TWO GRACES – EIGHTEEN (pENULTIMATE EPISODE)

TWO GRACES – GRACE OCHIGBO

EIGHTEEN (Penultimate episode)

             Being the first child and only daughter of an army general comes with a lot of merry sides; one of which was a jolly ride to school in the convoy of military personnel. Over the years, Grace Philips had grown to dislike road travels with everything in her. There were reasons; the terrible conditions on the roads, the lack of safety, the almost-broken-down vehicles, and of course, the increasing uncivil behavior of military and paramilitary personnel alike. But this time, she wanted to relive younger age memories, only that this time, there were no daddy and his convoy. She could have chattered a private car to take her down to her destination but she wanted to do it the crude way. Back then, when the two Graces were both single, they went on vacation every other time. That was then. Now she had to do this all by herself and catch as much fun while at it too.

                The bus she boarded had a lot of local traders in it. Even with the music from her iPod on the highest volume, loud disturbing noise infiltrated her ears still. She leaned her head against the side window of the car at first until it entered a deep pot hole that shook all the nerves in her skull. One time, the road was a long stretch of smooth path, another time, too rough one worries a pregnant woman would have a miscarriage. She wondered for the most part if there was no shock absorber whatsoever in the bus.

                    Arriving in an unfamiliar city at night can be scarier than walking in the valley of the shadow of death. Inasmuch as Grace Philips timed her journey to enable her arrive before 6pm, she couldn’t control the speed of that rickety bus. It’s even a miracle they arrived safely.

At the park, different taxi drivers approached her.

“Take me to a very classy hotel.” She said as she collapsed into the backseat of the taxi she finally chose.

In what barely seemed like a split second, she heard

“Madam, we don reach.”

Her eyes opened wide. So soon? Thought we’d just left the park?

She willed her eyes to stay woke and her brain to delay shutting down for another hour. There was no luggage other than her handbag and bag pack containing her computer and other accessories. Whatever she’s going to need, she would buy them here. She’s here for shopping after all.

              A uniformed man opened the entrance door to the hotel for her and she trudged in, afraid she may faint anytime soon.

Had the second Grace warned her about road travels?

Yes.

The lobby of the hotel was more like the reception of a new high-rise: small, bland and with only one staff member. He smiled like a photo, eyes remaining still while taking her details and checking identification. Grace couldn’t believe this place was the taxi man’s own definition of ‘a very classy hotel’. English. However, when the elevator opened to the first floor, she almost choke in surprise – this was the real lobby. Apparently whatever was below was just the security screening point.

              A smartly dressed room servicer joined her as soon as she stepped out of the elevator, leading her to a deluxe room. The sparkles and freshness of the room revitalized her system some. By the time the young man was done with what Grace concluded as typical, he came to stand before her,

“Let us know if you need anything, ma’am. The contacts are on the intercom.”

Grace Philips nodded with a smile that didn’t get to her face. All she needed was a warm shower in the bath tub and good sleep. Very good sleep.

             After ensuring the door was properly closed behind the room servicer, she pulled her handbag nearer and picked a small black box from it. She quickly removed the SIM card on her phone and replaced it with the one she picked from the small black box. She waited for the phone to power back on before heading in the direction of the rest room.

It was a holiday.

The main purpose of which was to completely shut out the world, and unwind.

Unwind… that’s exactly what she came all the way to do and would do.

****

                 Eju Philips rolled restlessly from one side of her master sized bed to the other. Her heart was burdened. Worry drew more lines on her face than age has. It’s been several months since she last had a heart-to-heart conversation with her only daughter. She hoped for her sanity sake that Grace was fine and handling all ‘her issues’ properly. She fumbled with the sheets until her feet landed on the tiled floor. She slid down on her knees and closed her eyes shut. Over the next thirty minutes, she prayed. She prayed from a burdened heart mentioning the full names of her sons. She prayed for their jobs, for their families, for her grandchildren, for protection, for provision. When it was time to pray for Grace, only one sentence left her mouth.

“Father Lord, please have mercy on my girl.”

She broke into tears while repeating those words. The pain of a mother. If opportune to bear all the pain Grace had had to go through, she would gladly bear.

When she was finally able to pull herself together, she picked her phone and dialed the phone number of her oldest son, Gideon. It was still quite early to place a call and could bet the man would be apprehensive

“Mum, what’s wrong? Why calling me so early?”

Eju Philips smiled. Gideon never disappoints.

“There’s limitation to when I can call my own son?”

“C’mon mother, that’s not what I am saying…” he groaned. His voice still sounding drowsy. “But are you fine?”

“I am having my prayers and want to pray for you all one after the other before you set out for work today.” She said, almost sure Gideon must have rolled his eyes.

“Okay, mum!” He exhaled the air he’d been holding onto throughout the conversation. “In what order are you doing this prayer call, mum? You mean you’ve spoken with Grace so early?”

The older woman nodded her head as if Gideon saw her. “Your sister would be the last person I will call. We have longer conversations.” As she said this, she pulled her bible close. “Let’s pray…”

****

              The continuous ringing on Grace Philips’ phone made her groan in pain. How she forgets to put off the device when needed most beats her sometimes.

Who could be calling so continuously, she asked no one in particular as she tried to lift herself off the bed to the spot she’d left the phone yesterday night on the table.

Through the window blinds, she could see that the day was just breaking. She’d slept without moving a limb all night. But even that was not as shocking as the caller ID on her phone’s screen. She remembered changing into her private line last night before anything else.

So who?

She slid the receive button, put it on speaker and waited.

“Hello, ma’am!” she heard a deep masculine voice on the other side of the phone and out of fear, ended it before the person could say anything else.

Only her mother, brothers and Grace Oladele had this phone number of hers. She walked briskly to the bed and sank into it with the phone in her hand. She wondered how whoever it was got her phone number and what the issue must be for him to call her so early in the morning. Thankfully, the intercom was at arm’s length. The whole situation scared her than she should normally be and as if that’s not enough, the phone in her hand buzzed and started ringing again. Her heart skipped beats for a few seconds before she saw the caller.

“We’ve been calling you forever, Gracie.”

Grace Philips swallowed. “We? You and who?”

She scrolled through her call log to see that it’s Grace Oladele who had actually been calling her those other times. The last call she woke up to just called that once.

“You’re going to kill me. But please, don’t be mad. It was beyond my control too.”

Now, Grace Philips didn’t know what her friend was talking about and her patience was running out.

“How do you mean?”

“Okay, here.” Grace Oladele started, “…there’s this facility having a serious emergency and a paediatric surgeon is required immediately. The patient should have been referred to OAUTHC but there’s no way they would make it down here alive so they called your department. The state government contacted Prof Esan and all attempt to get through to you failed.”

Grace Philips sighed, knowing where the story was headed. “Let me guess. So you gave them this private line, Gray?”
“I am sorry, I had no choice.” Grace Oladele’s tone was tender. “The only challenge now is how fast you can make it down from Abuja.”

“Where’s the facility?”

“One OTAI something something… it’s a non-profit established by the Obi of Onitsha.”

“So the emergency is here in Onitsha?” Grace Philips asked and noticed the silence on the other side.

“Thought you were in Abuja?”

Grace Philips smiled. “Nah! I changed my mind. I decided to start from Onitsha. Never been here before after all.”

The silence on the other side of the phone lingered.

“Let me call the unknown number back.” She said politely and ended the call.

She would explain to Grace Oladele later but now, there was a life to save and the Hippocratic Oath she’s bound by made her a lifesaver in season and out of season – while on a personal vacation or during full-fledged working days

**** .

                     Mr. P. dropped the phone on the table separating him from where Clinton was sitting on the other side. The look on his face sent no idea whatsoever out to the latter and that worried him.

“What did he say?” Clinton could no longer hide his curiosity.

Mr. P. looked on with a straight face for a while before finally spreading his lips to form a wide smile. “We have no idea how much God just saved us. The whole of OTAI for that matter.”

Clinton took in a deep breath. “I know right?”
             OTAI has been a refuge for young girls; young girls who had to drop out of school as a result of falling pregnant outside wedlock. Most of these girls, victims of rape, abuse and molestation, were sent packing from home by their parents who maintain that they had brought unpardonable shame and embarrassment to their families. OTAI admits such girls from around the country and help them through the agonizing pregnancy period till term. Special programs have been designed for them and intensive entrepreneurship trainings went on simultaneously. Some were being thought bead making, tailoring, web designing, fabric making, painting, make up artistry – all so they can become self-employed after the delivery of their child.

              Some of the parents of these abandoned girls came to reunite with them after the birth of their children while others remain rejected by family and friends. Either ways, it’s always a hard and emotional time for the OTAI management. The children of the rejected ones were being taken care of at the orphanage arm of OTAI while the mothers went about their normal healthy lives, making some decent earnings with the skill they’d acquired.

                  As it is with every good venture started by a man, people and the media criticized the marvelous work done by the OTAI management team. Some accused the king of using the blood of the girls at delivery for money. And for the five times over the years the organization had lost five of the girls during labour, they affirmed their allegations.

“But how would that man threaten the organization, after all we’ve done for his daughter? Someone that impregnated his own daughter o. Tufiakwa!” Clinton couldn’t believe it.

Mr. P. sighed. “The heart of a man is desperately wicked, bro.”

“Threatening to take us to court if anything happened to the child? What do we call the child now? His grandchild or his child?”

Clinton bit his lower lips.

A father who rejected a girl they took in.

“Where are you going, Mr. P?” he asked, seeing the latter was packing up.

“The hospital, my brother. Akoji left a message for the lifesaver doctor.”

****

             They got her a scrub that was only few inches larger than her. Thanks to portable size, she’s able to fit into dresses quite easily. It didn’t take ten minutes before a vehicle pulled over at her hotel earlier this morning. The grey-haired man who introduced himself as Dr. Uzo, the head of medicals, Ojonoma Theresa Audu Initiative (OTAI) started a long sermon of appreciation mixed with apology over their interrupting her holidays.

“It’s okay, sir. If we must save the child’s life, we need to go now.” Grace cut him short.

                She was surprised to meet a standard paediatric theatre as she walked into the medical center floor of the massive OTAI building. The theatre in her facility wasn’t even close. What they lacked was adequate manpower. They had general physicians but no specialist, at least to the best of her knowledge.

 As the patient, a little girl, was wheeled in to the theatre, she turned to the wall and said a word of prayer as usual. “Lord, please use my feeble hands to do what only you can do.”

It’s six hours now. She was done and out of the theatre and in the changing room. The patient had been wheeled into the recovery room. Maximum next two hours, she should be awake and … fine.

                Grace Philips closed the running tap and dried her hands before pulling out her phone. Several calls from her mother, Grace, and her brother, Gideon in that order. She thought of which to return first and was about to tap on the screen when the iPhone started ringing.

Gideon

“Hi Bro!” she mouthed excitedly into the speaker of the phone.

“Gracey, what’s with you and not picking up your calls these days?” he didn’t sound friendly at all.

“Sorry dear. Had an emergency surgery. Just finished now after six hours.”

“Wow.” His voice became sober. “How was it, sis?”

“Successful. What’s up?”

“Mum has been worried all day. After unfruitful attempts on your regular line, we figured to try your private line, but then you were not taking it too.”

Grace Philips didn’t even know how to feel about the statement. “What’s the issue with Mum and what’s so urgent?”

Gideon chuckled, perceiving the provocation in his sister’s voice. “Well, our old woman called me very early this morning, saying she was led to pray for all her children before they stepped out today. The boys first then you, as you have other things to discuss.”

Grace couldn’t believe her ears as she listened on.

“So when she couldn’t reach you altogether, she raised an alarm and has refused to be pacified. She says it would be dangerous, if not fatal, if you stepped out that morning without having those prayers.”

“Well,” Grace Philips shrugged. “I’ve stepped out. Saved a life. Ready to rest. And there’s been no danger.”

“C’mon Gracey!” Gideon cut in. “Take it easy.”

“No!” Grace snapped. “Save that advice for mummy. She has to take things easy. She should take it easy.” She emphasized, her voice was high. “We’re still battling with her high blood pressure, yet she wouldn’t give herself rest. She should understand that aside being an adult, I’m very busy. I’m a surgeon for crying out loud. Or is there now distance in the spirit? If she can’t reach me, she should relax and pray for me still. Or, can she take care of me more than the God she’s praying to?”

Gideon knew better than to talk when Grace was pissed, so he just let her vent.

“Please, you guys should caution her. She’s getting older. All these unnecessary anxieties should go.”

Gideon breathe out loud enough for her to hear. “Okay! We would talk with her. But then you have to call her…”

“I will…” her answer was so quick, distracted by the push on the door. One of the doctors that assisted her during the surgery drew nearer her.

“You will? When?” she heard Gideon’s voice on the other side of the call but her attention wasn’t with him anymore. She just needed to hear whatever this man in front of her had to say. Hopefully, nothing had gone wrong with the patient.

“Soon, Gideon. Very soon. Let me call you back, please.” She ended the call immediately and casted worried eyes at the man.

“Dr. Philips, Dr. Uzo would like to see you in his office if you don’t mind, Ma.”

“Is anything the matter?” she spilled out before she could stop herself.

*****

               The office was painted grey, and it had only one floor-to-ceiling window which faced the main road bustling with the rowdy life of Onitsha. The walls to the sides contained a low bookshelf, and a single oil painting – a man on a bicycle by Nike Arts Gallery. On the black desk sat a sleek desktop computer, a notebook lying open and a stack of papers.

“Come right in, Dr. Philips.” Dr. Uzo got up to receiver her.

She’d changed into her jean and polo now but forgot to take off the scrub cap. The older man gave her a quick side hug

“You have no idea how much you have saved our organization, Ma’am.”

Grace tightened her palms more. “Especially that you’re saying it for the umpteenth time, I feel flattered all over again.”

“Yeah…” he sat up in his seat.

Grace Philips hoped he wouldn’t start narrating the same story over again.

They took in a girl who was impregnated by her father and thrown out of the house. All the way from Sokoto, she learnt about OTAI and ran into a place of refuge. In the year till she delivered, no one heard anything from the family. And over the last three years of raising the child, no one was threatened by her wealthy and affluent Fulani father. There were several complications during the birth of the child due to the extreme young age of the girl. The organization has been managing the baby until now when the situation became very critical. The man from nowhere learnt about the health of the child and started saying gibberish things about OTAI being an occult movement, feeding on the naivety of innocent little girls. He threatened thunder and brimstone, and even to go to court if the child dies.

“This child will live, sir. I trust God.” Grace finally stopped him

Dr. Uzo smiled. “You are a very good looking intelligent woman.”

A shy smile flashed her face.

“I learnt you’re in Onitsha on vacation.”

“Yes sir. Came to enjoy the goodness of the East.”

“Alone?”
“Excuse me?” Grace Philips frowned.

The older man chuckled loudly now. “Pardon me if I’m being too forward but if I had such a treasure for a wife, I wouldn’t let her leave my side for a second.” He bit his lower lip in a rather sultry way.

Grace Philips felt the impulse to hiss but ‘let’s respect the old man’, she thought. He had better not consider flirting with her.

“The doctor said you’d like to see me, sir?” Grace changed the topic.

“Oh yes. Oh yes!” he affirmed. “The prince of this kingdom who is also the CEO of our organization wants to see you to say a proper thank you.”
“Oh me? That wouldn’t be necessary, sir. I mean I’m just doing my job and…”

A loud knock on the door interrupted her.

“Yes. Come in.”

Grace Philips sat straight-faced as the door opened and she began to hear footsteps walk in behind her. Dr. Uzo hurried over to meet the two men at the center of the office. They exchanged pleasantries with loud excited voices before she heard,

“This is her right here, my prince, the immaculate Dr. Philips…”

“So good to meet you, ma’am.” Clinton was first to stretch out his hand.

Grace Philips left a smile plastered on her face as he gave way for the second person behind him to greet her. Alarm rang in her head when their eyes met. She perceived he was also feeling the same way.

They’d met before, haven’t they?

Where?

Grace Philips joggled her memories as she took his outstretched hand.

“A pleasure to meet you again, Grace.”

That was it. His voice brought it all back.

 It clicked in her head.

It was him.

Same man with Ben in his sitting room that afternoon when she came unannounced.

Same man that held her close, letting her cry in his arms when Ben slammed the door hard in her face.

****

              At this time in her calculation and plans, she was supposed to be returning from sightseeing the city. She’d gotten the phone number of the taxi driver that brought her to the hotel last night hoping to call him whenever she woke up this morning. He would take her around the city before returning home in the evening. The next day would be her first shopping spree. She planned to spend a few days in Onitsha before proceeding to Aba. Somewhere in her plans had home in it until this her mother’s recent attitude. She wasn’t sure she should go to Lokoja now. Well, today may not had gone anywhere near as planned, yet she was grateful for a good day.

                Laila, the little girl who had surgery was recovering rather very fast. She’d met Ben’s friend, Patrick, as he called himself. After some minutes in the doctor’s office, Patrick and her stepped out to have a conversation. He apologized on behalf of Ben again and that almost made a tear drop down Grace’s eyes. The memories of Ben would forever hurt her. He talked about being best pals with the founder of the organization and that OTAI was named after his late wife. Grace commended the heart behind such initiative and apologized for the unfortunate scenario with the father of the poor little girl. Clinton joined them some moments later.

“Father just called me now, Mr. P.” he said with excitement. “They are asking if the doctor could come dine with us tonight.”

Grace Philips’ eyeballs popped out. “Your father? The king?”

Something was spinning her life too fast she feared she’d fall off.

“Gray, that’s how I was invited to the palace o. They would be here to pick me any moment from now.”

Grace Oladele was just wowed on the other end of the phone.

“And to think that I didn’t come with a dress.” She murmured.

She couldn’t reject the king’s invite, and now she had only jean trouser and polo on. She’d asked if the hotel had a boutique but none.

“Why are you so worked up though? The king and his family would understand it’s an impromptu invite. You’re the celebrity guest here, anyway.”

Grace took in deep calming breaths. “That’s true.”

There was a knock on her door. “Please stay on the phone, Gray. I don’t understand what’s happening to my life anymore. Someone is at the door.” She hurried to the door, opened it and nearly dropped dead.

“We’re sorry to intrude your privacy, ma’am. I bring you message from her royal highness, the queen – Lolo Beatrice Mbah.”

Grace Philips gasped as two ladies dressed in the typical Igbo royal attire she sees in movies followed behind two energetic young men pushing a moving wardrobe right in front.

“I am the palace keeper,” the older man who had been talking the whole time continued after the men stopped the wheeled wardrobe right in the center of her hotel room and walked out. “The queen figured you may have challenges with what to wear to the royal dinner and has sent some of the choicest royal robes you may like. These two royal maids here are Lolo’s personal maids and would assist in dressing you up. I and the palace guards would wait outside by the car until you’re ready, so we take you to the palace.” The man bowed courteously before excusing himself.

“What was all that about?” Grace Oladele’s voice startled her. She had forgotten the latter was still on the phone. “The queen sent dresses to you? And maids to dress you up?”

“I am as astonished as you are, Gray.” Grace Philips couldn’t believe her eyes. “Let me get ready. I’ll keep you updated.”

“Have fun tonight, sugar girl. You deserve every good thing.” Grace Oladele said.

“Thank you, darling.” She dropped the call and didn’t know what next to do until one of the maids pushed open the glass door of the wheeled wardrobe. The dresses therein were so beautiful she could eat them.

****

              As the Cadillac Escalade premium drove through the huge iron gate into the compound, Grace Philips doubted for a split seconds if she was still in Nigeria. She stepped out from the black car, gaping at the large mansion towering over her as if attempting to intimidate her. The all-white coating of the paint shined as the evening sun beats down on it, causing her to have a squint. Uniquely twisted fencing kept the house enclosed so much so that one wouldn’t see a thing from outside. Neatly trimmed hedges surrounded the house. The windows have royal gold curtains hanging on the other side of them, drawn so that the sunlight could stream through.

              As she let her eyes take in the splendour of the compound, she noticed a marble fountain sitting towards the right side of the lawn. A lion with a widely opened mouth was perched on top, looking up towards the sky. Water spurt from its raised forelimbs, which stretched out in front of it as if attempting to jump at a foe. The water falls gently towards a crystal blue pool beneath it, causing ripples to form and wave out until there’s no more.

“Thank you for coming, Dr. Philips.” Clinton’s hoarse voice jerked her back. He gave her a side hug and gave way.

“You look so ravishing in this royal attire, Grace!” Patrick said in the most subtle way and Grace’s heart missed a beat. “Welcome to the palace of the Obi of Onitsha – the paramount ruler of the good people of Onitsha kingdom. This way, ma’am.” He took her hand courteously, leading her in.

                 Grace noticed his height. His build. She perceived the strong cologne coming from his three-piece suit. And as he pushed the curtain from her way, she noticed his perfect dentition through his sweet smile. She walked into the mansion and saw the tallest ceiling ever in her entire life. Lovely crown molding, a table in the center, two flights of spiral staircases going up to the second floor, the floor is ceramic tile. There were pricey things all over the place. The room was like a perfect magazine cover.

Wow! She couldn’t keep herself from exclaiming.

Maids and guards manned strategic places as Patrick led her on, followed closely behind by Clinton. The king and queen and other guest were already at the dining table. As she stepped into the well-lit dining room, tambourines began to sound with loud cheers and claps. Grace Philips was at loss for words.

From a corner beside her, she heard the loud voice of the palace keeper,

“Your royal highnesses and noble dignitaries at the banquet table, permit me to introduce to you, the delectable Dr. Philips…”

Before Grace could say Jack Robbinson, the queen had embraced her warmly, took her hand from Patrick and led her to a seat right beside the king. Grace didn’t know the right thing to do so she went on her two knees. Everyone cheered and clapped at this gesture.

“You see, she’s not just very beautiful and intelligent, she’s well cultured.” The king said, using his large hand fan to tap her back. “It shall be well with you, my daughter.”

“Amen!” everyone’s echo drowned Grace’s.

“Please arise, and make yourself comfortable, Nne!” came the queen’s voice.

             This dining room was a grand space, to say the least. The huge mahogany table took up most of the vast space the romantic room offered. Left without a table cloth, one could see the perfectly varnished shine on top of the table. Two tall, golden candelabras commanded attention from the center of the table, holding smooth white candles whose wax never dripped.

                Grace Philips was too shy to look at the faces of the persons on the dining table. She’d spotted Dr. Uzo earlier with an older lady she assumed was his wife sitting beside him. Clinton and Patrick sat beside each other and if Grace’s guts were anything to go by right now, she could bet Patrick looked at her with gross admiration. She tried not to pay much attention to him.

“So I learnt there are only three of you in West Africa?”

Grace Philips smiled at the king’s question. “For now, your highness, yes. But I’m sure they’re other female paediatric surgeons in training.”

“That’s right!” Igwe Callistus concurred. “We’re happy to have you, Doctor.”

Grace Philips bowed her head slightly. Are you kidding me? Who’s happy to have who now, frankly? She thought. This was more than ten star treatment.

“So doctor, you’re lodged at California Garden Hotels and suits?”

Grace Philips turned to the queen. “Yes, your highness. Such a beautiful place. In fact, you have a beautiful city, I must say.”

She heard everyone chuckle but the queen was not done.

“You are on vacation, aren’t you?” Lolo Beatrice asked, but didn’t leave room for her to answer. “Want to ask if you don’t mind staying in the palace during the period of your vacation. There are so many beautiful rooms here also. And we would provide you with everything you may need.”

Grace Philips almost choked on her food.

Wait! Did the queen just ask her to come stay in the palace throughout the period of her vacation?

Was this a dream?

Someone please wake me up, she screamed in her mind.

To be continued.

Thank you all for your patience.

It’s been an exciting journey for me, from writing Noma’s Dream up till this point. I do hope you feel the same. I hope you also enjoyed this story.

Glad to announce that this is the penultimate episode. What that means is that our beloved story on the lives of the TWO GRACES is gradually grinding to an end.

Last episode drops on Monday evening.

I would love us to have a conversation on this story.

Please join me on Twitter on Tuesday evening by 7pm as we discuss everything Noma’s Dream and its sequel TWO GRACES. I would be taking all your questions (and for those who thought Grace Philips was me, I await your proofs). I promise I shall answer your questions as truthfully as permissible. We shall also decide whether we should have a part 3 or not. Haha.

Follow me @GraciousElara

We shall be using #graceochigbostories #twograces

You totally shouldn’t miss it. Set an alarm now, 7pm Tuesday evening.

Also, I made an adventure into film production with BLINKERED.

Check it here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0q1XmrrTkYs

See you on Monday.

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About Grace Ochigbo

Grace Ochigbo
Grace Ochigbo is a Christian, storyteller, inspirational speaker and the Founder of Gemstone Sickle Cell Aid Team, a non-profit organizations working to end Sickle Cell Disease. email; ochigbogracious0@gmail.com

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