronounce my surname. If I can get my head around Siobhan actually being pronounced as shee-von and Yvonne pronounced as Ee-von, then I do not see how it can be hard to say a name as easy as Ab-dal-lah or Jo-da or Di-ya. Working as a doctor on the wards, I have had patients say to me with surprise ‘you speak good English’ and I turn around and say to them ‘why wouldn’t I? English is one of 3 languages I was brought up speaking’. I overhear staff talking to non-native English speakers (those with foreign accents or limited English) very loudly, as if the issue is with hearing loss. I hear comments about those non-indigenous Brits being ungrateful for asking for what is routinely offered to their white British fellow patients. I see the relief in black and Asian patients when I say that I will be their doctor and I will look after them. I empathise with them even as I feel sad that I make them feel better not because of my medical skills but because of the colour of my skin and how they perceive that I can relate to them better or will treat them with more dignity.

I will never forget the first time I was racially discriminated against. I was in my 3rd year of medical school on my first hospital placement in an inner city English hospital working with a medical team. On the first on-call I did with them (on-call means being responsible for the new patients coming in off the streets as emergencies), I was seeing patients who were then reviewed by the qualified doctors. Of course, there is a triage system so medical students never saw patients who needed urgent care for things like an on-going  stroke, heart attack or acute asthma that needed immediate treatment before information gathering. Anyway, I was allocated an elderly Asian gentleman to see. I walked into the cubicle and introduced myself, clearly explaining that I would see the patient then get one of the doctors on my team to review. The patient did not protest but his 2 sons were affronted. They, in their high-powered suits, did not think it was appropriate for their father to be seen by me. They wanted someone else. I got my registrar and told him what they had said. He, being Asian like them, was angrier than I was. He marched me back to the patient and his family, informed them that I was part of the team and as this was the NHS, they would be seen by the first available medic. Their choice was me or going private. How awkward for me and the patient! They apologised and I got through the consultation. This happened 10 years ago and happens to this day. I applaud my registrar for his stance and anecdotally, it is happening less and less because people like that registrar were calling people out for their attitudes.

random search

I spoke in another post about the attitude the police have when they stop you as a black person. The approach is usually quite different – the black person is more likely to be treated as guilty of some wrong-doing until proven otherwise even where you are the victim reporting a crime whereas the white person is more likely to be treated as innocent until proven otherwise. Same as when you go into a shop, a security man (or woman) is more likely to follow around a non-white person than a white person. Same as ‘random’ extra security stop searches in the airports. Once, I got stopped for a random search twice in 10 minutes in Birmingham International Airport less than 100m apart. I was irritated and the lady was apologetic and wouldn’t meet my eyes. I pointed out to her that her colleague had just stopped me randomly too and in fact he was only a stone’s throw away. What was it she thought would have changed in the distance to her? It is a random search ma’am. Randomly because I am black you mean. She flushed and muttered an apology as I gathered my bags and carried on. Random. Racial profiling is reality.

So whilst I know that majority of white people are not actively racist, just as I know that majority of Muslims are not extremists, it is clear that as a black woman, I have more obstacles to contend with. Life is just that little bit harder because I was born with the colour of my skin. I ask for no special treatment. I just want to be treated the same as my non-black friends are. I want to be treated with respect and given my dues. I want people to judge me for what I have said and done (which I have control over) and not the genetics I have inherited. I want my talents to be recognised for what they are and not the physical package they come with. I want the same rights afforded to me by virtue of being a human being. I want justice. I want acceptance. I want to freedom to be me.

The Power of Dreams

My aunty forwarded one of those inspiring videos about life and happiness. One particular message struck me. It said something about having a dream then making it happen. Of course, it is easier said than done. It is not quite that easy to turn a dream into reality but those people who are the happiest are those who had a dream then put their all into making it a reality. I have many dreams. Through hard work and luck, many of my dreams are already a reality. I got into medical school, I graduated. I applied and got into speciality training and I am gaining experience as a paediatrician. I met a man with a big heart, fell in love and married him. We bought our lovely first home, a permanent abode after my many years of moving from flat to flat.  I fell pregnant when we were in good place and the baby has been growing well with the easiest pregnancy. I am getting ready to realise one of my biggest dreams – giving birth and being a mother. So yes, my bucket is overflowing.

This is about my professional dream.  I used to think I would be happy to graduate, specialise as a paediatrician, get a consultant post and settle down to a routine. With the recent political shenanigans and the more I work in the NHS, the more I realise I want more. I want more out of my life and I also want to contribute more than the daily grind. Don’t get me wrong, I know in my current role I do make a difference to lives. There is nothing more satisfying that when I have done a good job and I know that parent or child’s life has been changed for the better, no matter how small that change is. However, many days I look back after a busy day and think was that worth it? Those days which are all about paperwork and administrative tick-boxing exercises that contribute nothing except to some faceless manager’s satisfaction.

The part of the world where my life started (Yola) is lovely in a lot of ways but there is a significant poverty. In terms of economics but also in healthcare terms. Nigeria as a whole fails to cater to the healthcare needs of its population unless you have lots of money to go private. The North-East of Nigeria is one of the poorest when you look at health outcomes. In particular, looking at childhood. The statistics (where there are any) are shocking. Nigeria, for all its wealth, regularly features at the bottom of tables for health outcomes. We are in the bottom 5 for most outcomes including maternal and under 5 morbidity and mortality. For the non-medics reading this, morbidity refers to how much ill-health and disease (sickness there is) there is and mortality refers to how many are dying.

Mothers naturally should come in a low-risk group. Most should be healthy young women doing what is most natural – getting pregnant, growing a baby and then delivering the baby. Young children, although fragile because they are not mature yet biologically are despite all of that resilient on the whole and have bodies that are full of strong healthy organs with endless potential for healing. What we are failing to provide is basic care. Basic antenatal care, trained birthing assistants, hospitals to assist in difficult deliveries and facilities for emergency caesarean sections (surgery) for those women who cannot do it naturally. Infections, on the whole preventable and most totally treatable, cause a lot of the morbidity and mortality in Nigeria. Many of the other things we provide here in the NHS is simple supportive care, allowing patients own bodies to heal themselves in a secure environment.

So here is my dream. I would like to set up a women’s and children’s health centre. Big dream I hear you say. Yes, I am aware. It will be a huge task. I worked at the FMC in Yola for 4 months in 2012. I saw how much need there was and the things that were missing. I know a lot of the patients we couldn’t help were those who lived far away from town and did not come to us until their disease was too advanced for us to be able to do anything. Mothers died in childbirth because they did not have adequate antenatal care so predictable problems were not discovered until it was too late. Preterm babies died because they were born out of hospital in environments not hygienic enough and did not get simple breathing and feeding support and early treatment with antibiotics. Term babies were born too small because their mothers were undernourished and unwell with treatable conditions during pregnancy but were not diagnosed and treated. Very few of the patients we couldn’t help needed fancy expensive medicines or surgery. It was simply too little too late.

On the positive side, those that did come to us in time had better outcomes than those suggested by the statistics I read about on WHO and the likes. Those preterm babies born at FMC Yola thrived and majority survived until discharge. Sure, their progress was slower than here in the NHS because of a lack of basic equipment and provisions like oxygen and breathing support, working incubators, labs, fluid pumps, parenteral nutrition for those too young to feed by mouth or through the stomach. But survive they did because they are little fighters.

So what I dream is to provide all those basic things to the mothers, babies and children free of charge if I can manage to raise funds or at the very least at the smallest prices possible to give those with little the chance to quality healthcare. To go with that, I would like to provide an outreach service to those isolated villages. Run clinics, provide immunisations, antenatal vitamins and nutritional support, teach about prevention of infections and when it is vital to seek early medical help. Central to that idea is to train some of the villagers to provide safe simple birthing assistance, supportive care for new-borns and how to diagnose and treat the most common infections and provide first aid. All little things but added up should cut the numbers of mothers and children suffering unnecessarily and prevent the many preventable deaths.

My grandfather listened to me talking about my dream and was (rather unexpectedly) downbeat about it. He pointed out that it wasn’t as easy as I was making out. Actually, I know it will be difficult to do and as I have never done this before, it is a monumental task. There is so much to do to get this off the ground. However, here is my plan. I will start small and do this project in stages. I will deal with the complications as I get to them. A journey of a thousand miles has to start with that first step. I have taken my first step. I have dared to dream and I have written down my dream in black and white. Now onwards and upwards. Watch this space.

The First Pupil of Nadi Nursery School

I cannot remember a time when I did not love to read. It was a skill that seemed innate to me and before I was in primary school, I was reading well above my expected age. My mama always says thank God for that love because my sister was the opposite. She loved to play and focusing on learning to read was not a priority. She wanted to be out and about and had no time for it. My mama despaired but things soon turned around. Because there I was in nursery school, learning to read ahead of what I was being taught and when my sister saw that, she decided it was time for her to learn too. I was also learning to read and write Arabic by the age of 5 so my brain must be hardwired for it.

One of my aunties, Aunty Dijatu Balla is the proprietor of Nadi International and a lot of people know that I was their first ever pupil. She wont stop telling them about me every chance she gets. Back in the day when Aunty Dijatu was planning to open her school, my mama was a sounding board for her ideas. I doubt they noticed her limpet of a daughter (yours truly) stuck to her side, listening to everything they said. When the time came for her to think about recruiting pupils (finally!), I gave them both a shock. I would like to come to your school I said. I wasn’t quite 2 years old yet. Most nursery schools recruited children 3 years or older because there were 2 years of nursery before primary school education began at the age of 5-6 years. I was a year early. Really? She asked. I was certain. I must have convinced both her and my mama because she agreed to enrol me. I was overjoyed. I hated being left alone when my sister went to school and Mama was by then working for the Government so she too had to go and leave me alone every morning. I could not wait for term to begin (I think we started in January, just over a month after I turned 2). I don’t remember too much in the way of details being that I was so young but I definitely remember my yellow check uniform dress with the maroon collar and waist band. I remember feeling like I was the bees’ knees when I put on my brand new uniform, complete with brown school sandals and lacy white shocks.

Nadi back then was in a little bungalow off Mubi Road in Jimeta, Yola. It had a few small classrooms and the bit which would have been a sitting room in the house was like our hall. I remember the hall the most. It had sliding doors leading into it and on the sliding doors were life-size pictures of Big Bird, Bart and Ernie from the popular children’s TV show Sesame Street. The highlight of the day was when we all of us would sit on the 2 long wooden benches, our arms around each other’s shoulders and sing nursery rhymes. The best one was ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’ and we would all rock from side to side in complete synchronicity as we sang the few lines over and over again. We also loved ‘If you are happy and you know it, clap your hands’ with all the motions. Oh the simple joys back then!

Another vivid memory was of the baboon in the house next door. He was held in captivity by a long rope tied around his waist. It was long enough for him to climb up the high wall separating our school from his home and sit and watch us. When we were let outside to play, we would without fail run to that bit of wall and try to catch his attention by singing and dancing. One of our classmates, Fatima Silas, must have been terrified of him because we took to singing her name to the baboon. The baboon would stare longingly at us, wanting to play and when our dancing and singing got too much for him to bear, he would try to jump down to us and his rope would pull him back. We would all scream at the tops of our lungs and race back into the school room, scared he was trying to grab us. The next day, we were back by the wall to try and get him to react once more. I wonder where Fatima Silas is and if she remembers this at all.

I remember a few other names from those years. Altine Hungush, Amal and Mamie Sewa. Mamie Sewa was one of the first pupils with me because her mother was our head teacher. I remember her mother well. They were Ghanaian and lived not far from the school. Sometimes, I would go home with them and if I was there long enough before my mama came to pick me up, I would get fed. I still remember how delicious I found their ‘foreign’ food. There was a dish with garri, palm oil and something else. The something else I cannot remember but I know I took a lot of pleasure from such a simple dish. I remember the food and how she and her husband always spoke gently and with love.

Nadi was a great 2 years of my life and when I finished there, I moved onto Airforce Primary School as there was no Nadi Primary School yet. Nowadays, Nadi is not just Nadi Nursery School. It is a nursery, primary and secondary school. A huge establishment located in purpose-built premises with hundreds of young children, having their minds shaped. In the office of the proprietor is a framed picture of me when I went back on its 20th anniversary to receive a special award. I am so proud of my alma mater!

Mind the Gap

I watched a BBC documentary on The Taj Mahal Palace, one of the best hotels in the world located in Mumbai according to the documentary. It certainly looked the part. The opulence and the service was certainly worth the thousands a stay would set you back by. This struck me but what struck me more was the homeless families who made their home outside the walls of the hotel. The poor women who sold recycled flowers to make enough to feed their children. Where were the men who fathered those children I wondered? If the Taj was so successful, couldn’t it be charitable enough to feed its resident poor? How could the guests stand to walk (or more likely drive) in past those poor wretches into such luxury?

This sort of wealth inequity is replicated all over the world of course. The less industrialised the nation, the more likely you are to see scenes like these replicated. In Yola where I come from, this is very much in evidence. It is not unusual to see a huge mansion complete with high surrounding walls, an impressive iron gate manned by gatemen and perfectly manicured hedges sitting next to a hut, little more than a lean-to with dry barren land surrounding it and the inhabitant(s) unable to afford 3 square meals and clean drinking water.

When I was little, we would have bouts of feeling charitable and go visit one of those poor homes. Most of them are inhabited by single old women. Some were called witches because of their social isolation or maybe because of their disdain for some of our archaic cultural norms. Many are just poor and alone, without a benefactor to lift them out of abject poverty. A good proportion were quite old and really did need a hand. My friend and I would go in and give their hut a spring clean, refill their water pots (their lounde) and clear out accumulated rubbish. We would leave with their prayers for us and our mothers ringing in our ears. These women managed because they had neighbours like us who would go in periodically and help out.

That is one thing I love about Yola. By Yola I mean Yola town. Not the metropolis that is Jimeta which has lost most of its old school community (or maybe being ‘new’ never got a chance to form the same bonds). No one can deny that poverty is pervasive in the society there but actually, so is charity. It is imbedded in our culture to look after our neighbours. No one in Yola that I know of has ever died of starvation (malnourishment is a different kettle of fish). If your neighbour struggles to find a meal, they could simply turn up at meal times and they would get fed.

I remember one of our dear matriarchs who had little herself always fed more than just herself and her dependents. We always had food to eat at hers even though she was poor herself. When we went to see her before we went off to boarding school, she would ask for forgiveness (in case she died before we came back) and forgive us any infractions then she would rummage under her mat and give us some of her precious savings so we could buy something. We would demure unfailingly but we also knew we had to take it. Because not to take it would be seen as disrespectful and a sign we did not value her loving gesture.

This was 2 decades ago. Things are changing but charity is still very much alive. I am not sure whether the local children are still doing what we did back then but I sincerely hope so. Especially because as religion and politics become more and more of an issue and many of those in our communities claim to be religious. Well then. If that is true, true poverty should never be an issue. Islamically, Zakat is part of our core duties, one of the 5 pillars of Islam.

“Be steadfast in prayer and regular in charity: And whatever good ye send forth for your souls before you, ye shall find it with Allah”                                        Qur’an Chapter 2 Verse 110

For any Muslim who can afford to support their living themselves and have something left over, they should donate 2.5% of their wealth to those who are in need. This is Zakat. Imagine if in a society like Nigeria where an estimated 50% of the population (87 million) are Muslims. Now imagine that about half of them can afford to pay Zakat. If even half of those (20 million) contributed 2.5% of their wealth to a community fund that was well-managed, things would be so different. So I challenge the practising Muslims who preach all things good to sit up and remember this core duty of ours. More than a billion Muslims across the globe, a good proportion with enough wealth to alleviate poverty all around them. Let’s do it people!

The Cycle of Life Part 3

I could write and write about the many lives I knew that were cut short in their prime but I will complete the cycle with this last blog about one of my oldest friends. His name was Nabil. We probably met as babies but the first meeting I remember was when I was 15 years old. We had moved to London the summer before and were getting settled in still. My mama came home one day and announced we had been invited to have dinner the Ibrahim’s on Saturday. Who were they? I asked. She explained that they were old family friends. The parents were my grandparents’ friends and although their children were younger than my mother and siblings, they knew them well as children. I am told one of the kids had even stayed periodically with my grandparents in Lagos when they were going to school there. She told me that the oldest daughter had 2 sons, one my age and I was going to meet them.

Although we both lived in North London, it was quite a trek as there was no direct tube route and we had to go on 2 (or was it 3?) buses. By the time we got there, my nose, fingers and toes were frozen and all I wanted to do was curl up into a ball and sleep by a fire. I needn’t have worried. As soon as we stepped into their house, I felt my frozen cells begin to stir. It was always tropical in that house. Mum and Baba (the grandparents) like it very warm so there was never any danger of being cold once you got in there. I was introduced to the many adults, face after smiling face. It was like a mini-Northern Nigeria. All the warmth, the noise, everyone speaking Hausa. The boys were called down, Nabil and his little brother. They were instructed to take me upstairs until it was time for dinner. Although Nabil was friendly, he was definitely the quiet one. His little brother made up for it. He was very chatty, still pre-adolescent and full of excitement about life. Back then, he was quite small too. Very cute!

Nabil played us some music and told me about how they had only been in London for a year so were new to town too. He explained who was who in the family and we made general chitchat with his little brother telling us his fantastical half made up tales. We were in the same year of school and I was older by 2 months. By the time we got called down to dinner, we were friends. Over the delicious dinner cooked by Mum (his grandmother) and his mum, we talked some more. We exchanged numbers when I left. We stayed good friends over the years. We went to visit every so often and they made the trip across North London a few times too. We text occasionally in between visits. The next year, we talked about finishing year 11 and applying for colleges. I told him I was doing all the sciences and Maths because I would be applying to do Medicine. He said he wasn’t sure yet what he wanted to be so he was still thinking about which subjects to choose. We talked about where to go and I must have been convincing because I suggested for him to join me in Barnet College and he promised to consider it. He wrote down his address on a teddy bear notepad I had so I could sent him information when I had a confirmed place.

Common sense prevailed and he went to a college more local whilst I went to Barnet College. We went to see movies together and we even ate out at this stage, being all grown up at the ripe old age of 17 and 18 years. Every time we went out, he would insist on paying for everything and I would argue him down so we went halves. His little brother had grown into pre-adolescence by then and would irritate Nabil endlessly. His patience was great and he would repeatedly ask him to butt out of our conversations. I didn’t mind. I had a sister too and as the younger sister, I knew what it was like to be the little one. When we applied through UCAS for universities, he finally had a plan. He was going to study Maths. I was shocked. I mean, I was a straight A student and I got my A in Mathematics, an A* even in AS. I was no slouch when it came to it but to do a whole degree in Maths? I was agog! Why would anyone in their right minds do such a thing? He took my teasing in his stride. He said he didn’t have a profession in mind like I did and he knew he could use his generic Maths degree to do a wide range of things. I accepted this but I still thought him mad. He gave me that calm smile of his. ‘You’ll see’, he said.

As is the norm, we saw each other less when we went off to different universities. I went to Birmingham and he stayed in London. We probably saw each other once a year but when we did, it was like no time had passed at all. Ours was a very easy friendship. He would tell me about his ‘crazy’ Maths course. He seemed happy. I would tell him about Medicine and how much of it there was. How I realised more and more that what I knew was only a small fraction of how much I needed to know. He was openly impressed by how well I coped with it. His support and belief in my abilities were unwavering. Just like his friendship. I knew he was there somewhere should I ever need a friend. We text and Facebooked more than we spoke face to face. I can count the number of times we spoke on the phone in all the years.

Over the years, I would tease him gently about his girlfriend, or lack of. As the Fulani girl, I should have been more embarrassed to talk about such things but he was so shy about it. It became part of our friendships. I would needle him about ‘her’ and he would counter by asking me about my many boyfriends. I wasn’t shy about it. I had very little in the way of boyfriends but I told him of every encounter and how I preferred not having a boyfriend. He never admitted to any love interests but his brother was a more open book and I know there was somebody special at some point. He graduated and started an online sales platform. Next thing, he was talking about going back to Nigeria for his NYSC (mandatory youth service). He settled in Lagos. I happened to go the Lagos route once in his time there so I got to see him. He looked way too skinny and I was worried. As a newly-qualified doctor, I saw ill-health everywhere and was concerned he wasn’t sharing. He reassured me that he was fine. I didn’t need to doctor him. I believed him because youth corpers do tend to look the worse for wear during their year’s tenure.

The last time I saw Nabil was in Life Camp, Abuja in 2011. He happened to be visiting Abuja whilst I was there on a 10-day holiday. He was staying with a friend who brought him over. Again, I thought he was too skinny and he laughed it off. ‘Maybe I was always meant to be skinny like you’, he said. We chatted for an hour and he had to go. As we hugged goodbye, I felt how bony he had become. Life in Lagos was a hard one for a young man trying to start a business. My parting words were ‘You need to eat more. You should look after yourself better.’ His reply was a laugh and a ‘Yes doc!’ I stood at the door and waved until the car was out of sight. Not for a second did I imagine I was saying goodbye for the last time. The fuel subsidy crisis in Nigeria was the last thing we ever chatted online about. He became very involved in the demonstrations. I worried about his safety and he sent photos of himself and his friends at Lagos marches, looking happy and less skinny. He had found a cause to believe in. I was proud he was making a stand for a cause.

News that he was ill came out of the blue. I was in Yola, having taken a year out from working in the NHS to see the world. My mama got a call from one of his relatives saying that he was in hospital with a bleeding illness, cause still unknown. It was pretty serious and they were considering transferring him abroad as the healthcare available in Lagos was deemed inadequate. When my mother related the facts, I wanted to know more. What sort of bleeding? Was it related to a fever? Was Lassa fever the suspected cause? When my spoke to them again later, she was given more details. He had woken up that morning and told the friend he was living with that he wasn’t feeling too well. I think there was mention of a headache. He had been well the night before going to bed. His friend had gone with him to hospital and he either vomited or peed blood. The exact sequence is hazy but the gist of the story was that he had become sick rather quickly and what started out as an isolated bleed was now bleeding from multiple sources. He had been given a transfusion, we were told. He was conscious but seemed to be deteriorating.

When my mama related all of that news, I immediately thought the worst. When I burst into tears, she was alarmed. ‘He is alive,’ she said to me. ‘Don’t write him off.’ I tried to explain what I was thinking. I didn’t want to be a pessimist but unexplained severe generalised bleeding had a poor prognosis even with the best medical care. And he was not getting that. Not yet anyway. I had 2 professional experiences to draw on, both rather negative. My first experience of a patient with uncontrollable bleeding was in Malaysia on my medical elective in the 4th year of medical school. He was brought in by his heavily pregnant wife and a male relative to the A&E where I was working. He was very quickly diagnosed with Dengue Haemorrhagic fever. However, before any real treatment could be commenced, he went into cardiac arrest. With the medical students and his wife watching, the doctors performed CPR. It was horrific. He began to bleed from every orifice imaginable. His ears, nostrils, mouth. The blood was coming up the tube he had inserted into his lungs to ventilate him. The only part visible with no blood streaming out of it were his closed eyes. It was over as quickly as it began. It was obvious to everyone that he was far too ill to be saved. His wife was led away with the news.

The second experience was indirect. I was working in FMC Yola (Federal Medical Centre) and although Yola was ‘free’ from Lassa fever at the time, there were new cases being reported further south of the country. In fact, about 6 months before I had started working at FMC, there had been a patient with Lassa fever there and 2 of the doctors had contracted it from him. Unfortunately, 1 had died and the second had got to the Lassa Centre down south in time to be treated. He was one of the registrars on the paediatric team I was working with. So although he was okay, it seemed that mortality was quite high and only those who were diagnosed early and treated before they started actively started to haemorrhage (to bleed) were salvageable. Nabil’s story didn’t quite fit the bill because he had not complained of a fever and indeed had no fever in hospital. But it was my best guess with the facts I had and I feared the worst.

I pulled myself together eventually and prayed and waited with my mama. Next time we got an update, it was to say he was worse still, I suspect barely conscious at this stage. He was still bleeding despite all efforts and his parents were with him (they don’t live in Lagos). An air ambulance had been organised and he would be transferred abroad as soon as possible. We even heard he was being placed in the ambulance and I thought maybe there is some hope after all. That hope was short-lived. We got a call a few hours later to say that although his parents were in a flight to London, his air ambulance had never taken off. There were complications and unfortunately, he had not made it. I was so upset! All I could think is how his parents had no idea he had died and how they would have to make the return trip with that news weighing on them. To be honest, I have not asked them what happened exactly but it could only have been a terrible day.

I think the initial reaction of tears had taken the edge of my grief. I had started my grieving process before he was gone. I sat around in disbelief as my mama asked if I would be okay. As we made arrangements to go and visit his family, I could not stop thinking about how final death was. That was it for him, in this life anyway. I have no brothers so I whilst growing up, I found a handful of boys/young men to be my shining examples of decency in the male sex, my torch bearers when I felt dark about men in general. Nabil was one of them. Here was a gentle, calm, positive young man who believed in doing what was right, what was decent. He was respectful of God, his parents and our culture. He was a great friend and it was clear from the few times that I spent with him in the company of his family and friends that he was an all-round good guy. Losing Nabil was losing a little of the light in the darkness that sometimes surround men for me. Nabil was a good guy. Now he is no more. It took just over 2 days for a healthy young man in his mid-20s to sicken and die. Muslims would say it was time to go. I accept that but did it have to be such a horrible death? What did he ever do to deserve such an end? Why him?

The Cycle of Life Part 2

Mamie, my late grandmother, was from Mubi and Ribadu. Mubi is a large town in Adamawa State, even in the old days a thriving commercial town with good links to many other towns (that is until Boko Haram decided to move in). I understand that Mamie’s father was one of the successful merchants there and her home in Michika only came about long after her father died because Grannie, her mother was from Michika. Anyway, through one of her parents, she is partly from Ribadu too. My memory of Ribadu is of a little diversion on the road to nowhere, little more than a collection of huts that we got to by using dusty dirt roads off the main highways. Most Nigerians will recognise the name though because of the famous Nuhu Ribadu, arguable Ribadu’s most successful son. He was EFCC’s first executive chairman – Nigeria’s anti-corruption agency and suffice it to say, he went about his business fearlessly, bringing those previously seen as untouchable to account. He was loved by the masses and detested by the ‘elite’ who had enjoyed incredible daylight lootery for so long in Nigeria. He had to go on exile when he left office because of fears for his life. I digress, Nuhu Ribadu is a relative. Of course he is I hear the Nigerians cry. Everyone in Ribadu is related so therefore, he is definitely a cousin of some sort. My point is that before Nuhu Ribadu, Ribadu would have been a name no one except its indigenes noticed on the map of Nigeria. Now it is one of the household names in the country and no Nigerian should wonder about its origins.

The girl I want to write about was called Aishatu Mohammadu Ribadu. We called her A’i for short (pronounced Ah-ee). I don’t know how the arrangement came about but I remember vividly when she moved in with us. She was about to start secondary school. I suspect my mother offered to bring her cousin to Yola where there were more education opportunities. She was the oldest girl and named after Mamie so who better? She was as you would expect a little village girl to be at first. Timid and as quiet as a mouse. Pretty Fulani girl with her long curly natural hair. She was soon enrolled into GGSS Yola (Girls Government Secondary School) and on the first day, we lugged all the usual paraphernalia to the boarding school to check her in. I remember us walking around the dorms trying to find her allocated one. We did and when we had her things moved in, we said our goodbyes and left. I was in primary school then so it didn’t occur to me how hard it would have been for her. Not only to leave the shelter of her little village and move in with us but to then go straight into boarding school with girls from all corners of the State. She never complained about it.

She remained quiet for the first year or so and then by JS2, she came into herself. She joined the cultural club in JS3 or SS1 and flourished more with it. She came back after the first term of being part of the group and started to sing us their songs in her lovely voice. One chorus went:

Sai mu ‘yan Hausa cultural,

Daga makarantar Geeeee Geeeee (GG).

Mun zo ne muyi maku wasa,

Wasan mu ta Hausa.

Mun zo ne muyi maku wasa,

Wasan mu ta Hausa.’

(Translates roughly into: We are the Hausa cultural girls from the school of GG. We are here to entertain you, in the Hausa cultural way).

We particularly loved the bit where they introduced themselves and when she got to Aisha Mohammed (the Hausa-nised version of her actual name), we would grin out loud. Over the next year or 2, we learnt many of her songs (some by Sa’adu Bori, very X-rated for our age but who knew?). In the evenings when there was no electricity, we would lie on mats out under the stars and moon. She’d tell us stories about boarding school and we’d sing her songs. Her love for music grew and the first album she absolutely loved was Brandy’s Never Say Never in 1998. We all loved it to be fair but she learnt the words to the songs ‘Never Say Never’ and ‘Have You Ever’ early and would sing those songs so hauntingly that I can’t hear now even today without thinking about A’i. Just hearing someone utter the words ‘never say never’ evokes memories of A’i to me. I suspect looking back she was going through puberty and probably was in love for the first time. Being a shy Fulani girl, we never heard or saw the object of her affections. In fact, in all of her time, I only knew of one ‘boyfriend’ before she met the man who would be her husband. I cannot for the life of me remember him but I know she suddenly relaxed her hair, started to wear makeup and took extra care when getting dressed to go out.

When she graduated, she met Hamma Z (his nickname) and we all knew this was different. She would light up when his name was mentioned and although she was shy about it, she never hid that she liked him. I barely knew him then because I was in boarding school in Lagos myself and he wasn’t resident in Yola but visited periodically. I heard she was getting married shortly before the event and as it was the middle of school term and we had moved to London then, I could not be there. I spoke to her though and she told me how excited she was. She sounded it. After the wedding, they moved to Ashaka where her husband worked. It is a little removed so it wasn’t on the road to anywhere we would normally go when we visited. I never made it to her marital home (this I am still sad about). One summer holiday, I contacted her to say I was coming. She promised we would see each other as she was planning a visit to Yola and Ribadu in that summer.

One day, there she was. I think this was in 2002. She looked beautiful. She was always pretty but she was glowing that visit. When she spoke of her marriage and her new home, her eyes shone. I was very happy. I wondered if she was pregnant and asked her the question. A little bit of the light dimmed. She clearly wanted a baby and it had been over a year. She was worried. I remember telling her not to worry. ‘These things are written,’ I said. Her baby would come when it was meant. She smiled and said ‘You are so grown up Diya’ in Fulani. I hugged her and we sat by the car parking bays at home in Yola, sharing a private moment. Once again, the two Aishas reunited under the stars and moonlight. Before she left, she told me about how quiet it was in Ashaka but that she had made a few friends. She told me about her small business venture and how she was now making some money for herself and her plans to make it more than a hobby. She told me about her husband and how he was kind and worked very hard for them. When she left, I promised when I came next time, I would make the trip to Ashaka especially.

That next visit never came. I saw her when she came for Mamie’s death. Then I got a call from A’i a few months later excitedly telling me that she was pregnant and to tell my mother. Her voice was exuberant and I was ecstatic for her. We rejoiced briefly before she had to go. Call charges to the UK in those days were astronomical but she clearly wanted us to know because she was over the moon. It was very un-Fulani of her to call and talk about her pregnancy so early. Traditionally, Fulani girls would normally never say a word until their pregnancy was obvious to everyone. I guess she knew with us being abroad, we had to be told to know. It was the last time we ever spoke on the phone. We texted from time to time and she let me know everything was progressing fine. She said she had never been happier.

One morning, I got a call from my mama who had moved back to Yola. She said ‘A’i has a son’. Her voice sounded sombre so I immediately asked ‘and how is A’i?’ Mamie had died the year before and since then, we had lost a few other people. I suspected the worst as soon as my mama began to speak. She said Hamma Z had been informed that A’i was taking a little longer than expected to recover from her general anaesthetic. You see, she had had complications which meant they had taken her into an emergency caesarean section. Although my heart was still heavy, I was a little relieved. I was a medical student then so I looked it all up and was a little reassured. Chances of dying from a general anaesthetic are slim in a healthy young woman. Looking back, I think she had pre-eclampsia or something like that but as usual, in the Nigerian healthcare system, information is restricted so all we heard was that she hadn’t quite woken up. My mama promised to call when there was news.

I sat by my phone and waited. When the call came, it was what I didn’t want to hear. She had died. We found out later that actually she had died pretty much straight after the baby was born but that was kept from her family. In a panic, they pretended she was still alive but unconscious. I was in the UK and she was buried according to Islamic rites so I never got to see her. My mama went for the ‘funeral’ and reported Hamma Z was devastated but their son was healthy and beautiful. When the next summer came, I went to Yola and asked to be taken to him. He was living with his grandmother then and was nearly 18 months I think. He was beautiful, like my mama had told me. Quiet like A’i was at first. His aunties and cousins told me how he didn’t talk much or take to strangers. He came to me and sat by my side all visit, leaning into me when I wrapped one arm around him, despite not saying a word to me. They looked at me in wonder and said ‘he must know his blood’. I smiled and agreed. Yes, he must. I felt an intense love for him at that moment and I wanted to steal him away. I also wanted to burst into tears. I knew how proud his mum would have been of her little boy and was devastated she never got to meet him.

His father remarried after many years and A’i’s son was reunited with his father for good. Although I have only seen him a few times over the years because they do not live where I go on my short visits to Nigeria, his father and I keep in touch and I am told he is happy. He is an adolescent now and he is so much his mother’s son. I looked at the most recent picture of him I have and saw his smile. A’i’s smile. He has her eyes, her nose and her mouth. His colouring and demeanour is very reminiscent of her. I still well up at the thought he will never know her just as she never got to meet him but I am comforted by the fact that she lives on in him. If I ever get a chance when he is older, I will tell him his mother wanted nothing more than to bring him into this world. That I have never seen her so happy than when she was with his father. Nor heard her so excited than when she announced he was in the making. That he would have been the centre of her world. That she would have done anything for him. That he would have been the most loved little boy, the apple of her eye. I hope I get the chance to tell him all that. Life!