Category Archives: Childhood memories

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.

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?

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!

The Most Precious Gift

It is 2 days before Christmas and everyone here is busy buying last minute gifts, wrapping them, decorating their personal spaces, starting Christmas lunch prep and all the other little things that make these holidays so great. I too am getting ready for a very special day and it is not Christmas. Sure I am looking forward to Christmas. I am going to spend the day with my husband in Oxford on Divinity Road no less with some of my dearest family. It will be wonderful I am sure but the day I am looking forward to comes later (hopefully much later!). I am expecting my first baby and my due date is 2nd of April 2016. Which means that as I am 6 months pregnant now, anything could happen. It could happen any day. Being a paediatrician, I am more aware than most of the unpredictability of pregnancy, going into labour and childbirth. I wake up every morning thanking God that my baby is still in there, safe and warm, their organs developing in the proper environment. I go to sleep praying that the baby remains in there for another couple of months at least.

Since I found out I was pregnant, I have been doing a lot of thinking and planning. As you do. First I have been thinking about time. Am I going to be ready for this? Many people have told me it will be the hardest, best, most satisfying, life-changing, painful and joyous thing to happen to me. I have always wanted to be a mother. I think even before I knew I wanted to be a doctor, I wanted a little girl of my own. I know I will love my child with everything I have and I know I have a lot of stamina (you can’t be a paediatrician and not have a lot of willpower and mental toughness). What I don’t know is will I be a great mother? Like my mother, will I be able to balance love and discipline, teach my child what is right and what is wrong and bring them up to be a decent human being? I pray for that the most. To be as good a mother to my child as mine was (and still is) to me. My mama is definitely a cut above the average mother. She was a single mum yet I never felt anything was lacking in my life. In fact when my sister and I reflect on not having a father, we both think that we have lost out on nothing and probably gained a lot from not having that side of the family to influence us. If our parents had stayed together, we would not have been nurtured in quite the same way. We would not have been encouraged to know and speak our minds in the same way. We would not have known that having a great mum is not just enough, it is the essential ingredient in a happy childhood.

I have tried hard not to think of all the potential complications that comes hand in hand with growing a baby and then delivering it. But I cannot escape the fact that this baby will one day be ready to come out and I will have to get it out (or at least give it my best shot). When I was studying obstetrics in medical school, a lot was said about the shape of pelvises and the birth canal. Particularly about which are favourable shapes (those with beautiful childbearing hips like my beautiful sister) and which ones are not – the android pelvis (damn you all!). I sat in the audience wishing that was a class I had skipped. So yes, I have an android pelvis (boyish in plain speak) so nature is not on my side when it comes to pushing this baby out. Thankfully, both my husband and I have small frames and the predicted size of my baby is small meaning I have a fighting chance. I will give it everything I can when the time comes to deliver the baby naturally. Fingers and toes crossed.

I have started setting up the nursery and not gone mad buying gadgets and fancy things all the moms tell me were never used. I look to my sister as inspiration. Before she became a mother the first time, she was a bit of a shopaholic. She would buy all sorts of useless things because they caught her eye in the spur of the moment. Then she fell pregnant and it seems overnight found self-control by the bucket-loads. She became super-organised and wrote list after list and budgeted. She stuck to her plans and her son had everything he needed but nothing was done to excess. Brilliant! I have made notes and I would like to be just like her. I have lists too and every time I tick something off, my little heart does a jig. I am on the way to being a mother.

Before I hit 24 weeks of pregnancy, I didn’t dare to dream about actually having the baby. That is because medically, I know that few babies born before 24 weeks of pregnancy survive and those who do survive, do so often with a lot of complications and a poor quality of life. I was terrified of having a baby who was more likely not to make it than make it. I did not want to think properly of baby names, of delivery, of breastfeeding, changing dirty nappies or being kept awake at night. Just in case this wasn’t meant to be. I know there are no guarantees in life and anything might happen yet but the longer my baby stays in closer to that due date, the more fighting chance we have of having a long happy healthy life together.

Lastly, I am ecstatic that I get to have a little person that I have (without putting much thought into it) been growing to love and cherish for the rest of my life. This baby is literally eating from my food, growing off the nutrients I have taken on board, sharing my blood, and getting oxygen from the oxygen I am breathing in. My baby is swimming around (I can feel the slow sliding rolling movements and the occasional sharper kicks as I write this) within my tommy, in a little sac of clear warm fluid. Maybe the baby is sucking their little fingers, blinking their eyes, practicing becoming a football player. It is the most amazing feeling to think that as I sit here this little person is being built in the incubator that was once the size of a satsuma which is now larger than a watermelon, shoving all my other abdominal organs out of the way to make more space for the baby. I cannot wait to meet my baby when they are ready to face the world. The one thing I do not worry about is that I will be at their side from the day they arrive until I am no more. I cannot wait for the beginning of the rest of my life.

Mind the Gap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cycle of Life Part 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cycle of Life Part 2

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

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

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

Sai mu ‘yan Hausa cultural,

Daga makarantar Geeeee Geeeee (GG).

Mun zo ne muyi maku wasa,

Wasan mu ta Hausa.

Mun zo ne muyi maku wasa,

Wasan mu ta Hausa.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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