Tag Archives: love

Baby Now What?

I wrote about the day I gave birth (blog entry called Childbirth) and described the physical process. Harder to put into words is the emotional process that day and the next few days as my baby and I started on our journey together. I’ll start at the beginning. When I woke up bleeding that day, I knew Savannah (that’s my baby’s name) would soon be here. I was scared. That labour would be painful, more painful than anything I had ever been through. I was scared that when it came to it, I wouldn’t be able to physically push her out and might end up needing a caesarean section. I was scared that Savannah might run into trouble and have complications. I was scared that I was going to be a mother and I didn’t know if I’d be any good at it. The main feeling that morning was fear and anticipation. I could not wait for the scary bits to be over, to hold my baby in my arms, to be a mother.

I had a scan printout from 28 weeks of pregnancy which captured her face. The shape of her face was clearly outlined and you could make out where her eyes and mouth were. I must have built up an image of Savannah in my head although when I thought about it consciously in the days leading up to her birth, I couldn’t quite see a clear picture. It was a bit of a shock when she finally popped out and the midwife bundled her into my arms. I looked at her and I couldn’t quite compute what she looked like. Not like my subconscious imagined because every time I looked away and back, I felt a dart of surprise that this was Savannah. The face I was looking at was the face belonging to the baby who was moving about inside of me just a few hours earlier. She looked like her dad and she had lots of curly hair.

I handed her back to her dad as I delivered the placenta and was examined for tears (thankfully none!) and given a little clean. When she came back to me, she was rooting about so I got into position and stuck her to my still-normal-feeling breast. Lo and behold, she opened her mouth and started to suckle. That almost blew my mind. It was the reality check I needed. My brain was starting to connect the dots. I had a baby. For real. Trying to get milk out of my boobies.

So, did I fall madly in love at first sight as people often describe it? Not quite. Naturally I loved her but it wasn’t a sudden flood of emotion. Perhaps it was the exhaustion of the day but it was all a little muted. I was dirty, exhausted and hungry. At my midwife’s suggestion, I mustered up all the energy I had left and shuffled to the bathroom, half hanging onto my husband as my mother held her granddaughter. As I stood under the hot shower (which annoyingly kept stopping whenever I stood still), I started to feel less drained. When I was washed, and dressed and smelling of the lovely shower gel I’d used, I had tea and toast (inhaled it more accurately) then I sat half asleep on the comfy armchair and watched my mama hold Savannah.

3 hours after her birth, the wheelchair was brought in to transfer me up to the ward where I was to spend the night. I sat in it and was handed Savannah. This was when I felt an almost overwhelming feeling of protectiveness. She felt so small, so fragile as I held her close. I pressed my face into the side of her face and felt the warmth seeping into my soul. Up on the ward, my husband and mother settled me in and said goodnight. With the curtains pulled around my bed, it was the first time I was alone with Savannah. As she lay in the cot, I lay down and closed my eyes, my hand resting on her cot. I found it difficult to sleep. Every fibre of my being was attuned to her and I was listening for the tiniest sounds from her. I didn’t sleep much that night (or any night for the next few months). When we were discharged, I sat in the backseat next to her and watched her carefully as her dad drove us home. This watching continued for the next few days until I got used to her face.

So, in the first few days, I felt warmth, protectiveness, love and fear. The falling in love bit came later. The first time I felt that exciting, blood surging, butterflies in the stomach love for her was weeks later when she started smiling socially. Every time she smiles, I feel a surge of in-loveness that makes my knees a little weak. When she smiles deep into my eyes, especially first thing in the morning, I fall in love all over again. She looks at me the way my mother looks at me. With an unconditional deep love that is incredibly humbling. When she reaches out her chubby fingers to touch my face or grabs me when I go past her highchair, I fall more in love. When she laughs with pure unadulterated joy as I tickle her or throw her up in the air, it’s love like no other. Now many months in, as Savannah learns to express herself and her personality is starting to take shape, I feel love for her like I never imagined I would love. I thought the love I had for my mother was unmatchable but it is. It is the same yet so different. Every day, I fall more in love with this innocent, beautiful child. Every day, I feel her essence seep into my very core and wrap itself around all that I am. I know that this love is the forever kind. The I’d take a bullet for her kind. The I am all in and so vulnerable to be hurt kind. The best kind of love. I am in love with her. Totally, madly, deeply.

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The First Pupil of Nadi Nursery School

I cannot remember a time when I did not love to read. It was a skill that seemed innate to me and before I was in primary school, I was reading well above my expected age. My mama always says thank God for that love because my sister was the opposite. She loved to play and focusing on learning to read was not a priority. She wanted to be out and about and had no time for it. My mama despaired but things soon turned around. Because there I was in nursery school, learning to read ahead of what I was being taught and when my sister saw that, she decided it was time for her to learn too. I was also learning to read and write Arabic by the age of 5 so my brain must be hardwired for it.

One of my aunties, Aunty Dijatu Balla is the proprietor of Nadi International and a lot of people know that I was their first ever pupil. She wont stop telling them about me every chance she gets. Back in the day when Aunty Dijatu was planning to open her school, my mama was a sounding board for her ideas. I doubt they noticed her limpet of a daughter (yours truly) stuck to her side, listening to everything they said. When the time came for her to think about recruiting pupils (finally!), I gave them both a shock. I would like to come to your school I said. I wasn’t quite 2 years old yet. Most nursery schools recruited children 3 years or older because there were 2 years of nursery before primary school education began at the age of 5-6 years. I was a year early. Really? She asked. I was certain. I must have convinced both her and my mama because she agreed to enrol me. I was overjoyed. I hated being left alone when my sister went to school and Mama was by then working for the Government so she too had to go and leave me alone every morning. I could not wait for term to begin (I think we started in January, just over a month after I turned 2). I don’t remember too much in the way of details being that I was so young but I definitely remember my yellow check uniform dress with the maroon collar and waist band. I remember feeling like I was the bees’ knees when I put on my brand new uniform, complete with brown school sandals and lacy white shocks.

Nadi back then was in a little bungalow off Mubi Road in Jimeta, Yola. It had a few small classrooms and the bit which would have been a sitting room in the house was like our hall. I remember the hall the most. It had sliding doors leading into it and on the sliding doors were life-size pictures of Big Bird, Bart and Ernie from the popular children’s TV show Sesame Street. The highlight of the day was when we all of us would sit on the 2 long wooden benches, our arms around each other’s shoulders and sing nursery rhymes. The best one was ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’ and we would all rock from side to side in complete synchronicity as we sang the few lines over and over again. We also loved ‘If you are happy and you know it, clap your hands’ with all the motions. Oh the simple joys back then!

Another vivid memory was of the baboon in the house next door. He was held in captivity by a long rope tied around his waist. It was long enough for him to climb up the high wall separating our school from his home and sit and watch us. When we were let outside to play, we would without fail run to that bit of wall and try to catch his attention by singing and dancing. One of our classmates, Fatima Silas, must have been terrified of him because we took to singing her name to the baboon. The baboon would stare longingly at us, wanting to play and when our dancing and singing got too much for him to bear, he would try to jump down to us and his rope would pull him back. We would all scream at the tops of our lungs and race back into the school room, scared he was trying to grab us. The next day, we were back by the wall to try and get him to react once more. I wonder where Fatima Silas is and if she remembers this at all.

I remember a few other names from those years. Altine Hungush, Amal and Mamie Sewa. Mamie Sewa was one of the first pupils with me because her mother was our head teacher. I remember her mother well. They were Ghanaian and lived not far from the school. Sometimes, I would go home with them and if I was there long enough before my mama came to pick me up, I would get fed. I still remember how delicious I found their ‘foreign’ food. There was a dish with garri, palm oil and something else. The something else I cannot remember but I know I took a lot of pleasure from such a simple dish. I remember the food and how she and her husband always spoke gently and with love.

Nadi was a great 2 years of my life and when I finished there, I moved onto Airforce Primary School as there was no Nadi Primary School yet. Nowadays, Nadi is not just Nadi Nursery School. It is a nursery, primary and secondary school. A huge establishment located in purpose-built premises with hundreds of young children, having their minds shaped. In the office of the proprietor is a framed picture of me when I went back on its 20th anniversary to receive a special award. I am so proud of my alma mater!

Mind the Gap

I watched a BBC documentary on The Taj Mahal Palace, one of the best hotels in the world located in Mumbai according to the documentary. It certainly looked the part. The opulence and the service was certainly worth the thousands a stay would set you back by. This struck me but what struck me more was the homeless families who made their home outside the walls of the hotel. The poor women who sold recycled flowers to make enough to feed their children. Where were the men who fathered those children I wondered? If the Taj was so successful, couldn’t it be charitable enough to feed its resident poor? How could the guests stand to walk (or more likely drive) in past those poor wretches into such luxury?

This sort of wealth inequity is replicated all over the world of course. The less industrialised the nation, the more likely you are to see scenes like these replicated. In Yola where I come from, this is very much in evidence. It is not unusual to see a huge mansion complete with high surrounding walls, an impressive iron gate manned by gatemen and perfectly manicured hedges sitting next to a hut, little more than a lean-to with dry barren land surrounding it and the inhabitant(s) unable to afford 3 square meals and clean drinking water.

When I was little, we would have bouts of feeling charitable and go visit one of those poor homes. Most of them are inhabited by single old women. Some were called witches because of their social isolation or maybe because of their disdain for some of our archaic cultural norms. Many are just poor and alone, without a benefactor to lift them out of abject poverty. A good proportion were quite old and really did need a hand. My friend and I would go in and give their hut a spring clean, refill their water pots (their lounde) and clear out accumulated rubbish. We would leave with their prayers for us and our mothers ringing in our ears. These women managed because they had neighbours like us who would go in periodically and help out.

That is one thing I love about Yola. By Yola I mean Yola town. Not the metropolis that is Jimeta which has lost most of its old school community (or maybe being ‘new’ never got a chance to form the same bonds). No one can deny that poverty is pervasive in the society there but actually, so is charity. It is imbedded in our culture to look after our neighbours. No one in Yola that I know of has ever died of starvation (malnourishment is a different kettle of fish). If your neighbour struggles to find a meal, they could simply turn up at meal times and they would get fed.

I remember one of our dear matriarchs who had little herself always fed more than just herself and her dependents. We always had food to eat at hers even though she was poor herself. When we went to see her before we went off to boarding school, she would ask for forgiveness (in case she died before we came back) and forgive us any infractions then she would rummage under her mat and give us some of her precious savings so we could buy something. We would demure unfailingly but we also knew we had to take it. Because not to take it would be seen as disrespectful and a sign we did not value her loving gesture.

This was 2 decades ago. Things are changing but charity is still very much alive. I am not sure whether the local children are still doing what we did back then but I sincerely hope so. Especially because as religion and politics become more and more of an issue and many of those in our communities claim to be religious. Well then. If that is true, true poverty should never be an issue. Islamically, Zakat is part of our core duties, one of the 5 pillars of Islam.

“Be steadfast in prayer and regular in charity: And whatever good ye send forth for your souls before you, ye shall find it with Allah”                                        Qur’an Chapter 2 Verse 110

For any Muslim who can afford to support their living themselves and have something left over, they should donate 2.5% of their wealth to those who are in need. This is Zakat. Imagine if in a society like Nigeria where an estimated 50% of the population (87 million) are Muslims. Now imagine that about half of them can afford to pay Zakat. If even half of those (20 million) contributed 2.5% of their wealth to a community fund that was well-managed, things would be so different. So I challenge the practising Muslims who preach all things good to sit up and remember this core duty of ours. More than a billion Muslims across the globe, a good proportion with enough wealth to alleviate poverty all around them. Let’s do it people!

The Cycle of Life Part 3

I could write and write about the many lives I knew that were cut short in their prime but I will complete the cycle with this last blog about one of my oldest friends. His name was Nabil. We probably met as babies but the first meeting I remember was when I was 15 years old. We had moved to London the summer before and were getting settled in still. My mama came home one day and announced we had been invited to have dinner the Ibrahim’s on Saturday. Who were they? I asked. She explained that they were old family friends. The parents were my grandparents’ friends and although their children were younger than my mother and siblings, they knew them well as children. I am told one of the kids had even stayed periodically with my grandparents in Lagos when they were going to school there. She told me that the oldest daughter had 2 sons, one my age and I was going to meet them.

Although we both lived in North London, it was quite a trek as there was no direct tube route and we had to go on 2 (or was it 3?) buses. By the time we got there, my nose, fingers and toes were frozen and all I wanted to do was curl up into a ball and sleep by a fire. I needn’t have worried. As soon as we stepped into their house, I felt my frozen cells begin to stir. It was always tropical in that house. Mum and Baba (the grandparents) like it very warm so there was never any danger of being cold once you got in there. I was introduced to the many adults, face after smiling face. It was like a mini-Northern Nigeria. All the warmth, the noise, everyone speaking Hausa. The boys were called down, Nabil and his little brother. They were instructed to take me upstairs until it was time for dinner. Although Nabil was friendly, he was definitely the quiet one. His little brother made up for it. He was very chatty, still pre-adolescent and full of excitement about life. Back then, he was quite small too. Very cute!

Nabil played us some music and told me about how they had only been in London for a year so were new to town too. He explained who was who in the family and we made general chitchat with his little brother telling us his fantastical half made up tales. We were in the same year of school and I was older by 2 months. By the time we got called down to dinner, we were friends. Over the delicious dinner cooked by Mum (his grandmother) and his mum, we talked some more. We exchanged numbers when I left. We stayed good friends over the years. We went to visit every so often and they made the trip across North London a few times too. We text occasionally in between visits. The next year, we talked about finishing year 11 and applying for colleges. I told him I was doing all the sciences and Maths because I would be applying to do Medicine. He said he wasn’t sure yet what he wanted to be so he was still thinking about which subjects to choose. We talked about where to go and I must have been convincing because I suggested for him to join me in Barnet College and he promised to consider it. He wrote down his address on a teddy bear notepad I had so I could sent him information when I had a confirmed place.

Common sense prevailed and he went to a college more local whilst I went to Barnet College. We went to see movies together and we even ate out at this stage, being all grown up at the ripe old age of 17 and 18 years. Every time we went out, he would insist on paying for everything and I would argue him down so we went halves. His little brother had grown into pre-adolescence by then and would irritate Nabil endlessly. His patience was great and he would repeatedly ask him to butt out of our conversations. I didn’t mind. I had a sister too and as the younger sister, I knew what it was like to be the little one. When we applied through UCAS for universities, he finally had a plan. He was going to study Maths. I was shocked. I mean, I was a straight A student and I got my A in Mathematics, an A* even in AS. I was no slouch when it came to it but to do a whole degree in Maths? I was agog! Why would anyone in their right minds do such a thing? He took my teasing in his stride. He said he didn’t have a profession in mind like I did and he knew he could use his generic Maths degree to do a wide range of things. I accepted this but I still thought him mad. He gave me that calm smile of his. ‘You’ll see’, he said.

As is the norm, we saw each other less when we went off to different universities. I went to Birmingham and he stayed in London. We probably saw each other once a year but when we did, it was like no time had passed at all. Ours was a very easy friendship. He would tell me about his ‘crazy’ Maths course. He seemed happy. I would tell him about Medicine and how much of it there was. How I realised more and more that what I knew was only a small fraction of how much I needed to know. He was openly impressed by how well I coped with it. His support and belief in my abilities were unwavering. Just like his friendship. I knew he was there somewhere should I ever need a friend. We text and Facebooked more than we spoke face to face. I can count the number of times we spoke on the phone in all the years.

Over the years, I would tease him gently about his girlfriend, or lack of. As the Fulani girl, I should have been more embarrassed to talk about such things but he was so shy about it. It became part of our friendships. I would needle him about ‘her’ and he would counter by asking me about my many boyfriends. I wasn’t shy about it. I had very little in the way of boyfriends but I told him of every encounter and how I preferred not having a boyfriend. He never admitted to any love interests but his brother was a more open book and I know there was somebody special at some point. He graduated and started an online sales platform. Next thing, he was talking about going back to Nigeria for his NYSC (mandatory youth service). He settled in Lagos. I happened to go the Lagos route once in his time there so I got to see him. He looked way too skinny and I was worried. As a newly-qualified doctor, I saw ill-health everywhere and was concerned he wasn’t sharing. He reassured me that he was fine. I didn’t need to doctor him. I believed him because youth corpers do tend to look the worse for wear during their year’s tenure.

The last time I saw Nabil was in Life Camp, Abuja in 2011. He happened to be visiting Abuja whilst I was there on a 10-day holiday. He was staying with a friend who brought him over. Again, I thought he was too skinny and he laughed it off. ‘Maybe I was always meant to be skinny like you’, he said. We chatted for an hour and he had to go. As we hugged goodbye, I felt how bony he had become. Life in Lagos was a hard one for a young man trying to start a business. My parting words were ‘You need to eat more. You should look after yourself better.’ His reply was a laugh and a ‘Yes doc!’ I stood at the door and waved until the car was out of sight. Not for a second did I imagine I was saying goodbye for the last time. The fuel subsidy crisis in Nigeria was the last thing we ever chatted online about. He became very involved in the demonstrations. I worried about his safety and he sent photos of himself and his friends at Lagos marches, looking happy and less skinny. He had found a cause to believe in. I was proud he was making a stand for a cause.

News that he was ill came out of the blue. I was in Yola, having taken a year out from working in the NHS to see the world. My mama got a call from one of his relatives saying that he was in hospital with a bleeding illness, cause still unknown. It was pretty serious and they were considering transferring him abroad as the healthcare available in Lagos was deemed inadequate. When my mother related the facts, I wanted to know more. What sort of bleeding? Was it related to a fever? Was Lassa fever the suspected cause? When my spoke to them again later, she was given more details. He had woken up that morning and told the friend he was living with that he wasn’t feeling too well. I think there was mention of a headache. He had been well the night before going to bed. His friend had gone with him to hospital and he either vomited or peed blood. The exact sequence is hazy but the gist of the story was that he had become sick rather quickly and what started out as an isolated bleed was now bleeding from multiple sources. He had been given a transfusion, we were told. He was conscious but seemed to be deteriorating.

When my mama related all of that news, I immediately thought the worst. When I burst into tears, she was alarmed. ‘He is alive,’ she said to me. ‘Don’t write him off.’ I tried to explain what I was thinking. I didn’t want to be a pessimist but unexplained severe generalised bleeding had a poor prognosis even with the best medical care. And he was not getting that. Not yet anyway. I had 2 professional experiences to draw on, both rather negative. My first experience of a patient with uncontrollable bleeding was in Malaysia on my medical elective in the 4th year of medical school. He was brought in by his heavily pregnant wife and a male relative to the A&E where I was working. He was very quickly diagnosed with Dengue Haemorrhagic fever. However, before any real treatment could be commenced, he went into cardiac arrest. With the medical students and his wife watching, the doctors performed CPR. It was horrific. He began to bleed from every orifice imaginable. His ears, nostrils, mouth. The blood was coming up the tube he had inserted into his lungs to ventilate him. The only part visible with no blood streaming out of it were his closed eyes. It was over as quickly as it began. It was obvious to everyone that he was far too ill to be saved. His wife was led away with the news.

The second experience was indirect. I was working in FMC Yola (Federal Medical Centre) and although Yola was ‘free’ from Lassa fever at the time, there were new cases being reported further south of the country. In fact, about 6 months before I had started working at FMC, there had been a patient with Lassa fever there and 2 of the doctors had contracted it from him. Unfortunately, 1 had died and the second had got to the Lassa Centre down south in time to be treated. He was one of the registrars on the paediatric team I was working with. So although he was okay, it seemed that mortality was quite high and only those who were diagnosed early and treated before they started actively started to haemorrhage (to bleed) were salvageable. Nabil’s story didn’t quite fit the bill because he had not complained of a fever and indeed had no fever in hospital. But it was my best guess with the facts I had and I feared the worst.

I pulled myself together eventually and prayed and waited with my mama. Next time we got an update, it was to say he was worse still, I suspect barely conscious at this stage. He was still bleeding despite all efforts and his parents were with him (they don’t live in Lagos). An air ambulance had been organised and he would be transferred abroad as soon as possible. We even heard he was being placed in the ambulance and I thought maybe there is some hope after all. That hope was short-lived. We got a call a few hours later to say that although his parents were in a flight to London, his air ambulance had never taken off. There were complications and unfortunately, he had not made it. I was so upset! All I could think is how his parents had no idea he had died and how they would have to make the return trip with that news weighing on them. To be honest, I have not asked them what happened exactly but it could only have been a terrible day.

I think the initial reaction of tears had taken the edge of my grief. I had started my grieving process before he was gone. I sat around in disbelief as my mama asked if I would be okay. As we made arrangements to go and visit his family, I could not stop thinking about how final death was. That was it for him, in this life anyway. I have no brothers so I whilst growing up, I found a handful of boys/young men to be my shining examples of decency in the male sex, my torch bearers when I felt dark about men in general. Nabil was one of them. Here was a gentle, calm, positive young man who believed in doing what was right, what was decent. He was respectful of God, his parents and our culture. He was a great friend and it was clear from the few times that I spent with him in the company of his family and friends that he was an all-round good guy. Losing Nabil was losing a little of the light in the darkness that sometimes surround men for me. Nabil was a good guy. Now he is no more. It took just over 2 days for a healthy young man in his mid-20s to sicken and die. Muslims would say it was time to go. I accept that but did it have to be such a horrible death? What did he ever do to deserve such an end? Why him?

The Cycle of Life Part 2

Mamie, my late grandmother, was from Mubi and Ribadu. Mubi is a large town in Adamawa State, even in the old days a thriving commercial town with good links to many other towns (that is until Boko Haram decided to move in). I understand that Mamie’s father was one of the successful merchants there and her home in Michika only came about long after her father died because Grannie, her mother was from Michika. Anyway, through one of her parents, she is partly from Ribadu too. My memory of Ribadu is of a little diversion on the road to nowhere, little more than a collection of huts that we got to by using dusty dirt roads off the main highways. Most Nigerians will recognise the name though because of the famous Nuhu Ribadu, arguable Ribadu’s most successful son. He was EFCC’s first executive chairman – Nigeria’s anti-corruption agency and suffice it to say, he went about his business fearlessly, bringing those previously seen as untouchable to account. He was loved by the masses and detested by the ‘elite’ who had enjoyed incredible daylight lootery for so long in Nigeria. He had to go on exile when he left office because of fears for his life. I digress, Nuhu Ribadu is a relative. Of course he is I hear the Nigerians cry. Everyone in Ribadu is related so therefore, he is definitely a cousin of some sort. My point is that before Nuhu Ribadu, Ribadu would have been a name no one except its indigenes noticed on the map of Nigeria. Now it is one of the household names in the country and no Nigerian should wonder about its origins.

The girl I want to write about was called Aishatu Mohammadu Ribadu. We called her A’i for short (pronounced Ah-ee). I don’t know how the arrangement came about but I remember vividly when she moved in with us. She was about to start secondary school. I suspect my mother offered to bring her cousin to Yola where there were more education opportunities. She was the oldest girl and named after Mamie so who better? She was as you would expect a little village girl to be at first. Timid and as quiet as a mouse. Pretty Fulani girl with her long curly natural hair. She was soon enrolled into GGSS Yola (Girls Government Secondary School) and on the first day, we lugged all the usual paraphernalia to the boarding school to check her in. I remember us walking around the dorms trying to find her allocated one. We did and when we had her things moved in, we said our goodbyes and left. I was in primary school then so it didn’t occur to me how hard it would have been for her. Not only to leave the shelter of her little village and move in with us but to then go straight into boarding school with girls from all corners of the State. She never complained about it.

She remained quiet for the first year or so and then by JS2, she came into herself. She joined the cultural club in JS3 or SS1 and flourished more with it. She came back after the first term of being part of the group and started to sing us their songs in her lovely voice. One chorus went:

Sai mu ‘yan Hausa cultural,

Daga makarantar Geeeee Geeeee (GG).

Mun zo ne muyi maku wasa,

Wasan mu ta Hausa.

Mun zo ne muyi maku wasa,

Wasan mu ta Hausa.’

(Translates roughly into: We are the Hausa cultural girls from the school of GG. We are here to entertain you, in the Hausa cultural way).

We particularly loved the bit where they introduced themselves and when she got to Aisha Mohammed (the Hausa-nised version of her actual name), we would grin out loud. Over the next year or 2, we learnt many of her songs (some by Sa’adu Bori, very X-rated for our age but who knew?). In the evenings when there was no electricity, we would lie on mats out under the stars and moon. She’d tell us stories about boarding school and we’d sing her songs. Her love for music grew and the first album she absolutely loved was Brandy’s Never Say Never in 1998. We all loved it to be fair but she learnt the words to the songs ‘Never Say Never’ and ‘Have You Ever’ early and would sing those songs so hauntingly that I can’t hear now even today without thinking about A’i. Just hearing someone utter the words ‘never say never’ evokes memories of A’i to me. I suspect looking back she was going through puberty and probably was in love for the first time. Being a shy Fulani girl, we never heard or saw the object of her affections. In fact, in all of her time, I only knew of one ‘boyfriend’ before she met the man who would be her husband. I cannot for the life of me remember him but I know she suddenly relaxed her hair, started to wear makeup and took extra care when getting dressed to go out.

When she graduated, she met Hamma Z (his nickname) and we all knew this was different. She would light up when his name was mentioned and although she was shy about it, she never hid that she liked him. I barely knew him then because I was in boarding school in Lagos myself and he wasn’t resident in Yola but visited periodically. I heard she was getting married shortly before the event and as it was the middle of school term and we had moved to London then, I could not be there. I spoke to her though and she told me how excited she was. She sounded it. After the wedding, they moved to Ashaka where her husband worked. It is a little removed so it wasn’t on the road to anywhere we would normally go when we visited. I never made it to her marital home (this I am still sad about). One summer holiday, I contacted her to say I was coming. She promised we would see each other as she was planning a visit to Yola and Ribadu in that summer.

One day, there she was. I think this was in 2002. She looked beautiful. She was always pretty but she was glowing that visit. When she spoke of her marriage and her new home, her eyes shone. I was very happy. I wondered if she was pregnant and asked her the question. A little bit of the light dimmed. She clearly wanted a baby and it had been over a year. She was worried. I remember telling her not to worry. ‘These things are written,’ I said. Her baby would come when it was meant. She smiled and said ‘You are so grown up Diya’ in Fulani. I hugged her and we sat by the car parking bays at home in Yola, sharing a private moment. Once again, the two Aishas reunited under the stars and moonlight. Before she left, she told me about how quiet it was in Ashaka but that she had made a few friends. She told me about her small business venture and how she was now making some money for herself and her plans to make it more than a hobby. She told me about her husband and how he was kind and worked very hard for them. When she left, I promised when I came next time, I would make the trip to Ashaka especially.

That next visit never came. I saw her when she came for Mamie’s death. Then I got a call from A’i a few months later excitedly telling me that she was pregnant and to tell my mother. Her voice was exuberant and I was ecstatic for her. We rejoiced briefly before she had to go. Call charges to the UK in those days were astronomical but she clearly wanted us to know because she was over the moon. It was very un-Fulani of her to call and talk about her pregnancy so early. Traditionally, Fulani girls would normally never say a word until their pregnancy was obvious to everyone. I guess she knew with us being abroad, we had to be told to know. It was the last time we ever spoke on the phone. We texted from time to time and she let me know everything was progressing fine. She said she had never been happier.

One morning, I got a call from my mama who had moved back to Yola. She said ‘A’i has a son’. Her voice sounded sombre so I immediately asked ‘and how is A’i?’ Mamie had died the year before and since then, we had lost a few other people. I suspected the worst as soon as my mama began to speak. She said Hamma Z had been informed that A’i was taking a little longer than expected to recover from her general anaesthetic. You see, she had had complications which meant they had taken her into an emergency caesarean section. Although my heart was still heavy, I was a little relieved. I was a medical student then so I looked it all up and was a little reassured. Chances of dying from a general anaesthetic are slim in a healthy young woman. Looking back, I think she had pre-eclampsia or something like that but as usual, in the Nigerian healthcare system, information is restricted so all we heard was that she hadn’t quite woken up. My mama promised to call when there was news.

I sat by my phone and waited. When the call came, it was what I didn’t want to hear. She had died. We found out later that actually she had died pretty much straight after the baby was born but that was kept from her family. In a panic, they pretended she was still alive but unconscious. I was in the UK and she was buried according to Islamic rites so I never got to see her. My mama went for the ‘funeral’ and reported Hamma Z was devastated but their son was healthy and beautiful. When the next summer came, I went to Yola and asked to be taken to him. He was living with his grandmother then and was nearly 18 months I think. He was beautiful, like my mama had told me. Quiet like A’i was at first. His aunties and cousins told me how he didn’t talk much or take to strangers. He came to me and sat by my side all visit, leaning into me when I wrapped one arm around him, despite not saying a word to me. They looked at me in wonder and said ‘he must know his blood’. I smiled and agreed. Yes, he must. I felt an intense love for him at that moment and I wanted to steal him away. I also wanted to burst into tears. I knew how proud his mum would have been of her little boy and was devastated she never got to meet him.

His father remarried after many years and A’i’s son was reunited with his father for good. Although I have only seen him a few times over the years because they do not live where I go on my short visits to Nigeria, his father and I keep in touch and I am told he is happy. He is an adolescent now and he is so much his mother’s son. I looked at the most recent picture of him I have and saw his smile. A’i’s smile. He has her eyes, her nose and her mouth. His colouring and demeanour is very reminiscent of her. I still well up at the thought he will never know her just as she never got to meet him but I am comforted by the fact that she lives on in him. If I ever get a chance when he is older, I will tell him his mother wanted nothing more than to bring him into this world. That I have never seen her so happy than when she was with his father. Nor heard her so excited than when she announced he was in the making. That he would have been the centre of her world. That she would have done anything for him. That he would have been the most loved little boy, the apple of her eye. I hope I get the chance to tell him all that. Life!

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!

Happily Ever After: a Disney concept or reality?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is a lot of good news though:

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

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

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

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

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

I will end with this quote:

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

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.

Your Body is Your Temple

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That Polka Dot Dress

You could say I am polka dotty. A fan of the polka dots. I find them irresistable. I try not to go overboard with this slight obsession but I am afraid I do fail regularly. Every time I step into a shop, I gravitate towards the polka dot pattern. Be it on a blind, throw cushions, wellies, mug, plastic wallets…it is endless where you spot the polkas. It is a conspiracy I tell thee.
My beloved sister took me shopping with her this summer and I kept checking out the polka dots. She stopped me when I made a move to try a top on. I genuinely thought I had very little in the way of polka dot clothing. We brainstormed and in a minute, we counted at least 6 tops of mine in varying colours, all polka. I did not try on that top. Sadly. I also love my polka dot handbag, Rocketdog heels, water bottle cover, mugs, set of plates, dressing robe and plastic wallets, bras, socks, umbrella…the list goes on.

I will explain whence this loving relationship commenced. I was about 3 or 4 years old when my granduncle, dear departed uncle Abubakar Joda, bought me a hot pink dress with black polka dots, a black collar, waist band and bow. I absolutely loved that dress. I wanted it on all the time. I was in nursery school then and I would consent to wearing my uniform in the morning. As soon as I walked into our home after school, I would strip down to a vest and panties and refuse to wear anything that wasn’t my polka dot dress. My mama was forced to sneak in washes during school hours.

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I wore it day in, day out. For over a year. I had lots of lovely clothes but I didn’t want any of them. Eventually, my mama’s patience ran out. I came home from school one day and she had given it to charity. I don’t remember crying but I was hopping mad. I asked my mama why she would do such a thing. Her answer was that the poor children needed it more than I did. Well!!! Even at that age, I knew I couldn’t argue with being charitable so I swallowed my tantrum (which was quite an achievement) and let her off. But I still thought ‘of all the things the poor children should need…’

I have never been able to forget my lovely dress nor have I completely forgiven my dear mama. She tried hard to get me over my loss. I inherited my sister’s fabulous red and white ruffly beautiful princess polka dot dress. It was lovely but not quite as good for me. Too much of a fuss to wear every day. To this day, when my mama annoys me, I pointedly remind her of her crime…she took my first love away. Unreal!

p.s yes, that was our wedding cake.