Tag Archives: Birmingham

Moo!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brummie Beautiful

Before I became a Brummie, I lived in London. My oldest friends in the UK mostly live in London and most thought I would be back to London first chance I got after uni. I had other ideas. When I applied to study at the University of Birmingham, my top reason was not how well the University did in the overall league tables (it is one of the top ones) or the style of teaching at their Medical School (systems-based learning with early clinical contact which suited me perfectly) or even the extra-curricular opportunities available (our uni loves sports and music). I just knew that the Midlands was the place my heart felt the strongest pull towards.

I first visited the Midlands a year after moving to the UK when we went to Nottingham to visit an old classmate of my mama who happens to be a GP whose son was at the Medical School in Birmingham. I loved the idea of the Midlands, ironically it brought to mind Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings which is based around Birmingham and the West Midlands but I didn’t know that then. There was something about the calmer pace of life that I was immediately drawn to and the open spaces and clean air in Nottingham. My London stresses simply fell away and yet it felt like there was enough to do for me here. The best way I can describe how I felt is that my pulse matched the pulse of the Midlands.

Knowing how I felt about the Midlands and having spoken to the medical student son of the GP friend of my mama’s, I knew that my 2 certain UCAS application spots for medical school would be Nottingham and Birmingham. I ended up applying for a spot in Imperial College and Kings College (both to match my Queens College pedigree). I persuaded my mother to accompany me to the Open Day at the University of Birmingham and my top choice became Birmingham. I loved it all. From New Street Station which to be honest wasn’t all that (although we are awaiting our new state-of-the-art concourse and generally more beautiful station which is being worked on as I write). To the pace of the life – there was enough bustle for me not to be bored bearing in mind my Lagos and London background. To the mix of people – black, brown, white and many shades in between of all shapes and sizes and how happy majority of people seemed to be as they rushed around shopping and working. And finally the beautiful grounds of the University of Birmingham which impressed me from the moment I stepped out of University station and cast my eyes on the Iron Man on the little roundabout leading to the main University Campus.

The longer I have lived in Birmingham, the more in love I have fallen with it. People are scornful of the ‘accent’. Err, the accent y’all think is Brummie is actually Black Country and majority of people in Birmingham City do not sound anything like that! And I don’t even mind the black country brogue despite the fact that when those people speak to me, I have to focus really hard and find myself staring at their lips as if I can lip-read. The other common misconception is that it is all warehouses and dirty ugly buildings which I am sure are a stereotype from the war days. Well, you should see Birmingham now. We have lovely centuries-old cathedral and buildings, many right in the centre of town. We have a beautiful open market on weekdays behind the Bullring and the Rag Markets which are closed also behind the Bullring. I cannot not mention the Bullring because it is now a major family attraction for all its shopping and food court. Also the Mailbox which is glamorous sister of the Bullring with its more expensive designer shops and trendier restaurants, bars and clubs. There is the Arcadian with all of its entertainment by night and dining facilities by day. Our China/Oriental town is thriving right next to the Arcadian with Chinese supermarkets and many restaurants to choose from.

The Jewellery Quarter is simply the place to be if you are looking for a great deal on diamonds and precious metals. If you take your time browsing, you will find jewellery shops with beautiful antique one-off pieces like the pearl bracelet I wore on my wedding day. There are also jewellers there who will for a fee design unique pieces for you or use an old stone to design a new piece or re-structure an old necklace or bracelet to suit you. I lived in the JQ so you could say I am partial but it is a lovely place to live with lots of flats perfect for single young professionals or newly cohabiting partners who are yet to start having a family. The cemetery is a peaceful place to hang out…it is a proper old-school one with large tombstones and in many spots, whole families laid to rest together over the years. For the year I lived there, I would walk through the cemetery every morning and evening and say a prayer for those whose bodies were laid there and I would wonder about their stories and smile at the fresh flowers placed at gravesides.

The biggest thing for me though is the people of Birmingham. Of course we have our EDL-racists, our illiterate chavs, our stinky tramps and our gangs which are not the best but which large city doesn’t have them? As the second largest city in the UK, we have our fair share of the not-so-desirables but you have to look deeper than that. We are a melting pot of all the races of the world. The ‘minorities’ here are not minorities. We have large communities of Indians, Pakistanis, Chinese, Jamaican, Nigerian, Ethiopian, Polish and Iranians. You name it, we have got them in fair numbers in Brum. With all these groups comes the variety of music and food on our streets. We have festivals to cater for all the different groups. We celebrate Eid and Diwali with as much gusto as Christmas. We have plays celebrating all the different cultures. The highlight for me, we have children that are more mixed than in any place I have lived. We have the unlikeliest of mixes…black and Chinese, black and Indian, Pakistani and English, Spanish and Turkish, even Nigerian and Polish. As a paediatrician, it is a privilege for me to get an insight into these families and appreciate the diversity of my home. Simply put, they say home is where the heart is. For me, Birmingham is where my heart is.