Relocating to Lagos was not something Bisola Hassan ever thought of doing.
She had spent all her life in Offa, Kwara State, and was quite comfortable where she was. Many of her peers got caught up in the Lagos fever and left for Lagos soon after completing secondary school, but she was more interested in attending the Polytechnic at Offa. After failing two attempts at gaining admission into the Polytechnic, she decided to learn a trade and chose tailoring. Things turned sour, however, one year later, when her boss’ husband got her pregnant and she was sent out of her parents house. “My madam’s husband was toasting (propositioning) me for a long time but I did not agree,” she said. “One day, I don’t know whether he used charm on me but I found myself in his room and he slept with me. After that I got pregnant and my parents said I disgraced them and sent me out of their house.”
Luckily, a kind aunt took her in and harboured her until she delivered her baby. By an inexplicable reason, the baby was born blind, and that marked the beginning of hostile treatment she received from her aunt. When she was unable to stand the hostility from her aunt and her family any longer, she packed her things, strapped her baby on her back, and migrated to Lagos, where she hoped to find a better life for herself and her son. Things were very tough for her at the beginning but she was able to work and rent a room at Oyingbo where she now lives with her son. “Since I gave birth to my baby, my aunty just changed and started treating me badly,” she said. “She said that something was wrong with me that is why I gave birth to a blind child and she didn’t want me to infect her family. That is why I left Offa and came to Lagos.”
Culture and government as the culprits
Ms Hassan is one in hundreds of people, especially young women, who find themselves abandoned by kith and kin as a result of such superstitious beliefs. As a spill-over of some of the obnoxious cultural practices that were experienced centuries ago in Nigeria, physically challenged people continue to find themselves the targets of discrimination in parts of the country. David Anyaele, the Executive Director of Centre for Citizens with Disabilities, noted that the reason for such discrimination is due to the fact that many people still see disability as a curse.
“The reason is just simple: our cultural practices sees disability as a curse to the family members of the individual living with disability,” he said. “It is either the gods are angry with the individual or the family. Sometimes religious leaders intends to give impression that suggests that the individual or the forefathers have sinned against God; as such it is a punishment for sins of the fathers or the individual. This is propelled by the government’s inability to address disability issues as human rights issue but response to it as non-issue, charity or medical.”
Gbemiro Adekunle, a student of Pacelli’s School for the Blind, is another visually impaired individual who said he faced some form of discrimination from his mates when he was at his previous primary school and had to switch schools for that reason. “My parents didn’t want me to go to a school for only blind children so they sent me to a primary school where they thought I would mix freely with other children,” he said. “But some of them used to laugh at me. Even though I still had some friends who were nice, I didn’t feel comfortable so I asked them to change my school.”
For Henry Aghahowa, a 35-year-old man who lost the use of his legs in an accident over ten years ago, he has learnt to see beyond his natural limitations. “I am a pastor and when I preach the word of God, even on subjects like healing, people listen to me because they see beyond me and are inspired by my testimony,” he said. “It doesn’t matter whether I can’t walk, I am still a human being.”
Protecting their rights
According to Mr Anyaele, Nigerians must seek for an inclusion of laws which prohibit discrimination of people living with disabilities. “Nigeria is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights. However, section 42 of [the] 1999 constitution made no prohibition of discrimination on the ground of disability,” he said. “People living with disabilities are therefore isolated, excluded, and marginalised due to their inability to socialise and participate in community programmes and events, hence development efforts of the state are designed at their exclusion.”
Sarah Ukong is a woman passionate about promoting the cause of people with disabilities, and intends to start a non-governmental organisation to this effect. “I don’t have a disability but I have lived with people with disabilities and I understand what they face,” she said. “Discrimination not only makes them feel less than they are but limits them from exhibiting certain gifts and potentials they have been blessed with.”
Ms Hassan, who has been living in Lagos with her son for seven years, hopes the wind of change will sweep by soon so that her son will be shielded from such discrimination. “At least, people treat us better here than they did in Offa,” she said. “I am not interested in marrying anyone, I just want to work hard for my son. He has been going to school and I want him to go to the university.