by Akan Ido
David Okon, a visually impaired banker and the President of the National Association of the Blind speaks to the Punch Newspapers on his life, his relationships and living life as a blind person.
Read excerpts of the interview below:
How would you describe the way you have been accepted in the society?
The support I have enjoyed has come from family members and a few understanding members of the public. So I have been coping with the support of God and good people around me. They have helped me to have a better view of life and to surmount the obstacles that life has posed. I have also been able to motivate others because the Nigerian environment has not been encouraging at all. The acceptance level in the Nigerian society is still very discouraging. The society needs more people to help turn the darkness of loss of sight to light. What I always told my grandmother as a young person was that I would rather die than get to a point of begging because I am blind. My dad ensured I did well; unfortunately, he didn’t live long enough to see the good fruit of his labour.
Were you born blind?
No. My mother said I was born with sight. She was very happy that her first child was a man. But she said that around 1970 when I was about three years old, I had this terrible measles. The measles was bad and the civil war was just entering our part of the country, although it was actually coming to an end in other parts. There was no adequate medical attention because of the civil war, but they gave it the best attention. By the time the measles had gone, they discovered that it had affected my sight. It was not total blindness initially, but it degenerated until it became total blindness. It took a team of missionaries from Europe who came to my village in 1975 to discover that I may have totally lost my sight. They observed that I could not play at like children of my age were doing. After this incident, I remained with my parents for some years but not knowing what to do. But my late father was bent on seeing that I was educated like every other child with the little resources he had. So the European missionaries advised my parents to let me go to a school in Lagos. They told them that I could still realise my dream by being educated there. That was how I came to the Pacelli School for the Blind in Lagos. I left from there to Kings College, Lagos and then to the University of Lagos, where I did my first degree in Political Science and second degree in Public Administration.
Do you recall any discouraging experience with boys at Kings College?
Kings College pupils were great people. They had seen many blind people before I joined, so it was not strange. There is an arrangement between Pacelli and Kings College that ensures that students are admitted to study there. I recall a day when one of my colleagues grew so curious about me that he called me and said, ‘I want to ask you a question and please don’t get angry with me. How do you see your mouth when you are eating?’ He was about 10 years old then. His question was very funny to me. Now to the issue I had with few teachers, whom I may refer to as ‘typical Nigerian teachers’ at Kings College. I had done well in Arithmetic in the common entrance examination. So I didn’t think that there would be any problem with mathematics in the secondary school. But there was this teacher, who came to the class to teach mathematics and as he was writing on the board, he was saying, ‘This plus this is equal to this’. Rather than call out the numbers for me to hear, he assumed that all the students could see what he had on the board. So I stopped him abruptly and asked him to call out the numbers, but I was shocked at his response. He said, ‘My friend, I was not employed to teach the blind.’ He said that I could leave the class if I could not cope. And childishly, I left the class and never returned there. Of course, I did not pass the subject. French was another thing I did not take because of the challenge of getting a Braille version. I still regret not learning French because I would have been able to take an international job that I was qualified for if I could speak a second language. Still on nasty experiences, I remember that one weekend, I was relaxing and enjoying the breeze under a tree in school when I suddenly felt someone flogging me seriously. As I kept shouting and asking what I had done to deserve the beating, the person, who must have been one of the naughty boys in school, kept on flogging me. At a point, I could not hold it anymore. So I stood up and started running in whatever direction my legs could lead me. However, one of my greatest days at Kings College was the day a teacher called me out and told the audience that despite being blind, I had done better than others with sight including my seniors. I felt so high, but I dared not say a word or I would be beaten up. There were senior students in the gathering and we respected our seniors so well at the college. I must say that my colleagues were so great. There was no noticeable difference between us when we worked or played. I remember that some of them struggled to read text and notebooks to me during study time, while I just listened. The idea most time was that while they read to me and I in turn, explained the subject to them. The community spirit at the college was better than what I had in the university. At UNILAG, the blind students had to record the lectures and type the tests or assignments on a typewriter.
Are there moments when you wished you could see?
Yes, every blind person does sometimes. There are times I feel that I would have been better placed in life with sight. Of course, one gets a lot of consolations from loved ones. My wife usually asks me that how am I sure that I would not have turned out worse? Her words make sense to me, but as a human being, one sometimes still feels down. There is a good friend of mine here in First Bank; we were at Kings College together. He is now a very senior member of staff now and we are still very good friends. He was my junior in the secondary school but he is currently the treasurer of the bank. Lack of sight must have slowed down my prospects in life; we don’t seem to have the same opportunities. Employers in Nigeria discriminate against blind people such that the people who start work same day as you go far ahead of you; same for even those who started after you. One thing is sure, I’m very grateful for the opportunity that I have to work with the organisation and that is why I’m always putting in my best to earn my pay. By September, I will be 20 years in this organisation. There is this determination in me to excel at whatever I do. As the National President, National Association of the Blind, I tell people to put in their best in whatever they do and never to give in to inferiority complex or intimidation on account of blindness.
Was it easy getting a wife?
Before I could marry my wife, we had issues with her parents and mine. I remember when we started dating, she had fallen in love with me but her people said no, they can’t allow their daughter to marry from a far place. When she told me that, I said I knew the real reason they said that. If I hailed from the United States, which is farther than where my hometown, would they object on that ground? The basic reason was that they didn’t want her to marry a blind man. Then I started wondering why I found a lady that I love and other people were against my marrying her. My people were also saying that I could not marry an Igbo woman since I hail from Akwa Ibom State. They said that I won’t be able to cope with her. Good enough, she was resolute about getting married to me; so her parents had no choice but to let her be. They said, ‘You say you must marry this blind man. Okay. You will be the one to live with him; you will bear the shame and so on’. So we printed the wedding invitation cards and she took one to an uncle of hers, but he spat on her. He said, ‘As educated as you are, and of all the men in this world, it is a blind person you can marry. Your parents objected, but you insisted’. He sent her away and said he wouldn’t be at the wedding. He threw the card back at her and did not come. She felt so bad but I told her that if he would not come, others would.
How did you woo your wife?
Before I met her, I had suffered a number of heart breaks on account of my sight. Whenever it was time to tidy up things towards marriage, there would be an objection. Painful as it was, it was okay by me because I didn’t want anyone to marry me out of pity. I wanted someone that would love me for who I am. I had no doubt that I would someday be married and never saw it as a do-or-die. Even when I had two blind girls as my close friends, I didn’t marry them because I didnt have the conviction to marry a blind person like myself. I believe the society is not ripe for two blind people to get married. One thing I had noticed from my university days was that I was liked by girls. In fact, my roommates then used to tease me that I had a way of winning over the most beautiful girls in spite of being blind. They jokingly said I might be using juju. So the lady who is now my wife picked interest in me during her service year in this organisation. I believe it was God’s making but it didn’t come easy. She is a likeable person and very compassionate. When we met, we were first friends before I proposed to her. I think an added advantage was that she went to the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where she met a number of blind students and was used to them. But she said she never knew that she could marry a blind man. The day I proposed to her, I said, ‘I think you would be very privileged for me to have you as my wife’. She said, ‘You are mad’. She said that she thought that I was joking, but I said I was serious so she said, ‘You miss road’. She walked away and I left her. After a long time, when she thought I would have forgotten, I returned to her with my request and she asked if I meant what I was saying. She said that she couldn’t marry because previous relationships she had never ended in marriage. And I told her that I actually wanted to marry her. She said she couldn’t marry me and I told her that she could. I believe she thought and prayed about it until one day when she gave her consent. She then said that the only hurdle would be for her parents to agree for her to marry a blind man.
Apart from sight, do you live a normal life like others?
Yes, I do. Back in my school days, I was like every other boy. Others had girlfriends and I had mine. Whatever the other boys had, I had too. I may not have had the money they had, but I had a sweet tongue. Also, I was always looking well dressed. We went for swimming, clubbing and so on together, but did everything with dignity. There was a time in UNILAG that a girl gave me a peck for being well dressed. She said she had always noticed that I looked good. In fact, my friends in the university would look at my girl friends and say to me, “After you will say you are blind, see the beautiful girl you just caught.”
How then do you appreciate a beautiful woman without seeing her?
My wife’s mannerisms attracted me to her. She was so at home with me before marriage and even now that she hardly ever acted as if I’m blind. She is not exploitative. A blind person goes beyond the physical appearance to reach the real person. Although much of the time, they also hear people around saying, ‘Oh! She is so beautiful’. But no matter how physically beautiful someone is, if she hates you and treats you like a second-class human being or beggar, you can never be attracted to that kind of person. That is why people need to redefine blindness. There is a lot that visually-impaired people can make out of life. There is nothing that is impossible except you say so.
How can government help?
The first duty of any government is to accept that the society has some people who need extra care and attention to move on. Unfortunately, the Nigerian government is yet to accept that fact. Meanwhile, there are a lot of factors helping to contribute to the number of persons living with visual disabilities. Such factors include the Boko Haram attacks which in some cases led to some people becoming blind, accidents on bad roads and inadequate medical care. There are some cases that could have been taken care of before they degenerated to permanent blindness, but where are the medical facilities? Government must wake up to its responsibilities to all sectors of the country. For instance, I can tell you that all levels of government in Nigeria do not have the statistics of their people who are visually-impaired; it’s as bad as that. Because of the capitalist nature of our government, you find out that the government is not willing to spend more to cater for this group of people. For instance, there is a software that makes using a computer more compatible for a visually-impaired person. Unfortunately, that can cost about two-and-half the price of a standard computer. So, the natural question of a capitalist is, ‘If I can get Tunde to do this job on a computer at a lesser cost, why would I spend more to have Okon do the same’? But we need a level playing ground. We need a law in Nigeria that makes it a crime for a company not to employ the blind. The law should also make it compulsory for them to be adequately empowered to work. Interestingly, there is a report I’m about to get that proves that people with visual disabilities turn out more productive at the work place than their counterparts with sight. Government can subsidise the equipment that blind people need to perform better at work.
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