Tag Archives: Childhood

The Most Precious Gift

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mind the Gap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cycle of Life Part 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cycle of Life Part 2

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

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

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

Sai mu ‘yan Hausa cultural,

Daga makarantar Geeeee Geeeee (GG).

Mun zo ne muyi maku wasa,

Wasan mu ta Hausa.

Mun zo ne muyi maku wasa,

Wasan mu ta Hausa.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sweet Mama

When I think of my mama, there is a theme song that plays in the background. ‘A Song for Mama’ by Boys II Men. The song talks about her teaching her child everything, teaching them about right and wrong. It talks about the mama believing in her child when no one else would. It talks about loving mama being the food to the soul and her being the child’s strength. Amazing song!

My mama was never the most traditional of mums. For majority of my life, she was a single mum. She is a feminist. She travelled often to attend conferences and seminars and to take part in courses, for weeks and sometimes months at a time. She did not enjoy the traditional female roles of cooking and cleaning day in, day out.  I rarely saw her do laundry and she certainly never ironed for us. But…she also did a lot of traditionally mummy things. She woke us up for school every morning she was home. She bathed us both together in the bathtub and wrapped us each in a large bath towel, tucking us in just the way we loved it so that we were like worms in a cocoon of warmth. We would hurry off to our bedroom and fall into bed, clean and warm for a quick ‘shut eye’ and make her go through the process of getting us up again. She washed my hair and patiently combed out the tangles and put hair cream on my hair and scalp. She took me to buy school books, stationary and shoes when the new term began. She waited at the end of the school term for my exam results and told me how proud she was.

My mama recounts that when I was born in a busy maternity ward in Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) Teaching Hospital, Kaduna. She says she knew I was different in that first hour. The maternity unit was very busy which meant that as babies were born, they were given a cursory drying and wrapped up and placed in a queue for proper cleaning before being placed in their mothers’ arms. My mama says that I wailed so loud for so long that the midwife had to come away from the mother she was assisting to pluck me out from the waiting queue, give me a good clean and take me to my mama. I cried all through her handling and I am told that as soon as my mama took me into her arms, I took a deep breath in and fixed my eyes on her. Apparently I was as good as gold for my mum throughout childhood. Not so to everyone else. I was a right madam and often fussy especially when my mama was away on one of her trips. I cried so much that I grew up with a husky voice but my mama swears I was always good for her. I think my tears were from missing my mama and fearing that she had abandoned me.

I was a different baby from my sister. My sister was the baby that wanted to be handled 24/7. I was the opposite. I wanted my mama to cuddle me with breastfeeds but I wanted to be in my bed when I was asleep. I was happy to be at home playing when my mama went out as long as she didn’t have luggage in tow. When she went on a trip, it felt like she took a piece of me with her. I remember vividly going into her room and sitting on the side of her bed. I would stare at the enlarged picture of her taken before I was born and feel the tears well in my eyes. I would press the button on the talking clock on her headboard and lie on the cool tiled floor in the dim light and wonder if I would ever see her again. For some reason, I was always afraid that she would never come back. Even though she told us how long she would be, it always seemed to me that the deadline had passed and no one was telling the plans had changed. I would lie on the floor of her room in the silence as my sister played with the neighbourhood children and imagine she had been killed in a plane crash and everyone was keeping it from us. I would cry quietly as I imagined the worst and eventually, I would find some hope from deep within and say to myself she was OK or I would have heard of the plane crash on the news. I don’t know why in my young mind, I didn’t think she could die in a car crash which was more common place.

When she came home, she always came bearing gifts. Nothing too extravagant but all special. I got my first Barbie after one trip and many years later a Cindy doll after I got over the loss of my Barbie. On a long trip to Venezuela, I got a t-shirt which I loved to bits and wore until its stitching unravelled and I had to be begged to throw it in the bin. I got a ‘born to be wild’ t-shirt from the US which when made me feel like the bee’s knees whenever I wore it. On the same US trip, she got me arguable one of the best gifts, a special edition perfume from the Disney store shaped like Belle from Beauty and the Beast. I still have the plastic Belle bottle more than 15 years later. One trip she went to the Disney store in London and got me a Tazmanian Devil woolley hat and gloves combo. A regular treat were the pick and mix sweets. The highlight was the marshmallows covered in strawberry-flavoured slightly tart sugar. Yummy! Those sweets taught us a highly valuable life lesson. She handed us each a large plastic bag full of sweets and left us to our devices. My sister would go through a fair few in the first day then slow down over the next few days. I was more calculating. I would pour out all of my sweets and group them into types and work out how I could make it so I could make my favourites last the longest. I always tried to save a strawberry sweet for weeks and ate it last. I will never forget how special that last sweet was. It almost made it okay that mama had to travel AGAIN a few months later.

I am one of those weird people who love salads. The secret? My mama. She makes the most amazing salads. I don’t know exactly how she did it but she made it so that having a special salad was an occasion in my home. She would take us to the shops to buy baked beans, sweetcorn and mushrooms. Then she would slice the tomatoes, hard boil eggs, fry the mushrooms and re-cook the beans then dress the lettuce with all of that, laid out in the most beautiful pattern. The salad would look and smell so good that we couldn’t wait to tuck in. It was so delicious that it was the main course of dinner. Thinking about it now is making me salivate. The other thing my mum is a queen of is smoothies. She loves them and she makes the best ones. What makes them extra special is the love she puts into preparing all the fruit and blending it all in batches and giving us all a helping. I have always watched children whine about eating fruit and vegetables and to be honest, I have never understood why. Because my mama was so good that she made us love fruit and vegetables.

Of course I am biased but looking back, I think she did an amazing job. She was the disciplinarian whose love I never doubted. In a society where smacking was considered the norm, she was very restrained and I can count how many times I got smacked. Each time was totally called for too and even then I knew. She is now one of my best friends, cliched though that might sound. I can talk to her about anything. My opinions are valuable to her even if she argues about it all. I am her confidant, her financial adviser, her personal doctor, her baby and her friend. I value her above everyone else and everyday, I thank God that she was gifted to me as my mother. I am thankful that she is healthy and strong and fiesty to a fault. I owe her everything I am. She is my greatest love.

The Magnificence of the Ocean

I love nature. The great outdoors (as long as it is not grey and miserable). Of the great outdoors, the ocean is my great love. Which is ironic because I cannot swim so really, I should stay away from ferociously powerful currents and the vastness of the ocean. But I can’t. I feel the draw like a moth to light. My heart beats stronger and happier when I am standing with my feet in wet sand, my ears full of the sound of waves crashing all around me, the spray of salty water on my face and very few people around me.

My earliest memories of the ocean are from holidays with my grandparents in Lagos which is on the Atlantic Ocean. Back then, Bar beach was still a place to go. Safe enough for children and I remember even then the huge waves which threatened to sweep me out into the ocean. My grandparents never came. My granddad was too busy for day time outings and I have no idea why Mammie, my grandmother never came. My mother would always prepare lots of sandwiches and an assortment of other snacks early in the morning and we would head out before noon and spend the whole day on the beach. My sister and I would build sandcastles, paddle in the water that foamed at our feet and watch the older children and adults swimming out into the deep waters to catch a wave back onto shore. I remember getting tired and having sand in every nook and cranny and sorely needing a shower by the time we were bundled into the car for home, all of the food eaten and all the excitement replaced by fatigue.

A few years later, Bar beach was destroyed by the power of the ocean so we found another beach. My mother discovered Takuwa Bay which involved catching a speedboat from a boatyard in Victoria Island. Takuwa Bay, because of its location off the mainland, was definitely much nicer. Cleaner water and sand, less crowded and the water less wild than Bar beach became. The speedboat was a new thrill and I loved the sensation of skimming across the water as the wind whipped past and we bobbed in our life vests, grinning like loons in pleasure. I remember one year we went when I was about 6 years old. My mum had just gone to London for work and came back with a beautiful swimming costume, a little swimming skirt and bandeau top in ivory silk. It was so pretty I couldn’t wait for our annual Lagos trip. Off we went to Takuwa Bay first weekend we got. I remember running around feeling rather grand. I think the headiness of my cool outfit went to my head and I forgot to pay attention to the ocean. Next thing I remembered was being engulfed by a huge wall of water. Knowing I couldn’t swim, I curled up into a ball, clasped my knees to my chest and held my breath. I don’t know how long I was under for but when the water washed back, there I was on the sand, eyes closed, breath held. My sister reports that she had seen me disappear in the water and thought I was a goner. Luckily for me, I was so young I didn’t let the fear overcome me. I was safe and unfazed. Within minutes, I was back playing the water whilst my sister stood guard.

When I went to secondary school, the tradition of Takuwa Bay beach days with my mum continued. The only thing that changed was the food we took. In the late 90s, we discovered the best chicken in the world. It was made on one of the street corners not far from Musa Yar’adua Street in VI. It was a small stall, very unassuming but damn! That guy could make chicken. We found out that he marinated it overnight and then grilled it to perfection on the day and on our beach days; we would often have to wait for the chicken to be done because he was aiming for the lunchtime crowd whilst we were trying to beat the lunchtime traffic and get to the beach before lunch. It was the juiciest, most tender delicious chicken ever. I have eaten a lot of chicken in a lot of countries since then and I swear that chicken would win a taste contest hands down. Makes my mouth water even today, over 15 years since I last one. I have no doubt that the chicken guy has moved on but the memory will remain with me forever and I often wonder where did he go? I do hope he is still making his amazing chicken and spreading that joy somewhere.

There was an annual ‘house’ trip in Queen’s College, my secondary school, to the beach where hundreds of girls packed into several buses and headed to the beach at Lekki. We all had to wear our Sunday wear out over whatever else we had with us that was more beach appropriate. There was always happy singing as we were liberated from within the walls of our school. We would save up our pocket money for the trip and gorge on suya, fresh coconuts and sweets. Despite the frustrations of the slowness of getting to and from the beach, it was a day we all loved and cherished and although I cannot remember much detail about any of the trips, I know it was a highlight and suya, sand and sea definitely had much to do with it.

Until this year, I loved my lie ins and there was no worse idea for me than to get up at the crack of dawn during holidays. I thought anyone that did that was rather balmy. That is until I went to Malaysia and was lucky enough to spend the night in a rented log cabin on the beaches of Kota Bharu. I think I was awoken by the first rays of light and whereas normally I would roll over and pull the covers over my head to block out the signs of morning, I was drawn out of bed by the gentle sound of waves crashing onto shore. I found myself heading out of the cabin and towards the vast ocean. I was all alone on the beach as the sky gradually lightened and the sun rose to greet the dawn. The fine mist of salty sea water coated my face and my heart raced in exhilaration as I stood with my feet in the warm water surging to and fro. I felt in that moment how small I was in this place we all call home. On earth. The ocean’s might and power was all around me and I felt like I belonged. Like I was part of this huge family of creation that did its function regardless of what we humans were doing. As we slept, the ocean’s currents were in constant motion, waves in continuous motion, forming and crashing. I savoured the moment of aloneness and silence. I felt my heart synchronise its beat to that of the ocean. I listened to the music of life and I wanted to be frozen in that moment forever. Eventually, after more than an hour of sitting and not thinking of anything but the now, another guest rose from their bed and took a morning stroll along the beach. The moment was over but in my memories, it will live forever.

Earlier this year, my husband and I went on Honeymoon to Mauritius. Mauritius is a destination I would recommend with all my heart. The Indian ocean is the best I have ever experienced. The water is so gorgeous, that beautiful turquoise colour that is neither blue nor green. And clean as can be. Despite not being able to swim, there was no way I was going to pass up being in the middle of the ocean swimming with dolphins. Off I went with George at dawn in the speedboat to Tamarind Bay where the unsuspecting wild dolphins lay asleep. I strapped on my life vest, stuck on the snorkelling gear and jumped in when it was my turn. And I got to be in the ocean with the lithe creatures we call dolphins. To be honest, being short-sighted with no glasses and being hampered by my inability to swim, I didn’t really ‘swim with dolphins’ but I was in the same strip of water as them and that was good enough for me.

When I got back on the speed boat, I was able to see them properly and even got a baby dolphin give us a little show – incredibly this show-boater of a dolphin did a series of leaps and spins as if he knew exactly what we were all hoping for. How lucky were the guys who took us out to swim with dolphins that day…what an amazing job it is to be able to jump into the ocean and cavort with dolphins. Le sigh. To round off the day, when we got back towards shore, we did a bit of snorkelling which even through my myopic gaze was the most incredible sight. The richness of the colours and the exotic fish blew my little mind. None of the images I have seen captured on camera compare to the real thing.

For me absolutely one of the reasons to believe in a higher power than in an evolution that happened completely by chance. The complexity of the ocean, its currents and shifts and rhythms. All part of an intelligent design for me but this blog is not about that. So yeah, the ocean. Amazeballs!!! If I could be anything or anyone, I would be a mermaid because as Sebastien says to Ariel in Little Mermaid ‘under the sea’ is where it’s at!

If Music be the Food of Love

…Then I am glutton and I want it all. I look at my little nephew loving music and it melts my heart. Where it not for music, I would not be where I am today. Music of all kinds. Music that is live or recorded. Current or retro. Played through headphones or on speakers. Walkman, discman to iPod. Music punctuates the story of my life.

I have 2 cousins in the US of A. The older of the two, the girl who shares my grandmother’s name with me, plays the violin to a good standard. She probably isn’t Vanessa Mae standard but the effect her music had on me was electric. She played a piece of music I wasn’t familiar with in my room in London and it changed that room for me forever. As she coaxed the strings into song, the tune struck a chord deep within me. It was as if everything came alive. My senses turbo-charged. I wanted to lie down and close my eyes and for it never to end. I must have had a very foolish smile on my face by the time she played the last note. It was the first time I had seen her in over a decade and I didn’t know her all that well. All it took for me to love her was a piece of music that she insisted wasn’t very good. All the shyness, the reserve, the uncertainty of my relationship with her was wiped away and in its place, I felt love, kinship and trust.

I will never forget the first time I heard the flute being played live. I was in JSS2 (equivalent of year 8) in QC Lagos when one of the senior girls was called on stage to play some music. There must have been nearly 4000 girls crammed into the Hall and despite all effort throughout the rest of the special assembly, there was steady background chatter. She came on stage and as she assembled her flute, the silence began to wash across the room. She played the theme song to Disney’s Pocahontas. Have you ever listened to the score on that song? It is so beautiful. And the words amazing in their simplicity. As she played, I could feel the tears gather in the back of my throat. All the other girls must have felt the same because the silence was absolute halfway through and at the end of it all, there was a stunned silence before we all erupted into applause and hooting. From then on every time I saw her, it felt like there was a magical halo around her for me. She glowed blue to me. And although I have forgotten the names of some of the girls I sat with for years, I remember her name as clear as daylight. Talking about Disney music – I get a similar awe when I listen to ‘When you believe’ from Prince of Egypt and ‘The cycle of life’ from Lion King. Spell binding.

I had a friend in QC who used to be just a classmate. Then one day, she opened her mouth and sang in class and we were all in awe. I guess you could call me the original fan. Although I have since forgotten what the first song Esther sang in public was, I will never forget how I felt about her from that day forward. Of course it helped that she was a lovely girl anyway but in my appreciation for her talent, we became fast friends. The song I will associate with Esther for the rest of my days is ‘I love you Mummy’ which was a hit in Nigeria in the 1990s. Every time she sang that song, all the hairs on my body would stand up and all my worries and stress and unhappiness and negative thoughts would simply disappear. There was once a special assembly only a select few attended and Esther sang that song there. Apparently, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Even our Principal had tears in her eyes. I saw her as an angel. She had a golden yellow halo. She was quiet, unassuming and her smile could light up a stadium full of people. Little did I know that when I left QC in 2000, it would be the last time I would see her. She was diagnosed with cancer shortly after I left and she died a couple of years later. Like they say, the best of us die young. R.I.P Esther. What a loss to the world and especially to those who never got to experience the magical voice Esther had.

I love musicals and I have the utmost respect for the incredible talent of theatre actors and actresses who sing their hearts out night after night. My favourite musical is Catz but my absolute ever performance was back in 2001 when I went to see ‘Notre dame de Paris’ in London. The narrator man with his long blond hair and colourful blue coat looked just like all the other stars but he overshadowed them all so that by the end of the show, I was more focused on his bits than on the lead actor and actress. What made it more amazing was that his voice outshone all the female vocalists on stage and I think that is a rare quality. The tone in his voice was pure. It was like crystal in its clarity and every word resonated in my soul. The power was like no other I have seen in theatre and I literally cannot comprehend how he could work his vocal cords so hard for so long and retain its beauty. When the show was over, I did not want to leave. I felt like if I didn’t move, I could remain wrapped up in the magic of his voice forever.

Last year, my then fiancé and I went to the Stephen Lawrence memorial concert at the O2 arena and the line-up was epic. I was mostly looking forward to Emile Sande but there were numerous others I was excited about. The revelation of the night for me was the lovely Beverly Knight from Wolverhampton (which is down the road from me). I have always liked her songs and loved her personality but when she sang ‘Fallen Soldier’ on stage, I fell in love with her. It is by far the best live performance I have ever heard. I have heard the song before and thought it was ok but when dear old Bev sang it, she elevated it to new heights. Every word struck chord in my soul and I felt the tears come as I remembered all my fallen soldiers. The pitch was perfect. The sentiment suited so well to the theme of the evening. She sang her heart out and she won a fan for life. I now realise that she is probably one of the most underrated British stars. It must be because she is so understated in her manner, so personable and so approachable. She is the ultimate girl-next-door except she is more than that. She has been blessed with the most gorgeous voice. What a star!

I know some Muslims believe that modern music is on the scale of evil but I honestly could not disagree more. How could I not appreciate beauty that I believe is a gift from God? How could music which inspires me to be pure and to be kind be bad in any way? How can music which erases my sadness and stress be anything but good? How can music which promotes happiness and positivity be anything but encouraged? Life is hard enough I think so I simply cannot accept that something that makes it all better can be a bad thing. I love music and I celebrate its existence. And most of all, I thank God for music because it has been life’s saving grace more times than I can count.

Tell Your Truth  

I quoted Clint Smith’s comment about fear in an earlier blog and this one here is inspired by the something else he said on the same YouTube video. He is an American who lectures in the States and he says in the video that the only thing he asks of his students when they are in his class is to tell their truth and that nothing leaves the room without their permission. This got me thinking about truth and its importance. I know everybody lies sometimes and actually sometimes a lie is the kinder thing to say. However, I do think these days too many people lie willy-nilly for no good reason and it baffles me why.

My mama and I (in case you haven’t realised it yet from the number of times I mention her in every blog) are very close and I think one of the biggest reasons why that is with each other, we tell our truths. My sister and I never went through ‘teenage rebellion’. We didn’t have anything to rebel about because everything in my home was out in the open. My mama has always been truthful when asked anything directly. Of course, there are things she held back from us when we were too young to understand but as long as she thought we would understand the answers and that it would teach us something, we were told. I knew about the birds and the bees from very early on and so it was never a big deal talking about sex in our home. Because my mama is a feminist and part of her NGO work is empowering women and girls, I attended a workshop she organised in the early 90s back when HIV and AIDS were in the headlines. So before I was 10 years old, I knew about safe sex, condoms, how to put them on and dispose of them safely. Even before that, I knew all about periods and puberty and everything else that was necessary to face growing up.

In the same vein, whenever I made friends with anybody, I would invite them to our home at the earliest opportunity so that my mama could meet them. I knew that if my mama was okay with such a friend, then they were good enough to keep as friends. I could rely on my mama to be truthful. So over the years, we have talked about friends, boys, men, sex, drugs, alcohol, travel, homosexuality, religion, war, the potential for an apocalypse, death and anything else I was ever curious about. We are so comfortable and open that people often get surprised by how much my mama knows about the exact things people would try to hide from their parents. It is only as I have got older that I have started to edit what I tell my mama. This is mainly to do with my significant other relationship and I keep things from her not to withhold my truth but so as not to sour the relationship between my husband and his mother-in-law. After all, ‘they’ say that if you tell your parents about the ‘bad things’ that your spouse does to you, they will harbour it for aeons whereas you might forget it the very next day or week. I am a very lucky girl because in my home telling my truth was not only actively encouraged, it was expected. I am now trying to teach my husband the same and I hope to emulate the same culture with my future children.

In my profession, telling your truth is a GMC requirement and it is set out as part of the duties of doctors which we are sent in paper copy periodically to remind us of our oath. I am a paediatrician and definitely not a surgeon. However as the cookie crumbles, I happen to be doing a surgical rotation (which is ending today. Hoorah!) currently and I have had major issues because of a lack of truth and the surgical culture of aggressive competitiveness and subtle bullying. I particularly had a problem when my father-in-law was taken ill and I was delayed going in for a shift. Long story short, I couldn’t leave him until he was safe and so I was going to be late for handover. The doctor that was meant to handover offered to swap shifts. I thought how lovely, swapped shifts and thought nothing more of it. Then rumours started to fly after I was late for another shift about how I was so late I didn’t turn up for my shift. After a couple of weeks of ignoring the immaturity of it all, I found the senior doctors involved and asked if they had a problem with me particularly if swapping that shift was a problem. They all denied having any issues but I had heard enough to take it to the top consultant and my supervising consultant. They were both lovely and reassured me. I thought ‘Great. All sorted and I’ll put it all behind me’. The rumours continued and I eventually found the source of it all. Disappointingly, it was a registrar senior to me who always made out we were cool. So I had it out with him and asked him to be professional. I am pleased to say once I confronted him, he has behaved in a more professional manner but I must say I will be glad not to have to work so closely with him anymore. I just think that there is no place in a professional setting for lies – everyone is there to do a job and if you are not interested and focussed in the job, maybe you should quit and go do something else.

I have a confession to make. I am rather feisty and not afraid to speak out in most situations. Even as a child, the worst thing you could do to me was lie about me. I remember way back in primary school, someone jealous of me for something or the other said to one of my friends that I had said something about her behind her back. My friend promptly told me because she didn’t believe I would do such a thing but I was so mad that the girl had accused me wrongly that I cried. Unfortunately, in these situations, I still get so angry that I often end up crying because I feel helpless to do anything else. I am getting better at dealing with the anger though so hopefully by the time the kids come along, their mummy won’t go round embarrassing them with her tears. As far back as I remember, I made a vow to myself. Unless there is an absolute need to hide the truth, I shall always tell my truth. And honestly, it feels great!

Straight Up Nigerian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Na’ima*

*not her real name      

I was sitting on my praying mat, having a quiet moment of doing nothing when I spotted my old Quran and thought of Na’ima, wondering how she was. Just the week before, someone had forwarded a piece via Whats App talking about the significance of ‘Attahiya’, the passage we muslims recite whilst sitting after  every 2 raka’as of prayers (sallat). Again, I thought of Na’ima and what she was up to. Then an hour ago, she facebook messaged me to ask if I would be in Nigeria at the same time as she. I regretfully said no. So we wont be seeing each other anytime soon. But I have not forgotten…

We met in 1996…10 year olds in brand new uniforms in JSS1, the beginning of our secondary school career. In the 1st year, we talked mostly in Hausa language or IRS classes.  Funny thing about school, ‘someone’ decided quite early who your ‘bestfriend’ was and us girls felt compelled to hang out with this best friend even if we had more to say to some other people. Anyway, we were only 10 years old so we obeyed the unwritten rule.     

Fast forward one year. We were now in JSS2 – no longer babies. 11 years old. Subconsciously, that rule was bent then broken. Somehow, Na’ima and I started to spend most of our time outside of classes together. We didn’t share a seat so we could only sit together in the optional classes Hausa and IRS. Our friendship was on.

She was to become my 1st true friend. The first friend to know my flaws and my strengths and love me for it. Before that, my sister was probably the only 1 to be privy to the real me. I dont remember how this all came to be but there are instances I recall with clarity.

One of the many things I didn’t like about boarding school was the food. I would have breakfast maybe 3 days a week. Lunch and dinner, I ate more of but I hated amala so atleast 3 meals a week, I had biscuits in place of a meal. Naima was a day girl so when she realised this was happening, she offered to buy me snacks from Mr Biggs (sausage roll or meatpie plus scotch eggs were my favourites). I would give her money the day before an amala meal and she would faithfully buy my snacks and deliver each time. She never let me down.

I was praying one day and realised I didnt know how to recite the ‘Attahiya’ properly. I think I knew the first and last couple of phrases with alot of nonsense in between. Who did I turn to? Na’ima. The next time I saw her, I took her aside and with some embarassment admitted I didn’t know how to recite the ‘Attahiya’ properly and would she teach me? Of course she would. She recited the correct words and the next day, she slipped me a piece of paper with the words on it. I asked, she gave.

She got me a Quran from the Sudanese embassy where her dad worked at the time. I think I was inspired by MSS to read the Quran for myself so I mentioned to her that this was my intention. Some time later, she placed a brand new shiny Quran with english translation in my hands…this is the same Quran that seats on my prayer mat today.
                   
My most lasting memory though is break times with Naima throughout JSS2. We looked forward to every break time with the excitement a footballer would look forward to the World Cup. We had sooo much fun every weekday. As soon as the last lesson before break was over and the teacher had stepped out of class, we would stuff our books into our lockers, shoulder our backpacks and race towards the tuckshop. Tuckshop was what we called the group of small wooden shack shops and tables all selling a variety of snacks aimed at satisfying 10-18 year olds. Naima and I would decide what drink we wanted (pepsi/mirinda/7up was sold in a different shop to coke/fanta/sprite to limca/something orange). I preferred Limca and Naima was a coke girl so we did Limca shop 1 day and coke shop another. We would also decide on meatpie, sausage roll or samosa. All this as we hurried towards tuckshop to try and beat the crowds. Inevitably, there would be lots who made it there before us (how did they do it?) so we had to divide and conquer. I would take the drink shop and she would tackle the pastry shop. We would squeeze into the front of the queue and return in minutes triumphantly holding out our goodies. Then we would each buy a dolly (3cm square plastic tub of chocolate to be eaten with tiny plastic spoon) and dodo (small bag of squeeshy plantain chips) and find the corner inhabited by JSS2y girls (our class, even here we stuck together). We would have our drinks and pastry between chitchat, making sure we had 5 minutes to spare before the end of break.
We would wander off to the huge fallen tree trunk we nicknamed dolly station where just the 2 of us would sit and savour every morsel of our dolly. Without fail, as we jumped up and walked to rejoin the other girls all going back to class, something would set us off laughing. I remember a few girls coming over to join us at dolly station but they never came long-term because they got bored of us sitting in silence, observing our dolly ritual. 1 or 2 asked us why we always laughed on our way back to class. I remember Naima’s and my eyes met when the question was 1st put to us. Our response was to dissolve into more laughter. Those girls walked away confused. Naima and I did ask each other ‘why do we laugh here?’ Neither of us ever had an answer. It didn’t matter.

Looking back, 17 years later I think it was because we were happy. Happy to have found a friend we could sit with in silence, a friend who would always be there to teach you things she knew better, who wouldn’t judge you for your failings, who would listen when you had something to say, who would laugh because you were laughing. A true friend.
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