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‘Pockets of memory’: Living with dementia in Nigeria


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Written by the talented Kemi Falodun, a writer and journalist based in Nigeria sharing underreported stories. We loved reading her article on living with dementia in Nigeria. It touched on multiple serious issues such as age discrimination, elder abuse and the conflict between culture and modern medicine in a way we don’t often see.

Care-givers and medical professionals in Ibadan are confronting a growing problem with love, patience and medication.

Ibadan, Nigeria – Before she started to forget things, Elizabeth Mustafa was relearning how to walk. Her diabetic foot ulcer had gotten out of control and her right leg had been amputated.

Leaning on her four-wheeled walker, she would try to manoeuvre herself around the house as someone, usually her daughter-in-law Victoria, accompanied her, watching, guiding, removing objects from her path.

Three years before she lost her leg, in 2010, Elizabeth fled religious rioting in northwestern Nigeria after receiving threats that her house and grocery store would be burned down. Seeking safety, she moved to Ibadan to live with one of her six sons and his family.

She loved telling her four grandsons stories about life in Ghana, where she was born and lived with her parents until 1969 when Ghana’s then-prime minister, Kofi Busia, passed the Aliens Compliance Order, forcing African migrants – many of them Nigerian, like Elizabeth’s parents – to leave.

Now 66, Elizabeth still enjoys telling stories about her life back in Ghana. The boys sit around her in their living room in Alarere, Ibadan, listening attentively and chipping in with anecdotes of their own as she remembers the school she attended, the friends she had.

“They [Ghanaians] are nice people. They show love,” she says in Ashante Twi, before translating it to English.

A smile spreads across Elizabeth’s face as she eases herself onto the brown sofa, holding a small radio to her belly.

“She remembers things from long ago. All others are pockets of memory,” Victoria Mustafa explains gently. 

‘Where am I?’

The Mustafas live on a neat, quiet compound. The white-walled living room is punctuated by cream curtains that drape the windows and the entrance to the passageway leading to the bedrooms. 

Victoria says this was where they were sitting a few years ago, shortly after the amputation, when Elizabeth suddenly asked: “Where am I? What am I doing here? What’s the name of this town?”

Some mornings, Elizabeth would hold a tube of toothpaste for minutes, staring at it, before finally asking what it was used for. There were times when she could not remember the names of her relatives.

“We were thinking, ‘What’s this? What’s going on?’ We didn’t understand what was happening,” says 42-year-old Victoria, who is wearing a purple shirt – the official colour of the Alzheimer’s awareness movement.

Victoria, who is from Kaduna, first met her future mother-in-law in 2004, two years before she married her son and moved to Ibadan. 

“She was active and loved to tell stories,” she recalls.

The change seemed sudden. Initially, the family assumed she was seeking ways to cope with the loss of her leg. Then they grew irritated with her. 

“We thought she was just being difficult,” Victoria says. 

It was when she started to wake in the middle of the night, struggling to reach her walker, demanding that the door be unlocked so that she could go and open her grocery store, that they realised something was wrong.

The full article was published online at Aljazeera, have a read, let’s discuss.

Image: Elizabeth Mustafa in the home she shares with her son and his family in Ibadan [Ayobami Ogungbe/Al Jazeera]

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