A review of Shehu Olaitan Mohammed’s ‘I am A Survivor’

I had actually intended to do a detailed review of Shehu Olaitan Mohammed’s *I’m A Survivor: The Story of My Triumph Over Sickle Cell Pains* to coincide with its launch and public presentation on June 19, 2021, which incidentally was also the World Sickle Cell Day.

This was not possible due to a number of tasks I was juggling with, even when I had finished reading this compelling narrative by Mallam Shehu, as many of us former employees of Media Trust Ltd (publishers of the Trust Newspaper titles), often addressed the author. 

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For me, and perhaps many non-sickle cell patients, with perhaps the exception of medical professionals who are expected to be generally conversant with health issues, Shehu’s I’m A Survivor is certainly an eye-opener to the extraordinary world in which sickle cell patients live in. It is basically a simplification of the ‘indescribable’ experience that sickle cell patients, their parents and siblings as well as friends go through. 

In this respect, the story is not only Shehu’s; it is also the story of his parents, his brothers and all who directly or remotely experience the agony or trauma of sickle cell disorder; even as Shehu noted: “The reality was that no one could share in your physical pain when in crisis [pain].

The best people can do is to sympathize. Only you can understand the pains as mentioned earlier, no matter the number of times you have had crisis. Each and every crisis always comes as if it were the first time – with the intensity of pains, the cries, the screams and the feeling of hopelessness.” (p.157)

Looked at as a literary narrative, I’m A Survivor is, in some respect, a description of the broader Nigerian society in terms of the high level of ignorance or shallow mind-sets or stigma towards sickle cell patients, or even more so, in the mismanagement and gradual depreciation of qualitative living, be it in education, health, human relationship and governance, etc.  

As an insightful and compelling narrative, a painful and uncertain but courageous odyssey of fate moderated by faith and devotion to God; Shehu’s gripping story definitely offers a uniquely absorbing narrative that will serve a key purpose – of counselling for sickle cell patients, their parents and siblings, as well as humanity in general. This task began right from the introductory pages – Dedication, Acknowledgements, Introduction, Foreword and Preface. 

Apart from the first three, which were directly penned by Shehu, the last two; Foreword and Preface, were, if I may say, testimonies by two witnesses to Shehu’s willpower and resilience which, despite his sickle cell status, enabled him to accomplish so much that even people free of his kind of health impediments found difficult or struggled to achieve.

Composed of 24 chapters, but by the time I finished Chapter 14: “Between Life and Death,’ I had no choice but to agree with Shehu that he is really A Survivor! The book is indeed a perfect story of “triumph over sickle cell pains.” Yes, the linking tread in the entire narrative is pain, pain and pain! 

Notwithstanding this however, what made the story worth reading, and inexorably holds readers spellbound, is not the physical and psychological pains being suffered by Shehu and his male siblings, or the distress of their parents under perpetual mental and emotional trauma. 

Rather, it is the enduring disposition of Shehu to remain absolutely positive in the face of abounding existential negatives everywhere in the society in physical and symbolic, verbal and non-verbal, real and imagined forms.

It is these plenteous positives that enabled Shehu to never hide his health status after an unfortunate incident during his NYSC, even at the risk of losing a job (124); or that gave him the resolve to keep diligent record of his personal activities (64), to overcome stigma (p.65) and degrading comments; or that inspired him not to procrastinate (or postpone what can be done now, p.67); to overcome the nagging and depressing question of why only my mother’s male children? (p.66), to defeat the perpetual presence of fear of sickle cell crisis hanging in the air, or even death upon hearing the news of the passage of a fellow sickle cell patient, which sucks away what ordinarily is supposed to bring excitement and fun, such as getting admission to a university of one’s dream, etc.

Shehu’s strongest positivist expression and text book realism come out so vehemently in Chapter Seven: ‘Not My Appointed Time’, where he noted that after all, “sickle cell is not necessarily a death sentence,” and he rightly recognised that: “Death has many doors of entry. As a sickle cell patient, it is not a must to die before your death.” 

These essential traits, coupled with an innate philosophical inclination, equipped Shehu to be the discerning ‘warrior’ from age 10 when his status as a sickle cell patient became manifest. These traits too guided him to harness his painful health condition to maximum intellectual advantage as an undergraduate of the Obafemi Awolowo University, or University of Ife, as it was then known. 

Shehu’s utilitarian principle in this respect guided him to make the best out of a worst case scenario when he unfortunately had to spend an extra year in ‘Great Ife’ due to flunking an exam he had written just right out of a two-week admission on hospital bed (p.106). 

The additional year became, according to Shehu, a blessing as he took advantage of the free periods to expand his horizon and capacity in many areas – building and enhancing social relationships, strengthening faith/belief in God and broad philosophical understanding, deepening knowledge and intellect by reading ‘wild and wide’, and participating in lectures beyond core course of study, etc.

Hear Shehu’s perspectives on his extra year: “I approached my studies with all the seriousness I could muster. I am always, at least, two weeks ahead of the class, I didn’t score less than 80%. This gave me all the confidence that my target of A was attainable.

“I had many free periods to myself during this period and I used the time in so many engagements, MSS, AIESEC and the like. I read wild and wide. The reference section of the Hezekiah Oluwasanmi Library became my second classroom. I read books on Philosophy, Economics, Islam, and Encyclopedia Britannica almost from page to page. 

Different authors – Imam Muhammad Al-Ghazali, Abul Ala Maududi, An-Nawawi, Hassan Al-Bani, Said Qutub, Maryam Jamila, Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, Yusuf Ali translation of the Quran, Ahmed Deedat on comparative religion and lots of the publications from the Islamic Education Trust, Minna. 

On Philosophy – Socrates, Plato, Amical Cabral, Walter Rodney and the like and many different authors on Developmental Economics. Different novels too, I remember Frederick Forsyth collections, James Hadley Chase, etc. and almost all the collections of the African Writers Series…

“I turned this period of my extra year to a period of great opportunity. One of the teachings of my faith concerning supplications is that, when you ask for something from God, He can give you the exact thing you ask for at the exact time or He can delay the request for a more appropriate time or change it to something better which may be in the form of averting some evil from happening to you. 

“The one-year delay in my graduation was a real blessing for me. In retrospect, I felt happy that I was spending [sic] that extra year because it was the period of self-discovery. That period was when I made some decisions on some life path that I decided to take, though I couldn’t say for certain what particular events or writings influenced me into making such decisions. I remember telling myself then that if and when God in His infinite mercy, blessed me with a child, my first son will be name AbdurRahman and my first daughter will be named Sakeenah.”

Throughout the book, the natural flow and sequence of the story effectively contrasts the perpetual agonising and macabre scenarios with flourishing positivism. I believe this framing or style, which is a powerful element in the narrative for its capacity to get readers totally immersed in the story and hold them spellbound till the end; was not consciously and carefully plotted by Shehu for mere appeal to emotion, but more a function of the ‘crises’ and other tragic existential realities surrounding sickle cell disease. I also think that it is the effectiveness of this framing that, despite being filled with diverse chains of pains, the contrasting positive imagery and posturing symbolised in Shehu’s life achievements render I am A Survivor a book of hope and not of despair.

Take for instance; in the plenitude of pain, stigmatisation, hopelessness in the absence of a permanent cure, and by the realities of the death of his brothers or others from sickle cell disease, Shehu declared that he “never, for once, gave a thought to the idea of death because of sickle cell” (p.114). 

Even when he had his services terminated at his place of primary assignment at the Federal Mortgage Bank during his National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) scheme, he blamed no one and by providence, instead got a compassionate posting to the OAU as a graduate assistant, which he utilised to consolidate and deepen his knowledge and intellect. Or when his girlfriend could no longer stand his crisis and jumped out of their relationship, Shehu never despaired, as he was compensated with a compassionate and accommodating partner subsequently. 

Or when he was hospitalised at the University of Ibadan Teaching Hospital for almost a year, with death being a common phenomenon as a result of incremental mortality rate of patients at the ward on a daily basis, Shehu put his fate in the hands of God and said: “By the end of my second month in that ward, I had lost count of deaths there. This prompted me to challenge one of my doctor-friends to explain the frequent number of deaths. Within the first two months, the number of deaths was not less than 10.

“One surprising thing I noticed about my emotion was that, as I stayed longer in the hospital, I was no longer shocked nor surprised when such deaths occurred. My senses were adjusting to the reality that death had become a common phenomenon, and anyone could give up the ghost at any time. 

For nurses, hospital maids and mortuary attendants who came to wheel corpses out of the ward, doing so was just a normal routine, with not emotions attached to it. They did it as if corpses were just parcels that needed to be delivered at the mortuary. They would say, ‘we’re packing him’ out of the bed, and on many occasions, another patient would be waiting to occupy the bed.” (pp. 191-192)

That Shehu survived to tell the story in spite of the underwhelming hope and overwhelming depredation of sickle cell disease, and in simple and lucid but graphic language, is a function of faith, stoicism and realism. 

In fact, Shehu confesses and urged people living with the blood disease to, like him, whom sickle cell actually became the motivating force for becoming a chartered accountant, or the force through which he married, not blame anyone for their condition. He says: “Destiny, fate and faith have their own way of playing out on our individual life paths.

For my compatriot warriors reading my story (and others, too), we should realize one fact. We have been born into this world with sickle cell disorder. It is not our fault. We can’t blame our parents. That is a fact, that we cannot change. 
Therefore, the next realistic thing for us to do is to device how to live a purposeful life in whatever situation, and ask; what are the positive aspects for me to work on? 

In my own case, I had a serious, life-threatening complication of sickle cell disorder. I lost consciousness for almost three days. I had multiple bone infections. Bedridden for a whole year. But the hand of fate and faith played its own path in my survival. 

As I do tell people, the challenge of sickle cell disorder was what challenged me to become a chartered accountant today. If it were not for this illness, I doubt if I would ever have the courage to write the ICAN exams. For me, sickle cell disorder pushed me to becoming a chartered accountant; it directed me to meeting my wife.” (p.214)
These backgrounds, and many more others as you turn the pages of the book, are certainly why Shehu and all sickle cell patients have to lay claim to the ‘Warrior’. 

As ‘A Survivor’, Shehu has ventured into the frontline of advocacy for understanding the intricacies surrounding the blood disorder, and calling out to the world, and to individuals in contemporary era that it is possible to eliminate sickle cell disease, and by implication the associated pains.

I am A Survivor is a book that should read by every Nigerian; it should be recommended as a compulsory text for secondary schools in Nigeria and it ought to be on the bookshelf of every family.

Onah is the Editor-in-chief of National Record, an Abuja- based online newspaper.

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