- Inspiring story of a blind young woman who defied odds to become a journalist
“When life gives you lemons,” goes the proverbial phrase, “make lemonade.” This simple and graphic idiomatic expression encourages optimism and a positive can-do attitude when one encounters adversity or misfortune.
Grace Atukpa, 26, epitomised this maxim.
Atukpa once had a normal life that was stolen from her by the loss of her sight. Like a thief in the night, the sad fate crept in slowly with devastating effect. She at first developed myopia (short-sightedness) which progressively led to cataract, and finally, to total blindness.
However, the Cross River State indigene refused to be cowed by the adversity of life. Like Helen Keller, the legendary deaf-blind American who defied all odds to earn a bachelor degree, Atukpa’s tenacity paid off.
Today, she is a graduate of Nigerian Institute of Journalism, Ogba, Lagos, having bagged a Higher National Diploma with distinction. She is presently undergoing the mandatory one-year National Youth Service in Lagos.
In this encounter, Atukpa narrated her tragic story to Saturday Sun.
A wreck of a broken home
I had my primary education at Command Children’s School, Ikeja, Lagos, before proceeding to Army Cantonment Secondary School. Initially, I dreamt of becoming an accountant because I love calculation. I had a way with figures.
Until my first year in senior secondary school, there was nothing wrong with my sight. My parents were separated at the time and I was living with my father. My dad was not financially okay. The problem started with persistent headaches. In classes, I was always straining my eyes to read. The problem became acute and soon, it was becoming difficult for me to move around. At that point, I was misdiagnosed for shortsightedness. Later, I was diagnosed with cataract. Much later, a nurse who examined me found I had glaucoma at an advanced stage. While prescribing an eye drop for me, she impressed it on me the hopelessness of my situation. When my father remarried, I had to move out, back to my mother. I managed to finish my NECO exams before finally going blind.
After my secondary school education, I stayed at home for a very long time. In 2010, my mother who was a journalist with Daily Times died of Hepatitis B.
A new lease of life
I was at home for a long time and I gave up hope of furthering my education. I feared that my life had come to an end, that I wasn’t going to go far in life. My mother’s death really hit me hard. I started to question God. I wondered if He exists. I wanted to die. I wondered why God was still keeping me alive. I cannot see myself going on the street begging. I wished I could see God, to ask him the question: Why did you allow this predicament to befall me?
After my mum’s burial, her friend and fellow journalist, Dr Grace Achum, took us in, me and my younger brother, and started looking after us.
When Dr Achum asked me, what would you want to do? I told her without hesitation: I want to go to school. She enrolled me at Pacelli School for the Blind in Surulere, Lagos. Dr Achum was a rock of Gibraltar. She stood for me. Whenever I was depressed, she was always around to encourage me.
At Pacelli, I sat for NCE and UTME and obtained a result that earned me an admission to study at the Nigerian Institute of Journalism, NIJ. By then, I was already proficient in the use of braille and I had completed a computer programme.
Surviving higher studies
In some institutions, partially blind persons have reading aids. At the NIJ, I did not have that luxury. During my time, I was the only physically challenged student. The only way I could communicate with my lecturers was through my laptop. I tried to understand what the lecturers were teaching. I ensured I never missed a class throughout the course of my studies––that helped a lot. Even when ill, I would still find my way to the class. If I could not take down notes, I would listen attentively to the lecturers to understand what was being taught.
I was lucky to have had colleagues who appreciated and accepted me for who I am. Their support and love helped me to settle down and excel in my studies.
The lecturers were also very friendly and helpful. From time to time, many of them would come to me to find out where I was having challenges. They were willing to help me. Access to learning materials was quite tough but I had to find a way around the challenge.
Due to my diligence, many of my classmates doubted that I was really visually impaired. Sometimes, they looked into my eyes to check if I was really blind.
There were times I feared I was going to end up as a beggar because I had never heard or seen any blind person who went to school in Nigeria.
Forsaken by relatives
After my mother’s death, most of her relatives abandoned me. They couldn’t believe it when they heard that I was in school. Some of them had to track me down to Dr Achum’s place to confirm that I was truly in school. It was a big shock to them that somebody like me, who had no sight, could still be going to school, more so studying to become a journalist.
I remember one sad occasion when my stepmother told me I was wasting my time pursuing education because my condition wouldn’t let me go far in life.
Over the years, I have learnt to take what people say to me lightly and move on strongly. My adopted mother has really been a source of strength and inspiration to the extent that sometimes, I ask her why she does certain things for us. Whenever I ask such questions, she tells me there is hope and that things can only get better. Her support made me forget all the nasty things people say to me concerning my impairment.
Since my mother’s burial, I’ve not come across any of her relatives. These were people she supported and lived her life for. After her death, they could not bear our burden for a month before forgetting about us. I thank God for Dr Achum and her family. They accepted me and my brother and love us as their own. They are the family we have now.
A gaze into the future
Presently, I am proudly a member of the National Youth Service Corps. I was at first posted to Kwara State and later redeployed to Lagos because of my condition.
What can I do? I am good at research. I carry out a lot of research daily. This is an area I am good at. I can work unsupervised. I completed four projects, myself and my colleagues.
I wouldn’t mind working with Non-Governmental Organisations, private or public. I love Public Relations. I am very passionate about child rights and human rights.
I do need a job right now because I wouldn’t want to put further strain on my benefactor. Though she is not complaining, it is important I get a job.