Tag Archives: Joy

WWF, footie and Ayo

Three words you wouldn’t usually find together in one sentence. Ayo is a game played in Nigeria. In Hausa, the same game is called dara. I was taught how to play it whilst visiting a relative’s house and I fell in love with the game. One day, my mama travelled to Lagos and came back with one for me. It is one of the best gifts I have ever been given. It comes in a wooden case and inside are 12 holes. The exterior of mine was embellished with hand-carved patterns in the wood and it was beautifully stained a deep brown/red. It smelled of the oil used to stain it and the playing stones were seeds from a tree native to the South of Nigeria. There are many variations of it, as with all the best games. Classically, at the beginning of the game each hole (called a house) would have 4 stones and each player takes turns to pick up the stones of a house belonging to them and place a stone per house until you got to the last stone in an empty. After the opening play, the aim is to reform a hole of 4 stones which is then won by a player. This sounds dead boring but I promise you it is not. Because all the holes don’t start out empty, there is a lot of dropping and picking stones, forming big ‘houses’ (holes with lots of stones) and when you learn the patterns, you can win a lot of houses. A bit like Monopoly where the better player acquires houses and eventually the losing player has no house to play with. Watch it played here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-1M7qf05ud4

Like I said, I fell in love with the game so I studied it and worked out all the winning patterns over time. Eventually, like a chess player, I could read the game 2 or 3 moves ahead of my opponents. My stepdad was a competitive and passionate man. In the evenings after dinner, we would sit in the living room, either playing Ayo or watching his favourite show WWF. When my Ayo first came, I wasn’t very good. Neither was my sister or the young cousins who lived with us. My stepdad was familiar with the game so in the first few weeks, he won pretty much all the time. My sister and I were competitive too so losing wasn’t easy for us but we took losing with grace. Not my stepdad. He would whoop and fist pump after each round he acquired someone’s house. The more he won, the worse he was. He would goad us, laugh in our faces and even did this thing where he pretended to wipe your face. Oh, we would get so frustrated! I remember having to fight the tears so hard and I think I complained bitterly to my mama behind his back too. Bear in mind, I was probably 6 or 7 and my sister about 10 years old. However, cultural rules were strict and we could not behave badly when we won. Neither could we refuse to play when he wanted to. As the days passed and we lost game after game and had to endure his behaviour, our determination to become good grew. Slowly, we began to win more rounds. Then more matches. Happy days when we got so good that we won most of the time. The tables were turned. We tried to be respectful children but it was impossible to hide our victorious smiles. We sat politely but inside we were doing cartwheels and fist-pumping. We had a good old giggle as we lay in bed after lights out, relishing getting our own back. Before long, he grew bored of losing and lost interest in playing with us.

My stepdad didn’t watch a lot of TV but he enjoyed sports, wrestling in particular. WWF used to be on TV on weekend evenings. My sister and I became keen wrestle mania fans. Back in the day, we liked the Undertaker, Tan Tanka, Yokozuna, Bam Bam Bigelow and the Hart brothers (I forget the name of the cute blond one every young girl was in love with). As soon as the opening credits played, we would leave whatever we were doing and sit in front of the TV with my stepdad. My mama would shoot us disapproving glances and find somewhere else to be. There was something brilliant about the deep voice over the loudspeakers announcing each wrestler then their ‘theme’ music would be played and the wrestler would make their grand entrance to chants and boos from the audience. The Undertaker was for me the unforgettable one. He dressed all in black, never spoke, never looked up and had long greasy hair covering his face. His music was creepy and he came with a coffin! Woah! That blew my mind back then. I used to imagine he came with a coffin that had a dead body in it. On the rare occasion, he would glance up, his eyes shone with an other-worldliness. I was scared and excited in equal parts. On special fights, not only would he beat the opponent, he would put them inside the coffin. What?! Awesome!!!

My stepdad’s favourite WWF wrestler was 1,2,3 kid. Young man, slight frame but very athletic and won a lot of fights. I remember his name clearly because my stepdad would get very excited if it looked like his guy was in danger of losing. He would passionately bang on the table and shout ‘c’mon’ at the TV. When the excitement got too much, he’d be on his feet and would literally jump on and down as 1,2,3 kid got on the corner ropes and flung himself down at his opponent. In the excitement, he would forget his name and call him 1,2,3,4. That made my sister and I laugh so hard and we would try to correct him in between gales of uncontainable laughter. We needn’t have bothered, he couldn’t hear us over his shouting at 1,2,3 kid to finish the other guy.

Whilst on the subject of TV excitement, international football was something else we shared with my stepdad. The most memorable footballing moment for me was Atlanta ‘96, the Olympics when the Nigerian Super Eagles won gold. This was the Kanu, Samson Siasia, El Rufai era. The golden years of Nigerian football. The first few games were good but as we all started to believe in our team, the matches became bigger and bigger. The final few games were epic. The whole of Yola was talking about the Super Eagles and there was a festive atmosphere everywhere. On the evening of the final, everyone had plans for where they were going to watch. People congregated in homes that had generators so that if NEPA (electrical supplier) cut power, we would still see the match. Our home was one of the congregation points. There must have been about 20 of us crowded around the TV. Even mama had caught football fever by then. At kick off, there was absolute silence. It felt like all of Yola was holding its breathe. I cannot remember what the score was but with every goal, you could hear the cheers echo across town. The winning goal came very close to full time. I remember we were collectively leaning forward and whispering go go go! A genius footballer, one of our eagles got the ball and dribbled it past a few defenders and then blasted the ball into the back of the net. And we all erupted!!! I don’t think I have ever felt electricity like that since. Every cell in me was vibrating with joyous energy. The cheers kept coming all around the town in waves, late into the night. We were all screaming and crying with joy. There was hugs and kisses all round, even for my stepdad who didn’t do public displays of emotion as a proper Fulani man. Now that is one moment I will never forget. One of my fondest memories of my stepdad.

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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!

Swinging Party

No, not that kind of swinging (tut tut!). The good old-fashioned swinging on a swing kind of party. This story goes back a very long time (well over 20 years) so bear with me if I ramble on. Let me set the scene. This happened in Yola, capital ‘City’ of Adamawa State in North East Nigeria circa 1990. That is where I spent my childhood. I was 5 going on 6. I will tell you a little bit about Yola for those of you (I suspect most of you) who know it not.

Yola is a big town or as we residents like to call it a small ‘City’. It is one of the oldest established towns in the region and is the home to one of the biggest surviving Kingdoms (the ‘Adama’ kingdom) which covers a large region from around Taraba State across the North East border of Nigeria into Cameroun covering places like Ngaoundere and Maroua. All are united by the language Fulfulde, ruling the Fulani people. The King resides in old Yola town which is a stone throw from my childhood home. Happily, some of the royal traditions still exists and the Palace is a beautiful example of old Northern Nigerian architecture. I digress. So back to Yola. It is very close to the Sahara and indeed North-East of Yola we do boast an expanse of desert these days as deforestation and global change take hold. By virtue of location, it is very hot. Average temperature is above 35oC and at its peak, it is between 40-45oC. The coolest I remember is about 20oC and we all thought we were going to freeze to death. Again I digress. Suffice it to say, Yola is a traditional town. Hot, dry and home to my childhood memories and many of my family members and the Joda family home.

Now to explain the lack of public services and amenities. The Government does not take its public health and basic amenities seriously to say the least. Up until the last decade, most places do not have a proper waste disposal site. Still a problem in Yola. Electricity is patchy at best despite paying your bills. Water shortage is a chronic problem. Many have to rely on wells and for the more well of, boreholes with (if you can afford it) a mechanised system of pumping water into an overhead tank which then ensures you have a steady clean supply into your home. As you may have realised, in a hot town like Yola this is a very big issue.

We were one of those lucky one who had an overhead tank so water was in plentiful supply most of the time. I think it was early summer holidays before the rainy season was in full swing. On a day that was pregnant with heat, waiting on the next rain and we were bored with nothing to do. We had in the past had a tyre swing on a tree at the back of our house but my sister went and broke her arm so my mum had the tree cut down and we were without swing. We had dogs at home and chains for the rare occasion they were left out of their hut during the day (they were ferocious guard dogs who took their duties very seriously you see so poor neighbours needed protecting). There was 5 year old me. My sister was 9. A neighbour probably 11 years old and a cousin maybe 16 years old. One of us had the bright idea to set up a swing and we quickly realised the dog chains were the strongest rope substitute we had. We then debated where to hitch this swing and looking around the outside, soon settled on the metal frame holding up our water tank. We worked quickly and within minutes, we had our makeshift swing. The metal frame was definitely NOT set up for swinging on so with the swinging came a slight swaying and an ominous sound. Did we pay heed? Not on your life.

We swung merrily away, laughing and having the time of our lives. Our neighbour, Hajja Adama (now sadly departed), who was probably in her 50s then, came to investigate the sounds and discovered our misdeed. We paused, caught in the act and knowing how wrong it was. I don’t know how we did it but we soon convinced her to sit on it and being a much ‘heavier’ customer, the tank frame protested loudly. She jumped off and left but we knew she wouldn’t be reporting us. We got carried away as you do and unfortunately for us, my stepfather caught us in the act and we all got a caning for it. Well-deserved too but you should have heard the shrieks as we jumped about and he tried to cane us on our legs. Of course, the swing was very swiftly dismantled, never to be resurrected again. I might have cursed him too (cheeky little girl that I was) but you know what, the danger and the act of breaking the rules intentionally gave us such joy that I will never forget that swinging day. So good!

She is Someone

A little girl is born. Hopefully, she is received into the world with love and happiness. Unfortunately, there are still many places where having a baby girl is not a joyous occasion. Where femicide is still a problem – where baby girls are killed soon after being born because the culture sees it as shameful to be a parent to girls and not boys. Where new born baby girls are still dumped in their thousands, left defenseless because they are unwanted by those who bring them into this world. where baby girls are sent to a far flung rural hamlet and not registered in the birth registers. Where girls are sent out at a very young age to hawk small wares and be taken advantage of by paedophiles whilst their brothers are sent to school to be educated.

Sadly, the world is very unequal when it comes to gender. Even in the most ‘advanced’ of societies, women are under-appreciated. It boggles my mind that for the same job, same hours and same skills set, many women in the USA and Europe still get paid less than their male counterparts. Today, professional women who live in a partnership (marriage or otherwise) in the West still do majority of housework and childcare. Many a man will complain about doing what few chores he is asked to do for the woman (and his children) he claims to love. Many a man will feel they are entitled to be selfish and only worry about what is theirs alone whilst their woman cater for them and their children. To many, it doesn’t even occur to them to consider how their woman feels. How hard they make the life of their woman by not contributing a fair amount to making their home as nice as it is. To many, they don’t routinely say please or thank you for all the little things their woman thinks to do for them.

Double standards are still very evident in everyday life today. A man who has serial one night stands is a young man sowing his wild oats. All sorts of excuses about them needing to get it out of their system, yadda yadda yadda. A young woman does the same, she is seen as loose. A teenage girl gets pregnant and everyone judges her and her parents but very few will point the same finger at the teenage boy who made her pregnant. He doesn’t have to stop hanging out with his friends, he gets to carry on going to school whilst she has to drop out of school in shame and lose most of her friends. The baby is seen as her responsibility and she gets judged if she stumbles and becomes overwhelmed by one of the hardest jobs in the world.

A mother I think arguable has the most essential job in the world. The world’s population is obviously dependent on women bearing children. The mother does the lion share of teaching children about life, how to treat each other, and the difference between wrong and right. She teaches them about hygiene and how to dress. She is often the disciplinarian. She gets to play bad cop and yet in most cases, the children know that mother loves them. Mother’s hug is the best. Mother’s kisses cure all hurts. Mum is the one you run too when your heart is broken. Mum’s food is the one you crave when you are ill. And we all know, mother knows best. She wants what is best for us. She always has a welcoming smile, an ear ready to listen and a shoulder to lean on in our moments of doubt. She is our best friend. This is why my mind is boggled by the fact that women are so undervalued in this world. How can any man think less of a person because they are female when they were shaped by the love of a woman?

Now I know some mothers are not the best of mothers. Not all mothers are amazing. Not all of them get it right. However, the vast majority have their hearts in the right place and do the best they can for their children. Most of them, despite their faults, try to be all that I have described above for their children and I think regardless of their failures, we should remember how much of their lives they give up so that they provide for us. So that they are there for us. And our gratitude should translate into respect for our mothers which extend to all the mothers out there.

Religion interpreted by men also discriminates against women. I will talk about my religion Islam because I know what it means to be a Muslim girl and woman. There is a lot of obsessing about how women dress in many Muslim communities. Men conveniently forget the Islam asks men to cast down their gaze when in the company of the opposite sex. So I ask you, if they are busy not staring at women, why do they notice every little thing about how we decide to dress? Also, apparently some Muslim men believe that a woman should ask the permission of her husband to leave the house yet the husband is free to go and do as he pleases without letting his wife know what his plans are. What amazes me even more is that in some Muslim circles, the said husband goes out and pulls another woman to bring home as a second wife and that is all acceptable whereas if a wife wants to go to the market or college/university, the husband is allowed to be mad she went without his permission. Is what way is that fair?

So all I am saying is that I think men need to rethink how they treat the women in their lives. So we are biologically different and in the old days, perhaps physical strength was directly linked to survival but in this day and age, things are different. Physical strength is only an advantage in a few circles. Women have as many skills as men do and are as valuable in modern society as the men. Most importantly, women do the world’s hardest yet most rewarding job for free. They are our mothers. They deserve our respect. If you are an employer, pay everyone fairly for the job they do. If you employ a woman to do the same job as a man, pay her the same. If you are married or cohabiting with a woman you love and she works as many hours as you do, do some cooking and cleaning too and don’t make her ask you a million times first. If you haven’t seen your mother for a while, call her up today and take her out for a nice dinner or if you lucky to have lots of money in the bank, buy her a cruise or send her off on a surprise holiday or spa break. Show her how much you appreciate all the love and time she has invested in you. Call up your sister and tell her you love her. You know it’s the fair thing to do. Just do it!

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.

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!

Tell Your Truth  

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

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

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

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

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

Na’ima*

*not her real name      

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am a dreamer.

 

I mean literally. I am the dreamer in my family. My mother and sister rarely have dreams that they can recall the next morning. I, on the other hand, for as long as I can remember dream highly detailed dreams most nights and in the morning can remember them. So much so that it became routine for my big sister to ask me in the mornings: ‘so what did you dream today?’ And I would recount my dream and we would both shake our heads at each other as we tried to understand the puzzles that I dreamt of.

 

Before I tell you about my most vivid dream, I will tell you a bit about myself to put it in context.

  1. I am a Muslim. I believe in God. As a Muslim, I do not believe God has a shape or form like you and I, like the animals and plants we see. I believe God is omnipotent, omnipresent. God is as small as the smallest particle yet larger than life itself.
  2. I am the younger of 2 girls and I am very close to my mother. As a child, I was borderline hyperactive and would run and climb anyone or anything in my way. People, trees, walls, gates. You name it, I would climb it and I would do that all day if left to my own devices. The only times you would find me sitting still would be tucked into my mother’s side as she tried to have an adult conversation or do some work at home. I was a homebody even at that age.

The snippet of a dream that I want to share was dreamt at dawn, sometime in the 5th year of my life.

I am lying still on my side. It feels like I am floating or lying on a cloud. I am in a large crowd of strangers. All dressed in white – all of varying ages, sizes and shapes. All looking towards someone or something somewhere ahead of us. I feel at home despite being in the midst of strangers. No one moves or says anything. Curious to see what everyone is looking at, I sit up and lean forward, craning my neck to see through the heads ahead. My eyes widen and my head spins as I try to figure out what it is I am seeing.

My best description would be a white presence. In front of us is a white mass, like a wall of feathers that ripples and shifts so it has no lasting form. I cannot say it is like a large white balloon, a huge white bird or a massive cloud. As I try to identify this ‘thing’ is, it speaks to me and I know in that instant that I am in the presence of God. I cannot say what He is saying, in what language He is saying it in, whether in fact the voice is a He or She but He is speaking to my very soul. I know this is Him because in this instant, I feel a joy and peace so profound that I immediately pray I can freeze this moment forever.

Even as I pray the moment remains forever, I wake up with a start. I am on the verge of tears as the moment escapes. I mourn that loss for many days after and think about it in quiet moments but the dream has never returned. However, I remember it vividly today as I do in every moment of extreme happiness or sadness. Every birth and death. Every birthday. On my wedding day…

Although my sister heard about most of my dreams through that time, I never shared this one dream.