Category Archives: Animals

Your Body is Your Temple

I don’t mean that in the gym-bunny, mirror-worshipping way mind you! I mean it in a biology-is-amazing way. I genuinely am proud to be a geek when it comes to biology and how amazing it is to study. I knew I wanted to be a doctor before I understood what a career meant but I think it must be because I looked around as a tiny tot and thought, wow! Everything God has made is simply amazing. The trees, the animals, the sky, the insects…I will attempt to give you an insight about the little things (or not so little depending on your perspective) that make me so awe-inspired.

First, the atoms making all matter up. When I look at the structure of an atom and how it greatly resembles a planet, I am immediately amazed. How can something so simple and so tiny be so organised? The bit I love best are the electrons whizzing around like little moons outside of the nucleus of an atom. The fact that there is a space (albeit miniscule in human terms) between nucleus and electrons yet there is an almost unbreakably strong force holding those structures together. And the fact that when you think every small particle has millions of atoms all linked together but all quite independently holding their ground with their electrons orbiting and repelling each other, creating a little force field of protection for their little territory. Then multiply that by millions and you make a little baby whose atoms are organised in equally amazing cells.

Cells are just a feat of engineering. Google the structure of a cell and maybe look at an animation of what a cell is doing all the time. As you sit here reading this, your cells are busily functioning. Making energy from glucose, enzymes and oxygen in the mitochondria and funnelling that energy in the form of molecules called ATP where they are needed for your cell to do more stuff. As the cells work, they are making waste products and heat that they are getting rid of either into fluid around them to go ultimately into blood to be excreted mainly via the skin, lungs or kidneys. The nucleus in each tiny cell is using up some of that energy to copy your DNA either to make little proteins out in the cell fluid (cytoplasm) or copy the cell’s DNA depending on what type of cell it is.

These proteins are what run your body. Your enzymes and hormones. The building blocks to build more cells to replace those that are dying (happening all the time) or  to repair damaged worn out cells (like nerve cells you can’t make more off). The enzymes help you break down your food, absorb it into cells and then process it, making ATP for more energy. They also help you to convert hormones and other chemicals from one form or another to be used in other intricate processes. Some very important security proteins are those that control how your cells are copying their DNA and therefore multiplying – they often have names like p53. In simple terms, they spot if your cells have copied DNA wrong and the new cells are abnormal (those are the cells that either die or could potentially become uncontrollable and may become a cancer). They then stop that cell being made and destroy it. It is only when something goes wrong with these proteins that you fall victim of cancer or more accurately a tumour with the potential to become cancerous. The hormones tell your organs and glands how to function, whether to make more proteins, work harder or relax a little. Other bits like your white cells also help you fight infections by either producing poisons that kill harmful organisms or simply by wrapping themselves around the bugs and effectively imprisoning them.

I will mention cancer briefly because I find it fascinating and scary and impertinent in equal portions. Like I said, cancer is basically a mistake made at some point when making cells. Some of these defective cells will just die because they do not work well enough to process energy needed for them to survive. Some though become super-cells and not only can they make energy, they evade your bodies normal security proteins and start to multiply at a crazy high pace (fascinating!). These cells then take up space they should not normally take up and even more impressively, they somehow hijack your blood vessels by producing proteins that encourage growth of blood vessels around them so they make themselves a nice super-supply of blood, getting extra blood with all that extra glucose and oxygen to fuel their drive to multiply further (making you anaemic and breathless because you are short of oxygen). The ball of supercells (tumour) then grows and grows, taking up space and pushing your organs out of the way, making them function not as well (giving you some of the symptoms of cancer like constipation when they press on something like bowel) or blocking tubes (like the trachea in the lungs so you become breathless eventually or your bile ducts so you become jaundiced and cannot get your digestive enzymes to your tummy to allow you to digest and absorb food so you lose weight). This is the impertinence of cancer. Eventually, it replaces your normal organs and that’s when the real big problems present. That scares me because you have millions of cells all multiplying constantly and mistakes are bound to happen. It takes just one mistake that goes uncorrected and you potentially have a cancer in the making. Goodness gracious me!

Back to awesomeness though. The next thing that never fails to impress me is reproduction. You can’t escape it. People say love makes the world go round. Some say it is sex. Really, it is reproduction. From simple cell reproduction as above allowing a little baby to grow and for a body to keep functioning to actual mating and reproduction. It really is not all about sex. Even ‘simple’ beings like bacteria reproduce by exchanging DNA in a very unsexy way. Have you ever seen snails/molluscs ‘mate’ for example on nature programmes? It is so weird and amazing all at the same time. That is what binds us all living beings together. We are all programmed to reproduce to ensure our all-important DNA is preserved. So sex my friends is beyond physical lust. You are pre-programmed to want to procreate.

Babies in general are simply fabulous (take it from this paediatrician who is daily seduced by their endless charms at work). However, baby girls are a cut above the non-girls (sorry boys). When a little girl is being made, by 20 weeks of pregnancy, she already has ovaries which have made all the eggs they are ever going to make. In fact, she normally has more than she needs in her lifetime (more than one a month for all of her fertile years) and about 80% will degenerate leaving 20% of her (best) eggs ready for when she one day is ready to become a mother. A baby boy in comparison does not produce any sperm so has no capacity to reproduce. At the earliest in a healthy normal boy, sperm do not come into being until the boy is at least 9 years old. So yes, I know I am probably coming across as very feminist but hot diggity! Girls are awesome!!!

I will stop at that incredible piece of biology because I will get too excited if I carry on. When I stop and think about biology, I have all the evidence I need for God’s existence (or whatever you like to refer to that life force that controls us all whether we are willing or not). There is clearly intelligent design at play. Biology did not just happen and continue to happen. It is a true miracle and I thank God that I am human so that I can appreciate all of nature’s amazing-ness.

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Corazon Por Corazon

I speak very little Spanish but being a salsa fan, I have heard enough Spanish lyrics to know the Corazon means heart and the Spanish-speaking world is always ‘Corazon this’ and ‘Corazon that’. The title is a nod to the video I just watched on Facebook which has inspired this piece. It was posted by Andre Gayle who has stuck English subtitles on a Spanish video entitled Corazon por Corazon (heart by heart…changing the world). Basically, the video is about the loss of our humanity, the very essence that is supposed to make us superior to other animals and plants. It highlights what cruelty and sadness there is in the world and how a lot of us are desensitised to the sight of another human in need. So much so that when we witness suffering, many a times our response now is to take out our smartphones and take a video instead of offering our help.

It made me cry, especially the scenes of animals and children being abused. It made me ask ‘why’ again. I am the half full glass type of a girl but occasionally, I become despondent when I watch the news and it is full of pictures of little children being bombed by Israel or another old pensioner being abused by a carer. It makes me question what I am doing spending so much of my time doing NHS/eportfolio paperwork when there is suffering out there and I have the medical training to perhaps make a difference to so many, in Nigeria for example. It makes me question whether having children is a good idea because what legacy are we leaving behind for them to inherit?

The environment is a huge worry for me. I drive a Nissan Leaf in an attempt to be greener and I recycle and try to minimise waste. I know my efforts mean something but are probably insignificant in the grand scheme of things but at least having made the effort, I go to bed with a clearer conscience. For every person who drives a ‘green’ car or cycles or walks, there’ll be 10 people who drive cars with ridiculous amount of emissions, who waste more than half the food they buy and who never do any recycling. As the ozone layer thickens and the greenhouse effect is compounded, global warming intensifies. Formerly temperate climates develop extremes of weather. Flooding, draughts, tsunamis, tornadoes, forest fires and earthquakes occur with greater frequency than ever before. Large populations of the world who are dependent entirely on subsistent farming are living in famine conditions year after year. Ironically, in Europe and the US more and more of the population are buying excess food and every week are binning it as they buy too much and let it all go to waste. Too much of land is taken up by refuse which no one knows how to get rid of properly. Mountains of waste piling up as we become more and more wasteful. Turns out that even our recycling is not all recycled. Because our Governments have not invested enough into recycling plants so only a fraction of the potential recyclables are being  recycled.

Kindness is becoming short in supply too. As the video highlights, it is now commonplace to watch a person being beaten, robbed or even stabbed and no one wants to step in because it is all about protecting the self. Every year, there is someone on the regional news who has been stabbed or mugged in a bus or at a bus stop or somewhere similarly public where everyone has just stood by and watched. Yet some of these people have the audacity to whip out their phones and video the event and then post it on YouTube. I always wonder how these onlookers would feel if the victim was not a stranger but their mother, father, brother, sister, daughter, son or best friend?

As for the violent offenders, many of them are children who are old enough to know between right or wrong but even at that early age, they seem hardened and lacking in the most basic of human kindness. I know this lack of kindness and empathy is multifactorial but I am convinced one of the main reasons is poor parenting that comes with the modern time. As a paediatrician, I am in a privileged position to be able to closely observe the intimate relationship between parents and their children. There are many things we see that cause us to raise our eyebrows and a few that send us running to Social Services. But what I find most disappointing is when a young child aged 3 or 4 does or says something cruel and the parents, instead of taking the opportunity to point out what is right or wrong and explain why, turn their faces away and throw away the chance to shape their child into a decent person. A couple of weeks ago, I was on-call and went to see a 10 year old boy who was in pain with my registrar (senior to me) and an ST1 (junior to me). The registrar examined him and decided we needed to investigate by taking a blood sample. The boy’s reaction was to shout ‘You are not f*****g touching me. I will bash your f******g head if you come near me’. What did his father do? He bowed his head and my registrar shot the top of the dad’s head a look. As more swearing came forth, I stepped closer to the boy and said firmly ‘I’m sorry you are scared of having a needle but you are not allowed to speak to us like that. We are here to help you.’ That stopped him in his tracks and he resorted to sobbing. His red-faced dad followed us out of the cubicle to apologise and all I could think was ‘don’t apologise to us, teach him to have a bit more respect.’

Speaking about respect, I think that has run off with the kindness. As doctors, we are at the receiving end of a lot of disrespect but we put up with it because we understand when people come in contact with us, it tends to be the most stressful, frustrating, unhappiest time in their life. I think a little respect goes a long way. It is in the small things like saying sorry when you barge into somebody, holding open a heavy door for the person a few paces behind, picking up an item someone (especially frail, old or pregnant) has dropped right in front of you or even smiling at a stranger who makes eye contact. It is about saying please and thank you to anyone helping you out even if it is their job to do it. It is about acknowledging your work colleague who does a little extra work so you don’t have to do it or staying longer at work to finish a task so they don’t have to hand it over to you. It is about realising your loved one is sad and giving them a hug. It is about saying the occasional thank you to your spouse for all the little considerations they give you daily that make your life better without you even realising they’re doing it.

I will say that I am lucky to be surrounded by lovely people who I am proud to call my family and friends. I know I did not get to choose my family but I certainly chose the family I keep close and the friends I surround myself with. These people are generous. They are donating to charity and taking part in fundraising for charities. They are courteous to strangers and helpful where they can be. They smile easily and are generous with their hugs, kind words and cups of tea. They recycle. They reclaim furniture. They treat their pets with love and tenderness. They are there when you get bad news. They hold your hand and sit beside you when there are no words that can ease the pain and hurt. They pray for you to succeed and celebrate whole-heartedly when you do succeed. They turn up when you need them the most. They laugh with you and not generally at you (but sometimes they laugh at you too if they know you can take it). They care about their neighbours and it is not always about them. They are diamonds…beautiful bling with surprising strength. They inspire me every day to be a better person and whenever I reflect on the people in my life, I feel blessed.

Male Drivers

Have you as a girl ever sat next to a male driver and heard them make the comment ‘female drivers!’ with disdain dripping from every word? Have you as a boy been the person making that comment? Well I have news for you, I think in many ways male drivers are just as bad and in some cases much worse drivers. Sure many female drivers tend to err on the side of caution and so you may be excused for getting a little impatient when they drive at a speed of 25 miles/hour in a 30 miles/hour zone and refuse to get into the slow lane. that annoys me too. However, ask anyone who has had an accident whilst crossing the road in a residential area where a boy racer (or just as likely a fat middle-aged balding man) has decided he would rather go at 50 miles/hour and you end up losing a spleen or even a kidney for a momentary lapse of concentration out on the roads. I regularly tell off male drivers for turning normal roads into formula 1 arenas and risking my life just to get to a movie or meal when they have wasted too much time starting out in the first place (you know who you are!). Not worth it is what I say.

One thing that intensely irritates me is when men say women have no spatial awareness. Er, I have no issues bay parking properly thank you very much and my reversing round a corner was the easiest skill for me to master. Ask my driving instructor and the person who conducted my driving test. I think men have spatial awareness issues big time. And they display these issues in the least expected place. They cannot drive within their lane! My husband is chief culprit. He is forever drifting over the line and sometimes well into the next lane without meaning to switch lanes. When I complained, he would say things like I am not holding anyone up or I was avoiding a bump. Rubbish! My father-in-law had to concede my point when on one 30-minute journey alone I pointed out 10 men drivers with their wheels on the lane divider or even over. And majority of those were holding me up too. Men!

Another thing is men in large expensive cars. As a sensible woman, my car is a good-size (I drive a Nissan Leaf and before that I had a little car, the Nissan Micra). I am forever having to pull up short because men see me coming and think they can just pull out in front of me when I have right of way. My husband laughs when I complain and says it’s because they think me in my smaller less expensive car would not want to bash their humongous overpriced toy. Well, I will have you know that this female driver makes it a point not to let such impudence slide and I never let them in if they try to force their way in front of me. I simply let the irate looks wash off my back and sometimes the swearing that comes with that. In fact, I usually grin broadly and give them a cheeky wave to rub it in. What a cheek! I regularly pretend I do not see them pulling out and purposely leave the braking a little late and then pull up just before I make contact whilst I enjoy the look of horror on their faces. Dangerous game I know but it’s so worth it when I get the reaction I seek. Hehehehe.

Biggest safety concern of all is men on their phones. It is as if that law was made for female drivers alone. The number of times I have had a man drive erratically in front of me and I have had to switch lanes to avoid an accident, only to go past them to see that they are busy fiddling with their phone. Van drivers in particular are always on the phone having a chat as they weave in and out of traffic. I always wonder who is supposed to be enforcing that law and where they are. I mean I sort of understand looking at your phone when you have stopped at a traffic light but actually driving at high speed and using the mobile phone is downright dangerous. Most of all I think it is very selfish. If you do not value your life all that  much and a phone call or text about how wasted you got last night is worth you risking your life, then take a second to consider that when you are driving a car, you are only 1 of potentially a whole crowd of people whose lives are at risk. I will give you an example of this. When I was out in Nigeria in 2012, one of my doctor colleagues lost his mother. How? His sister who was driving was using her phone, took her eyes off the road and crashed into another car, instantly killing her own mother and a passenger in the other car and causing serious injury to herself and the other passengers involved. I ask you: is it worth it? I know that if I killed my mother because of my mobile phone, I would probably lose the will to live. Even if it was a stranger that got killed or permanently disabled, it would scar me for life.

Having said all of that, I must commend male drivers for one thing. In general, I have found them to be more generous of spirit when it comes to letting you in when you are coming into slow traffic and they have right of way. I don’t know what it is with female drivers but it’s like a crazy competition not to let another female driver in front of them. Like letting you in is to give up their crown for the throne of I-don’t-know-what. I regularly am kept idling for multiple cars all driven by women and am finally let in by a kind gentleman. So all hail male drivers for their courtesy (and I will purposefully exclude the rude male taxi drivers particularly those in black cabs who are the opposite of gentlemanly). So I leave you on a final note that please when you drive out of your home and go on public roads, remember your highway codes, drive in your allocated lane (if you can’t tell where you should be, please do visit the optician at your earliest convenience), respect your fellow drivers female and male alike and most of all, do not presume to be a better driver because you have a penis. As far as I know, it is not actually capable of driving a car itself.

Moo!

The cow is an amazing animal. For some (Indian Hindus) it symbolises God. For some, it is a tool for agriculture, for ploughing the fields and for fertilising the soil. For some, it is a means of transport. For others, it is a source of nourishment – providing beef, milk, cheese, butter and leather. I think most people would see a cow as wealth.

As a Fulani girl, I certainly have much love for the cow. As you may have read from my earlier blogs, my infancy/toddlerhood was spent on my granddad’s farm (Benue Valley Farm, Fufore). Although the horses are up there with all the great things in life, I always had a special soft spot for the nursing cows and their calves. The bulls to be honest just scared the hell out of me so I always stayed well away from them but not so the calves. We Nigerians believe that when bulls see red, they charge (I am not sure if this is a wider belief) – because of that whenever I forgot to check my clothes before heading to the farm, I would sit in the car in fear of being gored to death. So the bulls get a bit less love from me although I do admire their huge humps from a safe distance.

I remember the joy when we got to the farm after some time away to find a fresh crop of calves all soft and wobbly on their legs, sticking as close to their mums as they physically can. It was fascinating watching them breastfeed and I remember feeling sorry for the poor mums as the calves violently suckled on their udders. If we went early enough, we would catch the milking and the milkers (they were men!) would squirt warm milk straight into our mouths as we danced around in joy. I loved watching as over the days the calves grew in confidence and started to stray away from their mums in little groups. And it was one of those magic moments to see them run for the first time, venturing out into the big bad world without their mum by their side. I must confess I am not sure if calves run but I don’t think they gallop or do they?

There was one particular cow in the herd that was people-friendly and liked to be petted. Now most fully-grown cows are quite aloof and stately so being petted is not something you would do. The calves are usually quite skittish too so cow-love must normally be from a distance. Not this heifer. The herdsmen would call to her using a strange sound that was neither word nor whistling but a cross between. We would scan the herd excitedly, hundreds of cows milling about soon after coming back from grazing into the pen. Then eventually a dark brown cow would emerge from the group and head straight for us. She would poke her head down and through the wooden slats of the fence to the little people waiting expectantly and we would stroke her warm hide and feel the way her skin vibrated and rippled. That is what stays with me; the warm leathery feel and her large eyes looking at us as if with fondness. She was so patient too. She stayed for as long as our attention was fixed on her and we would stay with her for as long as our mama or granddad would let us.

My other main interaction with cows came around slaughter times. My mum, being from a farm and daughter of a Fulani man, preferred to slaughter a cow when we needed meat and then freeze carefully packaged parcels of meat to use daily over time until we went through it all. Just before we ran out of beef, we would get delivery of a bull and he would be tethered to the tree in the back garden and fed some grass. I am not sure why he was kept for days before he was slaughtered but I would hang about the back door, half afraid and half wanting to make friends. I would take a pace back when he mooed and stared at me. Eventually, I would make my way to within a metre of him and talk to him. I would bring fresh water and grass and watch him eat and drink. I would inevitably ask my mama if I could name him but I was forbidden to do so. My mama explained that if I named him, I would start seeing him as a pet and then it would be haram (i.e. forbidden Islamically) for me to eat his meat. So I would refrain from naming him but nevertheless, I would be his friend for the rest  of his life.

I watched the slaughter every time despite the sadness it caused me. I would stand inside the parlour (sitting room) and stare out the window as the men tussled with the cow to get him to lie down. They would tie his legs together and dig a hole beside his neck. Next would come the sound of metal on metal as the knife was sharpened as per halal slaughter tradition. I would whisper prayers for a swift death at this point. Then his neck would be extended and with a prayer, the cut in one swift motion. The smell of fresh hot blood spurting into the waiting hole is an ingrained memory. The bit that followed was the worst bit for me…it was chaotic with blood on hands and the volume of the work to do to clean, parcel and tuck it all away into the meat freezer. My main job was to help braid the intestines which we would cook with liver and kidneys to make the most delicious sauces. Much as I had mixed feelings about those days, I learnt much from them. Not least where my meat comes from and facing the fact that an animal has to die for me to enjoy some meat. So I have the utmost respect for meat.

From a Fulani point of view, a cow is more than just a source of meat, dairy products or manure. To us, the cow is the symbol of wealth and I suspect respectability to some extent. Every Fulani person that can afford it has a cow or 2 somewhere back home. I used to have a herd that started from a heifer bought for me when I was a baby (this herd has been lost in time). A couple years ago, my mama felt guilty about my loss so she got me another heifer and I am proud to say I also have a calf that is about 6 months old today. Beautiful calf too – light brown with intelligent eyes. I feel an inordinate amount of pride for my cows and I know many a Fulani woman (or man) feels the same. Of course cows are a source of security because they do fetch a mint in the market so should you need a lump sum, you have it banked. Also we love our milk, yoghurt and man-shanu (which is like ghee) and in the old days, we controlled the supply of those. Around our parts, there is no better treasure to give to your wife when you marry her than the gift of a young heifer. It warmed my cockles when Roger Federer (the greatest tennis player ever!) was rewarded with a cow when he won the Wimbledon trophy for the first time. Now those Swiss know how to appreciate talent!

It is widely known in Nigeria that the Fulanis have a love affair with their cows. We are proud cow people. The saying goes that a Fulani man would let you steal his wife but touch his cows and you are a dead man. You may have heard of the skirmishes in North-central Nigeria around the Jos area which lead to a lot of deaths (of Fulanis and Josites alike) peaking about 4 years ago. Rumours are that at the centre of this bloodshed was the killing of herds of Fulani’s cows in protest of the Fulani herdsmen letting their cows graze on private lands. Suffice it to say, in a place like Yola which is Fulani central, no one dares steal or harm a cow because we all know how true the fears are. Heads will certainly roll should you mess with this Fulani woman’s cow (in a non-violent way of course because yours truly does not sanction violence). Also cows have free reign to roam in many Northern towns and cities and when they cross roads, we all have to sit patiently in our cars and wait until they stroll off the road before the journey can continue. That is major in Nigeria because as most people know, we are not big on patience.

My husband and I on the face of it have not got that much in common and when people ask me I struggle to come up with more than a couple of reasons. However, last year I realised probably the biggest unifier between us is the cow. He is Zulu you see and they too are cow people. So when I comment on how gorgeous cows are and take pictures as they stroll past my car or graze in fields, he totally gets it. I found an art gallery (Whitewall Galleries on Colmore Row, Birmingham) when in town with my husband last summer and although we disagreed about many paintings on display, we totally fell in love with one. A picture of a smiling cow by a fabulously talented local artist. I still have my eye on it and now that we have bought the house, it is next on the shopping list.

Silence is the Residue of Fear

…Says Clint Smith (find him on YouTube) on the topic of ‘the dangers of silence’. I am sure we all have had things that we have been afraid of and that we have sometimes let those fears get the better of us. I know I have but as I have got older, I have learnt to deal with it better. The way I see it: either we let fear rule us and it limits our lives or we rule our fears and find ways of neutralising them and despite them make progress in life.

I used to be scared of heights, snakes and spiders. Many children are frightened by these things too. I guess one reason is that these things are potentially dangerous so we are physiologically and psychologically programmed to have a healthy fear of them. Secondly, children listen to their parents and siblings and as these phobias are the commonest in the world, we tend to feel that if mum/dad/older sister/brother is scared of them, there must be a good reason so we copy them.

I know personally that my fear of heights came from the fact that whenever I have gone higher than 4 metres off the ground, I feel this irresistible pull to jump off the edge and that scares me. Over the years, I know that the urge to jump is weaker than my desire to live so I am not so scared anymore but honestly, there is still a seed of fear in there somewhere when I am in a glass elevator over 10 floors high.

With snakes, it is simple. My mama is scared stiff of snakes. She will not wear anything with the image of a snake on it. She doesn’t want to see snakeskin shoes or bags. She can’t stand jewellery in the form of snakes. She doesn’t even like harmless cartoon snakes like the ones in Jungle Boy and Aladdin. So I was scared of them. Despite that, I loved the 2 cartoon snakes I have mentioned and I am happy to look through a glass wall in a zoo at the prettily coloured snakes and watch a documentary on them. Plus I would not turn down a ring or earrings shaped like a snake. However, I draw a line at having to handle one (God forbid someone tries to drape it over me) and I would never buy anything made up of snakeskin.

Icky spiders – I just don’t like the rough fuzzy texture of their skinny fragile legs. And they are a little stupid aren’t they? Because when you try to lead them out or catch them gently and release them outside, they run at you, try to climb all over you or cling to you and then in your irrational fear, you squash them. Oh dear!

A fear that was harder for me to deal with was my fear of commitment. My parents were divorced before I was born and I didn’t know very much about the reasons why until more recently. What I knew back then was that he must have been bad because my mama is an angel and he hurt her. Also through my mama’s feminist work and from attending feminist conferences with my mama, I heard a lot about the bad things that men do to women. Naturally I thought it was crazy that any woman would subject herself to a committed relationship with a man.

I didn’t have a proper boyfriend until I was 18 and that didn’t last long because he, rightly, wanted a girl who would keep in touch regularly (it was a little long distance, he lived about 2 hours away from London) and I resisted his requests because it felt like too much commitment to me at that stage. My next relationship was nearly 3 years later and this time, he was keen on being more intimate and yet was happy to be non-committal. I guess at 21 years, I had matured a little bit more and wanted some commitment. My fear then became that he wanted to use me and that I would fall in love with him then I would have my heart broken. So I broke it off.

I met George, my husband, when I was nearly 25 years old and he is the first to tell anyone who would listen that he knew he wanted to marry me within 48 hours of meeting me. Well, I embroider slightly. He insists he knew in the first hour of us meeting that he wanted to marry me but I think he is being rather dramatic. He did tell me on our 2nd date, 5 days after we met, that he liked me and he thought I was potentially the one he wanted to spend the rest of his life with. Wow! Honestly I wanted to run away as far as my little legs could carry me. Instead, I sat in the reception of our favourite Chinese restaurant and tried to shush him because I didn’t want anyone to hear. I also told him that he was lucky I was leaving for a year abroad in the next week because if I hadn’t been, the fear his words had struck in my heart would have sent me into self-destruct mode and I would have sabotaged that relationship too.

The time and distance made me realise that here was a man who made me laugh, who loved me for me and whose heart is good. Here was a guy with whom the chemistry was just right. Here was a man who I could be myself with. So I meditated about it for many months whilst I was away. I talked to my mama, my sister and my friends. I prayed for guidance and I realised that although I was scared, petrified even, of committing to George, I was more afraid that I would throw away the chance to be happy. So I took a leap of faith and 3 years later, I am married to him.

So are you fearless now? I hear you ask. No, not quite! I have many small fears. I have one big irrational fear and I have one proper grown up fear. The grown up fear is my fear of failure. I have been lucky never to have failed at anything I set out to do until I failed my specialist paediatric (the dreaded 1b) exam last year in June. That failure threw me for six. I knew I had to retake the exam because I cannot progress beyond ST2 year (level 1 of specialist paediatric training). But I hated every minute of it. The fear crippled me. I couldn’t sleep, eat or work properly for many months in the lead up to the repeat. My ability to deal with the normal stresses of my relationship and work was at its lowest level ever. I even got to the point that I was thinking of giving up on the career I love because I was so scared I would fail again.

I got over that fear by thinking up a plan B. There are so many things I could be. I might want to be a paediatrician first and foremost but actually the underlying love is of children. So what else could I be that would allow me to work with children? As soon as I gave myself the permission to imagine, the list of alternatives was extensive. Top was human rights activist, academic teaching medical students, author of children’s books and even babysitter. The last one was particularly tempting especially because I know from my doctor colleagues that a babysitter taking care of 2 young children full time can earn as much as I do without any of the stress of being a doctor. Food for thought.

The last fear I will confess to is my irrational fear of mice/rats. I love Tom & Jerry – and as a child, I would always root for Jerry the mouse over Tom the cat. However, in reality, I hate those rodents. It comes from the time we cornered a mouse in our kitchen and tried to capture it. it poked its head into the drain hole of the kitchen sink and then squeezed through that tiny aperture. That was the freakiest thing to me! How can a round mouse do that? Bleurgh!!! So now I am petrified of them. A decade ago, I was in an uncle’s house in Nigeria and went into the guest bedroom to grab something. As I turned round to leave, I spotted a tiny mouse flash past the doorway and it must have been behind the chest of drawers beside the door. I jumped onto the centre of the bed and tried to work out a route of escape. My 2 year old cousin came to find me and joined me on the bed. We tried to shout for my sister and friend to come and save us but we were too far or too quiet to be heard. My sister finally came to find us about 30 minutes after we disappeared. She still laughs about it because when she came, I could barely speak in my fear as I tried to warn her that the mouse was there. She had to coax me off the bed after proving to me that the mouse was not laying in wait. That is one I still grapple with and I am not sure I will ever outgrow my fear of mice but luckily, I rarely have the misfortune of tangling with one.

School Refusal

My sister exhibited school refusal behaviour for years when we were little. Every morning was a huge trial in my home before I was old enough to start school. My mama would battle to get my sister washed and dressed in her uniform and she would dawdle as much as was humanly possible to my mama’s intense irritation. Then, as she approached the door of the car, all hell would break loose as she would weep as loudly as she could. If I hadn’t been witness, I would have assumed my mama was draconian and was whipping her to shreds with a dourinah (a.k.a. koboko – a leather whip that is extremely effective for whipping and causing exquisite pain). She would get as far as the door of the car and like a limpet, grab onto the frame of the door with hands and bracing her feet on the floor of the car refuse to get into the car. My mama would withdraw because she couldn’t face this torture every morning and either the driver or one of the cousins/aunties or 2 would have to prise my sister’s hands and feet off her brace position and someone chuck her into the car and shut the door. Once in the car, her weeping would settle into less loud sobbing and the last image I would have of her was her face pressed longingly to the back window, staring at me whilst tears streamed down her face as the car reversed out of our drive and took her away to school.

Coming home was a much happier affair for my sister. As soon as I heard the car’s horn blare for someone to open the gate, I would stop whatever I was doing and race onto the veranda and wait for my sister to alight. Then I would excitedly tell her about my ‘amazing day’. Truth was I hated being left at home almost as much as she appeared to hate leaving for school. I was so bored without her that I would make up stories about how much fun I had at home whilst she was away. The best recurrent series of stories that I told my sister was as follows. We had a concrete electrical pole by the side of the house that stood about 7-8 metres high. I used to pretend I could climb up this pole and once I got to the top, I would whizz around the country using the electric cables, having adventures as I went. A bit like time travel but without a tardis or similar machine. To be fair, my sister was sceptical to begin with because it was a little far-fetched but two things convinced her: an older cousin who was home with me corroborated my story and I embroidered the stories with so many details that her imagination overcame her scepticism.

Basically, I could only go up this pole on a weekday morning when my sister was never there. I somehow had special strength in my limbs that would allow me to climb to the top during those hours of the day but not outside those hours. I remember demonstrating to my sister how I could climb about 1-2 metres then get stuck so I guess she could imagine how if I carried on, I would get to the top. Then she questioned why we would go to certain places only. I was wise enough to know that if I started to talk about places I had never been, I would be caught out so I always went to Kaduna or Lagos, Mambilla or Kano or even Michika on my time travels. I told her that I did not control the time travel. All I did was climb to the top and I was beamed somewhere. I cannot remember the exact details of my stories but it generally involved being chased by someone or some animal and escaping or visiting the seaside or a mountain. Once my sister was convinced, it was easy to spin the tales into more fantastic stories. Little did I know that she believed for many many years after I stopped those tales. Apparently my story-telling was so good it was only after she was a grown up that she questioned those tales. She only admitted that to me in the last couple of years!

Looking back, I think perhaps that my sister hated leaving for school because she was missing out on the adventures of the pole travels. Also she must have missed me as much as I missed her and it was like a small bereavement every morning. Poor little thing. This must have been the case because I think within a week of my starting school, she would skip happily to the car every morning and I don’t remember any more early morning tears. Phew!

Baby Love

I make no secret of my love for all things small and cute. Babies come at the top of my cuteness list but as with many other people, anything small kinda gets me. Kittens, foals, puppies, lion cubs, chicks, ducklings, calves, baby elephants…if it’s a baby, I love it. Even baby alligators, piglets and baby vultures are cute to me despite having no love for them when they are fully grown. This love is so bad (or good) that I am in love with Baby Oleg. Yes, the one from comparethemarket.com adverts.

So here is the formula for making me fall in love with you no matter how pretty or sweet you are in reality. First you have to be small, the smaller the better. Preterm babies, chicks, puppies and kittens. All tiny when born and soooo cute. Not that baby elephants, calves and foals are not cute. They are too because they are tiny in comparison to their mamas. Then it’s how young you are. The fresher the baby is, the harder it tugs on my heartstrings so as a paediatrician I am in baby heaven because when foetuses are in trouble during labour, I get called in first and I get to be the first person that handles the new-born. The best part of my job. Even the slimy stuff that covers them is cute to me. The best bit though is wiping them dry and rubbing them down and most of them will open their eyes and stare hard at you as they try to work out what is happening to them. That first look always gets me.

This brings me neatly to my biggest raison d’etre when it comes to babies. Their eyes. I do not know what it is exactly about the eyes but I go gaga over babies’ eyes. When they open their eyes as wide as they will stretch and focus in on your face short-sightedly, I simply melt. I think it is because their irises (the coloured bits) take up most of the visible eye and their pupils tend to dilate as they try and fail to focus properly. And the expression is always one of wonder and surprise. I think it is a combination of the size of the iris, the focussed way they stare at you and the expression that gets me every time. Honestly, if anyone could produce that combination on demand, I would probably fall in love with them. Love the eyes!

There are other things that make me love them apart from the eyes and small-ness. I love the skin on a new-born – the soft almost velvety skin that makes you want to take a little nip to see if they taste as sweet as they feel. I love how simple their lives are comparatively. They just want to eat, wee, poo and sleep. How simple is that?! I love their wriggle – the little involuntary movements that is their way of communicating what they want as previously mentioned. I love the way they are totally dependent on the person that takes care of their needs, usually mum but actually whoever sorts them out regularly. I love that they are blank canvases with the largest capacity for learning and growth and that you as their parent are all-knowing as far as the baby cares. I love the sounds that they make; the cooing, the happy chortle and eventually their laugh. I even love their cry and I will hasten to say that as a paediatrician I know their cry is not always cute but I am not talking about abnormal persistent crying. I am talking about the healthy pre-term who starts out not making the smallest town to when they learn to cry and it comes out like a kitten mewling at you. OMG! That is surely one of the cutest things in the world.

All in all, I will confess that I love babies and I am not ashamed to say it. I love how small they are, their eyes, their smell, their skin, their wriggle and the cute sounds they make. What is not to love I ask you? I cannot wait to have one of mine!

Straight Up Nigerian

Nigeria is a humongous country so I will not even attempt to write about it all in one little blog. It would take a whole book to make a dint in the story that is Nigeria. This blog will focus on my memories of growing up in Yola.

Yola City. 2 words. Enough said but just in case you have not sampled the delights of my hometown, I shall expand on the 2 words. Why do I love Yola so? Biggest reason is because my mother is the happiest there and whatever makes my mama happy, I love. Yola like me is full of contradictions. It is still small enough in Yola town (different from Jimeta a.k.a Yola North) that most residents either know me or my mama and will definitely know who my granddad is. So I cannot go round being naughty willy-nilly because they will come round to my house and make me feel like I am 3 years old again.

Knowing so many people is a great advantage. When I visit Yola, I get lots of food brought round and somehow these people know all my favourite foods, all the food I spend many hours daydreaming about back in Birmingham. Every morning is like a lottery and throughout the day, I intermittently check on the little dining table by the fridge to see if there have been any food deliveries. This time, I got at different times: Dan-wake, waina, masa, sinasir, dakuwa, kosai, gari basise, okro soup, this tapioca-type grain which I had with yoghurt, zogale (a.k.a moringa) seeds which were awful, a traditional kanuri drink made up of milk with bits of chewy yumminess in it, dambun nama, zobo and more. I was in food heaven. I ate small portions often in an attempt to get through a bit of everything. I didn’t remember half of those who sent the goodies to thank them but you know what? They probably got report that I stuffed my face with all of it and are satisfied they have done their bit to feed me.

Yola’s geography is awesome. We are in the North-east corner of Nigeria. In the old days, we were definitely in the savannah but now with all the aggressive deforestation by unethical businesses, we are part desert and part savannah. When you drive to Adamawa from Jos/Bauchi sides, you can see the more abundant greenery and exotic plants give way to Neem and baobab trees and green green grass in the rainy season dotted with low shrubs and anthills. I think Adamawa has cleaner crisper air and I can almost taste Yola when I drive into the Adamawa region. The river Benue goes through the state and is an amazing sight to behold in the rainy season. In the dry season, the water level is so low that the river Benue is reduced to a network of streams. In these months, you can see families fetching water, doing their laundry and bathing in those streams. I always want to stop the car and go down into the river bank, feel the sand underneath my bare toes like those families. In the rainy season, it is very different. The banks of the river are full to bursting. In fact more and more these days, we get floods as the effect of global warming is felt. Around Numan if you look carefully enough down at the river from the bridge, you’ll see how there is a clean side of the water and the dirtier muddier side of the water and curiously, the 2 seem separate as the river gushes past. I cannot remember the explanation my mama gave me when I asked decades ago but it doesn’t even matter to me. All I know is that the clean water somehow knows not to mix with the dirty water despite there being no physical barrier separating the 2. Incredible.

I love Yola market especially on ‘market’ day which has always been on a Friday. Back in the day, my mama banned us from going to the market unless in the company of adults. Most of the time, we obeyed that rule but not on Fridays. Every Friday, we would find a way to sneak out of the house with all the pocket money we had managed to save and head to the market. The biggest draw was the snake charmers who would display their trained cobras and even pick on members of the public in the audience to help them out with their tricks. My mama hates snakes so although I was less afraid of them, there was still a healthy dose of fear that I inherited from her. I used to have to look away from time to time during those displays as the excitement crossed the border into fear. However, I never turned down a chance to go there as long as my sister and I were in town on the Friday.

The other act we loved was the monkey owners. These people were less reliable and would turn up randomly. They even went house to house to perform and get given change. I loved the monkeys best and would pray for them to turn up every day during the school holidays. Sadly, my house was never visited. I am not sure whether it is because of our scary dogs or maybe my mum or stepdad were not receptive. Anyway, I was resourceful enough to catch them at the market or neighbours’ house. Another reason for my love of Yola market is the contraband fast food on sale. Contraband in my house meant any cooked food from a kitchen whose owner we didn’t know personally. Naturally I loved everything not cooked ‘at home’ so I was a regular customer and my favourite buys were Dan-wake and allele (bean cakes) cooked in tins with a drop of palm oil to make it glorious. Mmmm, these 2 foods are still my absolute favourite snacks from home.

Other delights I will never forget in Yola market include Amani who had a bad scarring infection on his face once upon a time and his vegetable stall. I loved the exotic fruit sellers sitting in the fruit section who came with their fruits picked fresh from the villages in our state. I loved the goruba sellers right at the back of the market especially because they had sacks of the thing and I always wondered if they ever sold it all and what sort of tree the gorubas came from. I loved the ‘odds’ lane where everything from nails to tree gum for charcoal ink and batteries were sold. I also loved the sweets man near the Fulani ladies with their fresh milk and yoghurt. I was a regular at his stall and especially loved it when he went to Cameroun and came back with the little pink mint balls with green stripes called bon-bon. On the rare occasion we needed to buy yoghurt, I would speak to the Fulani ladies and be amazed they spoke my language because these were the nomadic Fulanis (the bororos) and they were so pretty and different from us. I would watch in fascination as they tipped a ceramic dish of yoghurt into the one I bought without disturbing the smooth set of the yoghurt. I was so happy then. Le sigh.

I will finish on one final point about Yola. I loved the neighbourly spirit in the community when I was little. I rarely ate a proper meal at home in those days. I was always round one neighbour’s house or the other eating their meals because it was different from the meals at home. You know as a child, the grass is greener on every other side. There was always food in these homes and I was always welcome to it. I ate to my fill and said thank you then off I went. Mango and guava trees were abundant in those days (and I guess still are) and when those fruits were in season, I would forget about meals and just gorge myself on those fruits, sitting high up in the trees. So much so that I was constipated half the time because in my impatience, I would eat the fruits half raw particularly the guavas. I, of course, kept my medical problems to myself because I knew fully well it was self-induced and that actually my mama was clear on the rule that we should not be eating unripe fruit. One year, we discovered the delight of climbing up date trees and we were round Amadi’s home daily, eating so many dates that I still cannot handle more than 1 date at a time these days. I had a whale of a time growing up in Yola despite all the naughtiness. I have no regrets fortunately.

Sofia

She was a beautiful chestnut mare. I am aware I met her when I was only 3 years old so my perspective is bound to have been skewed BUT I did learn to ride before I could walk and I was around horses from infancy so I think I am accurate in my thoughts on Sofia. She was twice the size of the other Arabian and Argentinian polo stallions in my granddad’s farm stables. Maybe she wasn’t twice as tall but she definitely had the widest back of all. I remember meeting her for the first time and I was frightened enough to take a huge step back as she turned her eye on me. I think it probably took a 2nd or 3rd meeting for me to come close enough to touch her and then maybe another meeting to ride her that first time. The memory is hazy (I was really quite young) but I remember I rode bare back, possibly because she was not a ‘riding’ horse and there were no saddles to fit her broad back. She was there to breed. I was placed onto her back and I felt a little dizzy from the height. My little legs are splayed wide and still my feet could barely grip her flanks. It was like sitting on a firm sofa that was moving and felt warm underneath me with the lovely smell of horse coming from it. I remember some stable hand leading me around the stables on her back and I was on there for maybe 10-15 minutes. I remember leaning forward and placing both hands on her neck, stroking her and feeling her neck ripple in response.

I fell in love with Sofia after that day and hers was always the first stall I visited when I went to the stable. I brought her sugar lumps and fed them to her every chance I got. I rode on her back whenever someone was free to lead the horse. I stood by her stall door and talked to her on many occasion. I am not entirely sure what happened to Sofia over the years. I think whatever happened, happened in the 2 years I boycotted the farm because of my granddad’s unreasonable behaviour (lol, yes I was like that as a child!). She is long gone now but the last time I went to the depleted stable, her name was still faintly there, written over her stall in charcoal. These days, I am a little obsessed with riding large animals like camels and elephants. I think it is because I love to replicate the sensation of being on Sofia. And of course every time I see the image of a child on a large horse, I think of her. Gorgeous animal she was!