Uma walked through the door of the two bedroom flat that served as her and her mother’s home, carrying her school backpack across one shoulder. Sweat lined the corners of her face but she was smiling.
“I am home,” Uma called out as she made her way to the kitchen, which faced the entrance at the other side of the medium sized sitting room.
“Welcome, honey,” her mother, Ms. Adaeze replied from the kitchen. As Uma walked into the kitchen, her mother was already extending her hands for an embrace. It was quick, turning her attention to Uma’s bag and taking it from her. “Someone is beaming. You are really liking your new school, aren’t you?”
Uma’s smile widened as she walked out of the kitchen with her mum to take a seat at the dining table. “Yes, I am,” Uma said.
“Well, I am glad to hear that,” Ms. Adaeze said, tossing the bag at the foot of the chair Uma sat on.
Uma’s smile faded, her eyes becoming thoughtful. “I guess it is because they don’t know yet,” Uma drawled. “I am sure once they know, things would be different.”
Ms. Adaeze took a seat beside her daughter and took Uma’s face in her hands. “Don’t say that, honey,” she said. “It won’t. You are intelligent, beautiful and friendly. You are you. Whoever treats you differently because of their ignorance are the ones lacking. What did I tell you when we left Delta for Lagos three weeks ago?”
Uma sighed, the smile coming back, though her eyes were looking tired. “That I can have as many treats as I want if I studied hard in my new school?”
Ms. Adaeze smiled and shook her head in amusement. “No. Not that one,” she snapped playfully, pinching Uma’s cheek. “That you should love yourself no matter where you are or what situation you are in that makes you not to.”
“Yeah, I know,” Uma said. “And I said I would try. I am off to change my clothes.” With that, Uma took off to her room, her bag across her shoulder and her mum’s worried eyes following her.
# # # #
“When did it start?” Julianna’s father asked her as they settled to eat dinner. When she had returned from school, she had hidden her swollen ankle from her father, staying in the bathroom for a long time, then taking a longer time to dress up. By the time he had made dinner – it was his turn to cook – and set the table, she was pretending to sleep, buried in covers just to hide it. But she should have known better because all that made him think she was sick. When she tried to act fine, the big secret was revealed.
“At school. This morning,” Julianna said, staring at her food.
“Why did you hide it? And why didn’t your school call me?” Her father was calm but she knew he was angry with her.
Julianna sulked. “I did not want to bother you,” she said, then quickly added, “And it was Mrs. Ayomide that was on duty at the clinic.” She looked up to meet her father’s stare.
“Mrs. Ayomide? The one who called you Abiku the other time?” Mr. Obi shook his head in anger at Julianna’s nod. “That woman should not even be a nurse. I don’t know why you didn’t allow me put her in her place.” Apparently, the woman did not know that Julianna knew Yoruba well enough to know when being called a cursed child.
Julianna sighed, returning her gaze to the plate of yam and vegetable sauce. “It wouldn’t have solved anything,” she said finally. Her thoughts had gone to every single bad experience she had had with nurses, doctors, neighbours and finally ending at some of her school mates. The many times she had been called names and ridiculed with vile comments from men, women and children alike were vivid to her and she knew her father’s yelling would not have made things any better for her at school.
“It would have,” Mr. Obi insisted. “How can a medical personnel not know how to control her mouth regarding a patient she should care for? She should be the one educating us not the other way around.” He inhaled deeply and exhaled, realizing his anger was getting overboard.
“I will take you to the hospital tomorrow,” he said finally.
“After school,” Julianna pleaded. “We have two tests tomorrow and I want to write it with others.”
Mr. Obi’s eyes went to Julianna’s elevated leg and stared at the swelling gradually spreading to the whole of her foot. He knew she was in pain and it was important to him that she never stayed in pain. Then he looked back at her pleading face and realized that he did not want her to feel depressed or left out either. “Fine. Immediately after school. I’ll pick you up,” he said.
Julianna’s lips spread in a small smile. “Thank you, daddy,” she said. “Let’s eat!”
# # # #
Uma talked excitedly with Felicia, her new friend, as they walked through the school gates. Felicia had been really nice to her from the first day she started school, introducing Uma to all her friends. They were in SS2 but Felicia seemed to have friends in both SS1 and SS3. As they walked towards their class on the ground floor of the three-story building of the U-shaped school, Uma noticed a girl limping in front of her. Reflexively, her eyes went to the leg of the girl and she could see that the left foot had to be squeezed to fit into the shoe. Uma excused herself from Felicia’s rattling voice and jogged over to the girl.
“Are you alright?” Uma asked. Julianna looked at her and nodded, her face twisted slightly in pain.
“Uma, you better leave that girl,” Felicia called, walking briskly to meet up with them. “It is normal.”
Uma frowned in confusion. “What do you mean?”
“The girl is a sickler,” Felicia said dismissively with a wave of her hand. “Look at her. You know them when you see them. There’s no week that passes without her either fainting or vomiting or something.”
Uma looked at Julianna and saw the yellowing of her sclera. Then she looked back at Felicia. “That’s not a nice thing to say. She has sickle cell, not that she is a sickler.”
Felicia looked at Uma like she had just heard the dumbest thing. “Same thing. It means she can drop dead any minute and you could be blamed. Let’s go to class –”
“That’s enough!” Uma yelled. She balled her fists to prevent herself from grabbing Felicia by the collar and tossing her against the nearest wall. A few students had paused to watch the drama unfolding.
“You have no right to say such despicable things about someone. You don’t have to parade your ignorance to the public. Having sickle cell anaemia doesn’t mean the person can’t live normally like everyone else with proper care. It is merely a disorder of the blood. Do you call someone names just because they have diabetes or ulcer? Why is sickle cell different?”
“What has gotten over you?” Felicia asked, shocked. “All I said was –”
“Reeking in ignorance,” Uma nearly screamed. “I have sickle cell too!”
A hush fell around them as everyone stared at Uma in disbelief. Her dark, flawless skin, her white eyes, her plump body seemed perfect. Even Julianna stared at her rescuer in confusion.
“I fall ill frequently. I can’t do anything strenuous. It is not something you can tell by just looking!” Uma glanced at Julianna and then at Felicia. “And I thought you were my friend. I can’t have a friend that would think so low of me.” Uma took Julianna’s hand and turned to leave, supporting her as they both walked out of the crowd that had formed, and not caring it she would be liked or not anymore. The hush lingered.