• Poignant recollections by those forced to truncate marriage plans to avoid sickly kids
Mrs. J, the biology teacher, was a middle-aged, gorgeous woman, teaching at an all-boys secondary school. On this particular afternoon, she delivered a lesson about sickle-cell anaemia using her true-life story as a case study.
While pregnant with her first child in London, she and her husband were invited by their doctor who told them how lucky they were to have escaped having a sickle-cell anaemic child. Based on their blood genotypes, only one out of four of their children would have normal blood haemoglobin, referred to as the AA genotype. Of the next three, two will be carrier (carrying the trait but not sickly), having one normal and one sickle-shaped hemoglobin known as the AS genotype, while the last child, inevitably, would inherit double sickle-shaped hemoglobin, the SS genotype, with the gloomy implication of being a lifelong sickler.
The good news for the couple was that the odds favoured them. The first child was going to be AA. The doctor gave them a candid counsel: Do not attempt to have another child. The couple bought the advice, and the decision taken by Mrs. J some 15 years earlier at the time, was their leeway from the albatross of the sickle-cell disease.
For her captive audience of young boys, it was a sobering story. However, only a few were hearing about sickle-cell anaemia for the first time. Some of them had known one or two sicklers who were recurrently sick and perpetually pale and often missing classes whenever their affliction comes around; but, not a few of the boys knew little or nothing about the broader implication, of how the predicament of sickle-cell sufferers affect the lives of those who care for them.
Mrs. J’s story was an eye-opener. The teacher’s human angle approach got through to them. The boys felt pity for this beautiful biology teacher who would have only one child in her life.
That was my first encounter some 24 years ago with sickle-cell disease in a biology class. The teacher successfully imparted basic knowledge of the blood disorder. While many of the students would not in their lifetime acquire further knowledge about the disease and its dynamics, they, nonetheless had a grasp of the genotype mathematics––that when two carriers collide in love, copulate and procreate a family, their first four births is a brood of one sickler, two carriers and one normal offspring. The big lesson was hard to forget: It is better two carriers avoid themselves.
In commemoration of June 19 World Sickle Cell Day, Saturday Sun spoke with a group of individuals who had to forgo love to bypass the sickle-cell problem. A few willingly shared their stories, though, preferring to do so under the condition of anonymity or using little known native names––out of respect for spouses and to avoid violating the privacy of former partners.
Fear of SS the beginning of wisdom
If Mrs. J., the biology teacher, had found a smart way of bypassing the sickle cell pandora, Bisi Adewole, took the smartest route by sidestepping the perdition.
Adewole’s predisposition as a “sicklerphobe” is due in part to the insight given him by a professor uncle who opened his eyes to the hell-on-earth travail of families of sickle-cell sufferers.
“If you have all the money in the world, one sickler of a child is enough to render you a pauper,” he says.
When two people found they both have AS genotype, he opines that they “they owe humanity a duty to terminate the relationship,” no matter how madly in love they are.
He has been through the crucible. In 2010, he was on the verge of becoming an April gentleman. Their wedding, a few months away, was called-off due to a last-minute discovery that the pair was both of AS genotype.
“I cannot open my eyes and walk into a disaster. I am not prepared for an SS child. I would not be the architect of my own ruin,” he had railed.
His critics––mostly church people––questioned his faith and castigated him as an unserious fellow who obviously had taken the lady in question on a test drive.
He recalls the few words he uttered in his defence to a friend: “People may say what they like, but I know I did not love her less; in fact, my decision is an indication of my love for her. She would thank me for this later in life.”
Nipping it in the bud
Eight years ago, Nkiru Obiaso lost a “prince charming.”
She attempts a poignant recollection tinctured with nostalgia. “We were so young, love was so intoxicating. We usually rendezvoused at Tantalizer for a good time out with our friends. I was the envy of my friends. My man just returned from the UK; a fine-looking, cultured young man. He had everything––good job, BMW car and a nice apartment at Aguda, Surulere. To cap it all, he was from Anambra, my state. We were a couple––in every sense of the word––but in name, so I was looking forward to the day when we would finally tie the knot. A few days to our traditional wedding, he asked casually, “by the way, what genotype are you?” The question at first sounded strange, because I had not given it a thought. It turned out both of us were AS genotype. I was ready to marry him nevertheless, you know, blinded by the ‘love conquers all’ sentiment. But he didn’t share my enthusiasm. He was adamant we couldn’t go on––and he was so brutal about it, he said we should stop seeing each other immediately.”
Obiaso still bristles from the ordeal years after: “He stopped touching me, romantically or sexually, as if I had become an object of disgust to him. He started bringing other ladies to his house. Twice I walked in on him making love to another woman. At the third count, I felt slighted and decided to leave for good. He explained to a mutual friend that, what he did was the only way he could make me go away.” Obiaso is now a mother of two and a successful entrepreneur.
Never too late to stop
Born in Sabon Gida-Ora, Edo State, raised in Lagos, once married to a chief from Owerri with whom she lived in London until 2013––Omonzehio’s fear of sickle-cell crisis stemmed from firsthand observation of the agony parents of sicklers go through in her childhood neighbourhood in Sabon Gida-Ora. Subsequently, she dutifully asked boyfriends––and later, fiancés––the genotype question before accepting any advances for a relationship, and she made no bones about her carrier status.
Hence, she couldn’t have walked blindly into a marriage that will produce sickler kids––that was exactly what happened to her. She was tricked by a husband who lied to her he had a normal genotype.
“When our first child turned out to be AS, I had no suspicion. But the truth became glaring when I was pregnant the second time in London and during antenatal, the British doctor shocked me with the statement: Are you planning to have an abortion?
I was momentarily speechless, not sure of how to react. “Because you are going to have an SS genotype child,” the doctor said, staring straight into my eyes.
I am AS my husband is AA, I had insisted.
The doctor took it coolly and said, “You are AS obviously, but whoever fathered this fetus is SS. If he is your husband, he must have been misinformed about his genotype.”
At home, the hard truth stared at her. “He admitted that he was AS. He claimed he loved me and didn’t want to lose me, that was why he lied when I brought it up during courtship,” she recounts.
What peeved her most was her hubby’s nonchalance of reducing the whole problem to a “quadratic equation to be solved by elimination of variables”––since the first child was AS, the coming one that is SS should be aborted, with the assurance that the next one will not be a sickler.
“ I felt used,” says Omonzehio, “and also insulted, that a woman’s body has become like a piece of fertile ground, to be tilled and weeded.” After filing for divorce, she relocated to Lagos, and terminated the pregnancy and remarried.
Three times unlucky
The story of Linda––a five-minute narration as we stand facing each other at Ebeano Supermarket, Oniru, Lekki, Lagos––provides a different dynamics.
The Lekki-based lawyer is a proper Onye Igbo. As her parent’s first daughter, by tradition she should be wifed by an Igbo husband. Thrice she had met three “fantastic fiancés,” and thrice the prospects ended in breakups, jinxed by her AS genotype.
It wasn’t that she was particularly picky. Her parents had drummed it into her ears to find a suitor that has AA genotype, letting her know the consequence of doing otherwise. Of the three she had to let go, the last one was the most painful, a medical doctor just returned from Germany.
“He had everything I desire in a man,” she recalls. “I had taken him to Owerri to meet my parents and my folks liked him. Just before we left, my mum drew me aside: ‘Have you asked him the important question?’ That is the genotype question. Really, I had forgotten. I waited till we got to Lagos. Sadly, he was AS.”
Now she has found someone, who is Omo Yoruba––“not the kind of man mama wanted me to marry,” says Linda who would be 42 by December 2018, “but not bad too.”
Saved by malice
“My story is known to those who were resident in Moremi Hall of University of Lagos in 2000,” was her introductory statement when she finally agreed to talk to this reporter after a few phone calls and a background check on my Facebook and LinkedIn profiles to ascertain my identity as a journalist.
Here is her verbatim account: “When I was in Unilag, this rich man came around to see his niece. He used to drive to the campus in a very cool jeep. By a twist of fate, we bumped into each other and he took a liking to me and romance blossomed. I was a 300 level undergraduate. That is the time young ladies begin to look out for ‘husband materials’ as they wind up their studies. The day he popped the question, I did not hesitate. But he spoilt the euphoria months later, when he asked for my genotype. I am AS. I could not imagine losing him. So without hesitation I told him AA––I lied. He insisted on a test at the lab just to be sure. I felt sad that day I had to confide in a friend who sold me the idea and in fact took me to the laboratory outside the campus and we tied the loose ends.
During the week, we went for the test. The next day he came around and we picked the result. I was AA and he, AS. That was okay by him. We dated until the final months before graduation. But my relationship with my girlfriend went sour and one night, when we had a meltdown, she shouted on top of her voice telling everybody how I gypped a man into marrying me. ‘You lied about your genotype because you want to marry a rich man’, she shouted repeatedly. For crying out loud, she knew my man’s niece was in the next room! I guessed the girl told her relative everything, because I didn’t hear from him ever again. He is a prominent chief and popular businessman in Lagos. I was so ashamed I relocated from the hostel for the last three months before graduation.”
Not all are lucky
I met Nnena Okoli in the house of a mutual friend at No. 23 Ijesha Road, Lagos. She has no sickle-cell story. She is bona fide AA, and luckily too her husband. But she had learnt lessons from the story of her first cousin, John.
“His mother was against him marrying Oyinye, but he was adamant,” she narrates. “Oyinye was a beauty. The day I saw her, I understood why Johnny was obstinate. And because she was an orphan, there was an element of pity in the love. To cut the story short, he married her against the advice of family members. The first child was born with the SS genotype, and the tribulation started right from birth. John eventually lost his job with the oil company and down the years, the family’s situation worsened. One day, Oyinye took a walk. She just disappeared, leaving the child. I didn’t blame her. She was overwhelmed by the problem. Nobody to call her relative, not a favourite of her in-laws and having to deal with the misery alone, with her situation compounded by her husband’s loss of job. The child is now 12 years old, ironically, ended up with the granny who was against the union that produced her as her father has moved on with other women.”
Adewole, who lives at Ilogbo, an outlying suburb along the Badagry-Seme highway, eventually married, in 2011 and now has three sons. “It is one of the best decisions I have ever taken,” he says.
What about your ex?
“Oh, we still talk. She is comfortably married.”
How does she feel about the episode?
“Not resentful. She is over it and she now understood the problem we averted.”
Linda, whose two-year relationship is “likely to end in marriage,” and thus become Mrs Owolabi has gotten over the heartbreak of the past. “Life is full of tribulation, but sometimes, you can choose some of your sufferings in life. If we cannot eradicate sickle cell, we can consciously try not to bring people to this world to suffer,” she rationalises.
At 38, Omonzehio is a mother of two, her youngest child, a pupil at Corona School. “I have no regret. I made a choice to make my life easier,” she concludes the phone conversation.