Izunna Okafor, Awka
Awka, the capital city of Anambra State, has only one pedestrian bridge through which pedestrians cross either side of the popular Unizik Junction axis of the Enugu-Onitsha Expressway without fear or risk of a road crash.
The bridge, which hosts more than four thousand legs daily, also serves as open shops for hawkers and itinerant or shopless hustlers who freely sell and carry out their activities thereon any day the men and officers of Operation Clean and Healthy Anambra (OCHA Brigade) do not appear. It equally hosts a plethora of dawn-to-dusk beggars, most of whom make their daily living there, and also wine, dine and sometimes spend nights thereon.
Notwithstanding all these activities taking place on this bridge, and irrespective of how busy it is, and how many people it saves daily, it lacks one paramount thing – care. None of the thousands of users cares about its neatness and well-being.
After this unbearably tarried to the extent of becoming an eyesore, a young man surfaced seemingly from nowhere and voluntarily took it upon himself to regularly keep the bridge neat.
This humble volunteer does not request payment from anyone for this service. He does not hassle, vilify, blame, disrespect or berate anyone in the course of carrying out this voluntary service; not even the users and litterbugs of the bridge, the agency concerned with this or the government of the day.
Among all, the most surprising part is that the altruistic young man is a paralytic. His two legs are paralysed from lap to feet, yet he regularly struggles to make the bridge feet-friendly for those whose feet are okay. He does not walk but crawls. He has never stood his feet on the bridge he sweeps but keeps it tidy whenever it is dirtied by those whose legs are normal and erect.
Who could this good Samaritan with a difference be? One may wonder.
His name is Uhiom Abani, a native of Afikpo in Afikpo North Local Government Area of Ebonyi State.
Born 27 years ago to the polygamous family of Mr Uhiom Abani and Mrs Theresa Chukwu, he is the first issue.
He is an ardent hardworking young man who hates to be regarded as parasitic or be seen as a burden to others. Hence, having that as his shibboleth, and being also fully aware of the responsibilities that await the first son in an average Nigerian family, Abani left his parents and siblings and moved down to Anambra State in January 2019 in search of greener pastures.
When asked what he had in mind when coming down to Anambra, he revealed that he came to the state with a man who told him he had a job for him in Onitsha. He further said that all his intention was to utilize every strength in him to hustle like a man so as make his people proud of him, and to change the narrative usually associated with the disabled, most of whom are unjustifiably lazy and avoidably dependent.
He said (in the Igbo language): ‘I’m already paralytic and so I wouldn’t want to be seen as parasitic as well.’
He unequivocally identifies with the age-long apophthegm that there’s ability in disability and strongly believes that the downfall of a man is not the end of his life.
Abani, however, expressed disappointment with what he saw and experienced when he came down to Anambra.
Asked what happened, he (after reaching out for his handkerchief to dab off some tears while recounting his experience), said the man who brought him to Anambra never had any job for him as he claimed to his parents, and offered him no job as had pledged. Instead, he turned him to a beggar for his own (the man’s) personal enrichment, using him to beg money for himself.
He said the man (named Sunday, who is also from his hometown in Ebonyi State) exploitatively turned him to a daily mendicant with a promise to be paying him some naira notes in return every six months (for his upkeep) from whatever his begging yielded.
This, Abani said, infuriated and made him feel disappointed and hoaxed at the same time because he hates begging and being referred to as a beggar. He was thrown into a dilemma.
However, being presented with no alternative and having no means to go back to his people in Ebonyi State (an idea which his master vehemently opposed to), he was compelled to reluctantly surrender to his master’s ill wish and start the begging job. He said it was a very hard decision for him to take.
Every day, against his wish, he would be hauled around the various cities and markets in the state to beg money for his boss, under the sun and in the rain. Abani said he was never satisfied doing the job.
Thus, after doing that for three months, he was visibly uncomfortable with it and consequently resigned. His master, angered by that decision (which would obviously truncate and choke his daily income’s pipe) swore never to give him a dime in return for the three months he worked.
All of this aggravated Abani’s ordeal and his long bottled anger. He separated from the man, left his house and crawled away somewhere else (still within Onitsha) to stay on his own. He said that was better for him rather than allow himself to be unjustly punished, exploited and enslaved simply because of his paralysis, which he never wished for himself.
After staying a few days without doing anything meaningful, Abani decided to start committing his time to render selfless service to humanity, rather than remain idle day after day, which is not in his character.
Recalling how he met the Awka Pedestrian Bridge dirty in one of his begging outings the first time he was taken there to beg, he decided to start his work there. He revisited the bridge to see if the situation was still the same. He then took it upon himself to be the daily bridge sweeper. He bought a broom and packer and started work days later.
That was how he started sweeping and keeping the pedestrian bridge from 2019.
There had an amputee who had previously been doing the job on the bridge. His name is Yusuf Suleiman Peter, a 29-year-old from Taraba State.
However, after a similar media report entitled “Meet amputee volunteer who sweeps Awka pedestrian bridge daily” was published (by this same reporter), Yusuf was favoured and taken off the street by some good-spirited individuals. And today, he is united with his people in Taraba where he has begun life on a new page.
Coincidentally or uncoincidentally, Abani may or may not have met his predecessor on duty when he was in charge, but the truth remains that he met the bridge tattered and unkempt. That apparently would be after Yusuf had packed up.
Abani does his job ardently, with humility and diligence and comes to Awka all the way from Onitsha every morning to do it.
When asked how he obtins the transport fare to allow him move to and from the two cities, he confessed that some goodhearted pedestrians sometimes appreciate him with naira notes when they see him on duty.
He said that it is also from such donations and gifts and that he fends for himself since he lives alone and feeds himself.
Because he is a paralytic who only crawls and does not walk with his legs erect, he does not and cannot discard the waste he sweeps or gathers after sweeping the bridge, by himself, due to that condition.
Thus, after gathering and packaging the wastes in sack bags, he engages and pays some of the young Awka boys who commercially cross goods for some of the pedestrians coming from Eke Awka Market to the other side of the express, who then discard the waste (together with the bags) into any of the waste bins positioned by the Anambra State Waste Management Agency (ASWAMA). After that, he would buy another bag for subsequent litter.
Though Abani voluntarily does the job without blaming or antagonizing anyone, he complained that some of the pedestrians and shopless sellers on the bridge can be very annoying, as many of them sometimes deliberately litter the portion he has already swept, when he is still sweeping, thereby littering the place again and compelling him to crawl back to pick or re-sweep it.
When asked what happened to his legs, how and when he became a paralytic, Abani, who for the second time dabbed off some tears with his sweat-soaked handkerchief, disclosed that he was not born paralytic.
He narrated that his two legs were once normal and functional until he 7-years-old and was injected with a disease vaccine which had an adverse effect on the motion of his hitherto working legs.
According to him, his parents took him to different hospitals in search of a solution to the devastating reaction but all to no avail, as the vaccine continued to ravage his limbs.
This, he said, culminated to the point that one day, after he returned from school, and after his siesta, as the pain was now too unbearable for him, he woke up to see that his limbs had shrunk and become paralysed to the extent that he could even stand up from the bed or walk.
And that is the condition Abani remains in till today – once a runner, now a crawler.
The unexpected paralysis did not only truncate Abani’s educational aspirations, but it also led to a chain of effects in virtually every facet of his young life.
This notwithstanding, he still believes in himself that the downfall of a man is not the end of his life. He believes there is still ability in disability. He believes he is not lazy and he believes he still has a lot to humanity and society at large, even though his dream in life may appear to have been thwarted.
And this, he has already begun to offer to humanity, by the simple and thankless task of sweeping a footbridge.
When asked the form of assistance he wants from any interested person who wishes to help him, Abani revealed that he learnt how to mend and produce shoes but has no capital to go into that line of work. He also disclosed that he has learnt how to drive a public transport tricycle (popularly known as Keke NAPEP), but has no money to procure his own for commercial purposes.
He plead for the assistance of and public-spirited individuals, government or associations to enable him to get off the street and start his own shoemaking/shoe production business or to start riding his own commercial tricycle.
He further noted that he would prefer any interested person to assist him materially than financially in starting any of the two possible ventures. He, however, confessed that he would accept and heartily appreciate any offer that comes his way, be it material or financial. The paralytic also vowed to always remain grateful to anyone or group of people who God will use to get him off his feet (in a manner of speaking) and off the streets to take the next course in his life.
In adherence to Matshona Dhliwayo’s pithy saying – ‘Give of yourself to others and others will give of themselves to you’ – Abani has somehow defied his paralytic condition and voluntarily offers his best to society and humanity. It is now time for society and humanity to pay him back. And no time would be better to do so than now.
Anyone touched to assist Abani in any way (little or big), or to assist him in starting his shoemaking/production business, or to own and drive his own commercial Keke NAPEP can locate him at his duty post on top of the pedestrian bridge at Unizik Junction Awka, Anambra State Capital, or directly contact him via his number at 09046687669.
It was Mike Satterfield who once said ‘Even if you just change one life, you’ve changed the world forever.’
Change the world forever by changing Abani’s life story.
Help Abani to get off the street.
Izunna Okafor is a Novelist, Poet, Essayist, Journalist, Publicist, Columnist, Editor, Igbo Language Activist, and Public Affairs, Analyst
E-mail: [email protected]
City Address: Awka, Anambra State
Home Address: Ebenator, Nnewi South Local Government, Anambra State