The heart-rending story of Chioma Ogbu, born with cerebral palsy
she wants to go back to school in order to be useful to herself and the society
By Chika Abanobi
The story of Ms Chioma Ogbu, the 32-year-old Nigerian beauty, born with cerebral palsy (the congenital lifelong motor neuron disease said to be caused by brain damage that happened before or during childbirth) is one that is likely to cause you to cry. So? Please, hold yourself together or, better still, keep a handkerchief near you as you read through this story:
Dropping out of school
“I was born in 1984 with a condition called cerebral palsy which has to do with coordination. It has to do with me doing little things like writing or holding a cup of water. Just little things I find it difficult because of this and I have lived with it all my life. As if this was not enough punishment, my parents separated in 1989 and it has been a bad situation for me because they were the only support that I had. But because of their separation it is like I didn’t have any support from anybody any more.
“I am the sixth and lastborn of my mother. People say the last one is the one that enjoys but that’s not the story with me. Following my parents’ separation, I had to drop out of school. I was about 15 then. My mother who is into bead making was not making much as to be able take care of all my needs, including schooling. So, while she used the proceeds she gets from that to provide for our feeding, her sisters helped her with payment of house rent and my education.
“Because of this, I kept moving from one auntie’s house to another. Maybe because of my condition, they didn’t believe in investing in me academically. They thought it was going to be a waste. But they were shortsighted. They couldn’t see that beyond the disability, I was intelligent.
“Somewhere along the line, I went to live with one of my mother’s relations in the North. I was supposed to be in JSS 3 then. It was hell because any little thing, she would say I shouldn’t go to school. But there was this one she did that made me tell her I would go. Her husband, a very nice man, told me he was traveling for two weeks. He gave me money for my transport fare to school. Because I forgot to collect charcoal money from him, she took the money he gave me for two weeks and went to buy charcoal and for two weeks I didn’t go to school. And, I couldn’t tell anybody because how would you want to tell people that someone paying your school fees does not want you to go to school? It doesn’t make sense.
Living from hand to mouth
“But after that experience, I left for Owerri to stay with my elder sister. Though married, she was in school. So, she couldn’t help much. While there, I wrote my elder brother in Lagos. Then he was living in Maryland. All I wanted was to go to school. I was still in JSS 3. He said I should come to Lagos. But when I did, he couldn’t put me in school because he didn’t have a job. Anytime I reminded him of my need to go to school, he would tell me in annoyance that he didn’t owe me a living, that it is only my parents that owed me.
“My brother and I were very close. But, all of a sudden, he started beating me. I am a human being; I am not perfect, so I make mistake some times (at this juncture, you could see traces of tears welling up her eyes). He was hitting me at every opportunity. That’s what I had to go through for three years. At times, he would lock me up and go. He wouldn’t give me food.
“There was this woman I would forever remember. She is a Deeper Life woman. She was always encouraging me. We and other tenants lived in a two-storey building but we lived on the first floor. She would send her daughter to bring food to me. Her daughter would climb the fence and sit on the fence and ask, ‘Chioma, have you eaten?’ I would say no. She would put food inside a nylon bag and ask me to throw a rope. I would go look for a wire or cable. If I didn’t find, I would tie my clothes and throw. They would tie the food and I would pull it up.
“But most importantly, she gave me books to read. That was where I learnt to read fast. She would send me Christian novels and those books made me not to give up hope because they were quite encouraging. She would encourage me to read fast because there were other books to read. I would finish one and she would send another book. That was how I got to improve my vocabulary and to be a fast reader.
“But later, when I got to know that staying with my brother, school wasn’t possible, I got in touch with my immediate elder sister, Uju. She came all the way from Abuja to pick me from Lagos. She was living in a place called Jukwoyi. She was doing a minor job. She was a waiter in a restaurant that time. But living with her, I had peace of mind. She was always encouraging me. She even told me she would sponsor me in school. I knew it was not possible. But her encouragement alone made me happy.
Finding help in unlikely place
“After I had I lived with her for a while, one day, I told her I would want to go to Transcorp Hilton Hotel because I had been hearing about the place and want to know what it looks like. When I got there, I saw a new life altogether. I said in my mind that I was not leaving there until I saw somebody that would help me. I think that was 25th or 26th of May, 2006. I am not too sure of the actual date now but if I search my diary, I would remember. There was a woman programme going on, organised by National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP).
“During the break period I was just sitting there when I saw Mrs. Oby Ezekwesili, the then Minister of Solid Minerals, under President Olusegun Obasanjo administration, who was at the place to attend the programme. I knew she was a Minister. I went to meet her. I told her my story. She now called somebody from NAPTIP. They questioned me. They asked me what I want to do. I told them I want to go to school. They said ok. They later took me to WOTCLEF (Women Trafficking and Child Labour Eradication Foundation), an NGO (non-governmental organization) belonging to Atiku Abubakar’s wife (Amina Titi Atiku Abubakar). They said, where did I stop? I said, JSS 3. I think I was 18 or 19 then.
“It was through the financial help provided by the NGO that I was able to sit for both the National Examinations Council (NECO)’s Senior School Certificate exam and WAEC’s West African Senior School Certificate (WASSCE), in 2007 while in SSS 2, a class that took me a while to convince my sponsors I could cope well with, if promoted to it. (Copies of her results with The Sun Education show that whereas she made credit pass in each of the six papers she registered for in NECO, namely English Language, Christian Religious Knowledge, Commerce, Economics, Government and Literature in English, she did the same in two of the four subjects she sat for in WASSCE, namely, Government and Mathematics).
Accepted by God, rejected by man
“After that, I tried about six times to gain admission into university through JAMB’s Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTME), but without success. The universities I applied to, at different times, to read Mass Communication, my favourite course, include University of Lagos, Nassarawa State University, University of Maiduguri, Anambra State University (now Chukwuemeka Odumegwu University) and University of Abuja, where I applied to read Public Administration, after many frustrating experiences trying to gain admission.
“At Anambra State University, one lecturer saw me and said, ‘do you think you can cope? I don’t think they have facilities for you here. Look at your handwriting.’ I was discouraged. He said there are special education centres for people like me. I asked where? He did not talk. I told him that I just want to be a journalist, a writer or broadcaster and there’s nothing special about that because it’s my passion. I am tired of people dictating to me; it is either you take me on merit or you discriminate against me for what I know nothing about. I was born this way. If I had a choice, I wouldn’t choose this (at this juncture, you notice those traces of tears welling up her eyes, again).
“I am wondering why I am scoring 200 and above and I have not been able to gain admission? Meanwhile, some candidates who got something less are today graduates, yet they can’t speak good English. Where have I gone wrong? Does the society want me to be a liability? I don’t like being a liability. Rather, I see myself contributing to the progress and wellbeing of the society. I wake up every morning and I keep thinking about what disability has turned my life into. I don’t know where or who to turn to. And, people have not made things easy for me. Rather, they keep reminding me. At times, they think I am retarded mentally but it is not so.
“When I was in Abuja, I belonged to Abuja Writers’ Forum and Abuja Literary Society. At times, some people would assume I am a graduate. I don’t talk to them. I allow them to continue to mislead themselves. There was one day I told one woman who assumed I am a graduate and wanted to know which university I finished from, that I am not, and she wondered where I learnt to speak so well, with good diction and pronunciation. I cried that day. I just left without answering her.
A light at the end of the tunnel?
“I was in Lagos sometime ago and they were having British Council meeting. I went and I saw this white lady, Laura Spencer, the International Recruitment Officer, for Christ Canterbury University, in Kent, United Kingdom. I spoke with her. I told her that I have not been able to go to school because we are a developing nation and didn’t have the kind of facilities that I would need to do a course I want. I explained my condition to her. She said, over there I can write with my laptop and that they can prepare exams for me on a standardized paper. She told me a lot of things. I got interested and I was lifted.
“I applied and Canterbury Christ gave me admission to read Communication Arts. But the education bill the university sent to me shows that for me to realise my dream, it will cost me about N31 million for the four years duration of the course. The money would cover one year foundation courses, N3,570,000, three years tuition, N11,700,000, medical tests, N120,000, books, N300,000, visa fees N131,100, flight N120,900, living expenses – feeding, rent, clothing, telephone, printing, photocopying, health, travel, library, N14,688,000, and miscellaneous, N210,000. I ought to have paid in April to start my studies this September.
A strange encounter with a philanthropist
“But after I got the admission, I went to Abuja to look for sponsors. A friend told me about Prince Arthur Eze (the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Atlas Oranto Petroleum), and she took me to see him. Before then, I have heard that he is a philanthropist. That’s why I agreed to go with her.
“He was with Senator Hope Uzodimma when we got there. This was what he said: ‘I will get you into UK. I will pay your first year school fees.’ Then he looked at my papers and said: ‘if I have the money after your first year, I will pay everything, it’s not that much, it’s nothing. But I’m sure that once you get to UK, they will help you. They have human sympathy.’
“I was overcome with joy and also overwhelmed. I haven’t heard someone say that N31 million is nothing before. I felt it was stupid at the time but I asked him if I should look for other sponsors. He said no. He gave me N100, 000 to go back to Owerri and promised to pay by the end of May.
“I knelt down to thank him. He told me to get up that that was why God blessed him, so that he can help. He told his driver to take me home. He also promised me a monthly allowance of N100, 000 until September when I’m supposed to leave for UK.
“By the first week of June, I contacted the school to know if the fees have been paid but the authorities said they haven’t received anything. I went to his house but was told that he was in the East. I called his Personal Assistant (P.A). He said I should wait that he would soon be back. So I waited.
“Around 18th June, I was told that he was back. I went to his house in Maitama District. I was asked by his PA to wait. I came around 10 am. At about 4pm he told me to go and come back the following day. I did. This continued for five days. According to his PA, he was afraid to remind his boss of his commitment to me for reasons best known to him.
“They traveled to Enugu again. I sold my laptop to be able to feed. I got Arthur Eze’s number. I consistently called for weeks before he finally picked. I introduced myself but evidently he didn’t remember me. After I answered all his questions, he said he was going to pay, that I should wait for him. I politely pleaded with him to tell his PA to let me in whenever he returns. He did.
“I called him again two weeks later. I told him and he said that he didn’t have the money to pay but that I should pray and have faith in God. I fainted. I was told I was unconscious for four hours.
“I called his PA on August 25th. He told me they were in Abuja, that I should come. I went and after hours, he told me that he doesn’t think his boss can pay that he is travelling overseas. I started crying. I told him that his boss said I shouldn’t look elsewhere for sponsorship. He came to console me and asked me to go and come back the following day by 10 am.
“I was there by 9am the next day. I sent sms to Prince Eze but got no reply. His PA later came to tell me that he said he could not pay. I wept bitterly. I was so heartbroken that the Mobile policemen guarding the place wept along with me. After that, they bought lunch for me.
“Someone among his staff came to console and tell me that it depends on his mood, that he paid for one lady’s tuition to go and study in Cyprus two weeks ago, that I should keep trying. I believe that Prince Eze is a good man with a good heart. The fact that he paid for someone to go to Cyprus to study shows that he means well. I strongly believe that if he had seen me he would have kept his promise.
“I believe I have a difference to make in spite of my disability. I believe I would have been dead a long time ago if God has no plan for me. My immediate elder sister I told you about died in 2013. She was diabetic. Altogether, I have lost three siblings, two brothers and one sister, remaining two. I believe there’s a reason God decided to keep me alive. There’s something I am here to do. But I just don’t want to exist. I want to live. I want to make a difference. I believe if people like Dangote or Adenuga or corporations like Etisalat, MTN or Airtel, or any other public-spirited individual can help me, I will be in a better position, tomorrow, to help other people with disability like mine.”