Tag Archives: God

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!

Happily Ever After: a Disney concept or reality?

I am a huge Disney fan. My late grandmother Mamie introduced Disney to both my sister and I early. Every time she travelled abroad, she would return to Yola bearing delicious large variety boxes of chocolate and Disney Videos. She would watch the animation movies with us and being an adult, she got some of the more subtle humour and would chuckle away to herself. For us, it was about the songs and the princesses, about the girl finding her prince against all odds and getting that happily ever after. My sister and I knew all the songs and when we drew pictures, it was always of the beautiful Disney princesses with their tiny waists, long hair and dainty feet. It is not hard to see why I wholly believed then that every little girl would grow into a beauty, find her soul mate, fall in love and live happily ever after with lots of happy children. To make it worse, I was also an avid reader and there was nothing I loved more than fairy tales, all with their happily-ever-afters and when I became a teenager, I read numerous paperback romances.

Unfortunately for me, reality intruded at some point during adolescence. I was witness to women who had been beaten by their husbands, those who were practically enslaved and could not leave their homes on their husband’s say so and those who were in forced marriages, mostly young girls like me. I went from thinking that every little girl was destined to be happy to believing it was all a fairy tale and that there was no such thing as a happy relationship between a man and a woman. I still believed in romance but I believed that romance didn’t tend to last beyond the ‘honeymoon’ period of a relationship. I also learnt about the widespread deceit being enacted by adults who seemed blissfully happy in their marriages.

I could not find any aunties who could say to me that their marriages were truly happy. Even those who at face-value were living a fairy tale. I found out that many came to be content with their lot having gone through a lot of heartache and choosing to put up with the husband they got as opposed to looking for Mr Right. Most had considered leaving their marriages but on balance thought the security of a marriage outweighed their hurt and betrayal. Many had been cheated on, more than once. A good proportion were the main breadwinners in their household yet were still treated as secondary to their husband. They took the lion share of responsibility, financially and socially. They fed and clothed their children, they made sure the children attended school and did their homework. They sent the children to Quranic School and made sure they learnt to say their prayers and how to fast when the time came. They were the nurturers and disciplinarians. They did it all for little appreciation in many cases.

Unsurprising, I was quite cynical when it came to love. I had very few relationships that lasted longer than a flirtation over a week or maybe one date. Before I met my husband, I had two ‘significant’ boyfriends. I think it is pretty telling that both of those are guys I met on holiday and only gave them a chance because I was on holiday and in the mood to have some fun. The first one lasted about 7 months but the last 2 months wasn’t really a relationship. The second lasted about a year and I really did consider a real relationship with him but I had my rational hat on throughout and I could see how bad he would be as a potential life mate. It was clear to me that we were not in the same place in our lives so I broke it off, difficult though it was.

I was single for 4 years before I met George. By the time I met him, I was happy being single. Loving my space and the freedom to do what I wanted when I wanted, unlike many of my friends. I was happily alone and not at all lonely. The only thing missing in my life was children – I had always been sure that I would one day be a mother. I even had a plan for that. I wanted to take a year out to see the world then come home and work on my career for a few years. Then when I was comfortable, I would find myself a gay bestie who wanted children without the ties of a relationship and we would have a couple of children raised in harmony. Plan B was to go to a sperm bank and find myself some quality swimmers. The only concern I had was explaining to my extended family back in Nigeria who the father of my children was.

Of course, best laid plans and all. I was making plans and God had plans for me. Just before my year of travel, I met George and I was suddenly in a real relationship. George says he knew within a few days he wanted to marry me. It took me a little longer to be sure but I was pretty sure within 3 months that this was the man I would risk getting my heart broken for. We have been together for over 4 years now. We have, like everyone else, had some ups and downs. Some of the best times in my life have been in the past 4 years. Some of my worst too. Some of them because of the relationship, a good proportion nothing to do with personal life but for which I was glad I had George to lean on. I have grown up and learnt a lot about myself. I have found that I have infinite patience I could have sworn I didn’t possess. I am capable of much love despite hardship. I am capable of trusting a man. I still can get really angry but yet my capacity for forgiveness has grown immensely.

Question is: does happily ever after exist? I don’t have an answer. I wish I did. I know there are couples out there who give me hope. My grandmother and grandfather were not a perfect couple. I know Mamie (my grandmother) had to put up with a lot through the years and her patience had to have been great but I also know that Baba (my grandad) loved her and that she knew he did. He never forgot her birthday or their anniversary. He never passed on a chance to show her off. He loves all of his grandchildren lots but he has a special spot for the 3 of us named Aisha, after my grandmother. When she died, it was clear he was lost without her. She died just before their 50th wedding anniversary. He went into deep mourning and we were all worried for the first year after that he would self-destruct. He couldn’t bring himself to mention her name or talk about her for many months. When the raw wound finally began to heal, he would mention her with reverence and such love that it made me well up. Theirs was definitely a till death do us part affair. I cannot attest to how happy they were but I like to think it was happily ever after, at least for Mamie who died secure in her husband’s love.

As a relative newly-wed, of course I want to believe it will be a happily ever after affair. I only agreed to say I do because I had hope that it would be forever. No one goes into a marriage wanting it to fail. However, the facts speak for themselves a bit here. These are from the Marriage Foundation and the Office of National Statistics:

‘The Social Justice Outcomes Framework reports that 45% of children already see their parents separate. Unless trends change dramatically, nearly half of all children born today will not still be living with both natural parents on their sixteenth birthday.’

‘34% of marriages are expected to end in divorce by the 20th wedding anniversary.’

‘There were 241,000 marriages in 2010, near a 100 year low. Cohabitation rose from 2.1 million couples in 2001 to 2.9 million in 2010.’ Maybe because divorce rates are so high, people are opting more and more not to say I do?

There is a lot of good news though:

‘Those who marry have a far greater chance of survival as a couple than those who cohabit. 93% of parents who are still together when their children complete their GCSEs are married.’ In other words, couples that choose to marry as opposed to just living together are much more likely to stay together, have children and watch them grow to the age of 16 or older.

60% of marriages are expected to survive to the 20th anniversary.’ Isn’t that an amazing statistic?

‘16% of marriages reach the 60th wedding anniversary’ and ‘the average marriage is expected to last for 32 years.’ I think those are awesome stats, don’t you?

‘Among natural parents, 31% of those couples who were cohabiting at nine months had separated when the children were seven compared to only 12% of married parents.’ Meaning that married parents are nearly 3 times as likely to stay together for 7 years or more compared to those just living together.

‘Cohabiting couples make up only 19% of parents but account for half of all family breakdown.’ In other words, married couples tend to stay together more than couples who have chosen just to live together.

I will end with this quote:

‘Quite clearly getting married does make a difference to your life chances and your children’s outcomes.’ It has been shown to be socially advantageous. Married people are more likely to be happy than their co-habiting or single or divorced counterparts, despite the shocking divorce statistics. So let us look beyond those stats and go into marriage putting our best foot forward. Sure it is hard work but we all know that anything worth doing is worth doing well. So I remain a realistic optimist. I will work hard at my marriage and I will pray for my happily ever after. I think I deserve it.

Your Body is Your Temple

I don’t mean that in the gym-bunny, mirror-worshipping way mind you! I mean it in a biology-is-amazing way. I genuinely am proud to be a geek when it comes to biology and how amazing it is to study. I knew I wanted to be a doctor before I understood what a career meant but I think it must be because I looked around as a tiny tot and thought, wow! Everything God has made is simply amazing. The trees, the animals, the sky, the insects…I will attempt to give you an insight about the little things (or not so little depending on your perspective) that make me so awe-inspired.

First, the atoms making all matter up. When I look at the structure of an atom and how it greatly resembles a planet, I am immediately amazed. How can something so simple and so tiny be so organised? The bit I love best are the electrons whizzing around like little moons outside of the nucleus of an atom. The fact that there is a space (albeit miniscule in human terms) between nucleus and electrons yet there is an almost unbreakably strong force holding those structures together. And the fact that when you think every small particle has millions of atoms all linked together but all quite independently holding their ground with their electrons orbiting and repelling each other, creating a little force field of protection for their little territory. Then multiply that by millions and you make a little baby whose atoms are organised in equally amazing cells.

Cells are just a feat of engineering. Google the structure of a cell and maybe look at an animation of what a cell is doing all the time. As you sit here reading this, your cells are busily functioning. Making energy from glucose, enzymes and oxygen in the mitochondria and funnelling that energy in the form of molecules called ATP where they are needed for your cell to do more stuff. As the cells work, they are making waste products and heat that they are getting rid of either into fluid around them to go ultimately into blood to be excreted mainly via the skin, lungs or kidneys. The nucleus in each tiny cell is using up some of that energy to copy your DNA either to make little proteins out in the cell fluid (cytoplasm) or copy the cell’s DNA depending on what type of cell it is.

These proteins are what run your body. Your enzymes and hormones. The building blocks to build more cells to replace those that are dying (happening all the time) or  to repair damaged worn out cells (like nerve cells you can’t make more off). The enzymes help you break down your food, absorb it into cells and then process it, making ATP for more energy. They also help you to convert hormones and other chemicals from one form or another to be used in other intricate processes. Some very important security proteins are those that control how your cells are copying their DNA and therefore multiplying – they often have names like p53. In simple terms, they spot if your cells have copied DNA wrong and the new cells are abnormal (those are the cells that either die or could potentially become uncontrollable and may become a cancer). They then stop that cell being made and destroy it. It is only when something goes wrong with these proteins that you fall victim of cancer or more accurately a tumour with the potential to become cancerous. The hormones tell your organs and glands how to function, whether to make more proteins, work harder or relax a little. Other bits like your white cells also help you fight infections by either producing poisons that kill harmful organisms or simply by wrapping themselves around the bugs and effectively imprisoning them.

I will mention cancer briefly because I find it fascinating and scary and impertinent in equal portions. Like I said, cancer is basically a mistake made at some point when making cells. Some of these defective cells will just die because they do not work well enough to process energy needed for them to survive. Some though become super-cells and not only can they make energy, they evade your bodies normal security proteins and start to multiply at a crazy high pace (fascinating!). These cells then take up space they should not normally take up and even more impressively, they somehow hijack your blood vessels by producing proteins that encourage growth of blood vessels around them so they make themselves a nice super-supply of blood, getting extra blood with all that extra glucose and oxygen to fuel their drive to multiply further (making you anaemic and breathless because you are short of oxygen). The ball of supercells (tumour) then grows and grows, taking up space and pushing your organs out of the way, making them function not as well (giving you some of the symptoms of cancer like constipation when they press on something like bowel) or blocking tubes (like the trachea in the lungs so you become breathless eventually or your bile ducts so you become jaundiced and cannot get your digestive enzymes to your tummy to allow you to digest and absorb food so you lose weight). This is the impertinence of cancer. Eventually, it replaces your normal organs and that’s when the real big problems present. That scares me because you have millions of cells all multiplying constantly and mistakes are bound to happen. It takes just one mistake that goes uncorrected and you potentially have a cancer in the making. Goodness gracious me!

Back to awesomeness though. The next thing that never fails to impress me is reproduction. You can’t escape it. People say love makes the world go round. Some say it is sex. Really, it is reproduction. From simple cell reproduction as above allowing a little baby to grow and for a body to keep functioning to actual mating and reproduction. It really is not all about sex. Even ‘simple’ beings like bacteria reproduce by exchanging DNA in a very unsexy way. Have you ever seen snails/molluscs ‘mate’ for example on nature programmes? It is so weird and amazing all at the same time. That is what binds us all living beings together. We are all programmed to reproduce to ensure our all-important DNA is preserved. So sex my friends is beyond physical lust. You are pre-programmed to want to procreate.

Babies in general are simply fabulous (take it from this paediatrician who is daily seduced by their endless charms at work). However, baby girls are a cut above the non-girls (sorry boys). When a little girl is being made, by 20 weeks of pregnancy, she already has ovaries which have made all the eggs they are ever going to make. In fact, she normally has more than she needs in her lifetime (more than one a month for all of her fertile years) and about 80% will degenerate leaving 20% of her (best) eggs ready for when she one day is ready to become a mother. A baby boy in comparison does not produce any sperm so has no capacity to reproduce. At the earliest in a healthy normal boy, sperm do not come into being until the boy is at least 9 years old. So yes, I know I am probably coming across as very feminist but hot diggity! Girls are awesome!!!

I will stop at that incredible piece of biology because I will get too excited if I carry on. When I stop and think about biology, I have all the evidence I need for God’s existence (or whatever you like to refer to that life force that controls us all whether we are willing or not). There is clearly intelligent design at play. Biology did not just happen and continue to happen. It is a true miracle and I thank God that I am human so that I can appreciate all of nature’s amazing-ness.

The Expiry Date

This morning I read drkategranger’s blog regarding her expiry date (she is a doctor with terminal cancer who talks about death so candidly, it inspires. I would absolutely recommend!!!). The blog and some of the responses to it got me to thinking about death. I have already written about dying and the fact that I fear it not so much. As a Muslim, I tend to see death as just one of those certainties of life so I treat it quite matter-of-factly. This blog is will be further musings about my experiences of death. I will start with a quote from Hadith (Islamic teachings) which summarises how I generally see life and death:

Al-Hasan Al-Basrî said:
‘The life of this world is made up of three days: yesterday has gone with all that was done; tomorrow, you may never reach; but today is for you so do what you should do today.’ Al-Bayhaqî, Al-Zuhd Al-Kabîr p197

I am generally an optimist or more accurately an optimistic realist so I try not to be morbid and I am generally not one to dwell on death. However, I have had times in my life where the thought of dying has crossed my mind. Last winter was a pretty bad time for me. I was working in the hospital that inspired me to become a paediatrician (which still inspires me) but I was in a job with a particularly toxic individual who succeeded in poisoning the atmosphere. I became depressed after 6 weeks of this. So much so that I hated waking up every morning I was scheduled to work. It got to a point that I would lie in bed, sleepless and think ‘would it be that bad if I didn’t wake up in the morning?’ As soon as the thought came to my mind, I would feel guilty and terrible. Guilty because I knew that my life really wasn’t that bad and that there was so much for me to be grateful for. Terrible because I knew my death, although insignificant in the grand scheme of things, would be horrible for my nearest and dearest. My mama especially. I got through those 4 months because my husband was there and would not let me sink into the depths of depression that kept pulling at me. Thank you George!

I am now back to my normal sunny self despite some current work horrors. As a newly-qualified doctor back in 2009, I dealt with death day in, day out especially on my first job on gastroenterology at a busy inner-city hospital. After the initial shock, I got used to it. Not that I didn’t care or it didn’t bother me but I dealt ok with it. There are 2 patient deaths from those days that have stayed with me. Both died of alcoholic liver disease. Both men in their 40s.

The first patient died slowly from hepatorenal syndrome (HRS). Basically with chronic liver failure, if your kidneys too fail, you will die soon because that means 2 of your 4 vital organs are dead or dying, unless you get brand new organs (i.e. transplants). As things currently stand, you cannot be put on the transplant list for a new liver if you are still abusing alcohol because the new liver will get damaged just the same and it is considered a waste of an organ that is in high demand but short in supply. So with my first patient, who I will call Patient A, when his kidney function tests declined rapidly and nothing we could do medically fixed it, we diagnosed HRS and my registrars and consultants had a meeting with his wife to inform her of the diagnosis and what that meant for the patient. He too was told in due time but because of his liver failure, he was confused and did not fully grasp the fact that his condition was terminal.

He deteriorated slowly over a few weeks but in the meantime, he would ask me daily when he could go home and travel to India to be blessed in the Ganges River. I would mutter something non-committal and beat a hasty retreat out of his side room. Initially, it was clear that his wife knew his death was near. But even she began to belief he would miraculously recover from his liver and kidney failure. Every week, she would say something that made us worry we hadn’t prepared her for the inevitable. Every week we would remind her gently that although she couldn’t see it, he was in actual fact deteriorating judging from his biochemistry lab results and worsening oliguria (he was weeing less and less).

In the week of his death, he suddenly looked well again. If I wasn’t the doctor patiently doing bloods on alternate days and chasing those results and noting the relentless rise in his urea and creatinine, I too would have started to believe in miracles. His wife upon seeing the light return to his eyes and his demeanour brighten plunged headlong into denial and joined him in planning their trip to India to the Holy Ganges River. Less than 24 hours before his eventual expiry date, it was devastating for me to watch her grief as the light in his eyes faded rapidly and he shrunk back into himself. Within 12 hours of his final illness beginning, his strength was gone and his mind with it. His utterings became incomprehensible and he became completely disorientated. The look on her face said it all when we came in to see him on our ward round that morning. We returned the look and she ran out of the room to sob in the corner. He was anuric by then (had stopped weeing completely) with a creatinine of over 400 (in other words, his kidneys had packed up). His liver function tests painted an equally damning picture. We completed his end of life paperwork that morning and when we left work that evening, he was hanging on by the tips of his fingers. We came in the next morning to the news that he had died before the end of the day before. The side room he had occupied for many weeks stood empty, awaiting its deep clean before the next customer.

Patient B was a young alcoholic who had developed liver cirrhosis in the months before I started the job. He had just turned 40 and I don’t think had any idea how serious the consequences of regular alcohol binges could be. Reality hit when another patient who was his ‘neighbour’ on our ward developed HRS and died rather quickly. All of our words of warning had somehow not sunk but with this other patient’s death, his mortality was clear to him. He called me over urgently that afternoon and said ‘Doc, I am ready to change’. I was pleased and felt a sense of accomplishment when I referred him to the rehabilitation programme. His wife found me the next day before they were discharged home to thank me for getting through to him. I was honest to say it wasn’t anything I did.

Unfortunately, he came in a few weeks later unwell with an infection which caused his liver function to deteriorate badly. I was encouraged to hear that he had no touched a drop of alcohol since his last admission. He developed litres of fluid in his tummy and I had to put in a tube into the side of his tummy to drain out all that fluid. He was in a lot of discomfort and fearful for his life and he asked me ‘Doc, am I going to die?’ I hesitated over the words I used but in the end I made no promises. Just that I would do everything I could to help him get through this. At first, it looked like the drain and intravenous antibiotics were effectively doing the job and the next day, the fear was gone from his eyes. I was encouraged by his blood results and left having ordered some more routine bloods for the next morning. Coincidentally, at I was securing his abdominal drain, I carelessly dropped the needle I was using to suture and when I went to retrieve it, gave myself a needle-stick injury. I had to get a co-doctor to inform him and take blood samples off him to check that he didn’t have any blood borne infections I could catch. He apologised every day after the event like it was his fault I had stuck myself with a contaminated needle. He asked me about those results daily – he seemed genuinely to care for my welfare. This went on for over 2 weeks as he slowly improved.

I was doing the ward round alone one morning when I was called urgently to his side. He was in a great deal of pain and was writhing in his bed with his abdomen larger than before we drained him. He was pale and clammy and his eyes looked like a man staring down the barrel of a gun. I could barely make sense of his words and as I changed his prescriptions, called the blood bank for blood products and prepared to get a new drain inserted. I could see the life begin to ebb out of his eyes. In a panic, I called my registrars and told them I needed them on the ward ASAP because patient B had taken a turn for worse and nothing I was doing was making a difference. The registrar told me to leave the drain for the meantime and focus on reassuring the patient. After I asked the nurses to call his wife in, I went to him and I held his cold hand. I looked into those eyes and I knew in that instant that he was not long for this world. I remember saying a mental prayer that he could hang on for his wife to be by his side.

‘Doc!’ he cried. I squeezed his hand and responded ‘Yes B?’

‘I am dying aren’t I?’ he asked. I looked down and swallowed the lump in my throat. ‘I am here for you B and I will do everything I can to help you. Your Mrs is on her way in.’

‘Stay with me,’ he entreated fearfully. I nodded and again I had to look away because the fear in his eyes was too powerful for me to take in. The rest of it was a blur. His wife made it in before he died but not in time for him to know she was there. He was delirious by the time she got to the ward and as he was slipping away before our very eyes, there was little time to have ‘that conversation’ with his wife. The consultant whisked her away and broke the news to her. She could see that treatment was futile by then and knew that he was on maximal available medical treatment. We had no more to offer. She signed the DNAR (do not attempt resuscitation) forms and we set about making him less agitated. When we finally called it a day, he was less distressed, still mumbling incoherently and his eyes had started to take on that distant look I now associate with death. I came in the next morning to a request to come to the morgue to complete his death certificate and Crem forms so that his wife could lay him to rest. I got a call 3 days after his death to say his blood tests for blood borne infections had come back negative so I was in the clear. I cried in the staff toilets. He would have been relieved not to have put me at risk I think.

What did patients A and B teach me about death and dying? Firstly that when it is your time to go, it is your time to go. Life unfortunately doesn’t usually give you a clearly labelled package with an expiry date on it. Secondly, although death is scary for the person dying, it is actually worse for the person who loves them who has to watch them lose their battle to live and battle their fear of the unknown. Who has to go home and face life without them and rebuild their lives around the hole left by the dead loved one. Who for a very long time will think about their dear departed every morning when they wake up and every night before they fall asleep. Lastly, every human is unique. Despite having the same disease and modifying your risk factors, your body will do its own thing. We doctors can try to influence outcome but whether we succeed or not is not within our power to control. That is beyond science and medicine. That is life. That is God. That is reality. May we all depart this world in the easiest swiftest way possible. Amen

On Death and Dying

My best friend confessed early in our friendship her fear of death and I remember being curious about why she was scared. Now looking back, maybe the question should have been why I did not feel the same? I mean of course death is not a welcome or happy thought but I don’t dwell on death and I certainly don’t actively fear it. I am very much of the school that there are 2 certainties in life: we are all born and we will all die. And since death is inevitable, I don’t think about it much.

Death is the final release.  Whatever one believes in, I think most of us believe that once you are dead, you don’t feel pain anymore. I know some people believe in reincarnation, some like me believe in the Hereafter and some think that whilst your body dies, your spirit never does and it still retains the memory of pain/anger/hurt/happiness. Although I believe in the Hereafter being Muslim, I do think that when I die, my soul leaves my physical shell and returns to its source (God). Then at some point, our lives are all assessed and we are rewarded (or not) for all our good deeds.

I wonder sometimes about what it feels like when your soul detaches from your body. I wonder if it is like a physical break, painful but transient or if it is more like an emotional separation where the after effects are long felt. I then wonder what the soul feels if it feels anything at all once it is separate from the vessel that conducts and interprets pain. Beyond that, I think death is more fearful if you are not the one dying. I mean, I would imagine that if I was in a terrible car accident, I would either die instantly with no time to think or become scared of what was happening. Or I would be in pain or feel myself getting weaker and weaker and it would be so unbearable that death would be a welcome reprieve. Same as if I had a chronic illness which was not curable but I was steadily deteriorating then dying would probably be a mercy for me.

When I think about dying properly, I realise that although I am not afraid of the dying itself, I am scared of some of the ways that I could potentially die. I am afraid after all. Being a medic, I have seen many people die so I have spent time thinking about the way I would not like to die. I guess one of the scary things about dying is that most of us do not have any idea when we are going to die. It is different for those who are diagnosed with ‘predictable’ illness but even there, giving patients a prognosis (i.e. a number of days/weeks/months/years they are expected to survive) is not an exact science.

In the past 6 months, I have come across patients who were not expected to survive being born and the first few days of life yet despite all odds, they are still with us many months later. I have also come across patients who were predicted more time only to deteriorate much quicker than anyone has experienced, giving no time for their loved ones to be prepared. The only people whose time of death can be predicted with any accuracy are those who are already brainstem dead but on life-support and when the machines are switched off, we can be fairly sure they will die within a certain time period. Even so, we have all heard of the ‘miracle’ stories where patients defy the odds and remain alive far beyond the expected time of death.

My ideal death would be the one most people wish for. I would like to die in my own bed, in my sleep. I would like for it to be when I am old but young enough that I am still completely independent. I would like for it to be after a family reunion where my nearest and dearest are all sitting around a table and reminiscing about the good old days. I would like for it to be after my mother has gone to her grave because I can’t think of anything worse for a mother than to bury her own child. I would like for my children (if I have them) to be old enough that losing their mother does not scar them too badly.

If I am unfortunate enough to have a catastrophic trauma and needed life support, I have told my closest family that I would prefer not to be kept alive for many days. I would like to be given a chance to recover (if there is one) but when it gets to the time where my chances of waking or recovering are much less that 50% then I would prefer for the machines to be switched off. I would like to be an organ donor although in my donor card, I have not ticked the skin donor thing because I am a bit squeamish when it comes to being buried with bits of my skin harvested. I don’t yet have a will but I have told my husband of my wishes verbally if I don’t get around to writing a will before the day comes.

I would like to be buried according to Islamic rites. I think the simplicity of an Islamic burial suits me perfectly. Washed and wrapped in a cotton shroud and buried within a day. If I am in my bed, the closest Muslim graveyard would be perfect but if I happen to be abroad in a strange land then I would like to be taken back to Kaduna, the town of my birth because that symmetry also appeals to me. Also my great grandmother and grandmother are both buried there so it would feel right to lie next to them.

When my grandmother died, there were a lot of tears and prayers and silence but there was remembrance every evening after the crowds dispersed and I found that uplifting. I think the sitting around the dining table and talking about Mammie’s life helped lift the gloom that surrounded us all. The fact that we could all remember and share our memories of Mammie reminded us all that although she was gone, a part of her was alive in us all. And that she had had a good life and her quick death was merciful. Those evenings also reminded us that life is transient. It is unpredictable and death can pick any of us at any time. In remembering our dead, we embraced life and were thankful for all we had been gifted with. I really hope those I leave behind can do that instead of it being all sad and tearful. May we all die a pain-free dignified death and may those we live behind be able to accept it is our time to go and may they have the strength to celebrate a life well-lived (hopefully).

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.

Moo!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Allah (swt) is Al-Jabbar: The Mender of broken hearts

The words that follow were written by a lady called Asmaa Hussein who lost her love and reflects on how her relationship with God is helping her through it all. It struck a cord with me because this is the Allah I believe in and worship. The loving, merciful incredible God who promotes peace and love, not war and violence.

 

It has been a year since I got that most-hated phone call, a year since I stood over Amr’s body at the morgue and tried to memorize every feature of his face before I would have to let him go, a year since we were attacked in the graveyard by people who hated the truth and righteousness that Amr stood for.

People wonder how I was able to hold myself together. They wonder why I haven’t collapsed or given up hope in Allah or in the goodness of people.

I don’t have an explanation from myself, but the answer can be found in the story of Prophet Musa’s mother in the Quran. She was instructed to place him in the water if she feared for his life at the hands of Pharaoh’s army:

“And We inspired to the mother of Moses, ‘Suckle him; but when you fear for him, cast him into the river and do not fear and do not grieve. Indeed, We will return him to you and will make him [one] of the messengers'” (28:7).

I often wonder about what kind of strength she must have possessed when she placed her infant child into a basket, and pushed him into the water without knowing where he would end up, or whether she would see him again. She did one of the most difficult things a mother could do. But she held herself together with the help and guidance of her Lord, and watched him drift away.

Musa was accepted into the house of Aasiya, but he refused to breastfeed from any woman and his sister who had been following him, led them to take the baby back to his mother.

What was the purpose of Allah (swt) returning Musa to his mother? Musa could have breastfed from any woman without returning to his mother and still grown up to be the messenger of Allah, not decreasing anything from his righteousness or his remarkable journey and story.

But there was a reason Musa had to come home to his mother:

“So We restored him to his mother that she might be content and not grieve and that she would know that the promise of Allah is true. But most of the people do not know” (28:13).

Allah caused Musa to return to his mother simply so that she wouldn’t grieve, so that her heart would be at ease and that her faith would not waiver.

Allah (swt) cared about this woman. He mended her heart, not so that the course of history could change or some big momentous event could take place. He mended it because He is Merciful and Loving to the believers. And so that when we read her story, we can know the extent of His Love and Mercy. That is all. And that is enough of a reason.

Allah (swt) doesn’t wish for the believers to grieve, and He wants them to know that His promise is true. I’ve lived it this past year. Every time I was about to reach a breaking point in my despair, or to fall into the darkness of losing hope, I would receive some news that would lift my heart. Someone would have a beautiful dream of Amr, someone would perform ummrah on his behalf, or establish some charity on his behalf. I would receive words of support from people I love and respect, or encounter some verses in the Quran that would take me by the hand and hold me steady.

I remember a few months ago sitting one day after I had prayed Asr. Tears were streaming down my cheeks, my heart was aching and I didn’t know how to rid myself of the immense pain. I raised my hands to ask Allah (swt) to help me be able to somehow visit His sacred house to come closer to Him and for that to be a part of my healing. Before I was able to even make the dua, my phone rang. It was Amr’s parents calling me to tell me they were just at the Ka’bah making dua for me to be able to visit it. And I thought – how strange that this dua has yet to come from my lips, and Allah (swt) has put the same dua on the lips of people beloved to me in such a blessed place.

My heart was lifted so much in that moment that the tears of sadness turned into tears of joy.

None of these things are coincidences. And none of these things happened because I am particularly good or worthy. They happen because Allah (swt) cares about the hearts of His slaves. I know that He cares about me and about my daughter because I’ve lived in the realm of this immense Mercy this past year…every ounce of pain was met with some inexplicable beauty and serenity that no human effort could produce. And it was from Him. All of it.

If you believe in Allah alone with no partners or intermediaries, and you worship Him alone, and you sacrifice that which you love in order to come closer to Him alone, you will see wonders in your life. Your difficulties will become blessings. Your heartaches will become healing. Your duas will be answered in ways that you could have never imagined. He doesn’t want you to grieve, and He wants you to know that His promise to the believers is true.

It’s not any more complicated than that. It happened to me, and it’s still happening.

Alhamdulillah.