“Foluke! Foluke!! Foluke!!!” Mr. Timi shouted to get the attention of his wife. She refused to answer from the backyard where she sat piling groundnuts to sell. She knew it was Folarin’s usual noise whenever he began to have his usual attack. He did not desire to help in the finance for his respiratory problem, always complaining about little from his earnings. Although, the main reason for this is because he considered his constant expense a waste of money. He would lament every day and night:
“I will not allow you to ruin me. Just look at my bank statement in the past four weeks, I earn N18,900 and spend close to N17,000 within a month. Yet, I have house rent. I have PHCN bills. I have clothes to buy. And you tell me to spend if not stupidly on the continuous medications of this boy.”
He would hiss and stare at the boy with an outburst of disgust. Not that he would cease to nag like the market women of Onitsha, who complain bitterly about having unfortunate mother-in-laws; he would rant excessively as if to say he were the only one frustrated with Folarin’s condition. He would sometimes scream as though he were about to cry, “Why have I gotten myself in this situation? Why did I marry this unlucky omen into my family? All the children I know have the credentials of providing hope for their parents. This one, this filth, this burden, this wrath of God, this gloom…” he would bite his lips “…is just a predicament for me. He has nothing related to hope-intellect, physique, health or looks.” Then he would face Foluke, who is already holding her son to comfort him as if it could shield him from the harsh words that reduced his self-esteem. Expectant of the very next words, usually with drops and mucus, both mother and son would stare bitterly into each other’s eyes. Without compassion, Mr. Timi would yell, “You are abominable. You are not my son. You are some specimen that failed in a science laboratory.”
Eventually, with groaning and grunting, he would walk away and sit on the bricks outside their compound filled with eleven other families, including mine, living in their one rooms facing one another. Foluke, a forty-two years old woman with flappy breasts, long legs, and wild eyeballs had always been the beautiful damsel of the Bajulaye community every man wanted. They desired not just her beauty but the kindness that formed her inner beauty. She took everyone to heart and helped the grief of the poor with the little she had from the cassava sales. Taking Mr. Timi as her beloved was not her initial plan but he persisted in his charm. She fell for his persistence and diligence. He never stopped loving her even when he said he would move to the city to take her out of her mud house. He left and returned as promised when she was about thirty-six. Her delight on his arrival stooped him so much that he asked to marry her immediately. Her parents, having gotten tired of her presence in the house, gladly handed her to him since he did not refuse to bring yams, wine, honey, cassava, and a token for her bride price.
Her marriage became immediately fruitful with Folarin. The happiness from when they met till his birth diminished as she embraced her son to see, what she called “an ogre”. He looked nothing like the children her mother always bore as the midwives of the community. She almost flung him out on that day but the midwife explained it wouldn’t matter. But as she stared at his small mouth, slanting eyes, flat face and small ears, she screamed “Timi, ewo labi… Wetin be this? Why our boy be like this?” Tears rolled down her eyes as she held him as though intending to squeeze the life out of him. She couldn’t breathe as she panted and hugged her pending hope. The midwife encouraged her that it is probably because of the drugs she took while she was pregnant but she protested on not taking any drugs. Then she told her it could be malnutrition, “You know, maybe the things wey you dey chop cause am…No worry he go change by one year old.”
She shook her head in acceptance of this cross she is to carry and hoped his change at one. However, instead of change, he began to have breathing problems. She went to the hospital this time not wanting to depend on any midwives. The registration took processes. The child grew ill as a result of childhood growth. She couldn’t wait anymore for she still anticipated that change for her child. She went to the nearby chemist and was told of the child’s illness. He had asthma. Although she was advised to go back to the hospital after the Bentolin and continuous use of the inhaler had been used. She couldn’t make out time; she was also ashamed of her child. He was different from the rest.
She lived her life buying inhaler and drugs for Folarin. His condition did not change neither did his academic excellence. Sometimes, the little boy will come back crying about being called an imbecile. She would cry and encourage him, then whisper in his ears “believe in yourself, okay.” She sometimes confided in me as I did not treat her like most women. Many of the wives in the yard had stopped their children from playing with the boy like he was some disease. Even those that played with him took him as an inferior and ordered him about wherever they pleased.
Folarin was faced with that attack again. His father was tired so was his mother. They hardly have enough to feed on. They had to feed his illness like some god. They did not know the cause but his mother hoped that one day he would change like the midwife told her. She rendered the inhaler to her son and waited earnestly for that day and I waited with her, feeding and rendering my help whenever I could.
On this faithful day, as we sat outside the yard discussing the state of the nation that has affected most market women from feeding their families. The petrol price had risen so high that the transport has decided to use this as an opportunity to exploit the passengers. We talked funnily as our children mingled with their games that we did not remember the many problems on our plates or the presence of the visitors with white garments that caressed Folarin’s head. The boy in his scribbled voice had been moaning for help until Mubarak came to me to inform me about the people.
We looked up to see their smiley faces. They did not seem like they meant any harm. Fortunately, our instincts were right. They called themselves the non-governmental organizations that aided children like Folarin to improve their self-image. Not very sure on the details they gave so swiftly, as they realized, they endeavoured us to visit their office three streets away.
Foluke was naïve and afraid that for five days, she bluntly declined following me to the place. I then asked her to escort me to my brother’s place after we had dropped our children at school, unknown to her my real intent. Trying very hard to act familiar about the surroundings, I surveyed the huge blue building with glasses everywhere. The security guard asked our reason for being there, I replied in English so as not to reveal my intentions. He let us in and we skipped the procedures of questions on “who do you want to see?”
It was clear Foluke was amazed at the people around her and even commended the wealth she assumed my brother owned. Luckily for my plans, the young man that attended to us immediately recognized us. He ushered us into the waiting room. That was when I told Foluke about my intentions. She stood up to leave but the young man that introduced himself as Dr. Samson came with other men and a woman. She calmed Foluke down and told her she should not worry on whatever worries she had regarding the child. She started crying again, remembering all things that had gone the last six years. She shed the tears of happiness of that hope she waited for. As expected, I consoled her and asked the people to explain to us what was wrong with the child. They looked at one another and smiled. And we were told to follow them.
They walked us to the house built behind the office. This house was filled with children and adults that looked almost like Folarin. We saw a little child that could hardly speak a single word. He just sat there playing with this little yoyo. And the adults were worse. Some were trying their best possible to read, while some while learning vocational aptitudes that were being taught. Now Foluke was crying more than the usual. Her eyes obviously told her, her lost hope in her son was recovering. She grew silent many times when she saw children that were being taught sign languages. She wasn’t sure why this had to happen to her. She whispered, “I think say nah only person wey sin this kind thing they happen to. Sugbon, oti ye mi. I don dey sure say nah all that thing wey go happen for life.”
The doctors and I nodded. They offered us drinks but we refused and promised to come back the next day as we needed to go to the market. That day Foluke did everything with thankfulness. She cooked for her child and husband with smiles. She hugged him till he fell asleep. She talked with me till I announced my retirement. She waited for Mr. Timi till midnight when he knocked as usual drunkenly at the door of their room. She did not usually do this but she helped him to get his meals and pulled off his clothes for him. The next day, she told me she had talked to her used to be compassionate husband and he decided to go to the place as well. Their home that morning was joyful, though they had little to eat. She quickly rushed me out to sales as she told me that we needed to meet the appointment by 2pm at the office. Her husband, though promised to meet us at home could not, but he met us at the address. We entered altogether. Dr. Samson welcomed us and led us into that same room. We sat but instead of gloom, we were excited and glad. We were about to discover the cause of all the mystery. The lady introduced herself and switched on what my husband had called a projector. Mrs Ogunbiyi started by consoling the Gbayo family for the troubles they had been through over the years. They both shook heads and held hands. I smiled and hoped that this meeting enlightened them and provided hope. Then the lady began,
“You see, Madam what is wrong with your boy Folarin, is it?” They nodded in affirmation. She continued: “…is what the medical association regard as Down Syndrome. It is a set of physical traits caused by a gene problem that happens before birth.” She looked at us and realized we were lost. Then she turned to the projector and said as she pointed at objects on the screen that seemed like faeces in different colours. She called them “tissues”.
She continued, “Down syndrome is caused by a problem with a baby’s chromosomes. You see, normally, a person has 46 chromosomes. But most people with Down syndrome have 47 chromosomes. In rare cases, other chromosome problems cause Down syndrome. Having extra or abnormal chromosomes changes the way the brain and body develop.” She glanced at us to see if we were focusing on the lecture. We were but we did not understand most of the words she spoke. Then suddenly she asked Foluke,
“Mrs Gbayo, when did you give birth to Folarin?” Folarin wondered at first what that had got to do with the lecture and her son’s cure. Nonetheless, she answered: “thirty-six years old ma.”
Mrs Ogunbiyi looked down and raised her head while she adjusted her glasses. Then she said, “The reason why Folarin is like that is because of your late childbirth.”
Foluke and her husband seemed puzzled. I was surprised myself because I gave birth to my last born at 39 years old and she is fine. She explained further that: “It is because you were older when you got pregnant. You see, the risk of having a child with Down syndrome increases when the woman is age 35 or older.” She sighed. “I know this might seem too much and surprising but do you have any relatives that look like this?”
They both chorused “No.”
“Then it’s the age issue,” she persisted. They both sighed and hoped that she had more to give asides the cause of the illness. But she concluded that the illness is a lifelong condition. However, with care patients can grow healthy, happy and productive lives. She added that the features of children with this illness are flat face, short neck, slanting eyes; low muscle tone and loose joints, short arms, a degree of intellectual disability and these children could be born with heart, intestine, ear or breathing problems.
All these did not encourage them as the problems were evident in their son’s life rather reduced their morale from when they got there. Until they told them they had decided to take Folarin’s condition into their hands. They said something about a scholarship and how they would watch over him. They were happy. Not sure what they decided but with the way they thanked the organization, I could tell that their only job now is to care for the boy and hope that the change they desire will not be physical but much more.
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