Just as we stepped into her sitting room, she hurriedly tried to sit upright on the couch she was lying on, it was obvious she had been waiting for us and was glad to see us.
She was helped to sit by the one of us, and as she sat, she smiled, welcoming us into her home.
I didn’t believe I was standing face-to-face with Mama Asiata Onikoyi-Laguda, the woman living with sickle cell disease, who will be 92 in November. (This interview was done in 2017)
She was looking so healthy and beautiful. Her pictures that I had come across did not do much justice to how healthy and beautiful she looks.
I had heard about her but never thought I would meet her one day until I interviewed Bukola Bolarinwa, who is a Blood Donation & Sickle Cell Awareness Advocate, and she told me they were going to visit Mama. I asked if I could come along. She said yes!
And that was how my journey to meeting the world’s oldest woman living with sickle cell disease began.
She remains an inspiration to people living with sickle cell disease and a hope that they also can live beyond their crisis and the limitations that come with it.
“From today, you’re no more sickle cell. I’m not a sickle celler o; how can a 92-year old be a sickle celler?” she asked and then added a word of prayer, “And you’re all going to be 100 years and carry your children. I’m not going anywhere yet. I’m here to encourage you.” She prayed.
She had a genuine smile plastered across her face as she jiggled her head to a Korede Bello song playing on the TV, and I couldn’t help myself… I asked her how she stays so positive.
Looking shocked at my question, she said, “Life is what you make it. Why won’t I make it lively? It is better you make it happy no matter the circumstances, even when I used to have serious crisis, let alone now. There’s nothing like sickle cell again. Your mind tells you what you are. Until I fell down, I would walk from here to Mushin, Oshodi and everywhere. It was amala I finished eating that day. I thank God that it didn’t go to my brain. I had a fall and I got up.”
The journalist in me would not stop probing. There must have been a time she wanted to give up, I thought.
But mama strongly retorted, “I never gave up. Onikoyi, we are warriors. We are strong. I never gave up, even when the crisis used to be bitter. Sometimes, I had my baby on the bed when I had a crisis. It was only once when I was abroad that I thought I was going to die.”
Recounting the experience, mama said she just didn’t know how she came about that thought.
“When I had my daughter, Mrs. Adeniji, I didn’t know when I was expecting her. I began to have a feeling that I was going to die.”
“On the day I gave birth to her, I was bleeding. I told the doctors I was going to die but the doctors said, ‘You are not going anywhere; you are not dying.’ All the doctors in that hospital that day were attending to me, and I joined them for lunch and they said, ‘Don’t you see?’ All my children came by natural birth.”
Mama also recounted another experience where she was told not to go to England because of the cold.
“When I was going to England, people told my mum that the cold there was too much but I told my mum that the God in Nigeria is the God in England. The God that lives in Nigeria is also living in England,” mama said.
She explained that she traveled to England and didn’t experience any crisis until she returned to Nigeria.
“You are a strong woman,” I said to mama.
“I think I’m a strong believer.” Mama responded quickly. “I pray a lot and I fast a lot until now that I’m old. In fact, I used to fast 90 days in a year. I performed hajj 13 times.”
Just after she said that, she asked us to recite the Lord’s Prayer.
“But you are a Muslim,” I stated, surprised.
“I was brought up by a Christian but I remained Muslim all my life,” mama said. “I don’t know what to say, but anytime you remember me, just say ‘Amen!’” mama told us.
“Does it explain the big bible lying on her center table?” I thought. I didn’t ask her as she had already established herself as a strong believer who doesn’t joke with God.
Because she is a strong believer in God doesn’t mean she has not had her fair share of life’s challenges as she lost her only son at a young age.
However, mama is consoled by her grandson, the one her late son had before his death. Mama’s love for her grandson, Bolaji, was so evident that she kept talking about him.
“I lost my only son. Have you seen Bolaji? Bolaji’s father was my only son. Bolaji is the only son he left for me. So, I hope Bolaji will marry quickly.”
Coincidentally, Bolaji, who is a recording artiste and an entrepreneur, came in. Just as mama laid eyes on him, her face shone and her eyes lit up and she beckoned on him to sit on the couch with her.
“I have many grandchildren but I’m just in love with Bolaji. I once ran away with him to England, because I didn’t want anybody to carry my baby,” recalling how she lied at the embassy that Bolaji’s mother eloped, leaving Bolaji for her.
“I married Bolaji’s granddad because of my crisis. I was married to a doctor, although he was a chest doctor. He was a lovely man and a great lover. He took good care of me. I didn’t even ask what his genotype was when I married him and none of my children is SS. I named Bolaji after him.”
After mama lost her first husband, she later remarried.
“He was a nice man and he drew all my children to him. I didn’t have any child for my second husband because I always miscarried,” she said.
You could tell mama also loved her second husband, Alhaji Laguda, so much as she recalled his death and the memories they shared.
However, mama wasn’t going to let that dampen her spirit as she quickly chipped in memories from her childhood.
“I am the only sickle cell child in my family. When I was younger and living with a guardian, I ground pepper with my knees on the ground before going to school,” referring to the strength she had despite her health status.
“If my father was alive, I wouldn’t have gone to school because he would have kept me at home, pampering me. My father would make ‘eba’ for me with sugar,” mama recalled.
Mama had some encouraging words for some of us who are living with the sickle cell disease.
“Sickle cell is not a death sentence,” she said. “When I had pains in my legs, I couldn’t walk. When I had pains in my hands, I couldn’t even feed myself,” she added, assuring them that the phase shall pass.
“Before now, I couldn’t sleep with the fan on. Now, I can even have the AC on,” she said, pointing to a fan standing close to where she sat.
“I don’t sleep under mosquito net again. Mosquitoes don’t come near me; they know I’m a forbidden fruit.”
She also advised them to avoid what may trigger crisis.
“You are what your mind says you are. Live well. Know your dos and don’ts. Don’t drink cold water.”
We all embraced mama one after the other as we all found hope and strength in her words.
We did not leave mama’s house without another session of prayers.
This time, in the Muslim way.