Category Archives: love

Beauty Is In The Eye Of The Beholder

I wrote this piece aged 20, handwritten in a diary given to me as my 20th birthday present. I forgot that I had written it until I decided this week to start journaling and dug out my over-a-decade old notebook which is still pristine. Has my written voice changed I wonder? Reading it back, there is so much more than what we see in the world. Please share your favourite things about the world, seen or otherwise sensed in the comments

Imagine a world without light.

Just darkness; day in, day out.

People who live in places with more hours of darkness than sunlight are often depressed.

How then must a person who has lost their sight feel?

Losing your vision is more than just losing your ability to see. I got some insight from a lecture (in medical school) entitled: ‘Visual loss’.

Loss of vision means a loss of beauty.

The beautiful colours of the world we live in.

The faces of the people we love.

The written word.

Art.

Expressions that add depth to language.

I mean, how do you communicate properly without looking into someone’s eyes, or at the very least, their face?

This might be a personal thing but isn’t it difficult to form a meaningful relationship without face-to-face conversation?

Talking on the phone or by text/email/letters just isn’t the same as plain old-fashioned conversation.

My imagination is not capable of conceiving a blind world.

However, we are assured by our ‘severely visually impaired’ lecturers that being blind does have some small compensations.

You learn to use your other senses more and to appreciate ‘deeper’ things such as the sound of trees and the quality of a voice.

The leaves on a tree being ruffled by the wind.

Laughter.

The smell of dry scorched soil after (or even before) the rain arrives.

The direction of the wind as it blows across your face.

The purring of a cat.

The stirring tune from a musical instrument.

The sound of raindrops hitting the roof and windows.

The sound of the ocean.

The smell of ocean.

The saltiness of the ocean.

The feel of a soft woollen scarf tied around your neck.

The familiar weight of your wedding band on your finger.

The feel of arms hugging you.

The taste of fresh strawberries or an apple pie straight out of the oven.

Yes, there is more to beauty than light or colour.

Those of us in the seeing world just don’t realise it

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.

What Women Want: Easy as 1,2,3

Okay! Okay! Maybe I should title it: what Deejoda wants. I am well aware that there are 3.8 billion women in the world and with all the other factors that go into shaping a person, having an XX chromosome doesn’t make us all the same. This is what women I know want. These women are my friends and work colleagues so share something in common with me. We are all 30-50-year-old women, mostly working mothers living in the UK (and a few in Nigeria, the US and India). We women talk about relationships a lot. The below is what I have concluded having listened to all the discussions and pondered the matter over the last 6 years of my marriage

  • Be Decent
    Treat your woman as you would want to be treated. I refer not just to the big things like not sleeping with another woman or spending your joint money on booze or a lads’ night out when the mortgage and fuel for the car isn’t taken care of. It is the little things.
    For example, your woman comes back from work and cooks you a hot meal, perfectly timed so she is dishing up as you walk in. There is no reason decide to make a call that can wait whilst the food goes cold. Nor is it vital that you say aloud that you were actually in the mood for chicken and not beef tonight.
    If your woman tells you about a funny encounter at work in the spirit of sharing, please don’t grill her about the one man that might appear in this funny story. No, his name is not important, neither is his age, how handsome he is or whether he is married. If this story is what your woman chose to tell you about, it is because she found the situation interesting and not because she has a crush on someone at work.
    Listen when she says she is struggling with X and if it is within your power, offer her help. She might just need someone to listen. It might help here if you put your phone down, look at her and actively listen. Then maybe give her a hug or say something witty to lift her mood.
    If you have done something to upset her, intentionally or unintentionally, and your woman reflects calmly that what you did upset her, the best response is not to react with anger. Either you apologise (gold standard) or at least you acknowledge that you can see what she means and that her feelings are valid even if the hurt was not intended.
    In most relationships, it is considered common courtesy to tell the woman you live with roughly what the structure of your day is. So, she knows whether you are having dinner together or when to send out a search party. Unless in exceptional circumstances, call or text her if you are stuck at work for hours longer than usual. It is also common courtesy to let her know if a friend or relative has called unexpectedly to ask you for help and you’ve said yes. Or even if you bump an old friend you haven’t seen in years and decide to go for a catch-up coffee.
    Remember back when you started dating, how much effort did you put into making her laugh or make her feel special? I bet you bought her little gifts like flowers or a book or surprised her with a thoughtful outing to the cinema for a special showing of her favourite childhood movie. Just because you have been together 2 or even 20 years doesn’t mean that she isn’t worth all that effort occasionally. Of course, it’s not sustainable to do it as often as in the beginning but make the conscious effort to do something nice for her once a week or even once a month.
    Reading back, I guess most of it focuses on communication. Perfect! According to relationship experts, communication is the key to a good partnership.

  • Be Reliable
    Your words should be your bond. When you say something, your woman should be able to trust it will happen.
    When you say you’ll fix the broken window latch, do it the next spare time you have. If you are forgetful (let’s face it a lot of us forget), pop a reminder on your phone for the weekend when you know you’ll have an hour to work on it.
    When you promise to organise your child’s birthday cake, please do it without prompting from your woman. To avoid forgetting, refer to the previous point. If you do forget, run out of the house at the earliest opportunity and buy one without grumbling.
    When you have a party or appointment to attend together as a couple and you have agreed to go, it is your job to turn up when your woman expects you to. Sometimes delays are unavoidable. In this case, inform her what’s happened then call whoever is expecting you and apologise if appropriate or reschedule.
    In short, anything you say you will do, endeavour to do it. If you are not sure you can deliver, keep your plans to yourself so you don’t disappoint her. If her expectations are low (or even non-existent), her disappointment will be kept to a minimum and she’ll be happier for it. In general, we will make do with what we have for the man we love unless we are promised more.

  • Share the Mental Load
    To be an equal (or equal-ish) partner, you must take on some of the thinking and planning that goes into running your lives. It is hard work for a woman to organise her own life, juggling work, childcare, friendships, voluntary work, family etc. It is even harder to have to organise another (adult) man’s life plus all the children’s lives and coordinate it all so that it works seamlessly.
    The least you can do if she has gone to all that trouble is to pay attention if she shares the planning with you and help her come up with practical solutions. Keep an eye on the shared family planner or wherever the plans are written. Set reminders on your phone if you must so you can turn up where you are needed or buy gifts for the people you know better than she does. If you can see your (joint) child is due to go for a dental appointment on a day she is working, say to her ‘honey, I’m taking Jack to the dentist’. Don’t wait for her to ask you and make her feel like she is being a pain by asking you to do your share of childcare. You made the child together. It is your joint responsibility.
    If you get a joint letter about sorting out life insurance or renewing the mortgage, instead of adding it to her pile of life admin, how about you sort it and then tick it off on the list? If there is no list, just send her a text to say its sorted. No drama. Don’t expect an ode of gratitude either. A simple thanks will suffice. Let’s face it, do you always remember to say thank you for all the little jobs she does every day? Offer to organise your child’s first school trip abroad or to take them to the open day for the college they want to apply for. Then do it without being prompted. Ask if you need advice though. She wont mind. Infact, it might reassure her to know that you’re thinking about it and planning it all in advance.

This third point is by far the most important thing to get right. If the mental load becomes too much to carry on her shoulders, she will lose her cool. She will not be full of sunshine. She won’t feel as warm and loving towards you. She’ll be too tired for niceties and her appreciation of you will diminish. Your relationship will suffer. It is a biggie.

That’s it. 3 big things to work on. None of it is complicated. It is about treating your woman as you would treat your best friend. With love and kindness, generosity and appreciation. Remember, happy woman = happy home. Also, happy woman = happy child(ren). Happy woman + happy child(ren) = happy man. So, you’re not doing this only for your woman. You are doing it for you. Step up to the plate. Be what your woman needs.This article on mental load is worth reading: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/may/26/gender-wars-household-chores-comic

The Things I Never Knew About Childbirth and Having a New-born

I love to read so during pregnancy, I signed up to a few baby sites. They sent information through weekly and I read it all. I like to be prepared. I felt prepared but still I have had many surprises that I am going to write about. Mostly so when my daughter asks me in 25 years’ time, I will have a reminder of those ‘whaaaat?’ moments.

  1. The Pain: I already mentioned in previous blogs about birthing positions but it was such an eye-opener that I feel I must mention it here. First, I will acknowledge that pain is subjective and every woman experiences it differently. Having said that, the labour pain I felt was manageable despite being induced and on a syntocinon drip (which is meant to make it more painful). Until I made the mistake of lying flat on my back. Those minutes of being in that position where the most painful, second only to the post-birth examination. Upright was a million times better. Again, I’ll reiterate the hell the post-birth examination was. It was the single most painful part of giving birth and nothing to do with the baby. When the midwife had to examine me for tears/lacerations, it was all I could do not to scream the house down. After 8 hours of labour where I barely made a peep. Horrible. Steel yourself. Don’t be like me and mentally heave a sigh of relief once the baby is out. Hold it for that final examination to be over and pray you don’t need to have stitches.
  2. Inability to make decisions: even before the exhaustion and sleep deprivation peaked, I struggled with making the simplest decisions. Specially to do with the baby. First, I couldn’t decide what the room temperature was. I’d spent most of pregnancy feeling like I had a very hot water bottle strapped to me. I simply couldn’t tell if the ambient temperature was just right or if it was cold but that suited my constantly hot self. And it was important as there was a little baby who couldn’t tell me how she felt and she didn’t have much fat to insulate her in those first few weeks. I also struggled to decide what to dress her in, what to eat and when to eat it and when it was best to ask my mama to have her for an hour so I could try to have a nap. It took roughly 3 months to reset my brain into first gear. I’m nearly back to full capacity 9 months later.
  3. The sleeplessness: I thought I understood that a baby sleeps for short periods initially day and night but as time goes on, the intervals get longer and longer until you can manage some (few hours of) deep sleep. My baby never seemed to need much sleep. First two months, it was mostly 1-2 hours sleeps for her which means less for me as I was feeding, putting her to sleep then laying down and listening for too long if she was going to stay asleep. By the time I drifted off, she was beginning to surface so I was barely getting any quality restful sleep. Daytime was worse because whilst at night she would let me put her down, in the day time there was none of that (there still isn’t). She seems to have an internal sensor that is on in the day time. This sensor alerts her when she is asleep that she is being removed from human arms. As soon as her head touches down, her eyes spring open and all traces of sleep are gone. My mama was here for the first 6 weeks and she found a way to put her down for 1 nap a day. The idea was to give me the best chance of some sleep. Did I sleep? Not much. I would lie down and listen to even the minutest sound in the house. Eventually the exhaustion would come over me but usually I would have wasted an hour so that if I got 1 hour, I was lucky. By week 2, I felt like a zombie and that feeling didn’t leave until she was over 3 months old.
  4. The guilt: every time she cries, I feel guilty as hell. I can’t seem to rationalise the fact that babies cry. You can do your best and do everything you can think of and then some and still, they cry. Even when I ignore her and carry on with my essential tasks, my heart feels so heavy with guilt hearing her cry. Even when I can see she is faking it (they learn these tricks way too early) and there are no tears, I feel this overwhelming guilt. I spent the first few months focusing all my energy on her and avoiding her cries. So much so that I would forget to eat, drink or have a wee until my body was desperate. A couple of months after my mama left, I had to have a word with myself. It was only after I reminded myself that a few tears wouldn’t harm her that I started to get on with everyday tasks. In the early days when I was trying to get her to sleep in her basket, it was tough. She would wake every hour and I was exhausted. Lots of people advised just letting her cry herself to sleep once I was satisfied she was fed, had a dry nappy and the room temperature was just right. I struggled on and on until I thought I had to try it. That night, I settled her down in the basket and lay in bed next to her. She was up within the hour so I didn’t pick her up. I let her cry. She cried and cried and cried some more. She was not stopping! I lay awake listening to her and after about 5 minutes, I started to cry myself. I rocked her basket but didn’t pick her up. I left her for as long as I could (probably 15-20 minutes) and the guilt nearly killed me. I didn’t try that again for a month. Again, she just continued to cry until I gave in.
  1. The joy: so many little things that I always thought were cute in babies now bring me the most intense joy. When my daughter wakes up, searches for me and smiles the biggest happiest smile because I am there. When she reaches out her hand to touch my face as if to check I am real. When she laughs joyfully, as only children can. When she fakes a cough to get my attention. When she notices I am off-guard and pulls my glasses off with glee. When she grabs my sleeve/hip/belt as I walk past her highchair. When she splashes in the bath. When she comes back in from a walk with daddy and her face lights up on seeing me. My heart is always full to bursting with all the little joyous moments each day. And full of dread for when I must leave her and go back to work.
  2. The pride: Every time she does something the first time…the first social smile, the first proper belly laugh, the first babbles, the first time she rolled over, the first time she sat up without support, the first time she crawled, the first time she pulled to stand. I watch her figure out how do something the first time, the intense concentration on her little face as she works it out. I watch to see the triumphant expression on her face when she succeeds. I watch the surprise on her face when she falls over or bumps into something and how hard she tries not to cry. I was so impressed that when she was immunised on 3 separate occasions, she cried for less than a minute each time. Same with when she got her ears pierced. I know I am biased but she is such a brave little girl. Her joy, her determination to learn new skills and her bravery make me such a proud mama.

Our journey together is at its very infancy so I am certain I will discover many more unknowns along the way. Suffice it to say, I am loving motherhood and I cannot wait to see what our tomorrows will bring. What fun!

Baby Now What?

I wrote about the day I gave birth (blog entry called Childbirth) and described the physical process. Harder to put into words is the emotional process that day and the next few days as my baby and I started on our journey together. I’ll start at the beginning. When I woke up bleeding that day, I knew Savannah (that’s my baby’s name) would soon be here. I was scared. That labour would be painful, more painful than anything I had ever been through. I was scared that when it came to it, I wouldn’t be able to physically push her out and might end up needing a caesarean section. I was scared that Savannah might run into trouble and have complications. I was scared that I was going to be a mother and I didn’t know if I’d be any good at it. The main feeling that morning was fear and anticipation. I could not wait for the scary bits to be over, to hold my baby in my arms, to be a mother.

I had a scan printout from 28 weeks of pregnancy which captured her face. The shape of her face was clearly outlined and you could make out where her eyes and mouth were. I must have built up an image of Savannah in my head although when I thought about it consciously in the days leading up to her birth, I couldn’t quite see a clear picture. It was a bit of a shock when she finally popped out and the midwife bundled her into my arms. I looked at her and I couldn’t quite compute what she looked like. Not like my subconscious imagined because every time I looked away and back, I felt a dart of surprise that this was Savannah. The face I was looking at was the face belonging to the baby who was moving about inside of me just a few hours earlier. She looked like her dad and she had lots of curly hair.

I handed her back to her dad as I delivered the placenta and was examined for tears (thankfully none!) and given a little clean. When she came back to me, she was rooting about so I got into position and stuck her to my still-normal-feeling breast. Lo and behold, she opened her mouth and started to suckle. That almost blew my mind. It was the reality check I needed. My brain was starting to connect the dots. I had a baby. For real. Trying to get milk out of my boobies.

So, did I fall madly in love at first sight as people often describe it? Not quite. Naturally I loved her but it wasn’t a sudden flood of emotion. Perhaps it was the exhaustion of the day but it was all a little muted. I was dirty, exhausted and hungry. At my midwife’s suggestion, I mustered up all the energy I had left and shuffled to the bathroom, half hanging onto my husband as my mother held her granddaughter. As I stood under the hot shower (which annoyingly kept stopping whenever I stood still), I started to feel less drained. When I was washed, and dressed and smelling of the lovely shower gel I’d used, I had tea and toast (inhaled it more accurately) then I sat half asleep on the comfy armchair and watched my mama hold Savannah.

3 hours after her birth, the wheelchair was brought in to transfer me up to the ward where I was to spend the night. I sat in it and was handed Savannah. This was when I felt an almost overwhelming feeling of protectiveness. She felt so small, so fragile as I held her close. I pressed my face into the side of her face and felt the warmth seeping into my soul. Up on the ward, my husband and mother settled me in and said goodnight. With the curtains pulled around my bed, it was the first time I was alone with Savannah. As she lay in the cot, I lay down and closed my eyes, my hand resting on her cot. I found it difficult to sleep. Every fibre of my being was attuned to her and I was listening for the tiniest sounds from her. I didn’t sleep much that night (or any night for the next few months). When we were discharged, I sat in the backseat next to her and watched her carefully as her dad drove us home. This watching continued for the next few days until I got used to her face.

So, in the first few days, I felt warmth, protectiveness, love and fear. The falling in love bit came later. The first time I felt that exciting, blood surging, butterflies in the stomach love for her was weeks later when she started smiling socially. Every time she smiles, I feel a surge of in-loveness that makes my knees a little weak. When she smiles deep into my eyes, especially first thing in the morning, I fall in love all over again. She looks at me the way my mother looks at me. With an unconditional deep love that is incredibly humbling. When she reaches out her chubby fingers to touch my face or grabs me when I go past her highchair, I fall more in love. When she laughs with pure unadulterated joy as I tickle her or throw her up in the air, it’s love like no other. Now many months in, as Savannah learns to express herself and her personality is starting to take shape, I feel love for her like I never imagined I would love. I thought the love I had for my mother was unmatchable but it is. It is the same yet so different. Every day, I fall more in love with this innocent, beautiful child. Every day, I feel her essence seep into my very core and wrap itself around all that I am. I know that this love is the forever kind. The I’d take a bullet for her kind. The I am all in and so vulnerable to be hurt kind. The best kind of love. I am in love with her. Totally, madly, deeply.

Don’t Sweat the Small Things

Sometimes in life, we allow small things which on their own are not significant to add up and turn into a massive problem. I speak from experience.  I am a creature of habit so I like things to be a certain way. To a degree, I do have obsessive compulsive traits. That is not unusual in a doctor. It takes a certain type of personality to go through medical school and then to work in hospitals and face all the horrors that can come with the territory. When I was living on my own, it was easy to use those OC traits for the good. Everything had its place in the little space I had. No mess was left where it was. Everything was clean and orderly. My personal life was organised to a T. In direct contrast, my professional life despite all my best intentions often felt out of control and at best, it was an organised chaos. Dealing with humans and ill-health is by its nature very unpredictable. You do all you can do and things get worse in some patients. In some patients, you barely have to do anything and everything gets better anyway. Which sometimes makes me question exactly how much we as doctors are able to influence and if it has more to do with patients than us.

Anyway…my lovely ordered life was turned on its head when I met and moved in with my husband. He is the spontaneous type who makes ad-hoc plans and also changes them (or should I say ‘forgets’) without warning. He is so full of energy that he cannot be neat. When he makes a mess, he would rather clean it up later. Later being in a few hours, days, weeks or even months in some extreme cases. I used to get really worked up about these things and ended up cleaning up after him because it was too much of a hassle to nag him into doing it. Then I started to resent having to come home after a long day’s work to organise everything again or use up my precious days off sorting. Now I have swung the other way. I have become an expert at turning a blind eye. I refuse to see the mess and I will generally not tidy up if it is not my mess. So whilst I complain less and I try to let him get to it in his own sweet time, it hasn’t lessened the stress it causes in my mind. I will literally obsess about the mess not being there.

Whilst I generally get on with my fellow doctors and nurses at work, there is inevitably one who is like a thorn in my side. In my most recent rotation, there was one such nurse. I will call her Nadine. She is a senior nurse with a lot of experience – this is usually an asset but in her case, she thought she could tell me how to do my job. I am usually quite laid back and approachable at work but I am certainly no pushover. I can’t be because as a registrar I have to take overall responsibility for patients out of hours. Well, Nadine decided because I was a new registrar that she had to question all my decisions, mostly indirectly. This really riled me because the decisions that I made were either straight forward or those which were more complicated were discussed with the consultant as per usual practice. I found that lack of respect very irritating and at the start of the job, I had to avoid any contact with Nadine until I could detach myself enough not to care. Once I realised by talking to the other nurses that it was not unusual for Nadine to give rotating doctors a hard time, I was able to maintain professionalism by communicating what was essential and just tuning out the negativity. What Nadine (and I) felt in the grand scheme of things was insignificant as long as I did the job I was there to do and I did it well. By the time I left, I think she had gained a grudging working respect for me.

I guess what I am saying is that I have come to realise some facts of life. Main fact being that most of life is not within my control. Fact is that there are many small imperfections and it is not always possible (or maybe even desirable) to make them perfect. I don’t always find it easy to let those little things go but when I do, it is less stressful. As long as I control those things I can control and make life as good as I can within my little bubble, I can live with the little things. Life is hard enough without sweating the small stuff.

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 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!

The Cycle of Life Part 1

As I said in the bit about me, I am a realist with a healthy dose of optimism. Apologies that I am again going to write about death. It may seem morbid to my blog followers but I do not always find talking about death negative. I dwell so much on it because it is my way of not forgetting those who have left footprints in my heart. Also because unfortunately, for someone who has been fortunate not to be from areas where death is a daily occurrence, I have seen more than my fair share. In the old and in the young. If you are squeamish, this may not be the blog for you.

I write this in the living room of my sister’s flat in Abuja and this was prompted by another blog I just read and also by a conversation I had with my sister. It was a long conversation but it ultimately lead us to discuss our mortality and how death can strike unexpectedly, about being a parent and planning for that eventuality to ensure your children are taken of and about writing wills etcetera. Despite the gravity of the conversation, it was quite an uplifting one. The words to follow are snippets of memories centred mainly around 3 deaths that have literally changed my life. These are young people who no one expected to die and their manner of death changed the way I think about death.

The first was of a classmate from Queen’s College, Lagos. It happened in 1999. She (I will call her Eve here) was not a girl I was particularly close to or even fond of. But I had known her for nearly 3 years when tragedy befell her. Eve was the daughter of a quiet unassuming teacher who I will call Mr Brown here. Mr Brown was the complete opposite of his daughter. Where he was quiet, she was loud. Where he was always serious, she was always laughing, finding the humour in things even when it wasn’t appropriate. She was tall for a 12-13 year old and he was a short man. She was fair where he was dark skinned. The comparisons were striking being that they were father and child. Anyway, Eve was the class joker. She was always loudly laughing or telling a joke. She was always planning the next prank or calling out funny witticisms from the back of the class. Sometimes, it was distracting so I wasn’t always laughing with her but I never thought her to be malicious.

We came back for the 3rd trimester of JSS3 and Eve didn’t. Soon rumours began to circulate about her being unwell. Then we heard that she was in fact really quite sick and was admitted in hospital. Then we heard that she had been victim of an acid burn. The extent was unclear but we did not expect how grave it was. Why we asked? And we kept asking. She was only a young girl. Why would anyone do this to her? I was pretty sheltered so I had never heard of acid attacks nor did I know the usual motives behind them. My more streetwise classmates told me that normally jilted or scorned (adult) men were the perpetrators were and the victims the poor unfortunate girls/women of their affections. It was mainly a Southern thing back then so I had never come across this despite my mother’s job.

This was the perplexing issue to us, her classmates. Why would a girl so young attract such affection? Soon, we again heard that the attack was aimed at her older sister (also in our school but nearer 16 or maybe 17 year old). We were told that Eve opened the door to their home unsuspectingly and she had acid thrown in her face. We were told that she was badly burnt and had been admitted to the hospital weeks before we were hearing of it and was in a serious condition. We talked about her non-stop for a week. There was a sombre mood in the class. It was as if no one felt right to take over her role. So there was no joking or pranking in those days. We all feared the worst as the news we heard was comprised solely of rumours. Like Chinese whispers, we were unsure who to believe.

One morning, the Day students (as opposed to us Boarders) came in talking about the 9 o’clock news on NTA (Nigerian Television Authority channel, national news broadcast). Eve had been mentioned as there was an appeal for funds. The attack on her and the resulting serious injuries were so serious that the doctors in Lagos could do no more and I think the thrust of the news was that her family was appealing for donations to take her abroad. This was when we realised just how bad things were. We sat around in silence, praying for some news. Mr Brown turned up in our class that morning. For once, no one needed to ask for silence. We all sat in our seats and looked at him expectantly. He spoke to us in his quiet voice. His eyes were red…from exhaustion or from tears – it was hard to tell which. He confirmed the rumours. Eve had been the unintended victim of an acid attack. She had been home alone when the men called and as she was so sick, she could not identify her attackers. She was in hospital in a stable but critical condition. He left. For the next few weeks, we continued to whisper about Eve. What did critical mean exactly? More rumours about who the intended victim was and the suspected attackers. About the extent of her injuries. Some adults had been to visit and they all agreed it didn’t look good. Despite all our fears, she remained alive but in a ‘stable condition’.

End of term for us JSS3 students came early and on our last day, some kind soul had organised a bus for those of us who felt up to visiting to go and see Eve. Most of the Northern girls declined to come. I was the only Northerner to get on the bus. In total, out of 90+ classmates, the bus held less than a dozen of us plus a couple of adults. The bus ride was made in total silence. You could smell our fear and the tension was palpable. I mouthed prayers, praying that I could handle whatever condition she was in. I don’t remember much of the usual Friday traffic and the heat. I remember walking off the bus in a single file and how much I was dreading what I was about to see. The smell hit me first and I felt my gut roll. My nostrils curled inwards, as if to block off my nose and the smell with it. I thought I would faint. It was the smell of decaying human flesh reaching the corridor outside her room. I could hear someone whimper and start to sob within our group. We all marched on following the adult leading us in. We stopped by the door as she announced our entrance. When she opened the door, the smell hit us harder followed closely by the sound of Eve taking breath after painful breath. My knees locked and a part of me wanted to bolt. I remember telling myself sternly that I could face anything. If she had to be here, I could visit her. Even if only for a minute.

On wobbly legs, I followed. I inhaled and held my breath. The bedside cabinet was groaning under the weight of medication. Mostly topical and oral stuff with cotton wool and forceps in a metal tray. She was barely visible. Her head was uncovered and there was a lady (her mother?) whispering in her ear. Asking her to be brave, not to scream in pain as she had begun to do. ‘Your classmates have come to visit’ the lady whispered into the hole where her outer air should have been. She seemed to hear her and she lapsed into her painful breathing again. The rest of her body was covered. It was beneath a metal cage over which a sheet was draped. I could not see underneath but I was certain she had burns all over her body, which was why she was lying so. To prevent clothing coming in contact with her skin. We all took turns to step up next to her and tell her who we were. Her eyes were covered, she clearly could not see. The hair on her head was badly singed and what was left of it was in a clump, stuck to her skull. All of her skin was badly damaged. You could see bits of colour imbedded in the skin of her face and neck, clothes melted into her skin. Her nose was gone…there were holes for breathing but no nostrils. Her ears like I already mentioned were missing too. All that was left were holes leading to her middle ears. Her lips were also damaged and her mouth was hanging upon as she struggled to get air in. Through her open mouth, you could see her blackened shrivelled tongue.

She grunted when each girl said her name. We retreated to the back of the room and stood silently for some time. Her carer took a bottle from the cabinet and dropped it onto some part of her face when she started to complain of pain again. Soon, her bravery was unable to contain her pain any longer and she began to whimper. This very quickly turned into screams of anguish. She was clearly in unbearable pain. We all had tears in our eyes as we were ushered out. Her carer came to us and said ‘thank you so much for coming. I know Eve appreciates it’. None of us replied, we were too busy crying. We got back on the bus and gave way to emotion. I remember staring unseeingly out of my window as tears coursed down my cheeks. I wept for nearly an hour, until we got back to school. When I got off the bus, my face was dry. It was obvious I had been crying but the tears stopped. I had to be brave. I got my things and I went home. I did not speak much of it over the next few days except my family would ask how I was doing whenever the appeal for help with medical costs was broadcast. Her death was announced on the Tuesday after we visited. Although I didn’t say it out, I sent a word of thanks to God for answering my prayer. My prayers on the bus after we left was that He put her out of her misery. I was sad but life went on.

About a month later, 2 of my older male cousins, my foster sister, my sister and I had one of our late nights of playing cards by the light of a lantern on the veranda whilst most of Yola slept. It was around midnight and Yola was definitely in bed by then. We were suddenly famished and we rooted around in the kitchen to no avail. We decided to go out and buy some food. We walked in the quiet to the night market (‘kasuwan dare’), fearless in those days of anything untoward happening. Yola was that kind of town. Despite the fact that 3 of us were young girls, we felt safe enough in the company of 2 older boys. We bought food and came home, had a merry little feast and were in the middle of telling jokes and laughing when it suddenly dawned on me that Eve was dead. Just like that. She would have no more holidays, no more jokes, no more laughs. She was gone. Forever. The enormity of it hit me. The pain she was in, the senselessness of her death (her murder come to think of it) and the grief her family must be going through. How had she felt just before the attack happened and when she had the acid thrown at her? How had she borne the pain for so long? Could she smell her own flesh decaying? Did she realise how badly she had been hurt? Did she know she was dying?

From laughter, I dissolved into tears and I could not stop. The more I thought about her, the more I wept. The others were concerned. I told them through my tears not to worry. I was just remembering Eve. They were worried I could see but also understanding. This carried on for maybe half an hour. Eventually, my sister suggested that the boys go home. My sisters would look after me. I smiled through my hysteria and tried desperately to compose myself. I remember rocking as I sat on the ground, hugging my knees and trying not to hyperventilate. I was sobbing out loud, my eyes closed as I got flashbacks of Eve in her eventual death bed.

My sisters asked what the matter was when I did not show signs of stopping. I said ‘I will be fine. I don’t know why I can’t stop crying.’ Actually I did know. I could not stop imagining myself as her. Going through that ordeal, surviving for over 3 months with all the pain. Unable to talk, unable to move, unable to ask why. I thought mostly of her mother, who had to watch her daughter go through this. I thought about the inadequacy of treatment, how she was clearly in pain but there were no painkillers strong enough to control her pain. I thought of her sister, who was rumoured to be the intended victim. How did she feel? Did she feel bad her little sister had taken her place? Did she feel guilty by association? I thought of Mr Brown and his wife. I knew they would be devastated. I had seen it in their eyes. How were they carrying on? How could they bear the pain? If the pain I was feeling was so deep and I wasn’t even that close to her, how must they feel? How could they bear to be alive?

It took over an hour for me to calm down and stop the sobbing. I still cried. Until dawn that day but silently as my sisters lay next to me and went to sleep. I got it all out then and not once since have I shed a tear over Eve but I remember her whenever I think about life and death. The details are unclear to me now but I think her attackers were caught. Her sister was a witness in the case. I don’t know if they were convicted and what happened to them afterwards. We never got to go to the funeral because it happened over the summer holidays.

Life moved on when we returned to SS1. Without Eve. She had never made it out of her pinafore and into the skirt we were now wearing as senior students. Whenever someone said someone funny, we would refer back to what Eve would say. Mr Brown, bless him, looked devastated whenever we saw him, which wasn’t often. He did come to say thank you to all of us for our prayers and our parents’ donations. He especially wanted to say thank you to those of us who visited. He said we helped Eve. I hoped so. As the days turned into weeks and weeks into months, we gradually moved onto other topics. Other girls soon took up the mantle of class clown and the laughter returned. Still, I never forgot and I know at least within my circle of friends at least, none of us will forget her. She lives on in our hearts. What a senseless loss!