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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.

Sweet Mama

When I think of my mama, there is a theme song that plays in the background. ‘A Song for Mama’ by Boys II Men. The song talks about her teaching her child everything, teaching them about right and wrong. It talks about the mama believing in her child when no one else would. It talks about loving mama being the food to the soul and her being the child’s strength. Amazing song!

My mama was never the most traditional of mums. For majority of my life, she was a single mum. She is a feminist. She travelled often to attend conferences and seminars and to take part in courses, for weeks and sometimes months at a time. She did not enjoy the traditional female roles of cooking and cleaning day in, day out.  I rarely saw her do laundry and she certainly never ironed for us. But…she also did a lot of traditionally mummy things. She woke us up for school every morning she was home. She bathed us both together in the bathtub and wrapped us each in a large bath towel, tucking us in just the way we loved it so that we were like worms in a cocoon of warmth. We would hurry off to our bedroom and fall into bed, clean and warm for a quick ‘shut eye’ and make her go through the process of getting us up again. She washed my hair and patiently combed out the tangles and put hair cream on my hair and scalp. She took me to buy school books, stationary and shoes when the new term began. She waited at the end of the school term for my exam results and told me how proud she was.

My mama recounts that when I was born in a busy maternity ward in Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) Teaching Hospital, Kaduna. She says she knew I was different in that first hour. The maternity unit was very busy which meant that as babies were born, they were given a cursory drying and wrapped up and placed in a queue for proper cleaning before being placed in their mothers’ arms. My mama says that I wailed so loud for so long that the midwife had to come away from the mother she was assisting to pluck me out from the waiting queue, give me a good clean and take me to my mama. I cried all through her handling and I am told that as soon as my mama took me into her arms, I took a deep breath in and fixed my eyes on her. Apparently I was as good as gold for my mum throughout childhood. Not so to everyone else. I was a right madam and often fussy especially when my mama was away on one of her trips. I cried so much that I grew up with a husky voice but my mama swears I was always good for her. I think my tears were from missing my mama and fearing that she had abandoned me.

I was a different baby from my sister. My sister was the baby that wanted to be handled 24/7. I was the opposite. I wanted my mama to cuddle me with breastfeeds but I wanted to be in my bed when I was asleep. I was happy to be at home playing when my mama went out as long as she didn’t have luggage in tow. When she went on a trip, it felt like she took a piece of me with her. I remember vividly going into her room and sitting on the side of her bed. I would stare at the enlarged picture of her taken before I was born and feel the tears well in my eyes. I would press the button on the talking clock on her headboard and lie on the cool tiled floor in the dim light and wonder if I would ever see her again. For some reason, I was always afraid that she would never come back. Even though she told us how long she would be, it always seemed to me that the deadline had passed and no one was telling the plans had changed. I would lie on the floor of her room in the silence as my sister played with the neighbourhood children and imagine she had been killed in a plane crash and everyone was keeping it from us. I would cry quietly as I imagined the worst and eventually, I would find some hope from deep within and say to myself she was OK or I would have heard of the plane crash on the news. I don’t know why in my young mind, I didn’t think she could die in a car crash which was more common place.

When she came home, she always came bearing gifts. Nothing too extravagant but all special. I got my first Barbie after one trip and many years later a Cindy doll after I got over the loss of my Barbie. On a long trip to Venezuela, I got a t-shirt which I loved to bits and wore until its stitching unravelled and I had to be begged to throw it in the bin. I got a ‘born to be wild’ t-shirt from the US which when made me feel like the bee’s knees whenever I wore it. On the same US trip, she got me arguable one of the best gifts, a special edition perfume from the Disney store shaped like Belle from Beauty and the Beast. I still have the plastic Belle bottle more than 15 years later. One trip she went to the Disney store in London and got me a Tazmanian Devil woolley hat and gloves combo. A regular treat were the pick and mix sweets. The highlight was the marshmallows covered in strawberry-flavoured slightly tart sugar. Yummy! Those sweets taught us a highly valuable life lesson. She handed us each a large plastic bag full of sweets and left us to our devices. My sister would go through a fair few in the first day then slow down over the next few days. I was more calculating. I would pour out all of my sweets and group them into types and work out how I could make it so I could make my favourites last the longest. I always tried to save a strawberry sweet for weeks and ate it last. I will never forget how special that last sweet was. It almost made it okay that mama had to travel AGAIN a few months later.

I am one of those weird people who love salads. The secret? My mama. She makes the most amazing salads. I don’t know exactly how she did it but she made it so that having a special salad was an occasion in my home. She would take us to the shops to buy baked beans, sweetcorn and mushrooms. Then she would slice the tomatoes, hard boil eggs, fry the mushrooms and re-cook the beans then dress the lettuce with all of that, laid out in the most beautiful pattern. The salad would look and smell so good that we couldn’t wait to tuck in. It was so delicious that it was the main course of dinner. Thinking about it now is making me salivate. The other thing my mum is a queen of is smoothies. She loves them and she makes the best ones. What makes them extra special is the love she puts into preparing all the fruit and blending it all in batches and giving us all a helping. I have always watched children whine about eating fruit and vegetables and to be honest, I have never understood why. Because my mama was so good that she made us love fruit and vegetables.

Of course I am biased but looking back, I think she did an amazing job. She was the disciplinarian whose love I never doubted. In a society where smacking was considered the norm, she was very restrained and I can count how many times I got smacked. Each time was totally called for too and even then I knew. She is now one of my best friends, cliched though that might sound. I can talk to her about anything. My opinions are valuable to her even if she argues about it all. I am her confidant, her financial adviser, her personal doctor, her baby and her friend. I value her above everyone else and everyday, I thank God that she was gifted to me as my mother. I am thankful that she is healthy and strong and fiesty to a fault. I owe her everything I am. She is my greatest love.

Corazon Por Corazon

I speak very little Spanish but being a salsa fan, I have heard enough Spanish lyrics to know the Corazon means heart and the Spanish-speaking world is always ‘Corazon this’ and ‘Corazon that’. The title is a nod to the video I just watched on Facebook which has inspired this piece. It was posted by Andre Gayle who has stuck English subtitles on a Spanish video entitled Corazon por Corazon (heart by heart…changing the world). Basically, the video is about the loss of our humanity, the very essence that is supposed to make us superior to other animals and plants. It highlights what cruelty and sadness there is in the world and how a lot of us are desensitised to the sight of another human in need. So much so that when we witness suffering, many a times our response now is to take out our smartphones and take a video instead of offering our help.

It made me cry, especially the scenes of animals and children being abused. It made me ask ‘why’ again. I am the half full glass type of a girl but occasionally, I become despondent when I watch the news and it is full of pictures of little children being bombed by Israel or another old pensioner being abused by a carer. It makes me question what I am doing spending so much of my time doing NHS/eportfolio paperwork when there is suffering out there and I have the medical training to perhaps make a difference to so many, in Nigeria for example. It makes me question whether having children is a good idea because what legacy are we leaving behind for them to inherit?

The environment is a huge worry for me. I drive a Nissan Leaf in an attempt to be greener and I recycle and try to minimise waste. I know my efforts mean something but are probably insignificant in the grand scheme of things but at least having made the effort, I go to bed with a clearer conscience. For every person who drives a ‘green’ car or cycles or walks, there’ll be 10 people who drive cars with ridiculous amount of emissions, who waste more than half the food they buy and who never do any recycling. As the ozone layer thickens and the greenhouse effect is compounded, global warming intensifies. Formerly temperate climates develop extremes of weather. Flooding, draughts, tsunamis, tornadoes, forest fires and earthquakes occur with greater frequency than ever before. Large populations of the world who are dependent entirely on subsistent farming are living in famine conditions year after year. Ironically, in Europe and the US more and more of the population are buying excess food and every week are binning it as they buy too much and let it all go to waste. Too much of land is taken up by refuse which no one knows how to get rid of properly. Mountains of waste piling up as we become more and more wasteful. Turns out that even our recycling is not all recycled. Because our Governments have not invested enough into recycling plants so only a fraction of the potential recyclables are being  recycled.

Kindness is becoming short in supply too. As the video highlights, it is now commonplace to watch a person being beaten, robbed or even stabbed and no one wants to step in because it is all about protecting the self. Every year, there is someone on the regional news who has been stabbed or mugged in a bus or at a bus stop or somewhere similarly public where everyone has just stood by and watched. Yet some of these people have the audacity to whip out their phones and video the event and then post it on YouTube. I always wonder how these onlookers would feel if the victim was not a stranger but their mother, father, brother, sister, daughter, son or best friend?

As for the violent offenders, many of them are children who are old enough to know between right or wrong but even at that early age, they seem hardened and lacking in the most basic of human kindness. I know this lack of kindness and empathy is multifactorial but I am convinced one of the main reasons is poor parenting that comes with the modern time. As a paediatrician, I am in a privileged position to be able to closely observe the intimate relationship between parents and their children. There are many things we see that cause us to raise our eyebrows and a few that send us running to Social Services. But what I find most disappointing is when a young child aged 3 or 4 does or says something cruel and the parents, instead of taking the opportunity to point out what is right or wrong and explain why, turn their faces away and throw away the chance to shape their child into a decent person. A couple of weeks ago, I was on-call and went to see a 10 year old boy who was in pain with my registrar (senior to me) and an ST1 (junior to me). The registrar examined him and decided we needed to investigate by taking a blood sample. The boy’s reaction was to shout ‘You are not f*****g touching me. I will bash your f******g head if you come near me’. What did his father do? He bowed his head and my registrar shot the top of the dad’s head a look. As more swearing came forth, I stepped closer to the boy and said firmly ‘I’m sorry you are scared of having a needle but you are not allowed to speak to us like that. We are here to help you.’ That stopped him in his tracks and he resorted to sobbing. His red-faced dad followed us out of the cubicle to apologise and all I could think was ‘don’t apologise to us, teach him to have a bit more respect.’

Speaking about respect, I think that has run off with the kindness. As doctors, we are at the receiving end of a lot of disrespect but we put up with it because we understand when people come in contact with us, it tends to be the most stressful, frustrating, unhappiest time in their life. I think a little respect goes a long way. It is in the small things like saying sorry when you barge into somebody, holding open a heavy door for the person a few paces behind, picking up an item someone (especially frail, old or pregnant) has dropped right in front of you or even smiling at a stranger who makes eye contact. It is about saying please and thank you to anyone helping you out even if it is their job to do it. It is about acknowledging your work colleague who does a little extra work so you don’t have to do it or staying longer at work to finish a task so they don’t have to hand it over to you. It is about realising your loved one is sad and giving them a hug. It is about saying the occasional thank you to your spouse for all the little considerations they give you daily that make your life better without you even realising they’re doing it.

I will say that I am lucky to be surrounded by lovely people who I am proud to call my family and friends. I know I did not get to choose my family but I certainly chose the family I keep close and the friends I surround myself with. These people are generous. They are donating to charity and taking part in fundraising for charities. They are courteous to strangers and helpful where they can be. They smile easily and are generous with their hugs, kind words and cups of tea. They recycle. They reclaim furniture. They treat their pets with love and tenderness. They are there when you get bad news. They hold your hand and sit beside you when there are no words that can ease the pain and hurt. They pray for you to succeed and celebrate whole-heartedly when you do succeed. They turn up when you need them the most. They laugh with you and not generally at you (but sometimes they laugh at you too if they know you can take it). They care about their neighbours and it is not always about them. They are diamonds…beautiful bling with surprising strength. They inspire me every day to be a better person and whenever I reflect on the people in my life, I feel blessed.