Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Out of Sight

Some months ago a young blind men stopped to talk to us as we were enjoying a beer at Rebecca’s bush bar in Kagoro. We’d seen him before – standing completely still about 5 metres away from us. I’d always wondered what he was up to. Just standing there not moving. He’d simply been listening to us. And when he summed up the courage he came to talk to us – he knew our names and where we were from. He introduced himself as Jonathan, a well-spoken, outgoing and chatty young man.

I quickly became friends with Jonathan who lives in a small, simple compound in the street behind Rebecca’s with his mother Esther, younger sister Esther and brothers Vincent and Moses. Both his father and his uncle who subsequently married his widowed mother are ‘late’ and buried, as is the tradition, under the porches in the compound. Jonathan’s passions are music and football.

Jonathan became completely blind aged 9 when his childhood bout of measles went untreated. In his early teens, a bature missionary in Kagoro discovered Jonathan – and sponsored him to attend a blind school run by COCIN (Church of Christ in Nigeria) in Gindiri, not far from Jos. He did well at school, being one of only 5 pupils selected to attend a special maths programme in Abuja. At Gindiri he also learnt his talent for football. I’ve seen Jonathan take penalties in the small compounds of friends and send the ball firing past the goal keepers, out of reach of their outstretched hands.

Last week Jonathan invited me to accompany him to the Gindiri Old Student’s Association (GOSA) workshop where I was given a glimpse into the place that made Jonathan the confident young man he is today.

We set off after an hour’s wait at the small Kagoro motor park as we waited for the large old Peugeot to fill. At Barkin Ladi, just outside Jos, we changed vehicles and were joined by Ladi, a blind woman travelling on Nigerian public transport with an overnight bag and her year-old son Israel. We later learned that she was the financial secretary of the Gindiri Old Students Association (GOSA). Forty-five minutes we changed vehicles again, this time at Mangu. Nine of us entered an extremely battered old Peugeot without any internal fixtures (e.g. door handles and anything else you can think of) apart from seats, and a strong and not entirely pleasant fishy odour, before another blind person joined us and made the car full so that we could leave. Daniel was also a member of the GOSA committee and he and Ladi quickly recognised each other and began discussing the weekend ahead

Whilst it was only three years since Jonathan had finished at Gindiri, Daniel and Ladi had both been there in the 80s however all three knew exactly when the car had made the nine kilometre journey into Gindiri, past the Plateau State College of Education to the entrance of the large COCIN compound which houses not just the school for the blind, but also boys’ and girls’ secondary schools and a seminary.

Our first stop was the “Gindiri Materials Centre for the Handicapped” where a small team make and source the equipment , books and other teaching aids needed by the school. Before long a small crowd of GOSA members, staff and officials was meeting, greeting and generally having fun on the small porch.

Congregating on the Materials Centre porch; Jonathan and other GOSA members; and Jonathan with our travelling colleagues Daniel and Ladi.

Materials centre manager Mr Thompson and his team, including Joshua (right) an artist who creates relief versions of technical drawings and diagrams for the blind students.

Jonathan and Ignatius led us from the Materials Centre to the Boys and Girls compounds, past the well where a crowd of students was collecting water to take back to their hostels. Unusually, but not unsurprisingly, it took some time for them to realise there was a bature in their midst but they were excited to meet me and very friendly. Watching the children from a distance laughing and joking as they were hauling the water, place it in large buckets on their heads and walk back to their compounds, you would have had no clue that every one was blind.

The children wave good bye as we make our way to the boys’ hostel where a young man brings water to help a small boy finish his job doing the washing up.

Capable of housing at least 80 boys, many of the rooms were empty, or only holding one or two sets of bunk beds where Jonathan and Ignatius told me there would have been three or four crammed into each small room in their time. It was unlikely that there had been a significant change in the causes of blindness – mainly river blindness caused by a parasite and common in the northern states, and measles. Ignatius suspected that parents were increasingly hiding their disabled children from public life. Additionally though the facilities looked neglected and I couldn’t help wondering if a basic lack of funds was behind the drop. Despite it being 2pm on a Friday afternoon, I could not see any lessons going on and met at least one Braille teacher who lived on the compound who was no longer working.

From the boys hostel we walked across the school grounds, past the girls’ hostel and the large overhead water tank that had been constructed to pipe water around the school. Unfortunately it relied on a mechanical pump which, for one reason or another, no longer functioned, so that the well was once more in use whilst the tank lay in disrepair. Soon we reached Jonathan’s destination, his teacher Mr Obadiah, who like many of the other teachers, lived with his family on the compound. Obadiah had been an inspiration to Jonathan and they greeted each other fondly.

The road through the school, and Jonathan with his science teacher Mr Obadiah and his two young sons.

Nigeria is not an ‘accessible’ country. Unlike Europe or the US, there are next to no facilities for the disabled, limited training opportunities and even fewer chances of employment. Many disabled children are simply hidden away, prisoners in their own families’ homes. Even in its dilapidation, Gindiri was a remarkable place where disability is, well I guess, simply ignored.

It’s not that there were any physical allowances for disability: as uneven roads as you’ll find everywhere, buildings littered with high, irregular steps, no railings: in fact I can’t actually think of a single feature that would have catered for any type of handicap. Yet everyone – the blind and the physically handicapped – copes. In fact it’s more than coping: they are living lives that appear to be as full as many Nigerians will get to enjoy.

I now know how Jonathan walks around the rutted and irregular streets of Kagoro without a cane or any other guide other than his memory. He does his own washing, plays with the kids and gives as good as he gets in any argument with his older friends.

Since 2008 VSO has had a policy to 'mainstream' disability through all of its programmes. Fantsuam's first step is to try and make our ICT training computers accessible for the blind, and to employ a trainer who can teach our students to teach the blind how to use computers. It's just a small step however, as our Programs Director John Dada always said, every long journey starts with a single step. If we can achieve anything like the level of acceptance and inclusion, and empowerment at Fantsuam that they have at Gindiri, we will have come a very long way!

AFTERWORD: Jonathan would love an audio football (i.e. a football with a bell in it!) for Christmas. If anyone knows how to get hold of these - please leave me a comment. In spare moments I've looked on the internet and it's not as easy to find as you might think. When I told him I this morning I was going to ask - he was very excited. Please don't let me down!

AFTER AFTERWORD: Thank you to all those who have left comments with help or emailed me directly with offers of footballs. You are extremely kind and Jonathan will be so delighted!


Glenn said...

Hey, Cicely,

Great story and pictures! As for the football, have you seen this site yet?


The site says they're out of the regular size footballs at the moment, but it also says that they're due to get more at the beginning of October. Maybe Laurie and Dori can call to check? Looks like the store is in British Columbia, so they probably could ship something to L&D in Florida in time for them to bring it back with them.

Good luck with the search!



Glenn said...

Hey, Cicely,

One other site that may be of some use:


No products listed, but there are a number of contact email addresses. I'm sure someone would respond if you sent an email asking for information on how to get the football.



Anonymous said...

You've done it again. Always putting smiles on people's faces. I pray GOD in his infinite mercies never take away your smile and put bigger smiles on your face. God bless

Paul said...

Hey Cicely,

Thanks again for organizing the Patch. Saw your article. My mother happens to give computertraining at an institute for blind people in the Netherlands. I can ask her. Only problem will be how to get the ball her.

Cheers, Paul

Dr Gaurav Bajpai said...

great work out on that story
NICE to seeprofessionals of different avenues learning and caring for all.
keep it up!

Dr Bajpai

Ricky said...

Hi Cicely,

How are you doing? I'm glad I found your blog :)

I am a current applicant with CUSO-VSO and have just received a placement offer with KSCOE in Kafanchan, Kundana, Nigeria as an Org Development Advisor, starting in Feb 2010.

I have plenty of questions for you, and I think I'll go through your postings to read more about your life there. I've reached out to a couple of other RVs as well, and am waiting to hear back from them

You can reach me at rickygvarghese@gmail.com. Thanks for all your posts, and hope to email you soon.


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