My Amazing Story of Living with Sickle Cell Disorder at Age 90


Alhaja Asiata Aduke Onikoyi-Laguda
I Wouldn’t Have Been Educated If My Father Hadn’t Died
I Was 40 When I Discovered I Have Sickle Cell Anaemia
I Was in Primary School at Age of 15

Small. Sickly. Skinny. She faced a lifelong, often devastating, medical condition. There were times her heart heaved heavily as she sobbed and asked God, ‘Why did you allow me to bear this pain?’ Yet, her life has been characterised with hope, resilience, faith and conviction that life can be lived to the fullest no matter one’s limitations. With a life fraught with health crises, she was more than determined to live and 90 years after, Alhaja Asiata Aduke Onikoyi-Laguda is still telling her amazing story of happily and successfully living with sickle cell disorder.

Born November 1, 1925, Onikoyi-Laguda said, “Once you are a ‘sickler,’ people see it as a death sentence.” “When I wrote common entrance into Queen’s College in 1947 I was admitted into Form Three instead of Form One,” she recalled with nostalgia, admitting that providence played a key role in her life. Like a life in a movie, after four children, she decided to travel to England on the eve of Nigeria’s Independence to pursue her childhood dream. Though she’s considered as the world’s oldest living person with sickle cell disease, Onikoyi-Laguda’s life has not always been that of defying the odds; she experienced the tragedy of losing her only son. But, no regrets, she says as she shares her 90 years on earth narratives with Funke Olaode about her trials, triumphs and trust in God.

Born into illustrious Onikoyi family
Iwas born on November 1, 1925 into the popular Onikoyi family in Lagos. By the time I was born, my late father was into merchandise selling of tobacco or what was then called a produce buyer. He was a relatively well-to-do man with a big store in the centre of Idumota on 44/45 Onikoyi Street. My mother on the other hand was a trader who dealt in aso-oke and adire. She used to travel to Osogbo, Benin, Onitsha, Cotonou and Sierra Leone. My mother had three children. I am the first and only child of my father because my mother had my two other children (a boy and a girl) for another man – my stepfather. My immediate younger brother died long time ago while my sister lives in Jakande Estate around Mile 12 in Lagos.

It was a privileged beginning because for six years, I was the only child of my father and he dotted on me. In fact, I wouldn’t have attended school if he hadn’t died early. He adored me so much that I could never go wrong. I was so pampered that if he wanted to make eba for me he would add sugar. By the time I grew up my mother had left him and moved to Osogbo.

So I was living alone with my father. I remember before he died, my father sent for my mother to come and take me to Osogbo because his illness was contagious and wouldn’t want me to be affected. It was a tough moment in my life because I didn’t want to leave him. But I had to go. Unfortunately, it wasn’t up to two weeks after I left that he died. This was in 1938; I was about 13 years old.

I was nearly denied of Western education
My father’s death paved the way for the education I later acquired. While I was with him, I was not attending any school because if I went today and the teachers punished me he would ask me to stay back. He would go and fight the teachers. At a point he said there was no point disturbing myself, an inheritance was already waiting for me. He had a big shop that I could inherit and if a caring man came my way I could settle down and start my life afresh.

I was in Osogbo for two years and came back to Lagos in 1940 to watch the first ever Eyo Masquerade that was staged. I was planning to go back when one of my aunts who lost her only child – a brilliant young man pleaded with me to stay back. That was how I decided to stay with her to comfort her. Unfortunately, my aunty later died. Again, I was about going back to Osogbo when one of my aunt’s family friends, the Emiabatas, pleaded with my mother that I should stay with them.

Embracing education again
I eventually enrolled in Ereko Methodist School for my primary education in 1940. I was about 15 years but you wouldn’t know because of my small and skinny stature. From there, I took common entrance examination in 1947/48 and was offered an admission by about three colleges including Queen’s College. I eventually chose Queen’s College. It was a significant year in my life because instead of being admitted into Form One, I was moved to Form Three – my result was outstanding. This is providence at work which allowed me to make up for the lost years. I only spent three years in Queen’s College. I left in 1950.

My childhood ambition was to travel abroad
I desired to further my education after secondary school but my mother was discouraged by relatives who believed that sending a female child to school was a waste of resources. They felt that after all, I would end up in a kitchen (as a wife). So I got a job at Post and Telecommunication (P&T). While growing up, my ambition was to travel to England for further studies. It was in vogue and it was a big thing in those days. I was married and had four children but I was hopeful. Again, providence played a big part because my dream came to reality in 1960 when I got the chance to go to England for further education. I was fortunate to board the plane that brought Princess Alexandra of Britain to England.

It was the eve of Nigeria’s independence and the Princess was in Nigeria to declare the country as a sovereignty entity. I went to England as a student in 1960 and enrolled at Pitman College where I was trained as a secretary. I didn’t have financial support but I had saved enough money while working and because I was so determined I could fulfill that ambition. That is the power of resilience and perseverance. My mother was in Sierra Leone trading and I just cajoled her to come and stay with my children. I stayed in England for five years and even had one of my children there. By the time ‘heaven opened its doors,’ I was just travelling frequently. I visited Saudi Arabia for the first time in 1970 to perform Hajj and I went 13 times thereafter.

I was late S.L. Edu’s Secretary
As said earlier, I left for England on the eve of Nigeria’s Independence. I missed my children and Nigeria’s Independence celebration. There were a lot of jubilations going on because all hotels were opened. You could walk into any hotel and enjoy yourself. I just closed my eyes and went after my destiny. I landed in England and stayed briefly with my half-brother, who was an artiste until I was able to find my feet. I immersed myself into what England had to offer and after my studies in 1965, I came back home and joined African Alliance Insurance Company as a secretary to the then Chairman, S.L. Edu. I was later seconded to the director’s office, Mr. Bayo Braithwaite, also as secretary. I was in the company till 1970 when I quit and dabbled into private business.

I discovered I have sickle cell anaemia at age 40
Well, I discovered that I was a ‘sickler’ at well over 40 years of age. When I was young I used to have a lot of crises and my parents thought I was ogbanje or abiku. I was so sickly that I almost got burnt. You know I had to sit near fire all the time. I couldn’t sit close to a fan and I always had joint pains. I got so fed up that one day I said ‘God, why did you send me to this world to suffer me?’ There was not much awareness or education about sickle cell disease back then.

I was married to a medical doctor at a time, the late Dr. Mobolaji Alakija but he didn’t know what was happening. You know when one has problems people would suggest all kinds of medicines. I looked robust that you wouldn’t know that I was a ‘sickler.’ This ailment almost truncated my going to England because of the country’s wintry nature.

I assured my mother that God of Nigeria also resides in England. If He could take care of me in Nigeria, He would look after me across the sea. And when I got to England I was not told about the nature of my sickness because I was well taken care of. Also, I didn’t have much of a health crisis because of their sound health care system. It was when I came back to Nigeria that the truth came out.

Again, none of my children have sickle cell disease. So, living close to the age of 91 is by God’s grace, because up till last year December I used to cook for myself and even wash my clothes. Honestly, I didn’t know I would live this long. Is it by my power? No. Although I don’t have a non-governmental organisation but I make myself accessible and available (to counsel people who have sickle cell disorder). I go to hospitals to talk to parents whose children are suffering from sickle cell anaemia. People also call me for advice.

I am blessed…no regrets
I am blessed with five children – four daughters and a son. My only son passed away three years ago shortly after celebrating his 60th birthday. I was devastated but at the same time the Bible says, ‘Count your blessings and name them one by one.’ It was a sad moment losing a grown-up child. I see it as one of life’s challenges and didn’t break down over it because of God’s countless blessings in my life. Today, I am blessed with my children, 12 grandchildren and seven grandchildren.

Life is what you make it
The lesson about my life is that life is just a violin. Life is about one’s belief in God; taking care of one’s self. I knew in those turbulence periods as a sickly child that I should not walk on bare floor, especially when it rained. I knew I should keep myself warm, I shouldn’t sit under the fan. Today, I can sleep soundly in air-conditioned room. Above all, life is what you make it.

If you make it royal to yourself, you will enjoy it and if you make it miserable you will experience the opposite. For me, living a fulfilled life is only by God’s grace and I give praises to Him every second. Some people who are hale and hearty don’t get to live up to 90. To be alive and agile with my medical condition is by God’s grace. So I will be eternally grateful to him for preserving me.