By Ebele Vivien Okoli
Editor: The 3rd of December was World Disability Day. Ebele Vivien Okoli, a Resident Doctor specialising in Community Medicine at the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital Enugu, who has a deep interest in these issues sent in this powerful piece. Read, reflect and do what you can….but whatever you do, don’t look away.
A friend of mine introduced me to Mr. Anioke, the Enugu Chapter President of the Joint National Association of People with Disability (JONAPWD). He was amiable when I called to make an appointment. On hearing a brief explanation of my quest to interview people living with disability, he suggested I come for the JONAPWD meeting, which was coincidentally holding on the Saturday of that week.
The meeting had already started by the time I arrived. It was holding outside on the grounds of the Nigerian Television Authority, Enugu, alongside a children’s party sponsored by Indomie Noodles a few meters away. The ambience was nice.
When I arrived, there was a preacher standing in the center of the gathering, animatedly talking to the members. He was urging them not to despair of any situation they found themselves in, especially in relation to their disabilities. There was a call for members to accept the Lord Jesus Christ as their Saviour. Then, the preacher did something interesting; he ventured to heal anyone that believed, of his or her disability! He laid hands on everyone’s head… including mine, much to my discomfort.
The preacher then reiterated that all of us at the gathering could be healed of our disabilities, only if we believed. There was then a praying session with varying degrees of prayer by individuals. Most prayed hard and loud, some silently. Unfortunately, nobody had their impairments reversed but he reassured that healing could still happen later at home… only if course, if we had faith.
The meeting then commenced in earnest, with the chairman, Mr. Anioke opening the floor. He is a civil servant working in the Government House Enugu. I noticed he had bilateral lower limb deformities and walked with the aid of a stick. He introduced the main item on the agenda, which was the introduction of the new executive of which he was the chair. It was however, not clear to me how this executive had been constituted, whether via elections, appointment or self-selection. He intimated that things had ended badly with the previous chairman who had apparently used the association for the personal gain of himself and his cronies. I gathered from his speech that the association in Enugu had been in a state of disarray for a while now.
The new chairman assured the members that he was there to make sure that things were going to work out well in the organization, as they were losing the governmental and non-governmental support that they had previously enjoyed. The chairman ended his speech by informing the house that the former president had not handed over the old membership register and the other paraphernalia of office.
The floor was then opened for responses to the president’s speech while refreshments of garden egg and sachet water were passed round. A lot of members expressed support for the new leadership and gave him advice on how to move the association forward and avoid the mistakes of the past president. There was however, a lone voice of dissent from a member who turned out to have worked in the old executive.
Members of the group in attendance were quite diverse. They included civil servants, undergraduate students, artisans, farmers, sports persons, small business owners, and the unemployed, and from all age ranges. They had also come from all parts of Enugu state for the meeting, including Nsukka, Oji River and Udi. The types of disabilities amongst the group included visual impairment, limb deformities, amputations, consequences of spinal cord injuries and other physical impairments. I noticed that there was an obvious absence of people with hearing impairment and people with intellectual/ learning disabilities; most likely due to communication barriers, I mused.
The AOB segment of the meeting then followed where I was introduced to the house by the President and given the floor to speak on my mission. I explained that I was a medical doctor working in UNTH but was there on behalf of Nigeria Health Watch, a health advocacy platform in Nigeria which wanted to give better coverage to issues that the mainstream media were not giving enough attention to in the health space. I was there at the meeting to find potential candidates for interviews. The entire group warmly welcomed my presence in the meeting. Members who were interested in participating in the project were asked to meet me after the meeting. I was asked by the president to become an associate member of the association and to work with them. This I graciously accepted.
After the meeting concluded, I made acquaintance with several members. We chatted and exchanged phone numbers and email addresses.
I subsequently gave a lift to the motor park to three members who had come from out of town. We made small talk on the way. Two of them were visually challenged and had come from the Special Education Centre, Oji River, where they both lived and worked. Mr. Ilechukwu worked in the Vocational training Centre and was the Chairman of the Enugu State Association of the Blind, while Miss Ogbodo Elizabeth was a primary one teacher at the school. Mr. Ilechukwu’s 9-year old son led them. I imagined the responsibilities that this child would have learnt to assume at such a tender age as I watched him quietly guide the adults. I assured them I was going to visit their workplace. They in turn expressed gratitude for the lift and would be anticipating my visit.
At the end of that day, I knew my life was never going to be the same… I had just experienced profoundly, a portion of Nigerian society that not many people get to know or understand and whom I am looking forward to working with.