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Neglect Has A Lasting Legacy

I was 5 years old when my sister and I went on a road trip with Baba, our Grandad, up North in Nigeria. It was not normal for just the two of us to go with him. There was usually my grandma too or maybe my mama. However, this time we got to go solo with him. I suspect it is because we begged and it was the holidays and my mother was busy at work with no better plans to entertain us. Whatever the case, we got to go and I remember my sister and I getting bored quite quickly (probably an hour into the 6.5 hour journey). Plus my grandad had taken to listening to boring traditional Hausa music (Mamman Shata and the like). So we sang every nursery rhyme and Disney song we knew. We sang for hours until our throats were sore. Must have driven my grandad and the driver mad but they bore with us.

When we got to the town we were staying the night in, my grandad took us straight to my ‘aunt’s’ home. I say ‘aunt’ because this is not my mother’s sister, my favourite aunty in the whole world aunty Bilky. No, this is someone who grew up with my mum and her siblings and is therefore considered a ‘sister’. I will call this aunty ‘Auntie’ henceforth for easy reference. Now, we had spent quite a few holidays with Auntie and her many daughters in the past so we knew them well enough and were quite happy to be taken to hers. One of her daughters is very close in age to my sister and the youngest was a year older than I was but we usually got on pretty well. I couldn’t tell you if there were any special circumstances at the time we visited but I think not because we would have known. My mama was always upfront if anything major was going on especially if she was going to let us visit. Anyway, out of the car we tumbled, tired and excited. It was well after lunch but not dinner time yet but we were already feeling the first pangs of hunger having had a late breakfast on the road but not stopped for lunch. We were all shown into a living room in their sprawling home and someone showed us to the ‘bedroom’. I use the term ‘bedroom’ loosely because although the large room had beds (I think it was 3 single beds), most of it was clearly a dumping ground for dirty laundry and other clutter and it looked like no one had slept in there for a long time. My grandad left whilst we checked out our lodgings.

My sister and I waited for what seemed like ages for someone to come and tell us what to do with all the mess if we were actually going to be staying in that room. We also waited in vain for someone to offer us a drink or give us a snack. Nothing happened so we eventually picked one bed and cleared it and the area around it. We lay on the bed listening to the noises of muted conversation until all we could hear was our tummies rumbling. The sun began to set and we were soon left in darkness. One of us hunted for the light switch and we resumed our waiting game. We might have dozed off or maybe just lay around in a hungry tired trance but eventually I remember saying to my sister that I needed something to drink. That spurred her into action and she led me hesitantly out of the room and we wandered down the corridors of the seemingly empty house, most of the lights off. We found a kitchen but our hunt turned up nothing to eat. We had some water and sadly found our way back to the bedroom and eventually slept on empty stomachs.

We awoke to the sound of voices outside, going about their morning chores. We could smell breakfast frying…I am not sure now what it was (because we didn’t get any) whether it was fried yam, potatoes or bean cakes (kosei) but the smell was right under our noses and we were so famished we looked at each other in hope. No one came to get us and being nice Fulani girls, we stayed put. I remember asking my sister if she thought they had forgotten we were there. ‘How is that possible?’ She replied so we waited and waited. We waited some more as all the noise died down and the house fell silent again. Had they all gone out without so much as a word to us? Were we home alone in this house we didn’t know, in a town we had maybe visited a couple of times before? We finally ventured out and explored the section of the house we were in. No one was there. We returned to the kitchen, probably assuming that they might have saved us some breakfast. We found evidence of breakfast in the dirty dishes in the sink but not a bite left for us.

At this stage, I thought I was going to die of hunger. It was getting close to 24 hours since we had breakfast on the road with Baba and there was no adult to be seen. We went back to the room and my sister rummaged desperately in the backpack we had brought with us. ‘Look’ she cried excitedly after searching for a while. She brandished a N5 note. N5 (five naira) in those days (around 1990) was actually worth something. We could certainly have breakfast on the street with that. Remember this was a town we were not very familiar with so it was with trepidation that we ventured out of Auntie’s house and into the busy street. Thankfully there was no one out to cause mischief and we were left alone. We followed the smell of kosei to a street corner nearby and found a lady frying the delicious bean cakes seated on a stool by the fire over which she was frying. We gave her the N5 and asked for kosei. ‘All of it?’ she asked and we nodded hungrily. She scooped the freshly fried kosei out into the traditional newspaper wrap, sprinkled on a generous helping of the chilli powder that comes with it and handed it to us. We walked a few metres away before we gave in to the hunger in our bellies and we tucked in. After a few mouthfuls, we felt good enough to continue walking and we ate as we walked back to the house. The portion was decent and we gobbled it all up within minutes. Finally satiated, we chucked the paper in the bin and went in to have a quick wash and get dressed.

When my grandad came for us around lunchtime, we were happy again. Still left to our own devices but happy because my sister had fed us. We looked clean and my grandad was none the wiser. Lunch was served with my grandad so of course we got fed. I remember picking at the food because I was still stuffed from our late breakfast and also because I was so disappointed my Auntie had been so mean. But we said nothing. Just very happily jumped back into the car for the 3 hour trip to Kaduna where we knew we would be treated by my aunty Nafisa like princesses. I was not disappointed!

For many years after that, I did not forget or forgive that episode. The daughters I didn’t blame so much because half of them were young like us. But the 2 older girls were certainly old enough to know that young children visiting should at the very least be given a drink and food. Auntie should certainly have known better. I made up my mind that she was no longer my auntie but only my sister knew this for the next decade or so. I found every excuse not to go back there and mostly, I didn’t.

The next time I went was unavoidable. My mama and I were on the way to Kaduna and from there were to catch a flight back to Lagos where I went to boarding school. I wasn’t really given a choice of itinerary because she wanted to say hi to her ‘sister’. I knew anyway that I would be treated well because my mama was there but the hypocrisy grated. I clenched my teeth and said not a word. The visit was ok-ish. It turned out her daughter was getting married and we had been invited but my mother neglected to mention it. I had nothing to wear for any occasion as I was on my way back to boarding school and being a teenager, it mattered to me. Bearing that in mind, the youngest daughter and her cousin/half-sister on night 2 were in the same room as I was but I was lying on the bed, my head buried in a book as I was usually found in those days. They were whispering loudly about the pre-wedding party they were going to the next night and how much fun it was going to be etc. Being close in age to them, I would have expected them to have the courtesy either to invite me or not to talk about it in front of me. They did not have the courtesy to extend an invitation to me. Party night came and they snuck out when it was time despite being chummy with me all day. What sort of a fool did they think I was? The morning after, they were giggling over events at the party but would fall silent if I walked in a room or turned in their general direction. What grated wasn’t that I didn’t go because to be honest, I wasn’t one for parties at that age and I certainly did not have anything to wear. What sucked was their meanness of spirit and being treated like a fool.

Since that visit, I have stayed well away from most of that family. Although I have forgiven them their neglect and meanness, I doubt I will ever forget. That amongst other things are major character flaws I really wish not to be associated with. I have not considered Auntie my aunty for very many years to my mama’s consternation. I have since told my mama about that episode and several other incidents not talked about in this blog. I know she was dismayed and even sad but perhaps a small part of her is hoping that me and my sister’s account of that incident is overly-dramatized as remembered by our young immature brains. Regardless, I sincerely believe that if we had been her actual nieces, she would not have treated us so carelessly when we were so young. And she would not have allowed that mean spirit to rub off on her daughters.

When I think of her, I think of two quotes:

“When someone would mistreat, misinform, misuse, misguide, mishandle, mislead… or any other “mis”… to others, they’re obviously missing something from their lives.”
― Donald L. HicksLook into the stillness

“I know it’s painful growing,
I bet the changes was painful too.
But nothing is as painful as being somewhere you don’t belong.
Obviously.”
― Touaxia Vang

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.