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The Cycle of Life Part 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Cycle of Life Part 2

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

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

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

Sai mu ‘yan Hausa cultural,

Daga makarantar Geeeee Geeeee (GG).

Mun zo ne muyi maku wasa,

Wasan mu ta Hausa.

Mun zo ne muyi maku wasa,

Wasan mu ta Hausa.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cycle of Life Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Expiry Date

This morning I read drkategranger’s blog regarding her expiry date (she is a doctor with terminal cancer who talks about death so candidly, it inspires. I would absolutely recommend!!!). The blog and some of the responses to it got me to thinking about death. I have already written about dying and the fact that I fear it not so much. As a Muslim, I tend to see death as just one of those certainties of life so I treat it quite matter-of-factly. This blog is will be further musings about my experiences of death. I will start with a quote from Hadith (Islamic teachings) which summarises how I generally see life and death:

Al-Hasan Al-Basrî said:
‘The life of this world is made up of three days: yesterday has gone with all that was done; tomorrow, you may never reach; but today is for you so do what you should do today.’ Al-Bayhaqî, Al-Zuhd Al-Kabîr p197

I am generally an optimist or more accurately an optimistic realist so I try not to be morbid and I am generally not one to dwell on death. However, I have had times in my life where the thought of dying has crossed my mind. Last winter was a pretty bad time for me. I was working in the hospital that inspired me to become a paediatrician (which still inspires me) but I was in a job with a particularly toxic individual who succeeded in poisoning the atmosphere. I became depressed after 6 weeks of this. So much so that I hated waking up every morning I was scheduled to work. It got to a point that I would lie in bed, sleepless and think ‘would it be that bad if I didn’t wake up in the morning?’ As soon as the thought came to my mind, I would feel guilty and terrible. Guilty because I knew that my life really wasn’t that bad and that there was so much for me to be grateful for. Terrible because I knew my death, although insignificant in the grand scheme of things, would be horrible for my nearest and dearest. My mama especially. I got through those 4 months because my husband was there and would not let me sink into the depths of depression that kept pulling at me. Thank you George!

I am now back to my normal sunny self despite some current work horrors. As a newly-qualified doctor back in 2009, I dealt with death day in, day out especially on my first job on gastroenterology at a busy inner-city hospital. After the initial shock, I got used to it. Not that I didn’t care or it didn’t bother me but I dealt ok with it. There are 2 patient deaths from those days that have stayed with me. Both died of alcoholic liver disease. Both men in their 40s.

The first patient died slowly from hepatorenal syndrome (HRS). Basically with chronic liver failure, if your kidneys too fail, you will die soon because that means 2 of your 4 vital organs are dead or dying, unless you get brand new organs (i.e. transplants). As things currently stand, you cannot be put on the transplant list for a new liver if you are still abusing alcohol because the new liver will get damaged just the same and it is considered a waste of an organ that is in high demand but short in supply. So with my first patient, who I will call Patient A, when his kidney function tests declined rapidly and nothing we could do medically fixed it, we diagnosed HRS and my registrars and consultants had a meeting with his wife to inform her of the diagnosis and what that meant for the patient. He too was told in due time but because of his liver failure, he was confused and did not fully grasp the fact that his condition was terminal.

He deteriorated slowly over a few weeks but in the meantime, he would ask me daily when he could go home and travel to India to be blessed in the Ganges River. I would mutter something non-committal and beat a hasty retreat out of his side room. Initially, it was clear that his wife knew his death was near. But even she began to belief he would miraculously recover from his liver and kidney failure. Every week, she would say something that made us worry we hadn’t prepared her for the inevitable. Every week we would remind her gently that although she couldn’t see it, he was in actual fact deteriorating judging from his biochemistry lab results and worsening oliguria (he was weeing less and less).

In the week of his death, he suddenly looked well again. If I wasn’t the doctor patiently doing bloods on alternate days and chasing those results and noting the relentless rise in his urea and creatinine, I too would have started to believe in miracles. His wife upon seeing the light return to his eyes and his demeanour brighten plunged headlong into denial and joined him in planning their trip to India to the Holy Ganges River. Less than 24 hours before his eventual expiry date, it was devastating for me to watch her grief as the light in his eyes faded rapidly and he shrunk back into himself. Within 12 hours of his final illness beginning, his strength was gone and his mind with it. His utterings became incomprehensible and he became completely disorientated. The look on her face said it all when we came in to see him on our ward round that morning. We returned the look and she ran out of the room to sob in the corner. He was anuric by then (had stopped weeing completely) with a creatinine of over 400 (in other words, his kidneys had packed up). His liver function tests painted an equally damning picture. We completed his end of life paperwork that morning and when we left work that evening, he was hanging on by the tips of his fingers. We came in the next morning to the news that he had died before the end of the day before. The side room he had occupied for many weeks stood empty, awaiting its deep clean before the next customer.

Patient B was a young alcoholic who had developed liver cirrhosis in the months before I started the job. He had just turned 40 and I don’t think had any idea how serious the consequences of regular alcohol binges could be. Reality hit when another patient who was his ‘neighbour’ on our ward developed HRS and died rather quickly. All of our words of warning had somehow not sunk but with this other patient’s death, his mortality was clear to him. He called me over urgently that afternoon and said ‘Doc, I am ready to change’. I was pleased and felt a sense of accomplishment when I referred him to the rehabilitation programme. His wife found me the next day before they were discharged home to thank me for getting through to him. I was honest to say it wasn’t anything I did.

Unfortunately, he came in a few weeks later unwell with an infection which caused his liver function to deteriorate badly. I was encouraged to hear that he had no touched a drop of alcohol since his last admission. He developed litres of fluid in his tummy and I had to put in a tube into the side of his tummy to drain out all that fluid. He was in a lot of discomfort and fearful for his life and he asked me ‘Doc, am I going to die?’ I hesitated over the words I used but in the end I made no promises. Just that I would do everything I could to help him get through this. At first, it looked like the drain and intravenous antibiotics were effectively doing the job and the next day, the fear was gone from his eyes. I was encouraged by his blood results and left having ordered some more routine bloods for the next morning. Coincidentally, at I was securing his abdominal drain, I carelessly dropped the needle I was using to suture and when I went to retrieve it, gave myself a needle-stick injury. I had to get a co-doctor to inform him and take blood samples off him to check that he didn’t have any blood borne infections I could catch. He apologised every day after the event like it was his fault I had stuck myself with a contaminated needle. He asked me about those results daily – he seemed genuinely to care for my welfare. This went on for over 2 weeks as he slowly improved.

I was doing the ward round alone one morning when I was called urgently to his side. He was in a great deal of pain and was writhing in his bed with his abdomen larger than before we drained him. He was pale and clammy and his eyes looked like a man staring down the barrel of a gun. I could barely make sense of his words and as I changed his prescriptions, called the blood bank for blood products and prepared to get a new drain inserted. I could see the life begin to ebb out of his eyes. In a panic, I called my registrars and told them I needed them on the ward ASAP because patient B had taken a turn for worse and nothing I was doing was making a difference. The registrar told me to leave the drain for the meantime and focus on reassuring the patient. After I asked the nurses to call his wife in, I went to him and I held his cold hand. I looked into those eyes and I knew in that instant that he was not long for this world. I remember saying a mental prayer that he could hang on for his wife to be by his side.

‘Doc!’ he cried. I squeezed his hand and responded ‘Yes B?’

‘I am dying aren’t I?’ he asked. I looked down and swallowed the lump in my throat. ‘I am here for you B and I will do everything I can to help you. Your Mrs is on her way in.’

‘Stay with me,’ he entreated fearfully. I nodded and again I had to look away because the fear in his eyes was too powerful for me to take in. The rest of it was a blur. His wife made it in before he died but not in time for him to know she was there. He was delirious by the time she got to the ward and as he was slipping away before our very eyes, there was little time to have ‘that conversation’ with his wife. The consultant whisked her away and broke the news to her. She could see that treatment was futile by then and knew that he was on maximal available medical treatment. We had no more to offer. She signed the DNAR (do not attempt resuscitation) forms and we set about making him less agitated. When we finally called it a day, he was less distressed, still mumbling incoherently and his eyes had started to take on that distant look I now associate with death. I came in the next morning to a request to come to the morgue to complete his death certificate and Crem forms so that his wife could lay him to rest. I got a call 3 days after his death to say his blood tests for blood borne infections had come back negative so I was in the clear. I cried in the staff toilets. He would have been relieved not to have put me at risk I think.

What did patients A and B teach me about death and dying? Firstly that when it is your time to go, it is your time to go. Life unfortunately doesn’t usually give you a clearly labelled package with an expiry date on it. Secondly, although death is scary for the person dying, it is actually worse for the person who loves them who has to watch them lose their battle to live and battle their fear of the unknown. Who has to go home and face life without them and rebuild their lives around the hole left by the dead loved one. Who for a very long time will think about their dear departed every morning when they wake up and every night before they fall asleep. Lastly, every human is unique. Despite having the same disease and modifying your risk factors, your body will do its own thing. We doctors can try to influence outcome but whether we succeed or not is not within our power to control. That is beyond science and medicine. That is life. That is God. That is reality. May we all depart this world in the easiest swiftest way possible. Amen

On Death and Dying

My best friend confessed early in our friendship her fear of death and I remember being curious about why she was scared. Now looking back, maybe the question should have been why I did not feel the same? I mean of course death is not a welcome or happy thought but I don’t dwell on death and I certainly don’t actively fear it. I am very much of the school that there are 2 certainties in life: we are all born and we will all die. And since death is inevitable, I don’t think about it much.

Death is the final release.  Whatever one believes in, I think most of us believe that once you are dead, you don’t feel pain anymore. I know some people believe in reincarnation, some like me believe in the Hereafter and some think that whilst your body dies, your spirit never does and it still retains the memory of pain/anger/hurt/happiness. Although I believe in the Hereafter being Muslim, I do think that when I die, my soul leaves my physical shell and returns to its source (God). Then at some point, our lives are all assessed and we are rewarded (or not) for all our good deeds.

I wonder sometimes about what it feels like when your soul detaches from your body. I wonder if it is like a physical break, painful but transient or if it is more like an emotional separation where the after effects are long felt. I then wonder what the soul feels if it feels anything at all once it is separate from the vessel that conducts and interprets pain. Beyond that, I think death is more fearful if you are not the one dying. I mean, I would imagine that if I was in a terrible car accident, I would either die instantly with no time to think or become scared of what was happening. Or I would be in pain or feel myself getting weaker and weaker and it would be so unbearable that death would be a welcome reprieve. Same as if I had a chronic illness which was not curable but I was steadily deteriorating then dying would probably be a mercy for me.

When I think about dying properly, I realise that although I am not afraid of the dying itself, I am scared of some of the ways that I could potentially die. I am afraid after all. Being a medic, I have seen many people die so I have spent time thinking about the way I would not like to die. I guess one of the scary things about dying is that most of us do not have any idea when we are going to die. It is different for those who are diagnosed with ‘predictable’ illness but even there, giving patients a prognosis (i.e. a number of days/weeks/months/years they are expected to survive) is not an exact science.

In the past 6 months, I have come across patients who were not expected to survive being born and the first few days of life yet despite all odds, they are still with us many months later. I have also come across patients who were predicted more time only to deteriorate much quicker than anyone has experienced, giving no time for their loved ones to be prepared. The only people whose time of death can be predicted with any accuracy are those who are already brainstem dead but on life-support and when the machines are switched off, we can be fairly sure they will die within a certain time period. Even so, we have all heard of the ‘miracle’ stories where patients defy the odds and remain alive far beyond the expected time of death.

My ideal death would be the one most people wish for. I would like to die in my own bed, in my sleep. I would like for it to be when I am old but young enough that I am still completely independent. I would like for it to be after a family reunion where my nearest and dearest are all sitting around a table and reminiscing about the good old days. I would like for it to be after my mother has gone to her grave because I can’t think of anything worse for a mother than to bury her own child. I would like for my children (if I have them) to be old enough that losing their mother does not scar them too badly.

If I am unfortunate enough to have a catastrophic trauma and needed life support, I have told my closest family that I would prefer not to be kept alive for many days. I would like to be given a chance to recover (if there is one) but when it gets to the time where my chances of waking or recovering are much less that 50% then I would prefer for the machines to be switched off. I would like to be an organ donor although in my donor card, I have not ticked the skin donor thing because I am a bit squeamish when it comes to being buried with bits of my skin harvested. I don’t yet have a will but I have told my husband of my wishes verbally if I don’t get around to writing a will before the day comes.

I would like to be buried according to Islamic rites. I think the simplicity of an Islamic burial suits me perfectly. Washed and wrapped in a cotton shroud and buried within a day. If I am in my bed, the closest Muslim graveyard would be perfect but if I happen to be abroad in a strange land then I would like to be taken back to Kaduna, the town of my birth because that symmetry also appeals to me. Also my great grandmother and grandmother are both buried there so it would feel right to lie next to them.

When my grandmother died, there were a lot of tears and prayers and silence but there was remembrance every evening after the crowds dispersed and I found that uplifting. I think the sitting around the dining table and talking about Mammie’s life helped lift the gloom that surrounded us all. The fact that we could all remember and share our memories of Mammie reminded us all that although she was gone, a part of her was alive in us all. And that she had had a good life and her quick death was merciful. Those evenings also reminded us that life is transient. It is unpredictable and death can pick any of us at any time. In remembering our dead, we embraced life and were thankful for all we had been gifted with. I really hope those I leave behind can do that instead of it being all sad and tearful. May we all die a pain-free dignified death and may those we live behind be able to accept it is our time to go and may they have the strength to celebrate a life well-lived (hopefully).

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.

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.

Tell Your Truth  

I quoted Clint Smith’s comment about fear in an earlier blog and this one here is inspired by the something else he said on the same YouTube video. He is an American who lectures in the States and he says in the video that the only thing he asks of his students when they are in his class is to tell their truth and that nothing leaves the room without their permission. This got me thinking about truth and its importance. I know everybody lies sometimes and actually sometimes a lie is the kinder thing to say. However, I do think these days too many people lie willy-nilly for no good reason and it baffles me why.

My mama and I (in case you haven’t realised it yet from the number of times I mention her in every blog) are very close and I think one of the biggest reasons why that is with each other, we tell our truths. My sister and I never went through ‘teenage rebellion’. We didn’t have anything to rebel about because everything in my home was out in the open. My mama has always been truthful when asked anything directly. Of course, there are things she held back from us when we were too young to understand but as long as she thought we would understand the answers and that it would teach us something, we were told. I knew about the birds and the bees from very early on and so it was never a big deal talking about sex in our home. Because my mama is a feminist and part of her NGO work is empowering women and girls, I attended a workshop she organised in the early 90s back when HIV and AIDS were in the headlines. So before I was 10 years old, I knew about safe sex, condoms, how to put them on and dispose of them safely. Even before that, I knew all about periods and puberty and everything else that was necessary to face growing up.

In the same vein, whenever I made friends with anybody, I would invite them to our home at the earliest opportunity so that my mama could meet them. I knew that if my mama was okay with such a friend, then they were good enough to keep as friends. I could rely on my mama to be truthful. So over the years, we have talked about friends, boys, men, sex, drugs, alcohol, travel, homosexuality, religion, war, the potential for an apocalypse, death and anything else I was ever curious about. We are so comfortable and open that people often get surprised by how much my mama knows about the exact things people would try to hide from their parents. It is only as I have got older that I have started to edit what I tell my mama. This is mainly to do with my significant other relationship and I keep things from her not to withhold my truth but so as not to sour the relationship between my husband and his mother-in-law. After all, ‘they’ say that if you tell your parents about the ‘bad things’ that your spouse does to you, they will harbour it for aeons whereas you might forget it the very next day or week. I am a very lucky girl because in my home telling my truth was not only actively encouraged, it was expected. I am now trying to teach my husband the same and I hope to emulate the same culture with my future children.

In my profession, telling your truth is a GMC requirement and it is set out as part of the duties of doctors which we are sent in paper copy periodically to remind us of our oath. I am a paediatrician and definitely not a surgeon. However as the cookie crumbles, I happen to be doing a surgical rotation (which is ending today. Hoorah!) currently and I have had major issues because of a lack of truth and the surgical culture of aggressive competitiveness and subtle bullying. I particularly had a problem when my father-in-law was taken ill and I was delayed going in for a shift. Long story short, I couldn’t leave him until he was safe and so I was going to be late for handover. The doctor that was meant to handover offered to swap shifts. I thought how lovely, swapped shifts and thought nothing more of it. Then rumours started to fly after I was late for another shift about how I was so late I didn’t turn up for my shift. After a couple of weeks of ignoring the immaturity of it all, I found the senior doctors involved and asked if they had a problem with me particularly if swapping that shift was a problem. They all denied having any issues but I had heard enough to take it to the top consultant and my supervising consultant. They were both lovely and reassured me. I thought ‘Great. All sorted and I’ll put it all behind me’. The rumours continued and I eventually found the source of it all. Disappointingly, it was a registrar senior to me who always made out we were cool. So I had it out with him and asked him to be professional. I am pleased to say once I confronted him, he has behaved in a more professional manner but I must say I will be glad not to have to work so closely with him anymore. I just think that there is no place in a professional setting for lies – everyone is there to do a job and if you are not interested and focussed in the job, maybe you should quit and go do something else.

I have a confession to make. I am rather feisty and not afraid to speak out in most situations. Even as a child, the worst thing you could do to me was lie about me. I remember way back in primary school, someone jealous of me for something or the other said to one of my friends that I had said something about her behind her back. My friend promptly told me because she didn’t believe I would do such a thing but I was so mad that the girl had accused me wrongly that I cried. Unfortunately, in these situations, I still get so angry that I often end up crying because I feel helpless to do anything else. I am getting better at dealing with the anger though so hopefully by the time the kids come along, their mummy won’t go round embarrassing them with her tears. As far back as I remember, I made a vow to myself. Unless there is an absolute need to hide the truth, I shall always tell my truth. And honestly, it feels great!

School Refusal

My sister exhibited school refusal behaviour for years when we were little. Every morning was a huge trial in my home before I was old enough to start school. My mama would battle to get my sister washed and dressed in her uniform and she would dawdle as much as was humanly possible to my mama’s intense irritation. Then, as she approached the door of the car, all hell would break loose as she would weep as loudly as she could. If I hadn’t been witness, I would have assumed my mama was draconian and was whipping her to shreds with a dourinah (a.k.a. koboko – a leather whip that is extremely effective for whipping and causing exquisite pain). She would get as far as the door of the car and like a limpet, grab onto the frame of the door with hands and bracing her feet on the floor of the car refuse to get into the car. My mama would withdraw because she couldn’t face this torture every morning and either the driver or one of the cousins/aunties or 2 would have to prise my sister’s hands and feet off her brace position and someone chuck her into the car and shut the door. Once in the car, her weeping would settle into less loud sobbing and the last image I would have of her was her face pressed longingly to the back window, staring at me whilst tears streamed down her face as the car reversed out of our drive and took her away to school.

Coming home was a much happier affair for my sister. As soon as I heard the car’s horn blare for someone to open the gate, I would stop whatever I was doing and race onto the veranda and wait for my sister to alight. Then I would excitedly tell her about my ‘amazing day’. Truth was I hated being left at home almost as much as she appeared to hate leaving for school. I was so bored without her that I would make up stories about how much fun I had at home whilst she was away. The best recurrent series of stories that I told my sister was as follows. We had a concrete electrical pole by the side of the house that stood about 7-8 metres high. I used to pretend I could climb up this pole and once I got to the top, I would whizz around the country using the electric cables, having adventures as I went. A bit like time travel but without a tardis or similar machine. To be fair, my sister was sceptical to begin with because it was a little far-fetched but two things convinced her: an older cousin who was home with me corroborated my story and I embroidered the stories with so many details that her imagination overcame her scepticism.

Basically, I could only go up this pole on a weekday morning when my sister was never there. I somehow had special strength in my limbs that would allow me to climb to the top during those hours of the day but not outside those hours. I remember demonstrating to my sister how I could climb about 1-2 metres then get stuck so I guess she could imagine how if I carried on, I would get to the top. Then she questioned why we would go to certain places only. I was wise enough to know that if I started to talk about places I had never been, I would be caught out so I always went to Kaduna or Lagos, Mambilla or Kano or even Michika on my time travels. I told her that I did not control the time travel. All I did was climb to the top and I was beamed somewhere. I cannot remember the exact details of my stories but it generally involved being chased by someone or some animal and escaping or visiting the seaside or a mountain. Once my sister was convinced, it was easy to spin the tales into more fantastic stories. Little did I know that she believed for many many years after I stopped those tales. Apparently my story-telling was so good it was only after she was a grown up that she questioned those tales. She only admitted that to me in the last couple of years!

Looking back, I think perhaps that my sister hated leaving for school because she was missing out on the adventures of the pole travels. Also she must have missed me as much as I missed her and it was like a small bereavement every morning. Poor little thing. This must have been the case because I think within a week of my starting school, she would skip happily to the car every morning and I don’t remember any more early morning tears. Phew!

Allah (swt) is Al-Jabbar: The Mender of broken hearts

The words that follow were written by a lady called Asmaa Hussein who lost her love and reflects on how her relationship with God is helping her through it all. It struck a cord with me because this is the Allah I believe in and worship. The loving, merciful incredible God who promotes peace and love, not war and violence.

 

It has been a year since I got that most-hated phone call, a year since I stood over Amr’s body at the morgue and tried to memorize every feature of his face before I would have to let him go, a year since we were attacked in the graveyard by people who hated the truth and righteousness that Amr stood for.

People wonder how I was able to hold myself together. They wonder why I haven’t collapsed or given up hope in Allah or in the goodness of people.

I don’t have an explanation from myself, but the answer can be found in the story of Prophet Musa’s mother in the Quran. She was instructed to place him in the water if she feared for his life at the hands of Pharaoh’s army:

“And We inspired to the mother of Moses, ‘Suckle him; but when you fear for him, cast him into the river and do not fear and do not grieve. Indeed, We will return him to you and will make him [one] of the messengers'” (28:7).

I often wonder about what kind of strength she must have possessed when she placed her infant child into a basket, and pushed him into the water without knowing where he would end up, or whether she would see him again. She did one of the most difficult things a mother could do. But she held herself together with the help and guidance of her Lord, and watched him drift away.

Musa was accepted into the house of Aasiya, but he refused to breastfeed from any woman and his sister who had been following him, led them to take the baby back to his mother.

What was the purpose of Allah (swt) returning Musa to his mother? Musa could have breastfed from any woman without returning to his mother and still grown up to be the messenger of Allah, not decreasing anything from his righteousness or his remarkable journey and story.

But there was a reason Musa had to come home to his mother:

“So We restored him to his mother that she might be content and not grieve and that she would know that the promise of Allah is true. But most of the people do not know” (28:13).

Allah caused Musa to return to his mother simply so that she wouldn’t grieve, so that her heart would be at ease and that her faith would not waiver.

Allah (swt) cared about this woman. He mended her heart, not so that the course of history could change or some big momentous event could take place. He mended it because He is Merciful and Loving to the believers. And so that when we read her story, we can know the extent of His Love and Mercy. That is all. And that is enough of a reason.

Allah (swt) doesn’t wish for the believers to grieve, and He wants them to know that His promise is true. I’ve lived it this past year. Every time I was about to reach a breaking point in my despair, or to fall into the darkness of losing hope, I would receive some news that would lift my heart. Someone would have a beautiful dream of Amr, someone would perform ummrah on his behalf, or establish some charity on his behalf. I would receive words of support from people I love and respect, or encounter some verses in the Quran that would take me by the hand and hold me steady.

I remember a few months ago sitting one day after I had prayed Asr. Tears were streaming down my cheeks, my heart was aching and I didn’t know how to rid myself of the immense pain. I raised my hands to ask Allah (swt) to help me be able to somehow visit His sacred house to come closer to Him and for that to be a part of my healing. Before I was able to even make the dua, my phone rang. It was Amr’s parents calling me to tell me they were just at the Ka’bah making dua for me to be able to visit it. And I thought – how strange that this dua has yet to come from my lips, and Allah (swt) has put the same dua on the lips of people beloved to me in such a blessed place.

My heart was lifted so much in that moment that the tears of sadness turned into tears of joy.

None of these things are coincidences. And none of these things happened because I am particularly good or worthy. They happen because Allah (swt) cares about the hearts of His slaves. I know that He cares about me and about my daughter because I’ve lived in the realm of this immense Mercy this past year…every ounce of pain was met with some inexplicable beauty and serenity that no human effort could produce. And it was from Him. All of it.

If you believe in Allah alone with no partners or intermediaries, and you worship Him alone, and you sacrifice that which you love in order to come closer to Him alone, you will see wonders in your life. Your difficulties will become blessings. Your heartaches will become healing. Your duas will be answered in ways that you could have never imagined. He doesn’t want you to grieve, and He wants you to know that His promise to the believers is true.

It’s not any more complicated than that. It happened to me, and it’s still happening.

Alhamdulillah.