On Saturday 27th August 2016 something remarkable happened in Kumasi in the life of Dr. Fathia Kareem. It looked something like this:
Which quickly led to this:
Dr. Fathia Kareem decided, as one does, to win 12 out of the 15 awards that were available to honour exceptional students during KNUST’s School of Medical Sciences’ 23rd Oath Swearing and Induction Ceremony. Pretty much everybody who heard of this feat lost it a little, because med school is not a walk in the proverbial park.
So of course, as one does, we just had to do a sit down and get to know this woman who does remarkable things. Life in Kumasi presents to you, Dr. Fathia Ayodele Kareem.
Courtesy of Google Maps, I easily located where she was staying at Atasomanso. I think I may have bumped her head a little with my camera bag when I was getting inside. That’s not a good note to start an interview on, so I decided it never happened.
We talked about how the media attention has been like, and she casually mentioned having done interviews with Ultimate FM in Kumasi, one with Joy News over Skype. And oh she recorded a little something for a segment on Focus on Africa, a popular program by a little media firm called BBC which you may or may not have heard of.
Fathia likes to laugh; that’s something you quickly notice. She grew up in DC – that’s Dansoman, in Accra. She is the only child of her parents. “But I had lots of cousins around, so it’s not like I was alone or anything,” she explained. One cousin came to stay with her family, so she had company. Plus, she often visited family in and around Accra, and spent quality time with her granparents too. If you had a picture of a bespectacled girl with her nose buried in a textbook all day, well, that’s not really close to the real picture. Fathia had a regular happy Ghanaian childhood, with friends, outdoor games, storybooks, and a lot of TV. “Scooby Doo”, she said with a laugh when I asked which cartoons she used to watch.
Fathia started school life with Ave Maria Nursery School. She went on to St. Martin de Porres for primary school and JHS. “Were you always first in class?” I asked.
“Yes I was”, she replied with a coy smile.
“You were never second?” She shook her head.
“Ei”, I said, a bit surprised. She laughed
The JHS graduating class of 2006 numbered about 119, and she remained the overall best student. A pattern of academic dominance had begun at that early age. “What set you apart in childhood. Did you study a lot?” I asked Fathia. She didn’t study so much, in the beginning. “Primary school I think was quite an easy road.” she said, possibly picturing times when she would look at exam questions and laugh. She didn’t have a regular study time in primary school. Her style was, she would wait till about a week to exam and then pretty much read all her notes, and then ace the tests. Easy peazy. From class 5 though she had a private tutor at home for English and Math, and then Pre-Tech too in JSS. Her father thought it was important to be ahead of the class sometimes.
I wanted to know if there was a peculiar experience in her childhood that could explain her phenomenal performance. The answer may lie in the support she receives from her parents. She believes that, definitely, having her parents tell her “You can do it.” has been a huge help to her. They were constantly reminding her she can get there, right from primary school.“My dad has always been…if you’re not the best, be among the best, he always tells me.” Fathia’s dad, Abdul Fatau Kareem is an entrepreneur who owns a fashion line – Abfak Infinity Designs. Her mom owns a toothpaste shop. Maybe that would explain her daughter’s penchant for smiling and laughter.
Did people get scared of her for literally being first all the time? They weren’t scared, she said, but some would ask if perchance she was a witch. “Some time I even remember they said there is a plant in my house, that I chew the leaves before exams.” A genius inducing herb? Now that would be the ultimate cash crop. People have crazy theories. She confirmed that there was no plant, so, sorry if you had your hopes up on that one. Did she have a competitor? Godwin Peprah. He never did beat her though.
Fathia read a lot of storybooks as a child, and did so throughout med school. These days she likes to read Danielle Steele (The Gift), Sidney Sheldon (If Tomorrow Comes) and James Patterson. She started with the usual suspects – The Baby-Sitters Club, Sweet Valley High, The Box Car Children, Nancy Drew, Enid Blyton, and such.
Her favourite Baby-Sitters Club character was Stacey. Stacey was a blonde math wiz from New York. Unsurprisingly Fathia’s favourite subject was math, but had to go on a bit of a math break for med school, of course. Her dad, entrepreneur that he is, gave her Rich Dad Poor Dad to read. Apparently it had no effect on her. If you’ve read that book, then you’ll understand that she really loves school. What I can’t come to terms with, though is that she never tried Harry Potter. Wait, what? “No…I’m not a Harry Potter fan. I was given one by my aunt who was really a Potter fan and is a doctor too.”
Her aunt Biliki is only three years her senior (she has aunts and uncles younger than her), and she is one of the reasons why she went to Wesley Girls High.
FATHIA KAREEM’S GEY HEY DAYS
She laughed again when I asked her why she chose Gey Hey, apart from the fact that, well, it’s ‘Gey Hey’. That was her main reason, it turned out. “Because it’s the best school”, she said. Her parents encouraged her to do her best and get in, like her aunt did. And make it she did. As if anyone expected any different. Gey Hey was stressful in first year. She said she lost a lot of weight. Lateness was not accepted. If you were late for anything, you’d be punished.
Gettting ready for speech day was also tiring, with watering of lawns at 5 am and all. In the end it was worth it because there were a lot of things she learned in Gey Hey that she didn’t think in some schools were imparted to the students. Lessons that stuck with her are the discipline, and to know your self worth, and always be the best. The famous Mrs. Djokoto, Wesley Girls headmistress would say “Anything worth doing…” to which they would enthusiastically respond, “is worth doing well!” She would frequently quote Aristotle, “You’re what you repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”
“She always used to say that. Two of her sayings that really stuck with me during those years,” Fathia said.
We moved on to the issue of Gey Hey stereotypes. “Ei Gey Hey girls de3”, she mimicked a common statement. “Me I’m just me.” I asked why some Gey Hey girls appear aloof when you try to talk to them. “Yeah..standoffish”, she said. This was actually the word I was thinking, and that made me idly wonder if she was versed in the arcane art of mind reading.
“I think it’s the school plus your own character”, she said by way of explaining the ‘chichis’ nature of some of her colleagues. “I like to think I’m not like that”, she added. “Do you have friends like that?” I asked. “Let’s say acquaintances”, she replied, laughing. She added, “Some of them put it up just as a front.” I asked if they should stop the ‘chichis’. She thought about it for a second or two. “Well they should be proud of their school as well. They can do it but not too much.” People this settles it, Gey Hey girls will always be, er, ‘proud of their school.’ She was the Child’s Rights Club president, where she helped set up an educational fund for pupils in the Kakum community.
I wondered what was her favourite, or otherwise most outstanding Gey Hey memory. That’s when I learned about the Formation.
As it turns out, formation is a house-based competition for second years in the school. After months of practice, they formed a creative and elaborate routine full of dance, cheers and a bit of gymnastics. They had this on the last day of house games, and it was a pretty big deal, apparently. It was a house pride thing. They took popular songs of the day, replaced the lyrics with words praising their house. Fathia was in Ellis House – the Power House. “Blue is the power!” They placed third so they got a trophy. There would have been a price to pay had they not won a prize.
We talked a bit about the National Science and Math Quiz and why Gey Hey, and for that matter any girls school had never won the top prize. As you would expect, she was part of their squad. They, unfortunately did not get very far in her year.
When WASSCE came around she aced it. She was the third best WASSCE student in West Africa. The first placed WASSCE student, Frank Adu-Poku, was her colleague in med school.
FATHIA KAREEM IN MED SCHOOL
“Well I didn’t know what else to do apart from medicine,” Fathia answered when I asked why she chose Medicine. “Medicine, why not?” She didn’t like Physics so that ruled out Engineering for her. As to whether med school was hard, said, “It was challenging but I won’t say it was hard, if you apply yourself.”
Fathia Kareem with her excellent grades easily got into KNUST’s School of Medical Sciences. It was the only university she applied to. Her hall of residence in first year was the Independence Hall. She then moved to Frontline Inn at Ayeduase near KNUST, for second and third year. Two other ladies from Wesley Girls were her roommates – Aba Ghansah and Akua Gyamprah Ntodi. They were also med students, and remained together till they all successfully graduated. In fourth year the three Gey Hey musketeers were joined by Brenda Boakye, a Holy Child alum. Fathia spoke of her friend Naa Adoley. These two have been together in every single school right from Nursery school to Wesley Girls and to KNUST, where Naa studied Chemical Engineering. This is a great example of what the kids call Squad Goals these days.
“Can we skip the dating part?” she said with a bemused groan when the inevitable topic was broached. “So you never dated in Tech?” “No”, she replied. “Did you ever date before Tech?” I probed further. She laughed hard and long at that one, and answered no again. She had wanted me to leave this part out, but I thought it was useful to bring it up, just to point out that it’s not strange, as perceived by many, to never have dated in your twenties. As it turns out, she had turned down a few proposals because she did not think it was a good fit. This is fine. The pursuit of excellence should not cover everything except love. Just for mischief I did ask if she would marry someone who had only been to the Polytechnic. She said she would indeed consider it.
In talking about the qualities of her ideal man, she made a distinction between wisdom and intelligence, and recalled a particularly interesting experience from St. Martin de Porres.
“My English teacher told me once that there’s a difference between intelligence and wisdom. He said I didn’t have wisdom. Because I refused to write BECE in JSS 2. That has stuck with me. Like OK!” Fathia Kareem said. While there is in fact a difference between wisdom and intelligence, I doubt posterity would agree with this teacher’s opinion.
We moved on to the D-Day itself, the unprecedented haul of 12 awards. I asked her when she knew she would win so many awards. She found out the day before the fact. One lecturer she was close to called her with the amazing news. “I hope you brought an articulated truck,” she recalled the lecturer telling her.
“I was expecting awards but I was like ei ..really? Wow. It was almost like…is this really happening?” Fathia Kareem could hardly believe her own success.
Fathia had always aimed for a distinction in exam (75 marks and above), and that was her main focus. The awards came in to sweeten the deal. Currently her future plan is to become a paediatric surgeon, and possible sub-specialize in neonatal or foetal surgeon. She wants to “be the best surgeon as I can be, so I can fix as many children as possible.”
A particular newspaper in Ghana that will not be named, is infamous for ending their profiles with a line about the personality’s fave food, so just for kicks, we’ll do just that. If you surprised Fathia Kareem with a dish of okra soup and goat meat, and a side of succulent banku, then you would have totally ‘killed’ her, and she would be your friend for life.
As a word of final advice for the countless fans she has no doubt earned for herself, she repeated something she had learned from the equally amazing Olympian Simone Biles: