(From NEXT) The cobbler and his passion

Victor Iwuji alighted from the commercial motorcycle and made a couple of gestures to the rider who responded with some clumsy gestures before collecting his fare and rode off smiling. He then walked a few paces to his kiosk, and with some quick hand movements, gave some directives to his two assistants. Mr Iwuji suffers from a hearing impediment; but that has not affected his stride. His interpreter, for this interview, Adeniyi Olajide, explained that the gestures to his assistants, who equally suffer a similar affliction, communicates his time at the market.

His story

Mr Iwuji, a hearing impaired 30-year-old man who hails from Imo State, makes a living by making and repairing shoes for men and women. His kiosk is located beside the gates of Pacelli School for the Blind and Wesley School for the Hearing Impaired, in Ajao Road, Surulere, Mr Iwuji finished his primary education from Wesley, in 1994. At the age of six, he was struck with a strange illness which lasted for about six months, and left him deaf and dumb. Shortly after that, he was brought to Wesley for his primary education. At Wesley, students are taught vocational courses, art and craft; and it was there that Mr Iwuji developed an interest in shoe making. He went on to State Secondary School, Surulere, and graduated in 2000 still clinging to his dreams of shoe making.

He jumped into skilled work after school, and tried his hands at several things before finding his feet in his first love: shoe making. He got training in shoe making as an apprentice to a man called Abiodun, and learned the ropes for three years. After his apprenticeship, he bought some materials with his meagre savings and made his first set of shoes for sale in 2007. This feat attracted the interest, and good will, of a resident in the neighbourhood who built him a kiosk and allowed him set up in front of her compound. With a smile, he points at the woman’s house and shakes his head when asked if she collects rent from him. Unlike many youth, Mr Iwuji has no plans of furthering his education in a tertiary institution. His first response to the question was a simple no. Upon further probing, he explained that he doesn’t have money to further his education. And when asked if he would be interested if he had someone to sponsor his education, Mr Olajide interpreted his response thus, “I know I am not academically fit for the university. This is what I like doing so I’ll prefer to establish myself in my business.”

The business

Making and repairing shoes on the road side is not a very lucrative career, Mr Iwuji gestures, However, he agrees that he makes enough to sustain him and help some members of his family. He sells a pair of ladies sandals for N1000 and the men’s for a larger amount, depending on the design. The cost of repairing a shoe depends on the extent of damage on it. He buys most of his materials from Mushin, and communicates with his customers and suppliers through writing pads. He also communicates through ‘speech reading,’ a process explained by Mr Olajide as “a simple form of sign language where a deaf person tries to communicate with someone who is not well versed in sign language by using simple gestures, or the deaf person attempts to say something that sounds like what he is trying to say.”

It takes Mr Iwuji about two hours to make a pair of sandals; and weeks, or sometimes if he is lucky, a few days to sell. Passing on the skill of shoe making to other hearing impaired people is something he is passionate about, and he currently has two young men training under him. According to Mr Olajide, there is so much a disabled person can do when given the right education and training. “I want more people to come to Wesley School and learn a craft rather than begging on the streets,” he said. “Wesley School is sponsored by the government and it is completely free. No student pays anything. Even Pacelli School for the Blind, which is a missionary school, is also free and there are boarding facilities for the children.”

Oluwatoyin Ladipo, a recharge card seller, who does her trade just beside Mr Iwuji’s kiosk is one of his teeming fans. “It is really good that he has the opportunity to learn and come to school,” she said. “He is better than those begging on the street. People should bring their children to the school to learn. I really believe in the slogan of Wesley School – ‘There is ability in disability.’”

About adeolaadeyemo

I am a journalist and writer.
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