Monday, March 17, 2014

On Managing Illness

BY Adejoh Idoko Momoh

‘I think I have cancer Aunty’

There would be the longest ten seconds of silence and then I would continue. ‘It was in the bathroom, I reached for my scrotum and I found a lump’

Like every other Christian I know, my aunt would break into prayer: tell me of how cancer was not my portion and I probably was just scared. She would advise I go see a doctor and ask me to update her after I saw one.

Seven years later I would summon the courage to tell my mother of this lump, we would go to a clinic and discover it was a hernia. They would say it was on the right and then as they surgically repaired the one tear, they would see that it presented on the left as well and recommend that I had a second surgery.
My mood swung like a pendulum in the days that followed the diagnosis; at first I felt nothing, then my mother would ask why I did not trust her with information on the lump when I first found it and I would feel guilt. In a few hours, I would wonder if the doctors really diagnosed me wrong and it was cancer, then I would feel some relief it was not. At night, as I lay to sleep I would sink my face deep in my pillow and cry really loud sobs. In the morning I would think to surgical procedures and how expensive they can be. My thoughts would progress to worry induced by illness and then a lack of finances, then guilt again and some more blame; just the thought that I may have brought this upon myself.

I would go through all these privately and largely alone. I would have the support system of family but then I would consider that everybody has his troubles and I would not bother them. My brother would be at my side all the time, offering to help and my mother, as though magically putting her life on hold would constantly cater to me. I have only a handful of friends and at the time, besides 2 dear friends, they all would be absent. I would wonder why no one else was there and then I would think this spoke more about me and the people I chose to surround myself with.

It is a terrible thing to feel alone: It is horrific to keep family at a distance or hide the fact that you truly hurt from those who are closest to you. For we all who have at some point experienced illness, it is important that we get educated, know that we do not bring these things upon ourselves and discuss them with family, friends, and doctors. Know that if we only will, there is no illness that is too big to conquer or no situation that is capable of breaking us beyond what we allow.

Today, I met someone who would become a lifelong friend. He broke his neck and spine last year in an accident. His lungs collapsed due to an untreated pneumonia infection and he lost all feeling because of his broken spine. The doctors told him he might not speak, or walk, or stand for the rest of his life. Now following a course of therapy, even if his speech is painfully blurred he talks. Even if his hands are slow and they constantly flail, he has regained function in them. Even if he does not walk steady, he stands, takes a few steps then sits again. Stories like these should give us hope; tell us that whatever life throws at us, if we are so willed we would conquer, succeed and that we are truly not limited by anything beyond ourselves.

Feel free to share in the comments experiences that keep you hopeful. If you prefer, leave me a mail  ( and I promise to respond to each one.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Red Lipstick-ed Teacher

BY Adejoh Idoko Momoh

We’ve all had that one teacher who was so tough on all her students that she was generally feared. That one in her middle ages who would wear layers and layers of very bright red lipstick and would come to school in stilettos. She mostly would teach a subject like English and would speak it impeccably, such that she would feel somewhat superior to fellow teachers who spoke the language averagely.

‘Take out a sheet of paper and have your writing materials ready’

she would say as she cat-walked into class one morning. She would administer an impromptu test that would form part of our continuous assessment even though she did not prepare us for it. All through primary school as I remember it, I had never felt as much pressure about passing a simple test as I did that day.
I had written about Kenya’s Maasai people and their distinctive, a-little-too-colorful customs. How they believed soil was therapeutic and they buried themselves in the ground for healing. And then I waited, held my breath as she sat at her table with cane by her side scoring our essays.
As she passed by me returning test scripts, I would see red circles correcting grammar on the first page of my essay and I would think of how she now considered me a failure. How the matron when I got back to the hostel would consider me same and my dad… His face as he looked at the test script not saying anything but probably contemplating if it was still a wise decision to have me in school.
I would flip three pages and what I would see would shock me;
97%. With a tiny gold star next to it.
The universally feared teacher who made it a point not to ever give good grades gave me an A. She didn’t just stop there; she stapled a tiny piece of paper just at the bottom of my script that made me feel special, very special.

‘Excellent storytelling. You have an ease with words. You do us all a disservice if you do not consider a career in writing’ 

The words so profound, no one had ever said anything like that to me. Except of course for my mom who in typical mom-like manner would say I was particularly skilled at whatever it is I told her I was interested in and that I was a genius who would redefine everything I set my hands on. This was when I knew I wanted to write. I knew I would purposefully look for something to genuinely compliment about people whenever I met them. For the sole reason that affirming words like these from friends, mentors, teachers, family, strangers even, make us into the people we ultimately become. They point us in the direction of a dream, make us consider or at least contemplate it.
Words carry immense power and it’s no good trying to deny this. My very favorite quote by Nigerian writer, Toni Kan is ‘sometimes the verbal wounds we inflict on others live with us for the rest of our lives’. As far as our words can go to tell someone we believe in them, they can also tear us or someone else down, make them question the very essence of their lives.
This is perhaps why we need to speak a little more kindly, a little more thoughtfully. Make conscious efforts to have our words motivate people rather than discourage them, inspire them as opposed to devastate them. We most often have no idea what impact a few words stringed together can make. 

Share stories of someone who has been an inspiration to you in the comments or send me a private mail at