A Nigerian woman identified as Mrs Helen Alonge survived poliomyelitis as a child but she lost her ability to walk.
In this interview with TOBI AWORINDE, the civil servant and current master’s student in Theatre and Media Arts shares her triumph story following the physical abuse and discrimination that marked her adolescent years.
Can you tell us about yourself?
I will be 32 years old on June 16, 2021. I am physically challenged. I am a graduate of English and Literary Studies from the Ekiti State University and I am currently pursuing a master’s degree in Theatre and Media Arts at the Federal University Oye Ekiti. I am a native of Ilupeju-Ekiti in the Oye Local Government Area of Ekiti State but I live and work in Ado Ekiti. I grew up in Ekiti.
Were you born physically-challenged or something happened along the line?
I wasn’t born physically-challenged. I was eight years when the incident happened. Funnily enough, it actually happened on my eighth birthday. So, while celebrating my birthday, I also mark the anniversary of becoming physically-challenged. Growing up, it wasn’t easy, but I thank God because life itself is not easy. We just have to thank God.
Do you want to talk about what exactly happened to you?
My parents concluded that it was through poliomyelitis. It happened in the night. My mum was selling food in a primary school then. She would wake up very early in the morning to prepare the food. My dad is a retired soldier but he was still in service then, so he was on duty (on the night of the incident). The following day, which happened to be my birthday, I woke up like any other child and then realised I couldn’t stand up. My sister and everyone else sang birthday songs for me, expecting me to jump up, but I couldn’t.
They called my mum, but she told them, “Leave her; she will stand up when it is time.” They all thought I was joking but I just couldn’t move my legs or hands. I could only open my eyes and see what was going on; it was as if I was in another world. Then my brother got angry and said, “Everybody is preparing for school; today is your birthday but you have to go to school.”
He tried to force me to stand up but as he pulled me from the mattress, I fell down. That was when they knew that seriously something was wrong somewhere. He was scared, so he called my mum. She rushed in and tried all that she could. It was a very sad day. We went from the hospital to a church to herbalists. It was after some time that I started gaining strength in some other parts of my body, but I was totally paralysed at first. I was crawling around.
What did the doctors say when you visited the hospital?
A doctor advised my mum to inject (euthanise) me because raising a child with a physical challenge was a very difficult task. As God would have it, she refused. A message was sent to my dad concerning what was happening. He came home and saw everything, so he got angry, thinking my mum had got involved in something diabolical that had brought the issue upon me. My mum and dad got separated. So, it was only my mum that went through all the struggles then.
What do you mean by a doctor advising your mum to “inject” you?
There were actually two of us that had that problem in that hospital but the other guy died, and my mum thought it was natural but the doctor said that was the same advice he gave to the woman and she agreed. The doctor said for a person with disabilities, it would be easier to cope at a young age, but while growing up, it would be much more difficult. But my mum was like, “If she wants to die, let her die naturally, instead of me to be the cause of her death.” So, I was discharged from the hospital that very day.
What was the experience of going to herbalists like?
I remember vividly that my first experience of discrimination from my family was through a religious leader. When I was taken to church for deliverance and prayers, instead of the pastor to allow peace to reign, he said I was in a cult and that I had been possessed. At 1am, they would bring me out and start flogging me with brooms, saying they wanted the evil spirit to leave me.
How old were you then?
I was about 11 years old. My mum was crying and rolling on the ground. After the flogging she was still the one who would help to massage my body. She would even kneel down to beg me, saying, “Do you like that you cannot walk?” I was crying and said, “I don’t have an idea of what he (the prophet) is saying.” There was a day I was forced to tell her, “Why don’t you just get me something and let me just die?” She was scared, and I said, “With the torment I underwent at the hands of those people every night, as they were beating me, sometimes, I wished I wouldn’t breathe again.” I think she was jolted by those words, so she quit attending the church.
Did you experience any signs of paralysis before your eighth birthday?
Before then, there was nothing. As I said, I was actually preparing for my birthday, which was the following day, when it happened. I was healthy without any trace of illness before then.
How difficult was it for you to come to terms with your condition?
I had to stop school, and I must say, the situation actually affected some of my brothers and sisters then. They couldn’t leave me at home alone, while my mum was struggling to make ends meet. Most of the time, they would stay with me at home and it actually affected my education because I couldn’t resume school immediately. I was at home for some years.
But something happened that made my dad come back to reunite with us. He was working at the Kainji Dam in the North at the time. A National Youth Service Corps member in my brother’s school wondered why my brother would always rush home during any break. So, one day, he trailed my brother home, saw me and said, “Is this why I punish you every day for leaving the school premises during recess?” He said he wanted to see my dad. He eventually saw my dad and he told him there was a particular school in the South-West (for children with disabilities). He asked my dad to make enquiries for a special needs person like myself. My dad then made enquiries and that was when he retired from the Nigerian Army. He came back home. I then started school, but as God would have it, I was too old to resume in Primary One. They had to test my intelligence. I had been getting tutored at home by my brothers. When they returned from school, they opened their books to teach me how to read and write. I started using my hands again and I learnt that from home. When I returned to school, I was put in Primary Five that year.
Did you experience any struggle catching up in school?
Honestly, I give credit to God for that aspect. I always say God is wonderful because I didn’t experience any challenge in learning. I was even the one teaching most of the pupils in my class. I tell people it is a mystery because I don’t know how it happened. Even my teachers were puzzled. A lot of names were given to me back then.
What kind of names?
In Yoruba, some would say, “This one is a witch! Maybe it is in the middle of the night that they teach her everything.” Even my sister at home said it. But I tell people that it is a mystery to me.
Did you face other forms of discrimination?
I do tell people that for persons with disabilities, discrimination shouldn’t be a problem because it is something we face daily everywhere. You want to board a cab, you face discrimination. Some transporters will not want to take you because they feel it is easier and faster for them to pick somebody standing on his or her feet than picking someone in a wheelchair — before you can fold the wheelchair, they would have passed you by. They would even charge you an amount that they know you won’t be able to pay. That is discrimination.
Remember I said I attended a special needs school. After JSS 3, I had to leave the school to be enrolled in a regular school. That was where I knew what true discrimination is. The class and toilet, sometimes, were not accessible. I joined in SSS 1, but due to the inaccessibility of the building, I had to stay in the same classroom from SSS 1 to SSS 3 because that was the only classroom that was accessible. But most of my teachers showed understanding, so they had to bring down the classes to me.
Though they didn’t see it as discrimination, some of my classmates would say to my face, “This is where we were last session. Now that we are in SSS 2, we are still here and it is because of Helen.” Though I saw it as teasing, at the same time, it wasn’t a nice thing for them to say. When I was about to take the West African Senior School Certificate Examination they moved me to the hall. I must say it was very stressful because it was not accessible and I had to be carried by five students and teachers to get to the hall. Due to this, I only came around when I had papers. Normally, I should have been there for lessons or just to have fun like other students. Whenever I did not have papers, I just stayed at home. When I got to the university, it was another world entirely. I faced a lot of discrimination in school.
Do you think the situation is better today in terms of accessibility of buildings and inclusive amenities?
I must say we don’t have accessible buildings. I have been at home for the past one and a half months due to inaccessible buildings in my office. In March, my office was moved from the ground floor to the first floor, and they are aware that I am wheelchair-bound. In school, there is no accessible building. Even where I am currently pursuing my master’s degree, if I don’t go with an aide there is no way I can access the building. So, whenever I want to go to school, I have to budget money for two – for myself and the person that will help me. Till date, we haven’t achieved that goal of accessibility.
Where do you work?
I work in the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture in Ekiti State.
Are you happy about the eradication of polio in Nigeria?
I am very happy that Nigeria could achieve that, though anyone can become disabled at any stage in life. People get disabled in home accidents. I know someone who built a house, bought the tiles, and did everything. She fell at home and her leg was amputated, though she didn’t dream of it. And sometimes people become disabled in their old age. But at least, through the eradication of polio, disabilities can be drastically reduced. Thank God we have achieved that as a country.
You recently got married. How did you meet your husband?
I thank God because I got married on April 3, 2021, which happened to be the Holy Saturday. I met him three years ago. In terms of what persons with disabilities face in their relationships with the opposite sex, it has really been an issue, especially the mindset of persons without disabilities towards persons with disabilities, whether male or female. There is this discrimination that “she can’t do this, she will be a liability to you.” Having experienced a lot of heartbreaks, I never knew marriage would come my way, so I did things my own way.
My husband and I started out as friends. But when I saw the signals, I started staying away from him. I didn’t want to pick his calls at times, but he kept calling and checking on me. One day, he was forced to say, “Aren’t you going to get married one day?” I said, “Of course, I will.” He said, “Then when is the time?” I said, “Anytime.” Last year, on my birthday, he proposed and we got married. Thank God for working it out, though some of his family members were against it. But he made them realise that this is the person he wants. Like he always says, there are a lot of positive things that happened to him when we met.
Before we got married, there was a day I was washing my clothes in the bathroom. He often looks at me amazingly and I would be wondering, “What is actually going on?” But I don’t ask questions. That day, he said he sees in me the complete opposite of what people say. I asked, “What is that?” and he said, “Do you know that people keep telling me every day that this lady will not be able to wash or cook.” But he said he sees me doing these things by myself without even complaining, and I laughed. To the glory of God, we got married.
What was your wedding day like?
It was a wonderful day that I will never forget. After putting on a matriculation gown and a convocation gown, seeing myself in a wedding gown made me so happy. That was a wonderful day. Both of my parents were present. Honestly, I was happy. While some were saying it was difficult, God made it easy for me. I am an indoor girl. It is not as if I don’t go out, but I like to study. But there are times when I like to go out and have fun. I didn’t stress myself looking for men; I used to pray and tell God, “You see I am in a wheelchair. I don’t want a man that will come and deceive me. I want someone after your own heart.”
Source: Saturday PUNCH