Tag Archives: lagos

Boarding School…In the Beginning

Here in the UK, when one mentions boarding school, you evoke the image of an old stately building sitting in vast manicured lawns with the occasional 200-year-old oak tree and outdoor tennis courts. The sort of private institution attended by the children of the wealthy and the odd scholarship working class kid. I went to boarding school. Of a totally different class. In Lagos, Nigeria. Yes, I was in Queen’s College Yaba (QC or QCY we fondly call it). QC is one of the best public secondary schools in Nigeria. It is also infamous for a breed of QC girl – stereotypically loud, someone who puts on airs and is into their material wealth. In reality, most of us are normal down-to-earth girls. However, there is a certain QC-factor many of us carry with us for life.

My mama is an ex-QC girl but my (older) sister was in a reputable military school in the north so we all expected that I would join her. I was all geared up for it. I sat their specific entrance exams and went on a week-long interview. Despite my best efforts, I didn’t make the grade (my parents weren’t military enough apparently). Luckily, I did well enough in my national common entrance exam to have been offered a place to Queen’s College. As my mama considered whether to appeal against the decision of my sister’s school to change the rules after a gruelling recruitment process (which I excelled at), I had one of my vivid dreams where I saw me checking into QC. Weird because I had never been or even seen any photos of the school. It felt like a vision of my future and I told my mama I was happy not to fight for my place at the other school. I was going to Lagos.

We got to Lagos a week before and had to go through a series of tedious administrative processes…full medical, bank tellers, school uniform outlets, book purchases. Mama even braved the markets (she hates markets) to buy the endless required items on our many lists. I was excited and nervous and already, I missed my sister and home. A big positive was that my grandparents still lived in Lagos then and their home at least felt familiar. On that first Saturday, we all had to get to QC before 6pm. We left home after lunch (which I barely ate) and as we got onto the 3rd mainland bridge, we hit traffic. My heart sank into my shoes. I felt a darkness descend over my soul and I thought I was going to be sick. To make matters worse, the traffic was all headed in the same direction so the agony of anticipation was prolonged.

It was utter chaos. Have you ever been on a farm when cattle have to be corralled and branded/tagged? Being the granddaughter of a farmer, I have and I can tell you it’s not a nice scene. Cows are not docile like sheep and I think they are cleverer too so once the first lot have been through, they moo a message back to the herd and the rest all go a little wild. They start to struggle against the humans try to feed them through the metal paths. Their nostrils flare and dribble and their eyes take on a wild rolling look. It is not pretty! Combine that with all the shouting men, the mooing, the smell of branded flesh, cow pee and poo…you get the picture. This was how the scene I was faced with felt.

Parents were giving up waiting in the long traffic queues leading up to the school gates. There were people everywhere in the streets surrounding QC as everyone but the drivers disembarked and grabbed luggage, buckets, school bags, brooms and mops. Irritable drivers honked as people staggering under all that load wandered in and out of traffic. Older students spotted returning mates and there were squeals of joy and excited chatter as friends were reunited after the long summer holidays. In the middle of all the chaos were the newbies. Me and my fellow JS1 girls. Silent, quivering wretches whose young faces bore expressions of doom. In our shiny new uniforms and shoes. Taking it all in, dragging our feet, praying for salvation. At least, that was how I was feeling.

First, we had to find the administrative block and queue to submit bank tellers, get registered. All JS1 queued to get to a marquee to be allocated a house (I drew orange for Obong House and not the blue for Obasa my mama had been in). Then we had to find our House station where we had to hand over the cleaning supplies, sign in and be told our dorm and then the senior girls had to root through our bags to fish out any contraband. This process took ages! By the time I was fully processed, it was approaching 6pm and the dean had reached a climax as parents/siblings said goodbye and tired senior girls continued to check everyone in.

I had to make two trips across (dormitories, dining hall and library were separated from the administrative, class rooms and staff quarters by a gated wall). I found Obong 6 (dorm 6 in Obong House), dumped the first lot and hurried back to find my mama. It was time to say goodbye. I gave my mama the longest hug, inhaling her familiar smell and fighting back the tears the threatened to fall. Mama was misty-eyed too as she kissed me and promised to be back on visiting day 3 or 4 weeks later. I gathered up my bits and pieces and with leaden feet turned and crossed over, using up all my will power to stop myself running back and begging mama to take me home. At the gate, I turned and waved one final time and I swear I felt like a dead man walking to his execution. I made my way back to Obong house, claimed an empty bunk and sat on it.

I don’t know how long I sat there for before Zara, my lifesaver found me. Zara is actually my mother’s second cousin but for ease of explanation, in QC she was my cousin. She was a senior girl, in SS1 when I started in QC. She found me in all that confusion and gently guided me through the process of finding a mattress for my bed and making the bed, finding an empty locker and arranging all my belongings in it and putting my bathing things together in my bucket. She sorted out my life and earned my eternal gratitude and then she disappeared back to her House (Obasa, on the opposite side of the dorms). I can’t remember if I had dinner that evening but I remember meeting the other junior girls. The JS1 girls all looked as lost as I did and that made me feel a tiny bit better. I was relieved when it was lights out. As I slid into bed onto my crisp new sheets in my crisp new nightie, I was overcome with sadness and homesickness. I didn’t think I could bear it. I wept into my pillow until sleep swept me into oblivion. I wonder how many other JS1 girls did the same?

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!

The Cycle of Life Part 1

As I said in the bit about me, I am a realist with a healthy dose of optimism. Apologies that I am again going to write about death. It may seem morbid to my blog followers but I do not always find talking about death negative. I dwell so much on it because it is my way of not forgetting those who have left footprints in my heart. Also because unfortunately, for someone who has been fortunate not to be from areas where death is a daily occurrence, I have seen more than my fair share. In the old and in the young. If you are squeamish, this may not be the blog for you.

I write this in the living room of my sister’s flat in Abuja and this was prompted by another blog I just read and also by a conversation I had with my sister. It was a long conversation but it ultimately lead us to discuss our mortality and how death can strike unexpectedly, about being a parent and planning for that eventuality to ensure your children are taken of and about writing wills etcetera. Despite the gravity of the conversation, it was quite an uplifting one. The words to follow are snippets of memories centred mainly around 3 deaths that have literally changed my life. These are young people who no one expected to die and their manner of death changed the way I think about death.

The first was of a classmate from Queen’s College, Lagos. It happened in 1999. She (I will call her Eve here) was not a girl I was particularly close to or even fond of. But I had known her for nearly 3 years when tragedy befell her. Eve was the daughter of a quiet unassuming teacher who I will call Mr Brown here. Mr Brown was the complete opposite of his daughter. Where he was quiet, she was loud. Where he was always serious, she was always laughing, finding the humour in things even when it wasn’t appropriate. She was tall for a 12-13 year old and he was a short man. She was fair where he was dark skinned. The comparisons were striking being that they were father and child. Anyway, Eve was the class joker. She was always loudly laughing or telling a joke. She was always planning the next prank or calling out funny witticisms from the back of the class. Sometimes, it was distracting so I wasn’t always laughing with her but I never thought her to be malicious.

We came back for the 3rd trimester of JSS3 and Eve didn’t. Soon rumours began to circulate about her being unwell. Then we heard that she was in fact really quite sick and was admitted in hospital. Then we heard that she had been victim of an acid burn. The extent was unclear but we did not expect how grave it was. Why we asked? And we kept asking. She was only a young girl. Why would anyone do this to her? I was pretty sheltered so I had never heard of acid attacks nor did I know the usual motives behind them. My more streetwise classmates told me that normally jilted or scorned (adult) men were the perpetrators were and the victims the poor unfortunate girls/women of their affections. It was mainly a Southern thing back then so I had never come across this despite my mother’s job.

This was the perplexing issue to us, her classmates. Why would a girl so young attract such affection? Soon, we again heard that the attack was aimed at her older sister (also in our school but nearer 16 or maybe 17 year old). We were told that Eve opened the door to their home unsuspectingly and she had acid thrown in her face. We were told that she was badly burnt and had been admitted to the hospital weeks before we were hearing of it and was in a serious condition. We talked about her non-stop for a week. There was a sombre mood in the class. It was as if no one felt right to take over her role. So there was no joking or pranking in those days. We all feared the worst as the news we heard was comprised solely of rumours. Like Chinese whispers, we were unsure who to believe.

One morning, the Day students (as opposed to us Boarders) came in talking about the 9 o’clock news on NTA (Nigerian Television Authority channel, national news broadcast). Eve had been mentioned as there was an appeal for funds. The attack on her and the resulting serious injuries were so serious that the doctors in Lagos could do no more and I think the thrust of the news was that her family was appealing for donations to take her abroad. This was when we realised just how bad things were. We sat around in silence, praying for some news. Mr Brown turned up in our class that morning. For once, no one needed to ask for silence. We all sat in our seats and looked at him expectantly. He spoke to us in his quiet voice. His eyes were red…from exhaustion or from tears – it was hard to tell which. He confirmed the rumours. Eve had been the unintended victim of an acid attack. She had been home alone when the men called and as she was so sick, she could not identify her attackers. She was in hospital in a stable but critical condition. He left. For the next few weeks, we continued to whisper about Eve. What did critical mean exactly? More rumours about who the intended victim was and the suspected attackers. About the extent of her injuries. Some adults had been to visit and they all agreed it didn’t look good. Despite all our fears, she remained alive but in a ‘stable condition’.

End of term for us JSS3 students came early and on our last day, some kind soul had organised a bus for those of us who felt up to visiting to go and see Eve. Most of the Northern girls declined to come. I was the only Northerner to get on the bus. In total, out of 90+ classmates, the bus held less than a dozen of us plus a couple of adults. The bus ride was made in total silence. You could smell our fear and the tension was palpable. I mouthed prayers, praying that I could handle whatever condition she was in. I don’t remember much of the usual Friday traffic and the heat. I remember walking off the bus in a single file and how much I was dreading what I was about to see. The smell hit me first and I felt my gut roll. My nostrils curled inwards, as if to block off my nose and the smell with it. I thought I would faint. It was the smell of decaying human flesh reaching the corridor outside her room. I could hear someone whimper and start to sob within our group. We all marched on following the adult leading us in. We stopped by the door as she announced our entrance. When she opened the door, the smell hit us harder followed closely by the sound of Eve taking breath after painful breath. My knees locked and a part of me wanted to bolt. I remember telling myself sternly that I could face anything. If she had to be here, I could visit her. Even if only for a minute.

On wobbly legs, I followed. I inhaled and held my breath. The bedside cabinet was groaning under the weight of medication. Mostly topical and oral stuff with cotton wool and forceps in a metal tray. She was barely visible. Her head was uncovered and there was a lady (her mother?) whispering in her ear. Asking her to be brave, not to scream in pain as she had begun to do. ‘Your classmates have come to visit’ the lady whispered into the hole where her outer air should have been. She seemed to hear her and she lapsed into her painful breathing again. The rest of her body was covered. It was beneath a metal cage over which a sheet was draped. I could not see underneath but I was certain she had burns all over her body, which was why she was lying so. To prevent clothing coming in contact with her skin. We all took turns to step up next to her and tell her who we were. Her eyes were covered, she clearly could not see. The hair on her head was badly singed and what was left of it was in a clump, stuck to her skull. All of her skin was badly damaged. You could see bits of colour imbedded in the skin of her face and neck, clothes melted into her skin. Her nose was gone…there were holes for breathing but no nostrils. Her ears like I already mentioned were missing too. All that was left were holes leading to her middle ears. Her lips were also damaged and her mouth was hanging upon as she struggled to get air in. Through her open mouth, you could see her blackened shrivelled tongue.

She grunted when each girl said her name. We retreated to the back of the room and stood silently for some time. Her carer took a bottle from the cabinet and dropped it onto some part of her face when she started to complain of pain again. Soon, her bravery was unable to contain her pain any longer and she began to whimper. This very quickly turned into screams of anguish. She was clearly in unbearable pain. We all had tears in our eyes as we were ushered out. Her carer came to us and said ‘thank you so much for coming. I know Eve appreciates it’. None of us replied, we were too busy crying. We got back on the bus and gave way to emotion. I remember staring unseeingly out of my window as tears coursed down my cheeks. I wept for nearly an hour, until we got back to school. When I got off the bus, my face was dry. It was obvious I had been crying but the tears stopped. I had to be brave. I got my things and I went home. I did not speak much of it over the next few days except my family would ask how I was doing whenever the appeal for help with medical costs was broadcast. Her death was announced on the Tuesday after we visited. Although I didn’t say it out, I sent a word of thanks to God for answering my prayer. My prayers on the bus after we left was that He put her out of her misery. I was sad but life went on.

About a month later, 2 of my older male cousins, my foster sister, my sister and I had one of our late nights of playing cards by the light of a lantern on the veranda whilst most of Yola slept. It was around midnight and Yola was definitely in bed by then. We were suddenly famished and we rooted around in the kitchen to no avail. We decided to go out and buy some food. We walked in the quiet to the night market (‘kasuwan dare’), fearless in those days of anything untoward happening. Yola was that kind of town. Despite the fact that 3 of us were young girls, we felt safe enough in the company of 2 older boys. We bought food and came home, had a merry little feast and were in the middle of telling jokes and laughing when it suddenly dawned on me that Eve was dead. Just like that. She would have no more holidays, no more jokes, no more laughs. She was gone. Forever. The enormity of it hit me. The pain she was in, the senselessness of her death (her murder come to think of it) and the grief her family must be going through. How had she felt just before the attack happened and when she had the acid thrown at her? How had she borne the pain for so long? Could she smell her own flesh decaying? Did she realise how badly she had been hurt? Did she know she was dying?

From laughter, I dissolved into tears and I could not stop. The more I thought about her, the more I wept. The others were concerned. I told them through my tears not to worry. I was just remembering Eve. They were worried I could see but also understanding. This carried on for maybe half an hour. Eventually, my sister suggested that the boys go home. My sisters would look after me. I smiled through my hysteria and tried desperately to compose myself. I remember rocking as I sat on the ground, hugging my knees and trying not to hyperventilate. I was sobbing out loud, my eyes closed as I got flashbacks of Eve in her eventual death bed.

My sisters asked what the matter was when I did not show signs of stopping. I said ‘I will be fine. I don’t know why I can’t stop crying.’ Actually I did know. I could not stop imagining myself as her. Going through that ordeal, surviving for over 3 months with all the pain. Unable to talk, unable to move, unable to ask why. I thought mostly of her mother, who had to watch her daughter go through this. I thought about the inadequacy of treatment, how she was clearly in pain but there were no painkillers strong enough to control her pain. I thought of her sister, who was rumoured to be the intended victim. How did she feel? Did she feel bad her little sister had taken her place? Did she feel guilty by association? I thought of Mr Brown and his wife. I knew they would be devastated. I had seen it in their eyes. How were they carrying on? How could they bear the pain? If the pain I was feeling was so deep and I wasn’t even that close to her, how must they feel? How could they bear to be alive?

It took over an hour for me to calm down and stop the sobbing. I still cried. Until dawn that day but silently as my sisters lay next to me and went to sleep. I got it all out then and not once since have I shed a tear over Eve but I remember her whenever I think about life and death. The details are unclear to me now but I think her attackers were caught. Her sister was a witness in the case. I don’t know if they were convicted and what happened to them afterwards. We never got to go to the funeral because it happened over the summer holidays.

Life moved on when we returned to SS1. Without Eve. She had never made it out of her pinafore and into the skirt we were now wearing as senior students. Whenever someone said someone funny, we would refer back to what Eve would say. Mr Brown, bless him, looked devastated whenever we saw him, which wasn’t often. He did come to say thank you to all of us for our prayers and our parents’ donations. He especially wanted to say thank you to those of us who visited. He said we helped Eve. I hoped so. As the days turned into weeks and weeks into months, we gradually moved onto other topics. Other girls soon took up the mantle of class clown and the laughter returned. Still, I never forgot and I know at least within my circle of friends at least, none of us will forget her. She lives on in our hearts. What a senseless loss!

Be Your Own Yardstick

I will start by admitting that I, like most other people, did not like the way I looked for a long time. More accurately, I had insecurities about some parts of my body, some of which remain to date albeit in a very passive way. So I understand that as humans, we always want what we don’t or can’t have. I have worked very hard not to measure myself against people who bear no resemblance to me. I realised very early on that my genetics are out of my control so wanting to be someone completely different was a futile aspiration.

I have always been skinny or more politically correctly slim. I used to hate the word skinny when I was a teenager because to me, it represented a person who was gawky, awkward, boy-like and unattractive as a young woman. I realise that most girls put on weight around puberty and looking at the stick-thin waifs gracing runways, magazines and Hollywood movies, it is easy to see why they would aspire to be skinny like I was. I was completely oblivious to this as I was quite the tomboy and did not have any time for magazines when I was around puberty. The movies I loved were mostly animation and even if the girls/women portrayed in most Disney movies were on the smaller side, they all had the beautiful curves I adored. My mother has lovely feminine curves and so does my glamorous older sister. Perhaps being African where the culture predominantly celebrates curvaceous women had a bigger influence than I was conscious of too. My celebrity role models were Halle Berry, Julia Roberts, Jennifer Lopez and later Beyoncé and Alicia Keys all of whom have (and celebrate their) curves. All of those things meant that instead of the usual Western ideals of being a size 6, I was self-conscious. I wanted to be bootylicious and packaged in a short petite perfectly proportion frame.

The worse part for me was having to go shopping. Again, another aspect where I differ from the norm. It probably started out because I used to accompany my grandmother to the market in Lagos and she used to take her time visiting stall after stall finding the best quality food for the best price. I would follow impatiently, wishing she would speed up and within an hour, I would develop a painful ‘stitch’ in my side, making me want to sit on the ground (a massive no-no as it was rather murky in Lagos markets).

As I grew older and had to start participating in shopping for my own clothes, it was okay because my mama like me is impatient with shopping and she used to be quite military with it. When I became an adolescent, my mama decided to give me money for clothes shopping and it became my responsibility. The shoes, underwear and bags were easy enough because it was just a matter of looking to see what caught my eye. Clothes on the other hand was a nightmare! I vividly remember days coming back dejectedly after 6 hours on Oxford Street in London and trying on top after top and jeans after jeans and none of them fitting well. I would look in the mirror and see this anorexic figure staring back at me. Some of those days, I would be so demoralised that I would cry. Thankfully, although I haven’t put on much weight over the years, I have acquired some (slight) curves which means that I am now a proud standard size 6 or 8 depending on the shop. I can confidently go out to buy new clothes knowing now I will find things that fit. It is just a matter of finding the style I want for the price I am willing to pay for it.

The lesson I taught myself early on was that there is no use aspiring to become curvaceous like J-Lo overnight. Rationally I knew I was going through puberty and it would take time before I developed curves. Also I had seen pictures of my mama in her 20s (pre-children) and she didn’t have much in the way of curves back then. I also looked around my family and realised that most of the young girls were rather skinny. Fulanis in general are skinny folk anyway (think Masai-like physique, same ancestry). I would tell myself that just because Britain was predominantly British and it catered to the genetic makeup of that population did not make me unattractive. Many of my friends and family told me countless times that they would rather have my body than theirs but I thought they were lying to boost my confidence. I only started to believe them once I grew my curves and became more body-confident and got strangers complimenting the way I looked.

I am still not a massive fan of the mirror and often forget to look at myself in it. I still find some of my features surprising and often when someone mentions something about my facial features, I have to go and look in the mirror to work out what they are talking about. I’ll give you a classic example of my lack of self-awareness. I was 14 years old when my sister and I went into a shop I had never been too. I turned a corner and caught sight of a girl who I thought looked vaguely familiar and I mentioned that to my sister casually. It probably didn’t help that at that age, I was still in denial about my short-sightedness so did not have perfect vision. My sister looked at with a smile like I had made one of my endless jests. I was confused. It dawned on her in seconds that I genuinely had seen myself and did not realise it was me staring back from the mirror. Oh well!

In general, I guess it is a good thing that I am not self-conscious about what others see when they look at me. I care more about presenting a professional look when I am at work and a ‘nice’ look outside of that. All my adult life, I have chosen an extra 5 minutes in bed over putting on makeup in the morning. Thankfully, being sexy or desirable are not issues I care about. My dear husband assures me that I have those characteristics in abundance anyway and it is only in his eyes that it is important I am those. To anyone else, it really doesn’t matter to me what they think of how I look as long as they see that I am a decent and caring girl inside.

My message is simple – I value what sort of a person I am inside more than out and because of that I do not compare my ‘beauty’ to others. I have simply learnt to embrace and even love the body I was blessed with. I see beauty in all body sizes and shapes, colour, height etcetera. As Christina Aguilera says in her song Beautiful and I paraphrase – ‘I am beautiful, no matter what they say. Yes, words can’t bring me down. I am beautiful in every single way. Yes, words can’t bring me down…Oh no! So don’t you bring me down today…And everywhere I go, the sun will always shine.’ Preach! Belief in your beauty, regardless of what people say because there will always be critics but that is their problem, not yours my friend.

Neglect Has A Lasting Legacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Very Own UN

My sister is (or should that be was) a social butterfly. She always had more than friends than she knew what to do with and she never had issues making new ones. A classic extrovert. I considered myself an introvert for most of my youth. Now with more self-awareness, I know I am more of an extrovert than an introvert but I am pickier than my sister, the true extrovert. Because I have been so picky, I think I have ended up with the best friends in the world.

Some of the people I am talking about might not realise how much I value their friendship or indeed that I am talking about them but I hope when I describe how fabulous they are, they will realise how great and valued their friendship is to me. When I was little and my mama was my only role model, one of the things I thought was absolutely amazing about her and her life was her array of friends. They were young and old, some local, many from far afield (and being in Yola that is quite something I tell you). Some Muslim, some Christians. Some skinny, some fat. Some beautiful, some not so beautiful. Some quiet, some loud. Many feminists like my mama. All sorts. The one unifying thing about them was that they were kind and caring, they spoke to me like I mattered and they were passionate. If she ever needed anything around the world, all she had to do was pick up the phone or send an email and the cavalry would arrive. Subconsciously, as I grew up, I think I looked for all those things in my would-be friends. I think I succeeded in developing my very own passionate, kind, caring, loving, helpful and loyal circle of friends. The inner circle is a small one compared to my mother’s but I happen to believe the best things come in small packages. I will talk about my current inner circle in no particular order as I value them all fairly equally. I won’t mention my mama and my sister but they are my best friends and are the core circle.

First one is my Ethiopian friend who I met in 2001 who I shall call Lizzie. We were in the same tutor group in Gladesmore Community School (10AH massive) and we both joined in year 10 so we had common group but our big unifier was where lived and that we had to get 2 buses to get to school. So, earlier than the other pupils, we were up and out, dragging sleepy bodies onto the 144 which I caught at the first stop in Muswell Hill and Lizzie would hop on 4 or 5 stops later in Hornsey. We were normally quiet in the 144 but by the time we got on the 41, we were awake enough to chat. It was on the 41 that I got to know Lizzie’s life story and about her very grown up relationships. At this stage, I had never had a proper boyfriend and despite having a crush at school, I wasn’t really interested in a relationship. So I lived vicariously through her. We also bonded over our love of heels (low enough to wear to school and get away from censure) and long braids. Also I have been mistaken for Ethiopian so we had a similar slim innocent look. We have remained friends over the years, closer after school than in school, through her babies and marriage, through my medical school. Lizzie was a bridesmaid at my wedding and she regularly makes the drive up to Birmingham from London to visit. Even though we had periods were we got too busy with our lives, she has remained a constant. We may drift (although not so much now) through complacency but we never fight and we are there to listen. So here is to my yummy mummy Landan friend. For being constant and loyal and inspiring me to be more glamorous and feminine.

Next is my Northern Nigerian friend who I shall call Halima. We met in 1996 in Queen’s College, Yaba Lagos and we were friends from the very beginning. It was the Hausa lessons that cemented the friendship and as we were both boarders, prep times and dinner times were there for us to foster the relationships. In another blog, I have mentioned Na’ima and I was close to a couple of other girls, 2 of whom were boarders. Halima was in a ‘House’ located all the way across the quadrangle which thinking about now wasn’t so far but during those years was enough to make visiting her during weekends a significant event. She was responsible for the one and only time I had periwinkles (the hairstyle) for Sports day in JSS2 (see blog on that). Those periwinkles make an appearance on my first ever British passport and my husband loves the photo so much he keeps it by his bedside. She was one of the only girls whose homes I would visit outside school too and I knew her family so that made her more special than many others. Post-QC, she is certainly the one who would always make an effort to come and see me whenever I went to Nigeria. I knew about her wedding as soon as she had a date in mind because she wanted me to be able to jiggle my doctor on-call to make it there.  I am so glad I did. We shared her pregnancy from across the distance too. In all these years, I do not remember ever fighting with Halima. She is probably one of the gentlest and sweetest women I know and her son and husband are so lucky she is theirs. Despite being many thousands of miles apart and despite our other friends from that era being on social media and living in close vicinity to her, Halima is the one of all that I would be able to count on today if I needed a friend in Abuja. What a sweetheart!

Then there is my Southern Nigerian friend, let’s call her Tolu. I met her through NLI which is a (NGO) Nigerian initiative to promote young accomplished Nigerians living at home and abroad to be the champions that make Nigeria great once again. NLI was in 2010, or was it 2009? I came from here and she came from the US. We bonded over our passionate pitches and speeches. Never before had I met a young woman who seemed so like me. She exuded integrity and honesty and passion. When I told my husband about her, the words I used were ‘Tolu motivates me to be a better person. I wish she lived nearby so I could be in her presence regularly’. Being next to her or chatting with her on the phone or on social media never fails to give me a positive boost. Tolu to me is everything a young Nigerian should be and she makes me so proud to be in the same circle as hers. If I could choose anyone for my baby to be like, it would be Tolu. She went through a very harrowing time a couple of years ago and being so positive and so strong, she didn’t say anything for a long time because she is that type of a person who will be everyone’s shoulder but have no shoulder to lean on herself. She has come through all of that in a way that is no less than heroic. She is generous and kind. She is a wonderful listener. She is passionate about life and justice and selfless in her outlook. Maybe I don’t want my baby girl to be like her, maybe I want to be like Tolu. Anyway, if you are reading this my love, I might not have said in so many words but your strength, honesty, passion and selflessness makes you wonder woman in my eyes and I could not be prouder of you. I hope your dreams for Nigeria and the world come through because this world is so much better for having you in it.

Following on neatly is my only fellow Iro-Nigerian, who I call Irish anyway. She is Irish in all the best ways possible except she lacks an accent being southern England-bred (sadly but she can put on a pretty good one). We went to medical school together and once again it was fate that brought us together because we met in student halls in 2004. Being the only two medics in the flat of 6, naturally we became close pretty quickly as we were together pretty much all day every day for the first 2 years of our medical school. We were up ridiculously early and gone all day. We couldn’t party any night of the week like a certain somebody we lived with. We had plenty of work and exams to keep us busy. The first thing about Irish is that she is a morning person. I am most definitely not. She would wake up at dawn even on weekends and whistle cheerfully. She had these dryer sheets that smelled of fresh laundry…even today, that lovely fresh scent equates to Irish to me. She has tremendous boobs (sorry Irish but I feel they need to be celebrated) and the loveliest bouncy hair which is NOT mousy brown as she used to claim. She is one of those friends I have never fallen out with. It’s strange to think but we don’t have fights at all. Perhaps it is because she doesn’t tend to get dragged into one of my deep philosophical conversations because she is quite squeamish with deep emotional stuff and would rather the happier topics. That is not to say that she won’t indulge me if I need to offload. She makes the best butter icing cupcakes and has managed to teach me to bake a couple of things. She loves sunflowers. That is in a nutshell Irish to me. She is little Ms Sunshine with a spine of steel underneath all the Gaelic charm. She will stand up for what she believes in and will call you out if you do something wrong but all with the sweetness of honey. She has dealt with family issues that would faze many but she remains unfazed and strong. She also has lovely blue eyes and dimples which I would give my little toes for. Oh and she gives the best hugs ever! If Tolu is the girl I want my daughter to grown up to be, Irish is the woman I want to be for my children. I want to be all sunshine and sweetness and quiet strength and I want to be charming just like her when I grow up.

Then there is my Indian friend who around birth was inadvertently called One on some documentation and that is my name for her which I shall stick to. She is the only one of my friends who is younger than I am. We met whilst I was out doing clinical experience in SEWA rural, Jhagadia – a village in Gujarat State, India. She was out there too doing field research and being the only other single girl resident in the flats on hospital grounds, we instantly gravitated to each other and became fast friends. She is a biomedical scientist. We quickly found common love in tea and laughter and feminism. We quickly fell into a routine. She would come over after ‘work’ to put her water in my fridge and we would go over to hers for tea. I would usually drape myself all over her bed and even occasionally on the cool floor for it was pregnant with heat during my 3 months there. My friendship with her is very similar to the one I have with Safa except the age difference and my having a bit more life experience. And our life stories seem to mirror each other down to meeting the ‘wrong’ boy as defined culturally but actually believing them to be our Mr Right. Unlike Safa though, she is the only one of my friends who is shorter than I am so I feel refreshing normal size next to her. One is rather fearless I think and having lived in remote Jhagadia for a whole year, she then applied for a post-graduate course in the US and off she went to live in NY. Now she is in Malawi, again independently sourced job and seems to be flourishing. What makes her so special goes beyond her fabulous tea, her wicked sense of humour and independent spirit. She is also very honest and open, kind and supportive, generous and when she loves, she gives it her all. One is going to be great someday soon. Mark my words!

Last but not least is my youngest adopted mama, Farah for today. I met her in 2009 as a lowly FY1 doctor in the crazy world of City Hospital (Birmingham). She was soon to be medical registrar and had a reputation for being brutally honest and fierce. Did that put me off? No! I love my women fierce and fearless so we became friends in the mess when I was on surgery and actually had time to go to the mess every day. I loved her unconventional ways and I think she liked me because though small and ‘quiet’ on the face of it, I gave as good as she gave and never seemed to take it personally when that sharp tongue was pointed my way. Despite the difference in years, in the hierarchical world of medicine, we remained friends over the years and have grown closer since we stopped working together. She is another one from a Muslim background who was born into the religion and though respects me for practicing, is not of the same opinions about it. I respect that despite being from a middle-eastern background, she is honest enough to say this is how ‘I’ feel about religion and all that comes with it. I love that despite that prickly first impression she gives out, she is a big old softie with a heart that is good as gold. She is loyal and supportive and she is always there for me if I need her. She wore a polka dot dress to my wedding – if for nothing else, I will love her forever. What a woman! Farah I salute you. You are one of my heroes.

There you are dear readers, my wonderful array of close companions without whom I would be less of the woman I am today. I will take this opportunity to say that for the reasons I have mentioned above and for many more that I cannot put into words, I feel privileged to have met and befriended you all. Thank you for all the love and support. I love you all.

The Magnificence of the Ocean

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sports Day in QC

I was in Abuja 2 weeks ago and took a cab to my friend’s house in a neighbourhood that apparently can befuddle even the best cab drivers in Abuja. My friend, let’s call her Nana, sent a text with directions and when I read them out to the cab driver, he was impressed. I laughed and said ‘she did go to QC so of course, she can give directions!’ His turn to be impressed as he appraised me. ‘You went to QC?! And I thought you were an oyinbo!’ Oyinbo (Yoruba) a.k.a bature (Hausa) is a white foreigner to you because I do not sound like a home-grown Nigerian anymore. I shook my head and smiled.

My husband carries the passport photograph above in his wallet or car as the mood strikes him. He claims to love the photo. I happen to love it too but for purely sentimental reasons. As an SS1 (year 9 equivalent) girl, I was finally loving being in Queen’s College (QC) and even liking a lot about the boarding house when my mama dropped the bombshell that she was relocating with my sister and I. The photo was taken for my British passport application when I was 14 years old. I remember my mother taking me out of boarding school to go and complete all the processes required to get a British passport. Medical tests. Passport photograph and I am sure something else too. I was excited, never having been to Europe and nervous because I would be leaving my friends and home and going somewhere that I didn’t belong. 

The picture was taken at the midway point of the middle term of the year just after Inter-House Sports Day. I can tell you this day was one of the annual highlights for most students in QC. It was a day of sporting competition where all the top talent in the school would be on display. There was calisthenics for SS2 girls. There was show-marching for all the 6 competing Houses complete with sexy cheerleader-type outfits, twirling batons, ribbons galore and some very sharp moves. Our families and friends were all there as this was an open day at QC. This also meant that the boys from all the big Lagos secondary schools came to check out the QC girls and play. KC boys especially felt entitled as they were King’s College and there was a bit of relationship between the schools for historical reasons.

The end of the 1st term was when all the excitement began as the calisthenics routine was planned and the girls began to audition for the marching. By the beginning of the middle term of 3, rehearsals would be in full swing and we would all sneak a preview of our Houses as they perfected their showpieces. Rumours about special twirl pieces would fly about. Girls would whisper about how the girl up front House A’s marching band had the highest knees and best pointed toes. Yet more whispers about how synchronised House B’s moves were and other whispers about how maybe House C was the dark horse that would triumph over the usual winning Houses. By the time the pom-poms were being fashioned for the calisthenics using plastic bags cut into strips, excitement was at fever pitch. None of us was able to sit through a lesson without whispering about some aspect of Sports Day. In the days before, half of the classes were put on hold as athletes, SS2 girls and marchers put the finishing touches on their game plans, their costumes and performances. We all got in the game on the Thursday before the Saturday.

In 2000, periwinkles (like the snails) were all the rage in QC hairstyles. That is what I have in my hair in the picture. Basically, you either braid hair or take a small section of hair then curl it about itself to resemble the shell of a periwinkle shells. I remember wanting that hairstyle all week and I was saying to Nana that I had no one to do my hair when she said she would do it. ‘Can you really?’ I asked and sure enough she could. I bought the small colourful rubber bands we used to secure the periwinkles in place and off I went to her dorm in Obasa House where we got to work. It took several hours to get it done but it was all worth it when she put the final band in place and let me look. I was ecstatic and I thought I looked great with my periwinkles and my brand new white sneakers with orange shoelaces in tribute to my beloved Obong House.

The day is a bit of a blur now but I remember the highlights. There were thousands of people all over the school ground, walking where they normally would be barred from, saying hello to missed family and a lot of excited giggling coming from us teenage girls. There were little cliques of boys strolling ‘coolly’ about, pretending not to check out the preening girls. There was the addictive smell of roast chicken and other foodie delights being prepared for sale by the vendors that were for this day only invited into our school grounds.

The first event was always the show-marching. I remember finding a spot where I could watch the marching unhindered and the butterflies of excitement as I waited with bated breath for the first of the girls to emerge. The 1st sighting of the marchers, previously well hidden in an undisclosed secure location would send a ripple of chatter across the Sports field. As the Houses came out in alphabetical order and more outfits were spotted, the chatter grew louder and I oohed and aahed with everyone else. I shifted from foot to foot in admiration of the beauty on display and watched as the marchers wiggled in anticipation of the marching they were about to do. I could also see the pride with which they held themselves. The way they walked taller and turned their be-ribboned braids from side to side as they checked out the competition and the admiring crowd. I caught 1 or 2 girls giving flirty looks to nearby boys. Then the call to order came and the marching began. I could have heard a pin drop in those minutes with the exception of the small segments where the baton-twirlers did their thing and drew gasps of admiration and clapping from the audience. This year, there were no dropped batons and every House it seemed topped the previous until it came to my House which surpassed all others. That year we won. For real. I took it as a personal reward for my loyalty and absolute belief in my House. Lol.

The calisthenics was another highlight which came towards the end of all the athletics. The SS2 girls strutted their stuff to a popular pop song, pompoms waving in unison. It was received rapturously. As the athletics continued, I joined other girls in the queues for peppered chicken then frozen yoghurt then meat pies. I stuffed my face unable to control myself as all the options beckoned. I ran around and took photos with other girls and admired each other’s hair and shoes. As the final medals were presented, we all started to mill about and congratulate those who took part and did well. Then the House that won the overall competition was announced  and given the trophy and the winning girls showed off in their house colours and celebrated loudly. As the day drew to a close, we all began to find our families and friends and say our goodbyes as the teachers and school Prefects began to round us up and return us back to the safety of our boarding House. Another sporting triumph!

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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