Category Archives: africa

Abdul-Ra’ufu Mustapha: 24.07.1954 to 08.08.2017

This is easily the hardest thing I’ve ever written. I have been wanting to write it since I came out of the acute grief that I felt when he died. It’s hard to order my thoughts and feelings for my uncle Ra’ufu even today, 2 years and 7 months after he left us. His death has left a big hole in my life. Today, the grief is as fresh as on that sunny August day. Other days, I can rejoice in the good times we shared. First, I am grateful he died pre-Covid-19 because it would have destroyed me and his wife and kids not to be there with him in those last days. Thank God for small mercies.

I have decided a letter to him directly is the best way to do this. In between paragraphs, I will add names of songs that remind me of him or make me think of him now. He loved music so I am sure he would approve of the inclusion of music in my tribute to him. You’ll read it in the words below but I’ll say it now: I loved him so much and I miss him every day. He will live on forever in my heart and I am so thankful for the 16 years of consciously knowing and loving him. He was not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but he was generous in all the ways it counted and he is one of the best men I have ever known. My father in all the ways it matters.

Dear Uncle Ra’ufu,

In 2000, I had a little brown address book. In it, I wrote the landline numbers, addresses and email addresses of the people in Nigeria that I didn’t want to forget after I emigrated to England. In it, I wrote in blue ink your name, phone number and address. My Mama said to call you if I was in trouble in England before she joined my sister and me. That was the beginning of my journey of knowing you. Of course, you knew me as a baby but for me, this was my first contact with you. I remember looking at your university of Oxford address and thinking ‘wow! He must be amazing to work at Oxford uni’. I had wanted to study medicine there, so it was like a fantasy institution for me. I didn’t need to call thankfully.
‘Light Up’ by Leona Lewis

We met in December 2000. Mama, Charo and I came on the Oxford Tube to Oxford and after a bit of confusion, on a cold dark December night, we found our way to Edmund Road. My memories of that night are a jumble. The sound system and shelves of music CDs, the Christmas tree, the smell of Nigerian food, the kids. Asma’u and Seyi – they were great kids. Despite the fact we had booted Asma’u out of her room (or was it both of them in that room?), they were both so warm and welcoming. As you and aunty Kate were. In the overcrowded living room, it was evident that this was a family where love resided. For the first time since moving to England, I felt relaxed and happy. My tummy was full of Nigerian food. I could be myself.
‘One Sweet Day’ by Mariah Carey and Boys 2 Men

So many memories but the singing stands out. You’d sing Barry White in your lovely baritone and the kids would groan and be embarrassed especially when we were out. You loved Robbie Williams ‘Rock DJ’ and every time it played on the radio (it was a big hit that year so they played it A LOT), you’d sing along. You pretended he wrote the song about a northern Nigerian woman called Dije (nickname for Dijatu, particularly in Fulani parts). The kids would argue until they were blue in the face that it was about a DJ. You stood your ground and I chuckled at the family drama.
‘Over the Rainbow’ by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole

Hand in hand with the singing was your cooking. Your cow leg pepper soup special was blow-your-head off hot with chilli, but I could never resist it. I also learnt your efficient way of chopping okro. You took me alone to a bookstore in an ancient Oxford building one day and bought me the hardcover of the complete Lord of the Rings book. It was mahoosive. I hadn’t ever heard of it and I wondered why you chose that book. I hefted it back to London with me and it was a transformative read. That was the first of many presents you generously bought me. I will treasure that book forever. And I will die a LOTR fan. What a book! You knew me so well even in those early days. Your house was full of books and my visits became defined by how many books I could read in my waking hours. I’d stay up all night finishing book after book. You and aunty Kate never got fed up of my laying about reading. I don’t think I helped around the house as I should have, so focused was I on devouring all those lovely books on your shelves and in piles all around the house. It’s not a surprise your home quickly became my 2nd home. How could I resist a home where music, books and good food were so central?
‘Hey There Delilah’ by Plain White T’s

Fast forward to 2013, I called and asked if I could bring George to meet you all. As always, there was no hesitation. He was my boyfriend, so he was welcome. You validated him. You and aunty Kate might have had reservations, but I was never made privy to them. We were in the kitchen alone one evening and you asked me if I was sure he was the man I wanted to marry. I said yes. You said ‘ok!’. That was it! Without you, I don’t know how we’d have organised the wedding. I asked you to be George’s representative when none of his family or friends would or could come to Nigeria to stand beside him. You organised the religious side of the wedding in Kaduna, bore all the costs without question. You even paid the sadaki on behalf of George. I wasn’t there so you organised for a photographer to record the day for me and delivered me a beautiful album. In March 2014, you were George’s father. You did a marvellous job and I know George will be forever thankful to have had you by his side during all that. Thank you.
‘Amazing Grace’ by Judy Collins

As if that wasn’t enough, I asked Asma’u if she wouldn’t mind if I borrowed her father to walk me down the aisle. She said yes without hesitation. She figured that you could practice being father of the bride on me before her wedding day. Little did we know that I would be the only bride you’d walk down the aisle. I asked you if you would walk me down the aisle. Yes, you said without hesitation. You asked me what to wear and I asked for traditional Nigerian. When I saw you outside my bridal room on my wedding day, preparing to walk me down the aisle, I felt so proud. You looked so wonderful in your green outfit. You said something calming to me (it’s all a blur now) and you walked me down the stairs and then down the aisle. One of my best memories of the wedding was when you and aunty Kate broke into traditional Yoruba dance. I was so happy in that moment and so proud to have you all by my side as I started my new chapter.
‘With You’ from Ghost the Musical

Every Christmas or NYE I could, I spent in Oxford with you. You taught me about music, about politics and religion, about caring for the world around us and giving back. The trips to Bicester shopping village on Boxing day was a tradition I loved. Even if I didn’t have much money to spend and I wasn’t a big fan of shopping anyway, I loved it because we spent that day together. Getting out of the house was always a mission. We were never out at the planned hour. We’d then struggle to find parking but we would find a spot eventually. We always had to stop in the Bose shop and listen to their demo. We always stopped at Eat for lunch. We’d finally traipse back to the car laden with shopping bags, exhausted. Then spend the 27th recovering from our exertions. When I started working for the NHS, these traditions were invariably interrupted and I only partook in them partially. It was the only reason I minded working over Christmas to be honest.
‘Happy’ by Pharrell

In June 2014, I remember jumping into my car and driving down to Oxford to escape the house where my in-laws were staying after the biggest fight I’d ever had with George. I was so upset. I sat at the table with you and aunty Kate trying to hold back tears. I didn’t want to share it all with you to be honest. I was always mindful of the advice not to share your husband’s worst faults with parents because they won’t forget long after you’ve forgotten. I remember you seeing my red eyes and you looked angry. Angrier than I’ve ever seen you look. You clenched your jaw and you hurriedly walked away from the table. Aunty Kate and I talked for hours. She cried with me and consoled me. You came down when she had worked her magic and I was calm again. When I left the next day, you hugged me tighter than you had ever done. It helped.
‘Umbrella’ by Rihanna

In November 2016, I came for a visit a day after my birthday. I had spent most of my birthday alone. George had gone to Abu Dhabi for the formula One. I was left with my Velcro baby, exhausted beyond belief. Tete (Lorraine) and Kudzi took her off me for 3 whole hours whilst I treated myself to a child-free meal and a whole-body massage. I came back feeling better than I had since giving birth and they surprised me with a birthday meal. It was lovely. But the next day, I wanted to be with my family so I got on the train and came to Oxford (Savannah hated being in the car so it didn’t occur to me to drive down). You were at the station to pick me up. Savannah must have had the sense that you were my people because she went to you and aunty Kate and let me rest my aching arms. I had tummy issues so couldn’t have your cow leg pepper soup. I remember your crestfallen expression when for the first time ever I turned down your offer to make pepper soup. It turns out that was the last time you’d offer it to me. I haven’t eaten it since.
‘All of Me’ by John Legend

My tummy issue turned out to be a treatable condition called microcolitis which when it was finally diagnosed was treated. I didn’t admit to you and aunty Kate that I was worried I had cancer. I had lost more than 10% of my body weight in the 6 weeks since onset of symptoms, I was exhausted and felt very unwell. I was worried about dying and leaving my infant without a mother. When aunty Kate called me 3 weeks later to discuss her concerns about your reflux, cancer was already on my mind. I remember telling myself not to be stupid even as a corner of my mind became anxious. Aunty Kate called back the next week to say you’d gone to your GP and were on anti-reflux medications only but your symptoms were worse. I remember talking to you then, urging to go back. You were reluctant as it was over Christmas with reduced GP hours. I had a bad feeling in my gut, it didn’t go away. Still there a bit now. You went back and they put you on the 2-week wait pathway, confirming my fears of cancer were reasonable. I had a heart to heart with aunty Kate and admitted to her that although other things were possible, cancer was the most likely and for her to prepare you for that possibility. Now looking back, I wonder how she bore it. She was so calm in the face of the turmoil she must have felt internally. I remember coming off the phone after one of those talks and crying. I knew then that you had cancer.
‘You Make Me Wanna’ by Usher

It was confirmed on histology weeks later but the appearance of the ulcer and description was quite conclusive and I told you both. I was devastated. I hadn’t been able to see you during this time between working and trying to get some rest with the Velcro baby. I regret not coming down anyway. I should have been there in person. For you and aunty Kate. I should have come with you to the appointments to ask all the questions I felt weren’t being answered. Relaying my questions via aunty Kate felt inadequate and cruel to be honest. I was working hard to keep your hope alive whilst I was losing all hope myself with my medical hat on. I had seen this story play out with my patients. Little did I expect to be on the other side, living the nightmare.
‘We Are Here’ by Alicia Keys

Eventually, we realised that the cancer had spread more than we first knew so it wasn’t a curable cancer. We started looking into trials for you. Things didn’t go so well clinically and chemo was recommended by your oncology team to slow down the progression. Once chemo started, you went downhill. I think I was afraid to see you in person so I put off seeing you for months. I saw you in February 2017 and the change in the 3 months was shocking. Aunty Kate had been kind in her descriptions of you. You were clearly gravely ill. The chemo rendered you ineligible for trials. Aunty Kate and I talked about trials in India but by April-May, it was clear you were too weak from the chemo. I cried and raged when I was alone. One day, it was just me and you sitting down on the dinning table and you apologised to me about not making my biological father step up and be a father to Charo and I. I was so sad at your words. I remember saying you had nothing to apologise for. He is an adult and it was his failing and not yours. You insisted that you could and should have done more. I was angry that you were taking on his failing as a father. I remember lying in bed that night angrily wishing that it was him with the cancer and not you. It is not a charitable thought I know but I still feel that in moments of anger that I feel for losing you.
‘Castles’ by Freya Ridings

At this point, you were in and out of hospital as your vomiting and poor oral intake was becoming an issue. I was at a loss for words to make it bearable so I took to sending you videos, jokes and photos of Savannah. You always replied and that reassured me that even if physically things were bad, mentally you were with us. On another visit, I sat with you and you admitted the worst thing about the chemo was your mouth soreness and how dry and tender your hands were. Asma’u gave me some Vaseline intensive lotion and you let me massage that into your hands. You smiled at me and it felt good to give you some comfort, even if temporary. In May or June, you called me out of the blue and in your weakened voice, you asked me directly if it was time to get your affairs in order. It was the first time you and I had talked about your death. I remember closing my eyes as my heart broke once more. After the longest pause, I said yes.
‘ABC’ by the Jackson 5

You stopped replying to my phone messages shortly after this conversation and couldn’t speak on the phone so most of our communication was through aunty Kate between visits. She and Asma’u told me about how hard it was for them to watch you not eating. They told me how grumpy you were about taking the medications. In July, with the agreement of the oncology team, most of your medicines were stopped and palliative care started in earnest. You enjoyed lying on the lounger in the garden, soaking in the sun. You were cold despite the heat of the summer sun. You barely spoke. Your words were few and far between. The most alive part of you were your eyes. Sunken into your face. I couldn’t look at you mostly because when I did, I had to face the reality of your impending death. Still I remained fully at work. I should have taken time off at the end of July. Why didn’t I come for your birthday? Even if it was a full house? I could have driven down for the day. I knew it would be your last with us. I didn’t come then. The next week, I woke up one morning and the feeling in my gut was stronger than ever. I called George to ask him to pick Savannah up from nursery. That I needed to see you that day. I spent the day with you and I knew your days were numbered. I tried to warn aunty Kate. I think she knew anyway. I sent George down to see you that weekend and say his goodbyes. I didn’t want him not to have the chance.
‘Alive’ by Sia

On the 7th of August, I came down again, without Savannah as I wanted my focus to be you and you alone. You were bedbound by then. I sat downstairs chatting with aunty Kate and Asma’u about the funeral and where you were to be buried and how to navigate the conversations with your family in a culturally sensitive way. We all knew that the end was nigh. Seyi left us to it. I guess he wasn’t ready to talk about it. Selfishly, I argued for you to be buried in Oxford so I could keep you close. I had to concede your preference was probably Ilorin even if you left the final decision to aunty Kate. Aunty Kate was due at the Nigerian High Commission the next day to apply for her emergency visa so she could come with you on your final journey home. I went up finally, alone, to sit with you. That morning, my intention was to thank you for being my father and to reiterate that you weren’t to carry the guilt of my father’s failings. I even practised what I would say to you on the drive down. When I sat next to you, you roused yourself to answer my formal greetings in Hausa. You were breathless and so weak. I couldn’t say my practised words to you as it would mean admitting to you and me that I was saying goodbye. Instead, I held your thin hand in mine and told you about Savannah. When you started to drift off to sleep, I whispered thank you and I love you. I stood in the doorway composing myself and watching you snooze.
‘Perfect’ by Ed Sheeran and Beyonce

I planned to be back on Thursday with Savannah. As I left the house, I didn’t think that would be the last time I saw you or touched you or spoke to you. The next day, I got a message from Idris asking me to confirm the news. It was then I realised you had left us. I text aunty Kate: ‘is it true?’. She text back ‘yes’. You had left us. The rest as they say was history. I came on Thursday with George. We helped aunty Kate prepare to take you home. We talked. We cried. We listened to Josh Groban’s Take me home as per aunty Kate’s request before they got in the car without me and accompanied you on your final journey. I was on-call that weekend and the NHS doesn’t give leave for non-immediate family member. Aunty Kate hugged me tight before she got in the car and said, ‘I will look after your father for you’. I should have told the NHS that you were my father. I didn’t. I should have gone to Ilorin with you. I will regret that forever.
‘Survivor’ by Destiny’s Child

I hope you knew how much you meant to me. How much I love you. How much I valued your love and all the time you spent with me. I hope you know how much you have helped shape me. How I am planning my hospital because you inspired me with the philanthropic work you did. I don’t know if a part of you is here. I hope it is. I feel you here. Whenever I see okro or cow leg, whenever I hear a deep belly laugh like yours or hear someone speak with your accent. I feel you whenever I see the Bose logo, when I hear 70s and 80s music you introduced me to. You will be part of me forever. You will never die fully as I hold a piece of you in me and it will live on as long as I live. When I show her a photo of you (which I do often), I asked Savannah ‘who is that?’. She always answers ‘Uncle Ra’ufu, your father’. Right out of the mouth of my baby. Rest well my father.
‘Missing you’ by Puff Daddy

Your daughter.

Toilet Paper Gate: Here is Why You Have Never Needed Toilet Paper.

Anyone in the UK (and it seems across the Western World) will remember when the Covid-19 news hit and caused widespread panic across our nations. The most obvious result in the panic buying was the dearth of toilet roll. Photos of supermarkets up and down the nation were shared in social media with no loo rolls in sight. Whole aisles of emptiness. Memes and videos abounded. I doubt that we’ve ever collectively talked about toilet roll as much in all human history. Some of the jokes were class. There were tales of toilets being blocked as people used and flushed strips of clothe down their toilets. Of people using newspapers (Daily Fail was particularly useful I hear) and possibly small furry animals.In Muslim households (and certain cultures) across the world, we watched with amusement. This is because in the Muslim world, we rely on water to get our butts clean. It is a requirement if you are a practising Muslim as you cannot perform adequate ablution to pray your 5 daily prayers without washing your bums. So, I introduce to the non-Muslims the normal toilet hygiene we adhere to.Commonest and cheapest way of achieving this is by using a buta (in Hausa/northern Nigeria). Also known as a lotta in Pakistani households and many other names across the Muslim communities I am sure. It is basically a kettle/teapot as my 4-year-old describes it. The spout makes it easier to use as you can aim the stream of water at the right place with one hand whilst the other hand washes off the soilage. Usually, we use a small amount of toilet paper first to clean off the worst of the brown stuff then wash with water then a small amount of paper to dry. Followed by handwashing. So again, we practising Muslims were winning in the Covid race as we have to wash our hands regularly post toileting. You can’t avoid it because you’d literally stink if you didn’t so in general, hygiene standards are high when it comes to personal care.Bidets would also do the job as do those fancy all-talking, dancing Japanese toilets. In Muslim countries though, we are now incorporating hardware into our bathrooms to help with this. I introduce you to the bum washer a.k.a bum shower. It is basically a small shower head plumbed into your water supply with a simple press on and off button installed right next to your toilet so you don’t have to pause by the sink to fill up your buta before you sit on the throne. Fancier people even have this bum washer hooked up to hot water. This makes the experience a luxury. You will find these bum washers in public toilets in places like Dubai and the Maldives.On a personal note, when I married my non-Muslim husband, he judged my buta. He’d give me side glances in the early days when he saw me use my buta. He once tried to hide my buta when his English friends were coming to stay in our house! I flipped when I discovered this. Told him in no uncertain terms that if his friends judged me and my Muslim ways, they were not welcome in my home. He apologised and never tried it again. But it stings even now when I remember despite the fact that I have forgiven him. Ironically, he can’t poo without having a shower straight afterwards as he feels unclean despite using way too much toilet paper (drives me mad as it is so environmentally terrible!). For some reason, last year, after 7 years of living together, he realised that the buta was the solution to his post-poo woes. He came to me a few months ago to confess how brilliant the buta is. I know! Islam has done a lot of good despite the minority (male) fundamentalists and extremists giving us all a bad name. Islam rocks!!!

Covid-19: The Fallen NHS Heroes

You may have seen on the news that the first 4 doctors to die on the NHS frontline are all male, African and 3 out of 4 of Arabic (Sudanese) origin. We, in the medical family, have understandably been analysing this news with super-critical microscopic gazes. I will take you through the most prevalent theories and one of my own at the end.

  1. Genes: maybe something in the African DNA makes the coronavirus more dangerous to us. In the early days of Covid-19, there were a lot of false theories about the virus not liking the heat and that this was why it didn’t strike in Africa for so long and is still relatively contained. Possible I guess but as it is an RNA virus and viruses like to attack DNA, it is more likely that it’s more to do with DNA than environmental factors such as temperature and weather. Perhaps we have particular DNA sequences unique to Africans of that region (Sudan and northern Nigeria) that means the virus is more likely to successfully infiltrate our cells to replicate and overwhelm our defences. Maybe Africans are not getting infected as often as non-Africans but those that do, get a more severe disease?

Advice: don’t be foolhardy fellow Africans. As we can’t alter our DNA (yet), we need to follow the shielding/self-isolating/hand washing rules very strictly. No visiting family guys. This is serious now.

  1. Vitamin D deficiency: it is a known fact that in the UK, a large proportion of non-white people have either insufficient or deficient vitamin D levels. Many of us don’t know this unless we go to our doctor with generalised symptoms such as tiredness or non-specific widespread aches and pains and we have a blood test. Or if you’re a woman when you see someone for pregnancy or menopause related appointments. When I was in medical school, the importance of vitamin D was just starting to emerge outside of bone health. I remember an Ophthalmology consultant telling me to look up vitamin D in cancer and that if I was to learn anything from him, it was that I should take vitamin D supplements every winter for the rest of my life. Anyway, it turns out that vitamin D is central to many of our metabolic processes – in other words all those things your body is doing at cell level to keep you alive and functioning. It has something to do with Cancer, all autoimmune diseases, brain function, eye disease, mental health. You name it, vitamin D probably has a role. Therefore, it is a solid theory that these 4 doctors could have had that in common.

Advice: probably worth being on vitamin D if you live anywhere like the UK where the sun don’t shine most of the days. Or relocate back to the Homeland (lol)

  1. ACE inhibitors: there has been a link proposed that people being on these anti-hypertensive (BP) drugs having worse outcomes from Covid-19. In simple terms, those on these drugs (common ones Elanapril, Ramipril, Captopril) are more likely to die if they get sick from coronavirus. African have the highest incidence of hypertension in the UK so it makes sense that these 4 men might all be on an ACE inhibitor.

Advice: do not stop your anti-hypertensives without seeking advice from your GP. Even if this theory proves right, if you practice shielding/self-isolation and good regular handwashing, your relative risks will remain very low. You are at risk of complications of high BP too (heart attacks and strokes) and it is a balancing act.

  1. Inadequate PPE: this is likely to be a huge contributing factor. I think this is most likely the issue. Despite Bojo and his Government officials making grand announcements about PPE availability for NHS staff, it is not so in reality. Doctors across England are reporting a lack of PPE and feeling forced to see patients regardless. As a group, medics are prone to putting themselves second to the needs of patients and whilst that is admirable, it is also unwise. Up to 25% of healthcare workers will be infected with Covid-19 according to statisticians. This number should be much less. Of those 25% it is estimated looking at global data (particularly China, Italy and Spain) that between 5 and 10% will die. Maybe more as data is incomplete. If you look at the number of NHS staff, those numbers are huge! We medics are not indispensable. We are a limited resource and no, despite Jeremy Hunt’s claims of yesteryears, no one can magic up 1000s of doctors in the next few months. Not even if you paid them double of what you’re paying them (remember the junior doctor contract bullshit everyone?). No amount of money is worth dying for. Especially if you’re a locum and your family don’t even get a death in service pay out to compensate them in a little way for your loss.

Advice: if you are a healthcare worker, do not go within 2m of a probable Covid patient without an FFP3 mask and full gown as per WHO guidance. Help them from a distance if you must. If you are put under pressure to go closer, walk out. What are they going to do? Fire us all? A sick or dead doctor won’t do the patients any good. Trust me.

  1. African Bravery: I really don’t mean this to sound like I am victim blaming or being flippant, but this is my take on it. These 4 men probably had risk factors that meant they should not be frontline. Be it due to age or comorbidities (existing illnesses as per Government guidelines like Asthma/COPD, chronic heart disease, autoimmune disease, on cancer treatment). But they decided to be brave and put the need of their patients first. If they are like the African men I know (I come from Northern Nigeria like Dr Alfa Saadu), they would have prayed (all Muslim too) for protection and gone to serve with inadequate, despite knowing the risks. Whilst I admire that bravery, I really do think it needs to be discouraged at times like these. We cannot afford to lose medics who are essential in combating this pandemic. We need the Government to step up to the plate and provide correct PPE for all frontline staff. All of them. The Government/NHS says full PPE only for those performing aerosol generating procedures. I put it to you all that one of the commonest symptoms of Covid-19 is a cough. That is an aerosol generating procedure. As you cannot predict when a patient will cough, you should always be in full PPE. Simples. Only patients who are ventilated are not at risk of coughing on you if you go in close.

Advice: don’t be a martyr. You are more useful to the NHS alive and well. Demand full PPE or work from a safe distance from all possible cases of COvid-19. Walk away if you must. Go and work at another hospital that will provide you with the right PPE.I quit the NHS and clinical medicine 2 years ago in March 2018. I had many reasons but basically, although I loved my paediatric patients and a lot of my peers and the paediatric nurses, I felt that the NHS was a poor employer and didn’t care about the individual. I couldn’t see me working for 30 years as a consultant in the NHS. Couple that with Jeremy Cunt and the junior doctor contract debacle which forced me to see that the public we serve generally has no appreciation for the sacrifices we make as doctors in the NHS and think that it has to do with pay. My health and wellbeing was beginning to suffer and I had a baby to put first. So, I quit and moved onto a non-clinical medical role. I took a pay cut to do it (it really isn’t about the money folks) and lost the security of my NHS pension and sick pay. Despite all that, in my new job, I am treated with respect and feel appreciated. My mental health is much better. I am in a better place career-wiseThen bam! Covid-19. I am one of those doctors whose licences have been restored by the GMC. I have agreed to return to serve the NHS through this time. In February, I was very ill. With hindsight, I think I have had and recovered from Covid-19 (which would be great as that’ll mean I am immune going back into the viral soup that is the NHS). But my recent illness and exacerbation of asthma puts me in the higher risk group. I am also an African Muslim which is beginning to look like a risk factor. I am on vitamin D supplements and not on ACEi.Whilst I am happy to sacrifice and serve, I will not be going to the frontline without adequate PPE. I intend to stay safe and alive. My daughter will have her mother for many years to come if it is in my power to insure that. That is my promise to myself and my worried friends and family. I aint going nowhere without a fight!Stay safe folks. Peace and love

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!

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!