By Adediran Olufemi, Abeokuta
Dressed in a purple-strip shirt, black pant and a pair of black shoes to match, Jimoh Ahmed strikes you as a healthy man and free from any form of deformity.
Tall, dark and handsome in his early forties, he is agile, vibrant, hard working and full of life. He is a taxi driver, plying major roads in Abeokuta, the Ogun State capital in search of his daily bread.
Jimoh is a victim of leprosy and he is the Ogun State Chairman of the Integrated Dignity Economic Advancement (IDEA), an association that caters for over 200 members affected with leprosy in the State. He is also the Secretary of the State’s chapter of the Joint National Association of People with Disabilities (JONAPWD).
But this story is not only about him, it is also about his colleagues, other inmates living in Iberekodo Lepers’ Colony in Abeokuta.
The story of how the inmates are surviving, their struggle, travails and efforts towards ensuring that the Disability Bill is signed into law is compelling and captivating.
An encounter between Uhuru Times and Jimoh recently, brings the story to life. According to him, the colony houses 31 inmates, while the one located in Ijebu-Igbo also in Ogun State has 28 members.
The inmates survive amidst challenges ranging from insecurity, inadequate basic amenities such as water supply, dilapidated shelters, among others.
Wednesday, January 30, the “World Leprosy Day” was celebrated with the theme, “Kick Against Discrimination Within Yourself and People Outside”.
Jimoh spoke passionately on how his association, Civil Society Organisations and other well meaning Nigerians have been battling for almost nine years now, to ensure that the Disability Bill is signed into law in the State.
Jimoh said, “We started pushing for the Disability Bill in 2010, during the tenure of former Governor Otunba Gbenga Daniel but we failed to ensure the passage of the bill before that administration ended. The bill is expected to cover everybody living with disabilities, including the aged.
“During the first term of Governor Ibikunle Amosun, we met with the Governor at an event in March 2014 and we informed him about the bill, he promised us the bill will be sign into law but unfortunately, the bill was not signed before the expiration of his first term.
“After the 2015 election, we made another attempt and we solicited the support of Hon. Ojuri from Odogbolu and he promised to re-present the bill to the House with the support of JDPC in Ijebu-Ode. He re-presented the bill and it went through the first and second reading and the bill was passed at the third reading, that was December 15, 2017, we were there when it was passed but before that time, we had gone to some of the first class Traditional Rulers and some clerics in the State to help persuade the House to pass the bill”.
“Unfortunately, all our effort to ensure that the bill is signed into law has been abortive since the passage of the bill by the House.”
According to him, the bill, among other things stressed the provision of free and qualitative education for people with disabilities, empowerment and quality health care service delivery and the creation of “Disability Desk” in both public and private hospitals to cater for people with disabilities.
His words, “In the bill we are clamouring for unrestricted access to quality education for people with disabilities. People with disabilities should be able to get the same quality of education able body people are getting.
“We are not even asking the government to build new schools, what we are saying is that government should upgrade the existing schools so as to accommodate people with disabilities. There are some schools in Ogun State that admit people with disabilities as students. For example, Adeola Odutola School, Ijebu-Ode, we also have special schools like, St. Peter’s School, Abeokuta, Daniel Akintonde School for blind, among others.”
“We already have trained teachers among ourselves that can teach people who are special, what we are saying is that government should employ trained teachers and even train more teachers who can handle people with disabilities.”
“We know it is not possible for everyone even able-bodied persons to be educated but we want government to help at least 90 percent of people with disabilities who have shown interest in education.”
“What people with disabilities are spending on education is far more than what able-bodied persons are spending. For instance, we spend so much on transportation, wheelchairs, crutches and other things. We also want a skill acquisition programme for those who cannot go to school.”
Jimoh added, “The bill also stresses the need for empowering our members. Some of our members are very old and they can no longer take care of their children. We want empowerment in form of scholarships for some of our children. We are not saying all of them should be given scholarships but some of them who are serious can be given scholarships.”
On health, He said, “People with disabilities always experience difficulties in accessing quantitative health care services. We are not asking the government to build new hospitals for us but what we are asking for is the creation of Disability Desk in both public and private hospitals. This Desk will cater for people with disabilities at hospitals so that when our members get to hospitals, they can be quickly and adequately attended to.”
“We also want easy access to health care services. Our people are facing a lot of discrimination in public places in the process of accessing one service or the other. This has led to the untimely death of some of our members.”
“We also want the government to ensure the compulsory construction of ramps at schools, hospitals, banks and other public places for easy movement of people with disabilities.”
Speaking on some of the challenges faced by the inmates in the Lepers’ Colony, Jimoh said, the inmates with the help of the Alake of Egbaland, Oba Adedotun Aremu Gbadebo had reached out to Dangote Foundation for assistace but their effort was yet to yield positive results.
He appealed to the Foundation to urgently come to the rescue of the inmates to make life more easier for them.
In their efforts to survive, some of the inmates engage in farming and other petty businesses to augment the N10,000 monthly stipend from the State government.
The stipend was only increased from N3,000 to N10,000 by the administration of Governor Ibikunle Amosun few years ago.
The inmates were full of appreciation to Amosun-led administration for his kind gestures towards improving their living condition.
Speaking further on how inmates have been coping with life challanges, Jimoh, said, “We basically survive on the monthly stipend and what on-Government Organisations (NGOs), individuals and organisations give us.”
“Our monthly stipend is paid regularly by the State government, we are not being owed and we want to again thank the government for this”.
He commended the efforts of the NGOs, individuals, association and most especially the government of Ogun State in ensuring that inmates are well catered for, saying, “We want to specially appreciate Governor Ibikunle Amosun for increasing our monthly stipend from N3,000 to N10,000 few years ago.”
Jimoh admitted that with all their efforts, feeding is still a major problem for the, saying, “Some of the inmates are engaged in farming, trading and other petty businesses to augument the stipends and what other people are supporting us with. There is shortage of land to farm because a lot of people are erecting buildings around us, making it more difficult for us to access land.”
“When this place was constructed, it was an outskirt of the town because this place has been existing for over hundred years. I think the aim of the people that constructed the place was to keep people affected with leprosy as far away as possible from other members of the public but we thank God the perception is now changing. If you look around this place, you will see that we are surrounded by buildings. This place is no longer an outskirt of the town, it has developed into a modern town.”
“We also have the challenge of accessing pipe borne water. Even with all the pipes laid here, it only once in a while that we get water and even when we get, the pressure is always to low. We depend on a stream not far from here for our source of water. Although, shortage of water is be coming a general problem in Abeokuta.”
“We also have the challenge of properly raising our children. We have children in Primary, Secondary schools even in Tertiary institutions. It is from what we get from government and people that we raise our children, paying their school fees, feeding them, buying their books, among other things.”
“Thank God for people who have been helping us, recently a block of ten rooms was renovated by an NGO. With this, the problem of accommodation is gradually becoming a thing of the past in the colony. We only have just two or three buildings that are dilapidated. Things are getting better now unlike before when we used to have many dilapidated buildings, exposing the inmates to dangers, especially when the rain falls”.
“Apart from the ageds that do not have strength to do much, 75 percent of the remaining inmates are engaged in one form of business or the other.”
“I want to use myself as an example, I wish to go back to school but I do not have the financial capacity yet, but in the mean time, I bought a vehicle through thrift contribution and I am now using the vehicle as taxi.”
“We have among us, people that deal in buying and selling busineses. Some buy palm oil all the way from Oja-Odan in Yewa and resell to people. Some are also into soap making business, they learnt this when an NGOs organised a skill acquisition programme for inmates. But because the economy is not really in good shape and due to the increase in the price of commodities, especially materials they use in making their products, their busineses are almost dying.”
“One of us here is into buying and selling of motorcycle and generating set spare parts, he has a shop not far from here. Most of our women here, especially those that are into farming take their produce to nearby markets to sell.”
For John Ojoawo, a 71-year-old inmate from Iwere-Ile in Oyo State, life has not been easy but the intervention of good Samaritans, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and the State government, among others has kept him alive and healthy.
Life took a difficult turn for the former instrumentalist who once played guitar and accordion for popular musicians back in his hometown in Oyo State when he was transferred to the Colony in 1973.
In the words of the septuagenarian, “Life became so difficult, the future was gloomy and it seemed my liife was over. I would have died a long time ago if I hadn’t been transferred here. I was an instrumentalist back in Oyo State, I used to play guitar and accordion for popular musicians but when I came down with the disease, I couldn’t do those things again.”
“I don’t want to engage in alms begging, although if I go out to beg for alms, people will give me money but I don’t want to because God do not support such.”
“But I thank God for the government of Ogun State, if there is no such place like this settlement to accommodate people like me, some of us would have died a long time ago. Ever since I have been accommodated here, I have been taking my drugs regularly and I am now better.”
“The government is assisting us with our monthly stipend which majority of us use for feeding.”
Speaking on the insecurity challenge in the Colony, Ojoawo said, “Our major problem here is lack of security. Many of us living here are living in the fear of armed robbery attack everyday. There is no security guard securing the Colony. In the past, when we used to experience frequent armed robbery attacks, we complained to the local government authority and they said we should volunter one of our children here, they trained him and he was employed as our security guard and the robbery attacks stopped. But the boy had been transferred from here and we no longer have a security guard.”
“We are in constant fear of being robbed, we have lost and we are still loosing our hard earned money and property to armed robbery. We are passionately appealing to the government of Ogun State to give us security guards.”
Going down memory lane, Ojoawo, siad, “During the time of the Old Western Region, we were collecting N6 as our monthly stipend. When I first came here, there was land in abundant for farming and I was engaged in farming.”
He added, “The Governor that first increased our stipend to huge sum that time was, Governor Seidu Ayodele Balogun. Before he came into power, local government authorities were paying us N4 while the State, under the Old Western Region government was paying N6. But when Governor Balogun came here on a visit, we advocated for an increment of the stipend and he increased it to N20.
“Governor Osoba came and increased it from N500 to N1,500. Governor Daniel came and increased to it N3,000 and Governor Amosun took it from N3,000 to N10,000.”
Asked how often his family members come to visit, Ojoawo said, “Ever since I have been living here, my family has been visiting me regularly from Oyo State”.
“I married one of us here when I came and we are blessed with three boys. My first born is a bricklayer, he is married with children. My second born is undergoing his Higher National Diploma (HND) in the Polytechnic while my last born is still in the Secondary School.”
“I have been able to raise my family from the help of God and good Samaritans who have been supporting us. Majority of us are prudent in our spendings, it from the little we are able to save that we use in raising our families,” Ojoawo said with a tone of optimism.
Alake Adeosun, a 55-year-old inmate and an indegene of Abeokuta who has been living in the Colony for over 30 years, said, “When I first came here, I was faced the challenges of loneliness. I was all alone, there was nobody to take care of me. My mother who was taking care of me had just died so also my grandmother then. I came all by myself and since then, the government and other good Samaritans have been taking care of me. Our stipend was N30 when I first came and things have been improving since then.”
She added, “If I had not come here, I would have died since because I don’t have anybody, no family members, the grace of God has kept me alive till today. I thank God because I’m now a mother with children.”
“I’m a petty trader, I save from my stipend and the little money other people give me and I invest it into my buying and selling business. I sell second-hand cloths, popularly called okrika, I also sell other things. Sometimes, I travel to Lagos to buy things and sell them here.”
“As a woman, I want the government and other people to help me and others in raising capital for our businesses.”
Thirty-three-year-old Olaitan Sunday, a father of two and an inmate in the Colony, expressed his readiness to go back to school as he could not complete his secondary school education when he came down with the disease.
His words, “When I came here in 2005, the nurses and doctors I met at the hospital here forced me to go back to school. Initially, I thought what they were doing was a bad thing but when I went back to primary school and I got to Secondary School, I realised that they meant well for me”.
“However, trouble started I was in J.S.S 3, I started experiencing pains in one of my legs. At that time, I was about writing the J.S.S 3 examination. When I got to the hospital, the doctor told me the leg must be amputated, after the surgery, I went back to school but I was told in the school that I could no longer continue in their school because I can’t cope and the school is not a disability school.”
“They advised me to enroll at a disability school but because I didn’t have money and there was no one to help me, my education came to an abrupt stop.”
“I went ahead to acquire trading skill in buying and selling of motorcycle and generating set spare parts. I opened my own shop four years ago but I’m being faced with the challenge of raising enough capital to continue in the business.”
“Beside the incident that ended my education, I never experienced any form of discrimination or stigmatisation despite the fact that one of my legs is artificial. Whenever I’m going out, I made sure I pack myself well, I dress well and when people see me, they respect me. If don’t look at me closely, you know that my hands and legs are affected by leprosy”, Olaitan said.
Asked how the inmates cope with discrimination and stigmatisation, Jimoh said, “I think the major reason why many people stigmatise or discriminate against us is because of the story of the leper in the bible. Many people perceive us from the kind of treatment that was given to that leper in the bible. They think if anybody is affected by leprosy such people should be banished and taken to places that are outside the town. There is treatment for the disease but when many people see us they are always ready not to associate with us.”
“The Nursery and Primary School built here was built by the administration of former Governor Olusegun Osoba and it was purposely built for our children, but to God be the glory now we have over 700 pupils attending the school. The school is not only attended by our children but the children of other people. Parents from far and near now bring their children to the school, this is to show you that there is no need for people to stigmatise or discriminate against us.”
“Tell me, will the school still be existing if the disease has been spreading to the children attending the school since it started? Will the teachers still be coming here everyday to teach them? This is to show you that if the disease is well treated, there nothing it can do to anyone or even the victim again. But the problem is late treatment, majority of people affected with leprosy failed to seek treatment in time before the disease did damage to their bodies”.
“The disease usually affects the hands and legs of its victim. It attacks the nevous system of the victim and kills the nerves.”
“What also contribute to stigmatisation and discrimination against us, is people’s beliefs. For instance, some tribes in Nigeria believe that the disease is a result of a curse. They believe that the disease is inflicted on people through curses. But we thank God for modern treatment, this has shown us that people with leprosy can be treated but the thing is that leprosy must be well treated, people with leprosy must ensure the treat the disease well and not stop treatment halfway.”
His advice for fellow lepers, “We must not let the disease destroy our self-esteem. We must continue to enlighten the people about the disease”.
“My advice to people is that as soon as you begin to notice the symptoms of the disease, like patches and new signs in the body, the person must immediately go to the General Hostipal, tests will be carried out to ascertain if it is leprosy or not. If it is leprosy, the person will be referred to the appropriate place for treatment.”
“Treatment of leprosy is at all local government hospitals across the State and the drugs are free. Nobody should scared of the cost of drugs, the drugs are free. If they ask for money from any victim at any of these hospitals, the person should report to the appropriate quarters or even contact me so that we can report such persons.”