By Ayoola Olajide
Many Nigerians would not quickly forget the spectacle of an 89-year-old on national television riding on a commercial motorcycle (okada) and then on a tricycle (marwa). It was June 2015 and the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) was engaged in a series of activities marking the annual World Sickle Cell Day.
‘We were spellbound by Alhaja Onikoyi-Laguda’s strength and stamina,’ said Bola Ranti-Olu, the NTA reporter saddled with the responsibility of interviewing the octogenarian and anchoring other WSCD events in Lagos.
Onikoyi-Laguda is equal to the rigour and stress of patronizing the most popular public transportation modes in Africa’s biggest and most chaotic urban centre.
A devout Muslim, Onikoyi-Laguda has been to Mecca 13 grueling times and performed the lesser hajj half a dozen times. In 2011 she attempted to go to Mecca again but was stopped by government officials because of her age. Until 2014, she performed the mandatory 30-day Ramadan Fast but her children have since prevailed on her to quit fasting altogether.
Alhaja Asiata Aduke Onikoyi-Laguda is about the oldest person with sickle cell disorder in the world. She was born in Idumota, Lagos, 1st November 1925, the second of four children. Her father, Abdul-Yekeen Ishola Onikoyi was a prince of the Onikoyi Ruling House on Lagos Island. Her mother, Aishat Alake Onikoyi was from Kudeti, Ibadan.
Her forebears are from Ikoyi-Ile, via Ogbomoso, in Oyo State. To this day, her distant relations hold the kingship in the town.
Born with a strange illness which punctuated her life with frequent and severe pain, Onikoyi-Laguda has managed to outlive her parents, two husbands and, save for one who is still alive, her siblings.
In a sense, Alhaja – as she is popularly called – is a lonely woman. Her playmates and peers are all gone. She never knew her elder brother, who passed away before she was born. With hindsight, she says her brother probably was with Sickle Cell Anaemia.
Alhaja’s surviving sibling is without SCD and ten years younger. Senescence had long overtaken her. When her elder sister visits, she regards her with complete indifference. Onikoyi-Laguda’s baby sister subsists in a permanent state of suspended animation. Alzheimer’s had taken its toll.
Alhaja visits her sister less and less, because she comes away with a heavy heart. The memories are hard to push away. While they grew up, Alhaja was always the one, during frequent moments of excruciating SCD pain crises, to beg God to take her away.
Past her 40th or 45th birthday, SCD turned a favourable mien on its victim. Although married to a medical doctor who gave her pills (including folic acid) to take every day, Onikoyi-Laguda did not know she had sickle cell until after she had given birth to all six children, all normal delivery, and a miracle for a woman with SCD. It was the norm then to protect patients with lethal illnesses from knowing much about what ailed them.
‘I met my husband, Dr. Bolaji Alakija, while in secondary school at Queens College, Lagos,’ Alhaja recalls.
Dr. Alakija was her doctor and became her husband at an age when society did not much excoriate care-giver/patient relationships. In all, the energetic doctor had 10 wives and 27 children.
After Dr. Alakija passed away, Alhaja remarried. Her second husband, Alhaji Mohammed Alade Akeeb Laguda, died in 2002 at the age of 76. Miscarriage after miscarriage ensured she never bore him a child.