Tag Archives: experience

The Malay Experience

In 2008, after a short 4th year of medical school, I caught a flight to Kuala Lumpur. My first trip to Asia. Solo. I cannot remember how I came to choose Malaysia. I think I wanted to go to Asia, wanted an English speaking setting and importantly somewhere warm. Sri Lanka was another option but I didn’t know anyone there so Malaysia was the choice I made.

My mama as a human rights activist worked with an organisation with close links to Malaysia so she had been to visit many times and had made some good friends there. When I asked her for help, she was on it. She contacted her friends and asked whether any of them had medical connections in Malaysia. Fortuitously, one of her friend knew the health minister in Kelantan State. The only question was did I want to go to Kelantan, being the most conservative of states, quite ‘Muslim’ in its ways? Well, being a very modern Muslim I could see why some would question my willingness to be in a community that was rather more conservative than I chose to live my life. But I wanted an experience so I had no hesitation in saying yes.  Then I had to find somewhere to live for the month. Another one of my mama’s friends had a GP husband who was resident in Kota Bharu, the capital city of Kelantan state where the hospital was located. His home was too far to walk to and from the hospital so he organised for me to stay with his sister.

A few days before I was to fly out, he emailed to say that unfortunately his sister had a family emergency so she wouldn’t be in Kota Bharu (KB) for my arrival and he didn’t know when she would be back. Before I could panic, he went on to say I was welcome to stay at his and I would have to catch rides with his grandchildren to and from the hospital. So back to the beginning, I arrived in Kuala Lumpur on a warm afternoon. As I got off the plane after my 12-hour trip, I felt a queer tingle in my feet. I looked down and lo and behold my feet was swollen and my toes resembled little chipolatas. Remember I was only 22 years old so this was rather foreign. I wriggled my little sausage toes and poked both feet. Clearly, I should have mobilised more on the long flight. Noted. I made my way through baggage retrieval, immigration and customs and got to my hotel without incident. One of my sister’s uni friends generously came to find me later and took me out for dinner. The next day, after he kindly took me to get a phone and camera, we went to the Twin towers. What a sight! My jetlag was cured and I was suddenly filled with excitement. My first adult adventure in foreign country! The next day, my mama’s friend who had been instrumental in organising the whole trip took me to the famous Batu caves where we took in the impressive sights and also had one of the best Indian meals I have ever had.

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I think the sister in KB being away was a huge blessing in disguise. My new digs were rather luxurious compared to what I had been expecting. Dr R and his children were excellent hosts and made me feel at home. Bibi, their Indonesian housekeeper, was a godsend. She couldn’t speak a word of English and I couldn’t speak a word of Malay or Indonesian (a variant of Malay). It didn’t matter! She was a lovely lovely woman. She was short (average for the population) and portly for want of a better word. A little like Mrs Potts in Beauty and the Beast – very motherly figure. She always had a smile on her face and fed us beautifully. When I came home, there was always a jug of iced tea waiting to cool me down. It was very hot in the afternoons and the icy drink was like manna from heaven. I would change into my cotton Malay dress and throw myself down on the sofa in the upstairs living room which I made my own and down the cold fluid. That was all the activity I could manage until the sun went down and brought with it some refreshing breeze.42

The only cloud on the sunny Malay sky, apart from the relentless over 30-degree heat, were the mosquitoes. I was told soon after landing in KB that we were in the middle of a Dengue outbreak, spread by pesky mozzies. Now I am one of those who will get bitten wherever I go, regardless of covering or insect repellent. I like to say I have juicy blood. So what were my chances of contracting Dengue. Well, reassuringly (not!) I was informed the virus was only carried by the mosquito with the striped-back. I laughed about this – pray how was I supposed to tell whether a mosquito had stripes on its back? And if I had such keen senses, surely, I could just squash the little terrors before they bit me (whether they were the evil striped ones or not). Also I was helpfully informed that I was more at risk of catching Dengue Haemorrhagic fever in my first episode of the illness (I have since learnt that you are more likely to catch the severe strain on a second episode). Fabulous, I was at risk of catching a deadly disease (risk of death from the haemorrhagic disease was significant, 2-3 per 100). I got a few bites despite precautions but avoided Dengue fever thankfully.

The medical experience was quite opening. Based on the old British system, it was still quite paternalistic and the doctors knew best in most cases. A big population of KB was poorly-educated farmers and fishermen so many of the patients had no interest in being given hard choices. They wanted the doctors to diagnose them and tell them what was to be done. The nurses and healthcare assistants were also very much directed by the doctors and there was a noticeable hierarchy. The respect for doctors was palpable and that extended to us the medical students. To be fair, the doctors I came into contact with were respectful in return.

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I was with a group of female medical students, most of whom were indigenous Kelantanese girls coming home from KL for their elective. They were lovely girls. Very welcoming. They were my unofficial translators with the patients and did the job without minding how much of a drag it was.  They were all quite petite. I think the tallest was 2-3 inches shorter than I was. At 5 foot 6, I never thought of myself as tall but there I was being referred to as the tall foreigner. It felt rather nice. The girls all wore the hijab (hair covering with their traditional Malay dress) and were all shocked to learn that I was  Muslim as I wore the lightest formal clothes I could find and no head covering. However, they didn’t judge me. If anything, they seemed to be impressed by my independence. One of them, Nurul became quite close to me and I got to visit a more traditional Malay family and eat with them. Again, her family was so welcoming and humble that I wanted to adopt them all. Nurul had a small car which she generously used to take me and the girls to the markets, museums, cultural centre and even the seaside. Their culture was beautiful as was their food, music and natural environment.

Back in Dr R’s home, I made friends with the loveliest little girl called Ayin. His granddaughter, the youngest of his 3 grandchildren who I shared the school runs with. She was a tiny little thing. I think she was 4 or 5 years old and either she didn’t understand that I understood not a word of Malay or she didn’t care. She would come to my room after work and tell me all about her day (in Malay). She would share jokes and laugh. She would admire my little knick-knacks and tell me how much she loved my things. I would laugh with her, reply in English and invite her to look closer at my things and show her what new things did. She particularly loved my Malay silver butterfly earrings which I got there in KB and I would let her borrow them. One afternoon, me and my little friend were hanging out and chatting when Dr R came home early from his GP practice. As he walked past my room, he heard us conversing and was amazed. At dinner, he asked what it was we were talking about. It amused him to hear that I had no idea what Ayin was talking about but that we had these conversations. I was her ‘aunty’ and she was my little niece. Didn’t matter one bit that we spoke completely different languages but we were great friends which was all that mattered.

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The month in Malaysia flew by and although I was off on holiday to Thailand for 10 days, I was quite sad to leave my new family. I had an absolutely amazing elective in KB, met the most wonderful people and experienced healthcare with different levels of expectations and resources. I haven’t been back since then but I definitely want to take my husband and baby there so they can experience the great country that is Malaysia.

Listen to Granddad

My grandad by everyone’s standards is a legend. He has seen and done so much in his lifetime and he continues to do so today at the age of 85. Look him up. Ahmed Joda is his name. I won’t bother to write about his many achievements because so many have done so over his many years of service. I want to write about the man beneath it all. My grandad who I call Baba. We all do, his children and grandchildren alike. Because before I realised what other people thought of him, through my young eyes, all I saw was an ‘old’ man who was my mama’s dear father. My only grandfather. The patriarch of the family who was also the main father figure in my life.

The first thing we all know about Baba is that he is a stickler for punctuality. Now this might not sound significant to you but coming from Nigeria, it so is. Have you ever heard of the concept ‘African time’? Did you know ‘Nigerian time’ constitutes even worse ‘lateness’? So a Nigerian who is always on time is as rare as hen’s teeth. His most precious possession is his watch. He looks at it every few minutes even when he has absolutely nothing to do. It’s like a nervous tick. And God forbid he forgets his watch at home, he will drive us all mad asking for the time every 5 minutes.

When Baba asks you to meet at 5pm, at 5:01pm he will be on the phone asking where you are if you are not there. If you make plans to go somewhere with him, be sure to get there on time because I kid you not, if you are more than a couple of minutes late, he will go without you. Whoever you are and wherever you were meant to go with him. I think I wrote a blog about how he invited his friend from Abuja to come to Yola (9 hour road trip) to join us all on a trip to Gembu (6 hour road trip). We waited for 20 minutes and despite the fact that it was 6am and we would get there by lunchtime, he declined to wait and left without them. Lord knows what they went through to find Gembu because Nigerian roads outside of Abuja and Lagos are poorly signposted especially places like Gembu and they didn’t turn up until the next morning! We in the immediate family are no strangers to his bark of ‘come on!’ which when I was little used to make me cry because it sounded so scary. Over time, I have learnt not to react so emotionally to it but still, when that bark comes because we are more than a minute late to leave for some engagement, my heart skips a beat.

I once asked Baba why being punctual was so important even when no one else (Nigerian) cared and why we had to be the first ones at every event. He explained and although I cannot remember exactly how he phrased it, the message is reflected in the following quote:

‘Know the true value of time; snatch, seize, and enjoy every moment of it. No idleness, no delay, no procrastination; never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.’

Lord Chesterfield

He certainly lives by that rule and as I have said before, he has achieved more than most people would in 3 or 4 lifetimes. Perhaps he is still going so strong at 85 because he is mindful of seizing every moment he has been blessed with. I certainly want to emulate that when I grow up.

So many things I love about Baba but one of them is easily how much he has empowered us all to speak our minds. He has never been of the school that children should be seen and not heard. From a very early age, he would ask our opinions on topics most adults would never broach with children and he would give your answer his undivided attention and take it on board. Many years later, he would repeat your words to you especially if you had learnt from experience that things were not black and white and he would invite you to explain why the change in opinion. This means that in the Joda household, we are all prolific debaters and will put across our arguments without fair of censure as long as we were being honest. Active debate is encourage actively and even the youngest gets heard as long as they want to contribute. I think what keeps Baba so young at heart and full of zest is that he surrounds himself with the young and he sees life through our eyes. That way, his ideas are always in date and he can converse about whatever you choose to discuss.

Somehow, Baba never asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up until I was 13 years old. I brought the topic up because when I was choosing my optional subjects for SS1, my mother expressed surprise that I didn’t want to do Economics. My response was one of surprise too because although I was good with figures and mathematics, I was always more into my science than finance. Turns out Baba thought I would make a great economist. Next time we sat around the dining table, I asked him why he thought I would make a great economist. I can’t remember his reasons but I promptly told him I was going to be a doctor and that there was no way economics would even feature in any options I would take for a career path. He expressed his disappointment that that was the path I had chosen but of course it was up to me. I was going to be the first doctor in the Joda lineage and thought he would appreciate my individuality.

It wasn’t until I was qualified and he sought my opinion on some of his medications that I felt he was proud of the career path I have chosen. So was I right not to listen to Baba? I thought so until the recent NHS upheaval which might mean me changing career tracks this late in the game. He is almost always right my grandad after all. Maybe what he foresaw was that being an economist would be a better quality of life for the grand-daughter who was feisty and named after his beloved wife. Perhaps he knew that my hard work and talents would not shine the brightest as a doctor. Perhaps he even predicted that I would end up working in the NHS whose main shortcoming is its poor economics. Who knows? As of now, I think I chose the right profession. I knew I wanted to be a doctor before I even know what a doctor really does. I love the job itself now, more than I ever thought I would. However, the politics of the NHS now means I am questioning whether my love for the job justifies my continuing on in the career when it means me risking my health, my social wellbeing and happiness and giving up so many of my dreams. Watch this space!

I Had a Son

I used to think having a baby boy was as bad as not having any babies. Over the years, I have come to embrace the idea of a being mother to a baby boy and even hope that my second will be a baby boy. This hope came from another one of my vivid dreams. This dream happened 5 years ago.

It was one of those busy dreams with a lot of running around and stress. I don’t recall most of the dream but the first bit I was aware of featured a heavily pregnant me in a room with several other women and in the first stages of labour. I remember being very hot and I was perspiring as the labour progressed and I got instructions on what to do. For some reason, no one in the room was in focus. I could not tell if my mama and my sister were amongst my birth attendants. I suspect there was at least one midwife. All I know is that I felt in control despite the alien event that was unfolding within my body.

Next thing, I was half-sitting, half-lying down with my legs in stirrups and pushing the baby out. It wasn’t real time…time seemed to be moving very fast as I watched myself going through the process. I felt a searing pain deep in my pelvis and I thought ‘I don’t think I can do this’. Then there was a more solid pain that threatened to break me in 2 and I looked down to see a baby. I blinked and the baby was clean and in my arms, all wrapped up in the softest cream-coloured blanket and a baby blue hat. I had a son.

As I held him, his dark brown eyes popped open and fixed on mine. As our eyes met, I felt a surge of love deep in the pelvis which he had just reluctantly exited. The only way I can describe the feeling is that of falling deeply and irrevocably in love. I felt the warmth of my love for this tiny boy spread out to every fibre of my being. It felt like the whole world fell away and the only thing I could see in its full glory was my son. The rest of the room was a blur. I could hear dimly conversation in the background but all I could make out was his breath sounds. My olfactory nerves jangled with the smell of him and even my taste buds tingled like I was gorging on the most delicious meal I had ever tasted. My skin prickled as if electrified and the hairs on it all stood on end. My muscles quivered. Tears dripped out of my eyes. I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. I felt like I was simultaneously floating on a cloud and being sucked towards the centre of the world. I was in free fall. I was in love.

The heat and pain were forgotten in that instant. My head emptied of all thought and all I could think was ‘here he is’. Like that was the moment that all the preceding days of my life had been leading to. Together with that love came the overwhelming urge to protect him from the big bad world. I shivered as the protective tigress in me snarled to life with a ferocity that scared me. In that instant as I gazed into his eyes, I felt love, pride and an irrational fear that he could be hurt. I knew then that I would love him more intensely that I had ever loved. That I would celebrate every achievement of his with a purer joy that any I had ever experienced. That I would feel his pain like it was mine. That I would move heaven and earth to ensure he was happy. That I would die to protect him.

I was frozen to the spot, staring into his unblinking eyes when I snapped awake. The power of my feelings stayed with me for the rest of the day. I felt exactly as the great romance writers describe being in love. I had butterflies fluttering in my tommy. The colours of the world seemed sharper, brighter and more intense than usual. The weather was perfect regardless of whether there was rain or sunshine. My creative juices were flowing. I had ideas coming out of my ears. I did not feel thirst or hunger. I just felt ridiculously happy and I walked around all day on a high, humming to myself and doing little dances when no one was looking. So, I thought, this is what so many mothers feel when they finally hold their long-awaited baby in their tired arms. What an incredible feeling! I only experienced it in a dream and the depth of the feeling was immense. It was like a high to end all highs (not that I know what an actual high feels like but I can imagine!). No wonder some women carry on popping out babies long after everyone thinks they should stop. No wonder there are women out there who admit to being addicted to being pregnant and giving birth to babies. All I can say is that I pray one day I will have this experience for real. Because it felt damn good. The best feeling ever!