Tag Archives: nigeria

The Power of Dreams

My aunty forwarded one of those inspiring videos about life and happiness. One particular message struck me. It said something about having a dream then making it happen. Of course, it is easier said than done. It is not quite that easy to turn a dream into reality but those people who are the happiest are those who had a dream then put their all into making it a reality. I have many dreams. Through hard work and luck, many of my dreams are already a reality. I got into medical school, I graduated. I applied and got into speciality training and I am gaining experience as a paediatrician. I met a man with a big heart, fell in love and married him. We bought our lovely first home, a permanent abode after my many years of moving from flat to flat.  I fell pregnant when we were in good place and the baby has been growing well with the easiest pregnancy. I am getting ready to realise one of my biggest dreams – giving birth and being a mother. So yes, my bucket is overflowing.

This is about my professional dream.  I used to think I would be happy to graduate, specialise as a paediatrician, get a consultant post and settle down to a routine. With the recent political shenanigans and the more I work in the NHS, the more I realise I want more. I want more out of my life and I also want to contribute more than the daily grind. Don’t get me wrong, I know in my current role I do make a difference to lives. There is nothing more satisfying that when I have done a good job and I know that parent or child’s life has been changed for the better, no matter how small that change is. However, many days I look back after a busy day and think was that worth it? Those days which are all about paperwork and administrative tick-boxing exercises that contribute nothing except to some faceless manager’s satisfaction.

The part of the world where my life started (Yola) is lovely in a lot of ways but there is a significant poverty. In terms of economics but also in healthcare terms. Nigeria as a whole fails to cater to the healthcare needs of its population unless you have lots of money to go private. The North-East of Nigeria is one of the poorest when you look at health outcomes. In particular, looking at childhood. The statistics (where there are any) are shocking. Nigeria, for all its wealth, regularly features at the bottom of tables for health outcomes. We are in the bottom 5 for most outcomes including maternal and under 5 morbidity and mortality. For the non-medics reading this, morbidity refers to how much ill-health and disease (sickness there is) there is and mortality refers to how many are dying.

Mothers naturally should come in a low-risk group. Most should be healthy young women doing what is most natural – getting pregnant, growing a baby and then delivering the baby. Young children, although fragile because they are not mature yet biologically are despite all of that resilient on the whole and have bodies that are full of strong healthy organs with endless potential for healing. What we are failing to provide is basic care. Basic antenatal care, trained birthing assistants, hospitals to assist in difficult deliveries and facilities for emergency caesarean sections (surgery) for those women who cannot do it naturally. Infections, on the whole preventable and most totally treatable, cause a lot of the morbidity and mortality in Nigeria. Many of the other things we provide here in the NHS is simple supportive care, allowing patients own bodies to heal themselves in a secure environment.

So here is my dream. I would like to set up a women’s and children’s health centre. Big dream I hear you say. Yes, I am aware. It will be a huge task. I worked at the FMC in Yola for 4 months in 2012. I saw how much need there was and the things that were missing. I know a lot of the patients we couldn’t help were those who lived far away from town and did not come to us until their disease was too advanced for us to be able to do anything. Mothers died in childbirth because they did not have adequate antenatal care so predictable problems were not discovered until it was too late. Preterm babies died because they were born out of hospital in environments not hygienic enough and did not get simple breathing and feeding support and early treatment with antibiotics. Term babies were born too small because their mothers were undernourished and unwell with treatable conditions during pregnancy but were not diagnosed and treated. Very few of the patients we couldn’t help needed fancy expensive medicines or surgery. It was simply too little too late.

On the positive side, those that did come to us in time had better outcomes than those suggested by the statistics I read about on WHO and the likes. Those preterm babies born at FMC Yola thrived and majority survived until discharge. Sure, their progress was slower than here in the NHS because of a lack of basic equipment and provisions like oxygen and breathing support, working incubators, labs, fluid pumps, parenteral nutrition for those too young to feed by mouth or through the stomach. But survive they did because they are little fighters.

So what I dream is to provide all those basic things to the mothers, babies and children free of charge if I can manage to raise funds or at the very least at the smallest prices possible to give those with little the chance to quality healthcare. To go with that, I would like to provide an outreach service to those isolated villages. Run clinics, provide immunisations, antenatal vitamins and nutritional support, teach about prevention of infections and when it is vital to seek early medical help. Central to that idea is to train some of the villagers to provide safe simple birthing assistance, supportive care for new-borns and how to diagnose and treat the most common infections and provide first aid. All little things but added up should cut the numbers of mothers and children suffering unnecessarily and prevent the many preventable deaths.

My grandfather listened to me talking about my dream and was (rather unexpectedly) downbeat about it. He pointed out that it wasn’t as easy as I was making out. Actually, I know it will be difficult to do and as I have never done this before, it is a monumental task. There is so much to do to get this off the ground. However, here is my plan. I will start small and do this project in stages. I will deal with the complications as I get to them. A journey of a thousand miles has to start with that first step. I have taken my first step. I have dared to dream and I have written down my dream in black and white. Now onwards and upwards. Watch this space.

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!

If Music be the Food of Love

…Then I am glutton and I want it all. I look at my little nephew loving music and it melts my heart. Where it not for music, I would not be where I am today. Music of all kinds. Music that is live or recorded. Current or retro. Played through headphones or on speakers. Walkman, discman to iPod. Music punctuates the story of my life.

I have 2 cousins in the US of A. The older of the two, the girl who shares my grandmother’s name with me, plays the violin to a good standard. She probably isn’t Vanessa Mae standard but the effect her music had on me was electric. She played a piece of music I wasn’t familiar with in my room in London and it changed that room for me forever. As she coaxed the strings into song, the tune struck a chord deep within me. It was as if everything came alive. My senses turbo-charged. I wanted to lie down and close my eyes and for it never to end. I must have had a very foolish smile on my face by the time she played the last note. It was the first time I had seen her in over a decade and I didn’t know her all that well. All it took for me to love her was a piece of music that she insisted wasn’t very good. All the shyness, the reserve, the uncertainty of my relationship with her was wiped away and in its place, I felt love, kinship and trust.

I will never forget the first time I heard the flute being played live. I was in JSS2 (equivalent of year 8) in QC Lagos when one of the senior girls was called on stage to play some music. There must have been nearly 4000 girls crammed into the Hall and despite all effort throughout the rest of the special assembly, there was steady background chatter. She came on stage and as she assembled her flute, the silence began to wash across the room. She played the theme song to Disney’s Pocahontas. Have you ever listened to the score on that song? It is so beautiful. And the words amazing in their simplicity. As she played, I could feel the tears gather in the back of my throat. All the other girls must have felt the same because the silence was absolute halfway through and at the end of it all, there was a stunned silence before we all erupted into applause and hooting. From then on every time I saw her, it felt like there was a magical halo around her for me. She glowed blue to me. And although I have forgotten the names of some of the girls I sat with for years, I remember her name as clear as daylight. Talking about Disney music – I get a similar awe when I listen to ‘When you believe’ from Prince of Egypt and ‘The cycle of life’ from Lion King. Spell binding.

I had a friend in QC who used to be just a classmate. Then one day, she opened her mouth and sang in class and we were all in awe. I guess you could call me the original fan. Although I have since forgotten what the first song Esther sang in public was, I will never forget how I felt about her from that day forward. Of course it helped that she was a lovely girl anyway but in my appreciation for her talent, we became fast friends. The song I will associate with Esther for the rest of my days is ‘I love you Mummy’ which was a hit in Nigeria in the 1990s. Every time she sang that song, all the hairs on my body would stand up and all my worries and stress and unhappiness and negative thoughts would simply disappear. There was once a special assembly only a select few attended and Esther sang that song there. Apparently, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Even our Principal had tears in her eyes. I saw her as an angel. She had a golden yellow halo. She was quiet, unassuming and her smile could light up a stadium full of people. Little did I know that when I left QC in 2000, it would be the last time I would see her. She was diagnosed with cancer shortly after I left and she died a couple of years later. Like they say, the best of us die young. R.I.P Esther. What a loss to the world and especially to those who never got to experience the magical voice Esther had.

I love musicals and I have the utmost respect for the incredible talent of theatre actors and actresses who sing their hearts out night after night. My favourite musical is Catz but my absolute ever performance was back in 2001 when I went to see ‘Notre dame de Paris’ in London. The narrator man with his long blond hair and colourful blue coat looked just like all the other stars but he overshadowed them all so that by the end of the show, I was more focused on his bits than on the lead actor and actress. What made it more amazing was that his voice outshone all the female vocalists on stage and I think that is a rare quality. The tone in his voice was pure. It was like crystal in its clarity and every word resonated in my soul. The power was like no other I have seen in theatre and I literally cannot comprehend how he could work his vocal cords so hard for so long and retain its beauty. When the show was over, I did not want to leave. I felt like if I didn’t move, I could remain wrapped up in the magic of his voice forever.

Last year, my then fiancé and I went to the Stephen Lawrence memorial concert at the O2 arena and the line-up was epic. I was mostly looking forward to Emile Sande but there were numerous others I was excited about. The revelation of the night for me was the lovely Beverly Knight from Wolverhampton (which is down the road from me). I have always liked her songs and loved her personality but when she sang ‘Fallen Soldier’ on stage, I fell in love with her. It is by far the best live performance I have ever heard. I have heard the song before and thought it was ok but when dear old Bev sang it, she elevated it to new heights. Every word struck chord in my soul and I felt the tears come as I remembered all my fallen soldiers. The pitch was perfect. The sentiment suited so well to the theme of the evening. She sang her heart out and she won a fan for life. I now realise that she is probably one of the most underrated British stars. It must be because she is so understated in her manner, so personable and so approachable. She is the ultimate girl-next-door except she is more than that. She has been blessed with the most gorgeous voice. What a star!

I know some Muslims believe that modern music is on the scale of evil but I honestly could not disagree more. How could I not appreciate beauty that I believe is a gift from God? How could music which inspires me to be pure and to be kind be bad in any way? How can music which erases my sadness and stress be anything but good? How can music which promotes happiness and positivity be anything but encouraged? Life is hard enough I think so I simply cannot accept that something that makes it all better can be a bad thing. I love music and I celebrate its existence. And most of all, I thank God for music because it has been life’s saving grace more times than I can count.

Moo!

The cow is an amazing animal. For some (Indian Hindus) it symbolises God. For some, it is a tool for agriculture, for ploughing the fields and for fertilising the soil. For some, it is a means of transport. For others, it is a source of nourishment – providing beef, milk, cheese, butter and leather. I think most people would see a cow as wealth.

As a Fulani girl, I certainly have much love for the cow. As you may have read from my earlier blogs, my infancy/toddlerhood was spent on my granddad’s farm (Benue Valley Farm, Fufore). Although the horses are up there with all the great things in life, I always had a special soft spot for the nursing cows and their calves. The bulls to be honest just scared the hell out of me so I always stayed well away from them but not so the calves. We Nigerians believe that when bulls see red, they charge (I am not sure if this is a wider belief) – because of that whenever I forgot to check my clothes before heading to the farm, I would sit in the car in fear of being gored to death. So the bulls get a bit less love from me although I do admire their huge humps from a safe distance.

I remember the joy when we got to the farm after some time away to find a fresh crop of calves all soft and wobbly on their legs, sticking as close to their mums as they physically can. It was fascinating watching them breastfeed and I remember feeling sorry for the poor mums as the calves violently suckled on their udders. If we went early enough, we would catch the milking and the milkers (they were men!) would squirt warm milk straight into our mouths as we danced around in joy. I loved watching as over the days the calves grew in confidence and started to stray away from their mums in little groups. And it was one of those magic moments to see them run for the first time, venturing out into the big bad world without their mum by their side. I must confess I am not sure if calves run but I don’t think they gallop or do they?

There was one particular cow in the herd that was people-friendly and liked to be petted. Now most fully-grown cows are quite aloof and stately so being petted is not something you would do. The calves are usually quite skittish too so cow-love must normally be from a distance. Not this heifer. The herdsmen would call to her using a strange sound that was neither word nor whistling but a cross between. We would scan the herd excitedly, hundreds of cows milling about soon after coming back from grazing into the pen. Then eventually a dark brown cow would emerge from the group and head straight for us. She would poke her head down and through the wooden slats of the fence to the little people waiting expectantly and we would stroke her warm hide and feel the way her skin vibrated and rippled. That is what stays with me; the warm leathery feel and her large eyes looking at us as if with fondness. She was so patient too. She stayed for as long as our attention was fixed on her and we would stay with her for as long as our mama or granddad would let us.

My other main interaction with cows came around slaughter times. My mum, being from a farm and daughter of a Fulani man, preferred to slaughter a cow when we needed meat and then freeze carefully packaged parcels of meat to use daily over time until we went through it all. Just before we ran out of beef, we would get delivery of a bull and he would be tethered to the tree in the back garden and fed some grass. I am not sure why he was kept for days before he was slaughtered but I would hang about the back door, half afraid and half wanting to make friends. I would take a pace back when he mooed and stared at me. Eventually, I would make my way to within a metre of him and talk to him. I would bring fresh water and grass and watch him eat and drink. I would inevitably ask my mama if I could name him but I was forbidden to do so. My mama explained that if I named him, I would start seeing him as a pet and then it would be haram (i.e. forbidden Islamically) for me to eat his meat. So I would refrain from naming him but nevertheless, I would be his friend for the rest  of his life.

I watched the slaughter every time despite the sadness it caused me. I would stand inside the parlour (sitting room) and stare out the window as the men tussled with the cow to get him to lie down. They would tie his legs together and dig a hole beside his neck. Next would come the sound of metal on metal as the knife was sharpened as per halal slaughter tradition. I would whisper prayers for a swift death at this point. Then his neck would be extended and with a prayer, the cut in one swift motion. The smell of fresh hot blood spurting into the waiting hole is an ingrained memory. The bit that followed was the worst bit for me…it was chaotic with blood on hands and the volume of the work to do to clean, parcel and tuck it all away into the meat freezer. My main job was to help braid the intestines which we would cook with liver and kidneys to make the most delicious sauces. Much as I had mixed feelings about those days, I learnt much from them. Not least where my meat comes from and facing the fact that an animal has to die for me to enjoy some meat. So I have the utmost respect for meat.

From a Fulani point of view, a cow is more than just a source of meat, dairy products or manure. To us, the cow is the symbol of wealth and I suspect respectability to some extent. Every Fulani person that can afford it has a cow or 2 somewhere back home. I used to have a herd that started from a heifer bought for me when I was a baby (this herd has been lost in time). A couple years ago, my mama felt guilty about my loss so she got me another heifer and I am proud to say I also have a calf that is about 6 months old today. Beautiful calf too – light brown with intelligent eyes. I feel an inordinate amount of pride for my cows and I know many a Fulani woman (or man) feels the same. Of course cows are a source of security because they do fetch a mint in the market so should you need a lump sum, you have it banked. Also we love our milk, yoghurt and man-shanu (which is like ghee) and in the old days, we controlled the supply of those. Around our parts, there is no better treasure to give to your wife when you marry her than the gift of a young heifer. It warmed my cockles when Roger Federer (the greatest tennis player ever!) was rewarded with a cow when he won the Wimbledon trophy for the first time. Now those Swiss know how to appreciate talent!

It is widely known in Nigeria that the Fulanis have a love affair with their cows. We are proud cow people. The saying goes that a Fulani man would let you steal his wife but touch his cows and you are a dead man. You may have heard of the skirmishes in North-central Nigeria around the Jos area which lead to a lot of deaths (of Fulanis and Josites alike) peaking about 4 years ago. Rumours are that at the centre of this bloodshed was the killing of herds of Fulani’s cows in protest of the Fulani herdsmen letting their cows graze on private lands. Suffice it to say, in a place like Yola which is Fulani central, no one dares steal or harm a cow because we all know how true the fears are. Heads will certainly roll should you mess with this Fulani woman’s cow (in a non-violent way of course because yours truly does not sanction violence). Also cows have free reign to roam in many Northern towns and cities and when they cross roads, we all have to sit patiently in our cars and wait until they stroll off the road before the journey can continue. That is major in Nigeria because as most people know, we are not big on patience.

My husband and I on the face of it have not got that much in common and when people ask me I struggle to come up with more than a couple of reasons. However, last year I realised probably the biggest unifier between us is the cow. He is Zulu you see and they too are cow people. So when I comment on how gorgeous cows are and take pictures as they stroll past my car or graze in fields, he totally gets it. I found an art gallery (Whitewall Galleries on Colmore Row, Birmingham) when in town with my husband last summer and although we disagreed about many paintings on display, we totally fell in love with one. A picture of a smiling cow by a fabulously talented local artist. I still have my eye on it and now that we have bought the house, it is next on the shopping list.

Mythical Malaria

My mama came back to London from a visit home to Nigeria in 2002 and felt feverish. Like most people where we come from, she thought it might perhaps be malaria but wasn’t unduely worried so decided to wait and see. On the Monday, she had the typical malaria vomit so she thought ‘I best get some antimalarials before it flattens me’. That evening, I came home from college, cooked dinner and waited for my mum to be home around 7pm as usual. 7pm came and went. Then 8pm which is when I realised something was up. I called her phone which went straight to voicemail. She did come home late sometimes especially on Mondays so I wasn’t all that worried but I did feel she shouldn’t work so hard.

She came in at 9pm irritation written all over her face. ‘What did she do this time?’ I asked, assuming it was the lady who had recently been promoted to the top position in their human rights NGO office who seemed to have gone power-mad and was intent on taking all the joy out of my mama’s life. My mum shook her head and over dinner told me about her ordeal in Whittington Hospital. Basically, she had tried to call her GP for an appointment and had no luck (what else would you expect in a London GP?). After work, she went straight to the closest A&E (Whittington Hospital) rightly thinking that she should not wait until her GP had an appointment for her to get treatment for malaria. Rookie that she was, she got straight to the point when asked what the matter was. I think I have malaria, she said. Pandemonium broke out. She was ushered in ahead of everyone else into a side room to isolate her. She had blood drawn before she could say ‘what’s up?’ and they were admitting her to a ward. When she finally got someone to stop and talk to her, she was informed that she would be going to the ward shortly and they would need at least 2 more blood samples off her as per the malaria protocol and she was being isolated. I wasn’t there but I know the look of amazement that my mama would have had.

Long story short, she refused to be admitted. She told them under no circumstances was her daughter going to be left alone all night, never mind I was 16 and had stayed the night alone before, in fact more than 1 night in a flat alone in Lagos at the age of 15 which was a damn sight more dangerous than Muswell Hill in London. Anyway, the doctors were beside themselves and there was a lot of hand wringing because malaria in UK is kind of a big deal and there are strict protocols and the Health Protection Agency red tape to jump through. My mama was not to be persuaded. She said she would be off within the hour and either they give her oral medication to go home with or she would walk out without. Either way, she was going to her baby. After a lot of negotiation, they gave the oral medications and she came home to tell me the story. The deal was that she had to go back in for her second blood test before work and for them to make sure she hadn’t developed cerebral malaria and died on them. Mama and I rolled around laughing at all this hoo-hah over something as simple as malaria.

So obviously we are not entirely looney and we know malaria is potentially serious and in a few cases even fatal despite medication. Since you, my readers, are not all medics like me I will explain the things that the media and doctors in the UK it seems don’t appreciate at first glance. There are 4 strains of malaria and 1 of these strains is the bad boy of malaria. It is called Plasmodium falciparum or P. falciparum. The millions of deaths from malaria are mostly due to this strain of malaria but actually most malaria is of the other 3 strains and in Nigeria, most people will get at least one bout of malaria in their lives. As children, we all got malaria several times. I think I was one of the lucky ones who only got 3 bouts of malaria in my life and the last time I had malaria was when I was in primary school (coming up to 20 years ago). Actually a lot of the malaria burden is probably not even malaria because we are so used to malaria that anyone who has a fever longer than a day and that is high enough to make them want to lie down, self-diagnoses malaria and trundles off to the chemist to get antimalarials (we don’t need prescriptions per se).

Now back to P. falciparum. This bad boy is the strain that causes cerebral malaria i.e. it likes to infect the brain and so makes you delirious and causes seizures and can rapidly kill you because the fever is so high causing all your body enzymes not to work (so your bodily processes a.k.a. your metabolism stops) and the seizures can be very hard to control so starve your brain of oxygen, turning it into mush and in most cases, killing you unless you get IV (intravenous) antimalarials and fluids very early on.

I do not make light of this malaria at all. I worked in FMC Yola for 4 months and I saw more children die from it than I would like to recall. It is terrible. But let’s put it into perspective. The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (commonly known as CDC) has the following stats. Nigeria is one of the countries where malaria is endemic and transmission is rife, everywhere in the country. In 2012, there were 207 million individual cases of malaria reported worldwide and of them 627,000 died. That makes it a death rate of 0.3% – which is not as high as pneumonia or diarrhoeal illnesses. And that includes P. falciparum and the other 3 strains of malaria.

Now here are my own stats. Of all the cases I know that have died of malaria, they are mostly children or very old or people with other illnesses making them too weak to fight off malaria like those with sickle cell disease. Usually, these patients would have had the fever for longer than a week and their bodies would have tried to fight for so long and then got to the stage they have nothing left to fight it with so that by the time they are admitted, they are wasted, dehydrated and their body salts are so abnormal that this is what gives them seizures and kills them. Even those with the bad boy strain are usually completely fine if they get treatment in a timely fashion. And this treatment is highly effective for majority of cases and is just as effective given orally as long as the person is not vomiting copiously (which sadly does happen with malaria).

So I am writing this not only to debunk the knee-jerk panicked reaction of UK-trained and UK-based doctors with no first-hand experience of malaria but also to educate. Some strains of malaria can be as bad as the common cold. Some can be as bad as avian flu which although it is a ‘cold’ virus is more dangerous and needs treating. All malaria infection should ideally be treated even if it is a mild infection. People like me who lived a long time in a malaria endemic area develop resistance so malaria for us is much less of a big deal generally than for a malaria-naïve person. Also those of us with the sickle cell trait have extra protection against malaria. But for you who are not so lucky, you should absolutely take antimalarials when you travel to endemic areas. You should absolutely have mosquito repellents and in addition, wear long sleeves (or as Nigerian girls do have a light scarf wrapped over your neck, shoulders and arms) to prevent the persistent mozzies from nibbling on your ‘fresh’ blood. If you are white or even just a fair brown person, be extra careful as mozzies are attracted to fairer softer skin too. I would also sleep under a mosquito net.

Take it from me because although I am fairly immune to malaria I think, I am one of those ‘special’ people that give off the pheromones that drive the mozzies wild. It doesn’t matter if there is only 1 mozzy that gets into the room of 20 people and they are all in bikinis or even bare-chested, I will be the one bitten through my scarf and long skirt. I will be the one walking around scratching the large lumps left behind by each mozzy that found me. I will be the one waiting impatiently for my near-abscesses to heal weeks after I have come back to Birmingham. Le sigh!

Unfortunately despite your best efforts, you may still catch malaria. So if you have recently been to sub-Saharan Africa (or the other endemic regions, see CDC for more information) and you develop a fever high enough to give you the shakes (rigours), run to the doctor. If your bones and joints all begin to ache and all you want to do is sleep in addition to a fever even if mild, I would get tested. And definitely pack an overnight bag if you develop a fever then start to puke up your guts and the vomit is green has such a bitter taste it makes you want to puke again despite having nothing left. That is the malaria vomit (bilious vomiting in medical speak) and you will be admitted and isolated and the whole she-bang if you do seek medical advice which you should. In fact, pack a bag that will last at least 3 days and make sure you have books/a laptop/cards/smartphone/sketchpad or whatever else you need to keep your sanity because being in isolation is no fun. Also be prepared to be pricked several times for blood cultures. But it is for your sake that all this is being done so don’t hate on my fellow doctors ok? Stay safe!

My Legendary Granddad

We all call him Baba. He is 84½ years old and still going strong. He was born in Girei, a small town not far from Yola. He went to the famous Barewa College back in the day and he has lived in many many places over the years. Many Nigerians know him or of him because he was around when Nigeria got Independence from the UK and back then he was a Permanent Secretary for Education to the Federal Government of Nigeria and was involved in a lot of the well done legislative processes related with forming a new Government structure. Unfortunately, a lot of the good work done then has been unravelled by our unscrupulous Governments but enough said on that one!

Nowadays, he is just a farmer. I say just because all my life, he has been a farmer but he was also working full-time in Civil Service and an active board member of several companies and institutions. His farm is massive. It’s many hectares of prime land in Fufore…I used to think it was as big as Yola but maybe not. It stretches from the main road to Fufore from Yola to the mountains in the horizon. Within it are a lake and a large pond. There is the round house, the abattoir, the horse stables, the building that houses the tractors and other large machinery, the barns for the cows, the clusters of huts and bungalows housing all the farm staff. As a Fulani man, his main focus is the cattle. Of course. He has cows for beef but his love is dairy cows and he cross-breeds cows from all over the globe to make them better milk-producers. He is also big on his fish farming these days so has 3 other farms with fish ponds etc. Over the years, he has kept horses, rabbits, chicken for eggs, sheep, goats and more. To feed his large herds, grass is obviously a necessity so a lot of the land is given to planting of grass and making hay. He also routinely plants rice, maize and beans. The beauty of it is that a lot of our food at home is fresh from the farm. We have fresh milk which we make into yoghurt every evening at home. We have fresh meat and fish whenever my granddad decides we are due some. We get large sacks of maize, rice and beans every year so we never have to buy some things.

One thing that stands out about Baba is his discipline and strong will. I found out that he used to be a heavy smoker until he was in his 40s. I was stunned to find that out because as far as I knew he was too strong to be addicted to anything. I am told that he woke up one day and decided he did not want to be a smoker anymore. He went into his room, got his stash of duty-free cigarettes and gave it to one of the house staff and told them to take it away. He never, to our knowledge, smoked another cigarette. Now that is how you go cold turkey. He also used to drink strong black coffee every afternoon at 4pm on the dot. I would have sworn then that he was addicted to his coffee but apparently not so because nowadays, he can do without any coffee for days.

Back in the day, his Yola daily timetable was almost military. He would wake up and leave for the farm at 6am every morning. He would come home for 8am in time for breakfast which he expected to have on the table at 08:00. After breakfast, he was a little flexible and would go out to visit people, have meeting, work in his home office etc. Lunch was at 1pm followed by a siesta which ended around 3:30pm. He would wake up and play solitaire on his bed (back then using real cards) until about 3:45 to 3:50pm when he would get dressed and go into the living room to await his 4pm coffee. He was in the car for the farm at 4:15pm and then back at 6:00pm. So basically, it was a strict timetable from 6am to 6pm daily.

His military tendencies also extend to punctuality. If you say to Baba I will see you at 7pm, he will call at 07:05pm to check why you haven’t yet turned up. If he asks when to expect you and you say between 7pm and 7:30pm, he is a little better but again, he will be on the phone or go out at 7:35pm because he will get impatient at your ‘lateness’. Travelling by road with him can be a hard trial too. Even if the journey is for a holiday somewhere 4 hours away, he will insist that you set off at 6am in the morning and woe on you if you are more than 5 minutes late getting to the car. He once invited a young woman friend of his to join him on a trip to Gembu in the Mambilla which is one of his favourite places to go in Nigeria. He asked her to meet us at home at 6am to set off. He never mentioned to us that he was expecting a guest so no one knew anything about her. Off we went to Gembu that morning and we were there at around 1pm. He decided he wanted to go check out his farm and see the cows in an hour. Now, my sister and foster sister were there too and we were sharing our room and bathroom. We also had to use a kettle to boil some hot water for our baths because there was no working heater. Suffice it to say, Charo (my sister) and Bilky (my foster sister) managed to have their baths and I was last so at 2pm, I was just about to step into the bath when my granddad gave the order for the troops to assemble for departure. Knowing my granddad, I said to the girls ‘you go without me’ and took my time freshening up. I was mooching in the kitchen trying to find some food when there was a knock on the door. I hesitated for a second and then went to investigate. There was a strange woman at the door with a guy. Apparently, they had driven down from Abuja to join us on the Mambilla trip and they had turned up at the house in Yola 30 minutes late and found we were gone. It took them 2 extra hours because they kept getting lost (no sign-posting and no satnav then) but here they were. I shook my head and took them out with me to find lunch. LOL.

Baba decided when I was in Primary school that because I had an aptitude for mathematics, I should be an Economist. He didn’t share his brilliant ‘plan’ though until I got to midway through secondary school when I had to make choices on subjects. One of the many choices was Economics which I opted not to do because I was into my sciences, biology and agriculture in particular. When he found out over dinner one evening that I was not going to be studying Economics, he wasn’t impressed. I was like ‘why do you care?’ Then I found out he thought I would make a brilliant economist. Sadly for him, I am a girl who knows what I want and I knew from the age of 4 that I was going to be a doctor. He is still somewhat sad that I chose to become a doctor and not an economist.

Baba is a type 2 diabetic and has been since he was in his 40s. He was so good with his lifestyle modification regime that he did not need any medication for decades and he has only in the last 3 years or so started using insulin. However, about 2 years ago, he became naughty with his diet. I went to Yola for 6 months in 2012 and one day, I came to the kitchen and found bottle of diet coke in the fridge. Now there are never pop/fizzy drinks in our home unless there is a dinner party or a wedding or something so this was highly unusual. I questioned the cook and found out that Baba had taken to sending the boys out for bottle of coke after I had gone to work when I was on-call or after I had retired to Mammie’s side of the house for the night after work. I was shocked. Why would he after 40 years of being good suddenly opt to start drinking probably the unhealthiest drink on earth? Of course, I took all the coke bottles out of the fridge and gave it away and I never allowed him to store any in the fridge. I am not sure whether he snuck some past me into his bedroom and drank it hot but I know there was no way I was going to let him kill himself slowly through high blood sugars and the attendant miserable complications. Oh dear!

Another stand-out thing about Baba is his vigour. By that I mean his physical stamina and strength. As I have described, he would spend hours every day on the farm and still does when he is Yola (he is not in Yola most of the time these day). He used to walk at such a speed that we had to trot alongside him to keep up with him when we were younger. My grandmother Mammie had tiny size 3.5 feet and walked quiet slowly (don’t know whether it was because of her baby sized feet or just that she was such a dignified lady that she never rushed). We found it quite comical this contrast between Mammie and Baba. I remember once bumping to them on Oxford Street in London. Well, I say bumping into them loosely. We bumped into Baba as he hurried down the street and asked where he had left Mammie. ‘Oh she is back there somewhere’ he said, pointing vaguely in the direction he was coming from. So we had a brief chat and he moved on whilst we went searching for Mammie. We found her about 300m away, calmly walking and window-shopping as though she wasn’t supposed to be with her husband. When we teased her, she shrugged and said ‘you know what he was like’. Yes we do.

He was on his way out in his home in Abuja about 4 years ago when he slipped and fell down the marble staircase. My mother found him unable to put his weight on his leg and when examined, they found he had an open fracture of both his tibia and fibula (the 2 lower leg bones). He was flown to London for surgical repair and then had to learn how to walk again. He went stir-crazy and sent my poor mother up the wall by refusing to do anything. He must have been depressed and scared because he refused to co-operate with physiotherapy for many days and just wanted to be left alone despite claiming he had never felt any pain except at the moment he broke the leg. When he finally made it out of bed and was confident enough on crutches, he was sent home with the plan to use the crutches for 6 weeks until the wound was fully healed. He called me 2 weeks later to ask permission as a doctor to ditch the crutches. I asked what the Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon had instructed and he brushed off my question and insisted he was fine to walk. I refused to give him the go ahead to go crutch-free so soon. It didn’t make the slightest difference. To my mama’s misery, he threw out his crutches and was back to walking in no time. He is now almost back to pre-fracture vigour and only if you look closely will you notice that when he has to step down when walking, he hesitates ever so briefly as the memory of his accident comes back to him.

As I already mentioned in another blog, I inherited my facial features mostly from my grandmother Mammie. I did however inherit some things from my grandfather. His toes which my mum has and I have too with the funny 4th toe. Also the vein-iness of our hands and feet. All of us (my mum, sister and I) have a funny patch 2/3rd of the way of one of our eyebrows which has coarser longer haywire hairs that like to stick out rather comically. Mama studiously ignores her eyebrows and bats our hands away when we try to smooth the funny patch down. My sister gave in to the eyebrow shaping. I am resisting shaping my eyebrows and usually brush them into order but these days, there are usually 1 or 2 really stubborn long pointing hairs that I have to pluck out. A big thing I have inherited from Baba is my stubbornness. I prefer to call it tenacity, determination, decisiveness or ‘knowing what I want’. Most of the Joda grandchildren exhibit the same characteristic to one degree or the other. I have been called hard-headed a few times in my life. I never back down from an argument if I know I am right. I will do things the right way even if it will make my life awkward as long as it is right to do it that way. I would face the scariest person down if they lie about me rather than be quiet for an easy life. I will plan and work hard for years to achieve a goal or dream.

The last thing I have inherited from Baba is his principled ways. As you probably know, for anything to work in Nigeria, you need money and the more money, the better. That is why corruption is so rife. People want to get things done for personal gain and the more they want, the more money they need to accumulate to pay for it all. Sadly, many of these people are the people governing Nigeria so a vast chunk of all of our wealth (and it is vast being one of the largest oil-producing countries) is diverted into personal accounts and safes in homes and spirited away to offshore accounts in Switzerland, the Caribbean Islands and Asia where it can be kept private from inquisitive eyes. Baba is often accused of being a ‘bature’ because he will not make a penny more from a job than the contracted amount. A ‘bature’ means a white person which in the Nigerian context means the colonising Brits. So when you are accused of being a bature, they are suggesting that you follow the white man’s laws and are transparent in a way that is not natural in the Nigerian tradition. 3 out of 4 of his children are just as principled when it comes to earning their way the honest way and I strive to be like them. To me, money is nice to have and necessary to provide the basics of life but my ambition has never been to be rich. I just want to be comfortable. Baba is also straight-talking. If you want to know something, you ask him a direct question and you get a direct answer. Unless he doesn’t know, in which case he will say so. I too am a straight-talker…although people have called me precocious, abrupt and even rude because of it on occasion. To be honest I don’t really care what people say about me unless they misconstrue what I say and get mad. And fair enough, rarely I am intentionally rude because someone is being mean, unhelpful, unfair or verbally abusive at work.

Anyway, I digress again! I will finish by saying that I know Baba is lonely these days because at nearly 85 years, his friends and all of his friends have died. Most of his brothers and sisters are gone too so he feels alone a lot of the time as his children and grandchildren are busy leaving their lives and many of us are not even in the same town as he is. He had diabetes and hypertension and several other organs are beginning to show signs of old age. He keeps losing interest in all of his old interests and every day, he has a new project that gets abandoned when he dreams up something else. Despite all that, I pray that he stays with us until we can have an even bigger party on his 90th birthday compared to his 80th. Because I want to have children and for him to meet them and look at them with the wonder with which he looks at my nephew, his first great-grandchild.

Scapegoating: the current vogue

My father-in-law is Zulu or as they are called when they are Zimbabwean settlers Ndebele. He was telling me the other day about Mugabe’s Korea-trained soldiers (the Sixth Brigade) and how a few years ago, hundreds of young Zulu men were rounded up and shot by them. There was a lot of unhappiness amongst the Zulu and when Mugabe was back for ‘re-election’ campaigning, he was asked directly and he prevaricated but no apology was made. The Zulus are sitting there with resentment and as the years tick by with no justice, the anger and resentment builds.

Now imagine that Mugabe was a Muslim and the Zulus were Christian immigrants. If Mugabe had killed so many hundreds of Christians, he would have been branded an ‘islamist terrorist’. What that term means I have no idea. Except it has the word Islam in it to further demonise all of millions of Muslims all round the world who are no more terrorist than you and I. All those Muslims who are living peacefully with their non-Muslim neighbours.

I, as a Muslim, have non-Muslim family and friends who I love as much as I love my Muslim blood relatives. My in-laws are all Christian and I love them regardless. Even if every time I go to their homes they pray for me ‘in the name of Jesus’ which to me is like a big ***k y** and your beliefs. Some of those Christian friends and now family despite knowing me and claiming to love me still think that all of us Muslims are murderers and would murder them in their sleep given the chance. That I would take up the arms I do not believe in and kill them just because they are not Muslim. Fills my heart with disappointment but what can one do?

My sister’s current BBM status says ‘expect nothing and you won’t be disappointed’. So now I expect no less from the non-Muslims I meet who ask me if they came to Nigeria, would they be killed? Does anyone out there know anything of history and demographics anymore? Last time I checked, Nigeria was not a Muslim country and has never been. The places where I have invited people to (Abuja, Kaduna and Adamawa) probably have at least 50% Muslims and Christians, never mind that in Yola town, the majority may be Muslim and even that I am not wholly convinced. Never mind that all those things that are seen as Islamic are actually part of the Fabric of Yola – where every indigenous girl regardless of faith is expected to wear a scarf once she has reached puberty and not sleep around with every Tom, Dick or Harry who cares to ask. Where if your neighbour has a car and your mother falls ill in the middle of the night, you are welcome to knock on your neighbour’s door and ask them for a ride to the hospital. Where if your child is hungry, you can knock on a neighbour’s door and they would share of their lunch or dinner. Where my marriage has been celebrated in every home I know despite the fact that my husband is from a non-Fulani non-Muslim background. Where everyone is saying they will start saving now so that they can come all the way to England to meet my husband because he hasn’t yet made the trip to Yola. Where every time I am greeted, they pray for me and my husband, bless my marriage and pray for us to have plenty of healthy children. These are the people that are terrorists. These are the people who want all non-Muslims dead.

My people who are not allowed to complain about the atrocities that plagues them all because they happen to be Muslim. When the girls in Chibouk were abducted, people said they are all Christian (which is not true). My mother and her people (civil groups and human rights activists), many of them Muslim like my mother organised rallies and demonstrations in Yola and Abuja to get the world’s attention on the issue and demand for those girls to be brought back. One of my so-called friends on Facebook then posted on her wall that we Nigerians were making too much noise. Why are we going on about these girls? Like so many ignorant people have asked and I said to her as I say to every other ignoramus who thinks they should ask us to be silent: ‘why shouldn’t we?’ If my mama and her people did not shout so loudly, they would have been accused of complicity as with Boko Haram even though they have been shouting about Boko Haram for years. If these nearly 300 girls abducted had been white British or American children, no one would have dared to complain about people wanting them back. This same ‘Facebook friend’ of mine who is the mother to 2 children would make more noise had her 2 girls been abducted too. But no, it is okay for her and so many others to tell us not to make so much noise.

To anyone who thinks that, I say I do not need friends like you. I do not even want friends like you. So unfriend me on Facebook, take me off your BBM, delete my phone numbers from your phones and leave me alone. Go and spread all you negativity and hatred somewhere else. Go and pick on someone else who needs or wants you. Me, I will be just fine with the friends and family who love and understand that I am just like you. I do not want to kill anyone. I do not want them to kill me. I want to have children and I want them to be free to worship or not as they please. Without being victimised for it. After all, it is one of the basic human rights. Freedom to worship!

Na’ima*

*not her real name      

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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