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An excerpt a day keeps the doctor away: Advice from Mma

Small by Small by Ike Anya is out this week! We're celebrating on social media (make sure you've entered our Twitter giveaway) as well as in the real world. Ike's calendar is packed with live events which are not to be missed, including a launch with the Royal African Society on May 19th and an event at Glasgow's Aye Write festival on May 27th.

To whet your appetite, we're sharing an excerpt a day from this warm, funny, beautifully written medical memoir.

We thought we'd kick things off with some thoughts from Ike's grandmother, Mma, including the words of advice that gave his book its title.

By the time I become an undergraduate, a JAMBite, the charge to drink water has been joined through the years by other lessons for life from Mma. There is the one about being careful about the friendships I cultivate: enyi ojoo da a kpa uka; and another about remaining humble regardless of whatever status my parents or I attain: E buli tukwa onwo gh elu, ma nna gh o bu oke mmadu ma o bu gh.

On that afternoon, in the time between the end of the preclinical year in Nsukka and starting in Enugu, Mma shuffles, humming one of her many favourite Igbo Christian hymns, into the living room of our house in Nsukka.

I leap off the carpeted floor where I am sprawled with my chemistry texts and notebooks scattered round me, to settle Mma into her favourite armchair in a corner of the room. I turn down the volume on the amplifier and stop the Bob Marley record, Exodus, which is spinning on the record player. Slipping it back into its gold-coloured sleeve, I ask Mma if she would like me to play one of her favourite records. The first is the recording by the university chapel choir of the popular classical Igbo Christian hymns composed by Ikoli Harcourt Whyte, a resident of the Uzuakoli Leprosy Colony in the 1930s. The others are records by contemporary singer Onyeka Onwenu with modern interpretations of classic Igbo folksongs and Christian hymns. Often, when I play Onyeka, Mma is persuaded to hoist herself from the armchair and begun to dance with a stately swaying of her arms and hips.

This afternoon, Mma waves the albums away, her face serious. Her voice dropping to a whisper, she asks how my studies are going. She reminds me of the pact we made when she first learned I had been admitted to medical school, that I was going to be a doctor. That day, standing on the verandah of my grandfather’s bungalow in Abiriba, we both leaned against the pillared panel of stonework that separated the front corridor from the bustle of the town’s main street. She whispered ‘On the day that they give you the big gown of a doctor, I will put on my best wrapper and take a photograph with you, do you hear?’

I smile, nod then say, ‘Mma, o ka di enya, afa esaa.’ Mma, It is still a long time away.

She chuckles, face creasing, her wrinkles deepening, her expression warm as she reassures me that it is one step at a time. ’Oo nwa nke nta nwa nke nta.’

This time in Nsukka, she asks, ‘Is it true that you have exams soon?’

I confirm that I have.

She is praying for me, she says, and she knows I will do well.

Do I not remember her family name? Chinegwundoh! God has indeed always made shelter for them.

I nod meekly as she continues. Is it true that when I pass I will start studying at the same hospital where she goes for treatment, where her revered Professor Chuke restored her to health?

Not quite, I protest, explaining that I am just at the end of my first year and have to pass the first year exams first. If I do, then I can go to Enugu where I have to study for another eighteen months before another big exam. It is only when I pass that big exam I explain, that I will be able to start going to the teaching hospital. And then there are five more years of study and many more exams before I finally become a doctor. Laying it out for her like that is sobering and she senses it, so responds with her often repeated slogan, ‘Okwa m da ezi unu, ife du m bu nkenta nke nta.’

Indeed she always does tell us that everything worthwhile is achieved little by little, in small incremental steps. Then she continues in Abiriba, ‘Okwa unu ndee osu bekee da si “smallu by smallu”.’

Mischief glints, lighting up her rheumy eyes, as she repeats the last part again in her imitation of a refined English accent: ‘Small by small’.

Ike Anya

Ike Anya