Tag Archives: niece

The Malay Experience

In 2008, after a short 4th year of medical school, I caught a flight to Kuala Lumpur. My first trip to Asia. Solo. I cannot remember how I came to choose Malaysia. I think I wanted to go to Asia, wanted an English speaking setting and importantly somewhere warm. Sri Lanka was another option but I didn’t know anyone there so Malaysia was the choice I made.

My mama as a human rights activist worked with an organisation with close links to Malaysia so she had been to visit many times and had made some good friends there. When I asked her for help, she was on it. She contacted her friends and asked whether any of them had medical connections in Malaysia. Fortuitously, one of her friend knew the health minister in Kelantan State. The only question was did I want to go to Kelantan, being the most conservative of states, quite ‘Muslim’ in its ways? Well, being a very modern Muslim I could see why some would question my willingness to be in a community that was rather more conservative than I chose to live my life. But I wanted an experience so I had no hesitation in saying yes.  Then I had to find somewhere to live for the month. Another one of my mama’s friends had a GP husband who was resident in Kota Bharu, the capital city of Kelantan state where the hospital was located. His home was too far to walk to and from the hospital so he organised for me to stay with his sister.

A few days before I was to fly out, he emailed to say that unfortunately his sister had a family emergency so she wouldn’t be in Kota Bharu (KB) for my arrival and he didn’t know when she would be back. Before I could panic, he went on to say I was welcome to stay at his and I would have to catch rides with his grandchildren to and from the hospital. So back to the beginning, I arrived in Kuala Lumpur on a warm afternoon. As I got off the plane after my 12-hour trip, I felt a queer tingle in my feet. I looked down and lo and behold my feet was swollen and my toes resembled little chipolatas. Remember I was only 22 years old so this was rather foreign. I wriggled my little sausage toes and poked both feet. Clearly, I should have mobilised more on the long flight. Noted. I made my way through baggage retrieval, immigration and customs and got to my hotel without incident. One of my sister’s uni friends generously came to find me later and took me out for dinner. The next day, after he kindly took me to get a phone and camera, we went to the Twin towers. What a sight! My jetlag was cured and I was suddenly filled with excitement. My first adult adventure in foreign country! The next day, my mama’s friend who had been instrumental in organising the whole trip took me to the famous Batu caves where we took in the impressive sights and also had one of the best Indian meals I have ever had.

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I think the sister in KB being away was a huge blessing in disguise. My new digs were rather luxurious compared to what I had been expecting. Dr R and his children were excellent hosts and made me feel at home. Bibi, their Indonesian housekeeper, was a godsend. She couldn’t speak a word of English and I couldn’t speak a word of Malay or Indonesian (a variant of Malay). It didn’t matter! She was a lovely lovely woman. She was short (average for the population) and portly for want of a better word. A little like Mrs Potts in Beauty and the Beast – very motherly figure. She always had a smile on her face and fed us beautifully. When I came home, there was always a jug of iced tea waiting to cool me down. It was very hot in the afternoons and the icy drink was like manna from heaven. I would change into my cotton Malay dress and throw myself down on the sofa in the upstairs living room which I made my own and down the cold fluid. That was all the activity I could manage until the sun went down and brought with it some refreshing breeze.42

The only cloud on the sunny Malay sky, apart from the relentless over 30-degree heat, were the mosquitoes. I was told soon after landing in KB that we were in the middle of a Dengue outbreak, spread by pesky mozzies. Now I am one of those who will get bitten wherever I go, regardless of covering or insect repellent. I like to say I have juicy blood. So what were my chances of contracting Dengue. Well, reassuringly (not!) I was informed the virus was only carried by the mosquito with the striped-back. I laughed about this – pray how was I supposed to tell whether a mosquito had stripes on its back? And if I had such keen senses, surely, I could just squash the little terrors before they bit me (whether they were the evil striped ones or not). Also I was helpfully informed that I was more at risk of catching Dengue Haemorrhagic fever in my first episode of the illness (I have since learnt that you are more likely to catch the severe strain on a second episode). Fabulous, I was at risk of catching a deadly disease (risk of death from the haemorrhagic disease was significant, 2-3 per 100). I got a few bites despite precautions but avoided Dengue fever thankfully.

The medical experience was quite opening. Based on the old British system, it was still quite paternalistic and the doctors knew best in most cases. A big population of KB was poorly-educated farmers and fishermen so many of the patients had no interest in being given hard choices. They wanted the doctors to diagnose them and tell them what was to be done. The nurses and healthcare assistants were also very much directed by the doctors and there was a noticeable hierarchy. The respect for doctors was palpable and that extended to us the medical students. To be fair, the doctors I came into contact with were respectful in return.

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I was with a group of female medical students, most of whom were indigenous Kelantanese girls coming home from KL for their elective. They were lovely girls. Very welcoming. They were my unofficial translators with the patients and did the job without minding how much of a drag it was.  They were all quite petite. I think the tallest was 2-3 inches shorter than I was. At 5 foot 6, I never thought of myself as tall but there I was being referred to as the tall foreigner. It felt rather nice. The girls all wore the hijab (hair covering with their traditional Malay dress) and were all shocked to learn that I was  Muslim as I wore the lightest formal clothes I could find and no head covering. However, they didn’t judge me. If anything, they seemed to be impressed by my independence. One of them, Nurul became quite close to me and I got to visit a more traditional Malay family and eat with them. Again, her family was so welcoming and humble that I wanted to adopt them all. Nurul had a small car which she generously used to take me and the girls to the markets, museums, cultural centre and even the seaside. Their culture was beautiful as was their food, music and natural environment.

Back in Dr R’s home, I made friends with the loveliest little girl called Ayin. His granddaughter, the youngest of his 3 grandchildren who I shared the school runs with. She was a tiny little thing. I think she was 4 or 5 years old and either she didn’t understand that I understood not a word of Malay or she didn’t care. She would come to my room after work and tell me all about her day (in Malay). She would share jokes and laugh. She would admire my little knick-knacks and tell me how much she loved my things. I would laugh with her, reply in English and invite her to look closer at my things and show her what new things did. She particularly loved my Malay silver butterfly earrings which I got there in KB and I would let her borrow them. One afternoon, me and my little friend were hanging out and chatting when Dr R came home early from his GP practice. As he walked past my room, he heard us conversing and was amazed. At dinner, he asked what it was we were talking about. It amused him to hear that I had no idea what Ayin was talking about but that we had these conversations. I was her ‘aunty’ and she was my little niece. Didn’t matter one bit that we spoke completely different languages but we were great friends which was all that mattered.

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The month in Malaysia flew by and although I was off on holiday to Thailand for 10 days, I was quite sad to leave my new family. I had an absolutely amazing elective in KB, met the most wonderful people and experienced healthcare with different levels of expectations and resources. I haven’t been back since then but I definitely want to take my husband and baby there so they can experience the great country that is Malaysia.

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Neglect Has A Lasting Legacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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