© 2019 - International Centre for Investigative Reporting
Abandoned to fate: Strife-filled lives of visually impaired pupils in Nigeria’s South-East (Part 1)
Life for many of Nigeria’s visually impaired persons is often laced with sorrow and heart-breaking tales. For children, it is a worrying mix. In this report, KELECHUKWU OGU, a skilled and unsighted journalist, visits states in the country’s South-East region to capture the pains of visually impaired pupils dealt terrible blows by fate.
“How do they calculate?” I asked the teacher, just before I nudge her to see how exactly her students pull-off the stunt.
“Off-hand,” she replies. “Off-hand?” I asked again.
“Yes. At times we use teaching materials like counters.”
“Find the ratio in the simplest form: ratio of 12 minutes to 1 hour,” the primary six teacher at Oji River School for the Blind asks her three pupils.
I am eager to see how the pupils would solve the problem with the aid of their heads alone. Granted, it is a simple question for anyone with a fair mathematical training. The teacher chooses Chukwuma to answer the question.
“Because 60 minutes make one hour,” he says, “we will find one number that can divide 12 in 60.”
While waiting for Chukwuma to find the elusive number, I see a notification on my phone telling me the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation will be starting the grand finale of its annual quiz competition soon.
The 18 finalists competing at this phase of the competition are secondary school pupils that have been tried in Mathematics, Physics, Biology, Chemistry and English. A blind person in Nigeria stands no hope of receiving proper schooling in four of those disciplines – even the compulsory Mathematics.
Uche had just finished from Government College, Abia State. He recently sat for the West African Senior School Leaving Certificate examination. I meet him at the handicapped section of the Abia State Library.
“Did you sit for Maths in your WAEC (West African Examination Council) – the body that conducts the exam?” I ask. “No,” he replies. “It’s difficult. You know those signs in Mathematics, we cannot understand them so that is why.”
Uche’s story is not a single leaf on a stem. When any form of numeric training is given to a blind student, diagrammatic or symbol-based exercises are only add-ons. I recall using the low-tech writing equipment – Maburg and stylus – to draw shapes during the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester. I would write the names of medal winners I remember inside the square or rectangle I was able to conjure, because I had an add-on.
Fourteen years after I left primary school, my academic formation has more substance than these children can probably ever hope to get. The reason is simple, neither the Universal Basic Education Commission nor the ministries of education in the states I visited believe Mathematical-based disciplines are within the reach of a pupil without sight. It is the reality I observed in classrooms and heard from teachers in Enugu, Abia and Imo states where the rehabilitation of blind persons has not been a consideration for successive governments since the beginning of the Fourth Republic.
Oji River Special Education Centre was conceived as a multipurpose institution for blind and deaf persons by the British Colonial Administration in 1958. It has a vocational centre, a primary school for the blind, another for the deaf and a remedial classroom for persons, who lost their sight deep into life. This institution is the only state government-owned facility that provides rehabilitation to blind persons in all of the 17 local governments that constitute Enugu State.
This is a reality that contrasts with the intent of Article 24 of the United Nations Convention on the right of persons with disability, which directs that all schools must be inclusive of, and accessible to, all children including those with disabilities – a protocol Nigeria has signed onto.
“You know that it is when we see the braille papers, the braille textbooks, that we can do anything like that. Now, there are no braille textbooks, for you to be feeling it and know what is there,” a high-ranking official in the centre tells me.
“Do you braille their exams?” I ask her. “We don’t braille it, you will read out the written one then they will braille the answer.”
I finally succeeded to coax her into allowing me observe what learning in the school feels like. She sends me off to Primary Six to see just how well the students are learning in the absence of textbooks. It is in this class that I met Chukwuma, Christian and Ifeanyi, trying to solve the ratio of 12 minutes to one hour in its simplest form, with neither a textbook nor a calculating apparatus to work with.
Chukuma was unable to find that number that would bring 12 and 60 to their lowest fraction. Maybe if he had tiles and a Maths frame to work with, he could have arrived at an answer. Before giving up the try, he chooses five as the common factor between 12 and 60.
Frustrated, the teacher calls on Ifeanyi. He proffers to use five just as Chukwuma unsuccessfully attempted. While we wait for the students to figure out the answer to the little teaser, I pose a series of questions to the teacher to capture the quality of teaching these students receive.
Curiously, all her answers end with “who teaches them”. “But, you are here…” I retort.
“We are here,” she replies. “They didn’t allow us to further our education in this braille. If you want to go, you go without pay, when you come back you start afresh.”
Failed by the health system, frustrated by education policies
Leaving the children to fiddle with the teaser, I visit the five residents learning to play living blindfolded.
The Oji River school gives a nine-month rehabilitation to persons, who lost their sight when the game of life had ticked beyond primary school education.
One thread runs through the experience of these persons, they were passed along from hospital to hospital, the true pass being a trip to India, which none of them had the money to make.
Emmanuel lost his sight in an accident. His cornea was ruptured when shards of glass punctured his eyes in a tricycle. He spent three years paying hospital bills before he resolved to find an alternative to how life could be best lived.
Pastor Moses was marking his 20th year as a blind man when I met him. For three of those years, the medical system creamed money off him but failed to change the status brought upon him by glaucoma. For 17 years, he preached and depended on the pickings of his wife to earn a living, till he finally found another way round the situation in January 2019.
Chukwudi slept and woke up blind in 2009. He made his duty-call to the medical industry for 10 years before the resolution to get rehabilitation crystalised.
Young Peace finished her junior West African Senior School Certificate Examination in 2017 but spent two weeks that same year searching for a fix to the deterioration of her sight, which had begun a year before. For Chima, he was given wrong medication in a hospital in Emene in Enugu State in 2014.
Surprisingly, from their sojourn around hospitals, not one doctor advised these persons to seek rehabilitation; they had to find alternative solutions themselves.
Emmanuel found the Oji River school through a friend of his father. Pastor Moses searched for 13 years but was rejected in 2015 with the school staff telling him there was no space. The new life they are offered at Oji River Special Education Centre is a package that consists of braille reading and writing, typewriting as well as craft. No training in numeracy comes in here, not even Book Keeping for Emmanuel, who ran a cosmetics business in his former life.
Peace would return to Senior Secondary School 1 and be Math-stranded. Any dreams that requires proficiency in alphanumerics is closed-off to her, because the system is too incompetent to offer her that life. When Peace and the pupils are done here, members of staff tell me the Enugu State Government would prefer to have them in an inclusive secondary school.
The building was appropriately sited at Oji River Special Education Centre. On my way out, I made a stop at the institution. At the Junior Secondary School 1, I meet six deaf students and a blind pupil. Across the other two classes in the school, there are only deaf and blind students learning together. Each class has a subject teacher and a signer. The teachers tell me that the signers find it difficult to communicate maths to the deaf pupils. They are most certainly not attempting it with the blind ones.
When I ask where the sighted students were, I am told they always choose to withdraw. Other persons I spoke to before my exit say the institution is too strained in capacity to accommodate every blind person in Enugu in need of rehabilitation. They complain about the absence of up-to-date textbooks, with a blind teacher telling me he had to braille out what he teaches the children from printed text, with the aid of colleagues.
The high ranking official at Oji River admits that the facility cannot accommodate all the qualified pupils, who come to its gates. Sadly, it is worse for the more vulnerable blind or deaf girl child.
“You know as well in Oji River we do not have enough accommodation, we don’t have enough accommodation for girls. The person will not sleep on top of another person.”
I had been told earlier that there were eight teachers in the school – a ratio of one teacher to eight students. The official complained about the quality and quantity of teachers at the centre’s disposal all the same.
“Teachers are not enough, because of the peculiarity of the school, you see us employing people that have retired but are still strong. Those people are paid from the stipend that the government bring for the feeding of the children. “You know there is an embargo on employment all over the country. When they [Enugu State government] last employed, they looked for the people that know braille or read special education, sign language, they didn’t find any.”
An official, who threatened to sue me if the name is mentioned however, denies claims that the students do not have textbooks to study with.
“Who said that? It’s not true. The Niger Wives brailed some books last year and they brought all of them. They even brought this year. Some of the subjects are not brailed,” the official said.
The official said they are unaware of any location where they can get exam question papers brailed for the students.
“Are we going to go to Lagos to braille the question papers? We don’t have braille centre in Enugu.”
When I informed the official of Community Resource Centre, a United Kingdom Department for International Development Institute which has a fairly equipped braille centre, the reply was, “What are they doing?”
The Nigerian Examination Council, the body in charge of the Common Entrance examination, which qualifies a child to go to secondary school, braille its question papers. With no academically enforced reason to encounter braille, these children are at the mercy of their sighted teachers during external examinations. Rehabilitation for these ones appear to be an orientation towards further dependence.
In Primary VI, there should be four students but the female pupil had not returned from mid-term vacation. If she chooses not to attend the secondary school prescribed for her by the Enugu State government, Ngwo Girls Secondary School, is an alternative.
Education without learning tools
Chiaha did not choose to remain in Oji River. I met her at Ngwo Girls. Her mind has been cultured to see Mathematics as an impossibility. She does not see any abnormality in the absence of numerals in her academic toolbox.
“Do you have a special Maths teacher,” I ask her. “Maths teacher!” she responds sounding surprised. “No, I don’t take Maths.”
Back in secondary school, my seniors abstained from French and Computer and I followed their actions. I spent those free periods in a building called the Resource Room, snacking on more sleep or listening to the BBC. What does Chiaha do with her Maths-free break? I wondered.
“I’ll be listening but I will not catch up,” she says with a chuckle. “I will only hear ‘if you cancel one you will get two, if you cancel this… I will not know how to solve it.”
She tells me she finished from the Oji River School for the Blind where I caused the teacher to give her pupils a Math puzzle. “No, it is short course that I did there, it is only braille and type writer,” she says in reference to my amazement.
Cosmos Edeh is the teacher catering to the needs of blind pupils in Ngwo Girls. He complains about some of the students sent from Oji River. He says they find it difficult to type.
It took me, a six-year old impressionable child, two years to figure out the tactile technique called braille. I spent two years – from Primary four to six, learning how to type. The remedial class in Oji River, teaches these disciplines in nine months.
Cosmos says Chiaha has not been introduced to ICT because there is no teacher just yet.
Why is Chiaha the only student he is able to find, I was curious. He says the students are mandated to pay N20,000 per term as boarding fee and the parents of the blind students are unwilling or unable§ to make this deposit. Chiaha, it turns out, is the only blind student in school. Maybe her parents are better off then?
“I wrote a letter to the principal, she allowed me to stay only this term. She said I should not tell any of my fellow special students that if anyone comes to meet her, she will know it is me that told them,” she explains. Her upkeep is down to mummy alone, daddy is blind and unable to put anything on the table.
Cosmos tells me three other students have left the school to attend another which has no resource teacher to care about their needs. One other student was at that time, trying to pay her boarding fee. As Chiaha returns to class, I speak with Cosmos to form a lucid picture of life for a blind pupil under his watch.
He says when he took up the office of special teacher in Ngwo Girls four years back, he had over ten students to look after. They were according to him, largely left to their devices.
“The students don’t even braille, they don’t type. They call sighted students to write exams for them, they call students to write tests for them.”
I said no! It is not possible. If his words hold true, the pupils he met in school were writing both external and internal exams in proxy with pen and paper.
”They don’t like taking their WAEC here. But two students I have been assisting got their WAEC excellent,” he adds, emphasizing the leeway the students had prior to his arrival. Cosmos also tells me there were no materials in the school – braille machines, type writers and computers for ICT training. Harping on the reading materials, I ask him what the students have to read with then.
“You will only see 1901 braille textbooks and they are few.”
I request a tour of his ‘1901 library,’ which he grants.
I am shown dusty novels, some of which have been feasted on by rodents. The librarian duly informs me a few of the braille texts she is handing over to me are aged. I am given titles like, Skelig, Love a child, Treasure Island. I keep demanding to know where the textbooks are but the female librarian tells me all braille texts are stashed together.
Perhaps, Cosmos has not gotten round to identifying them for his students. Or maybe there is truly little for him to pick from. That in itself cannot be said for sure, since an inventory has not been done. These parents who are unable to pay N20,000 as boarding fee, would surely leave materials like textbooks to the government. Cosmos scorns the government – run Ngwo Girls and hails his alma mater, College of Immaculate Conception – a Catholic-owned mission school in Enugu town. Thankfully, it is on my checklist.
At CIC Enugu, I met the resource teacher Ifeoma Chukwuatu, who is fully blind, working with a sighted colleague. They are servicing their braille machines and typewriters. It is a routine she does in preparation for exams which would be starting the next day for the first term of the session. The students may not need the braille machines but Ifeoma is bathing 21 of them in a solution of kerosene and penetrating oil to prevent any malfunction, because she would need one of them.
“I braille,” she explains to me. When there is no one to read to the students, I braille the questions on the spot.” The school has no braille embosser – a device used to print braille text. I ask her if she has ever tried to braille the questions in advance of exams.
“I have tried that method,” she says. That one is real suffering. “I have tried it two times. I have ten students and I have to braille each subject.
The issue of out-dated textbooks rears its ugly head again.
“Yes we do but they are old editions. I have applied to Niger Wives but I am yet to get new supplies,” she says in answer to my query as to the textbooks available to her students.
Unlike in Ngwo where I could not lay my hands on any textbooks, she is able to show me reading materials in history, Maths and English. Like in Ngwo Girls, Maths is not a consideration of importance.
Ifeoma says her chief challenge is with the school’s terrain. She tells me there are gutters on either side of the road network in the school, forcing blind students and herself to work on the middle or stay mobility dependent.
What has government done?
UBEC allots two per cent of the matching grants given to states across the federation to special education. The commission gives 70 per cent of that fund to government-run projects. The left over is given to private rehabilitation and education schools as well as centres, delivering services to persons with learning needs.
Data from the commission’s website says Enugu State was allotted N12.66bn. The state has been paid N9.20bn between 2005 and 2019. The value of funds that have been unclaimed is N3.50bn. Enugu State should have been able to provide N183.84m to the special education schools and centres in the state. The schools should have had access to N253.13m but the state has failed to claim N69.30m worth of funding for special education.
I asked the official if they had felt the imprint of UBEC in the affairs of the Special Education Centre at Oji River. They tell me that the school supplies instructional materials, does some renovation but has never made a donation of braille textbooks. They also gave an update on their earlier observations, saying the Enugu State government has agreed to employ new staff in 2020 and construct a new block for the female students, the number of which they tell me outstrips the boys in population.
They however deny any claims that teachers go without pay if they try to take refresher courses, although the defense is that trainings are organised for teaching staff – one Math-related reference being a workshop organised by Niger wives. I attended one of those in secondary school, where I saw a braille math set for the first time. The conversation ended with those three days though. The conversation would be most effective through repeated learning at the institutes where teachers are trained.
Ikeje Asogwa is the Chairman of the Enugu State Universal Basic Education Board. I called him to understand why braille textbooks are not supplied to students as printed ones are.
“I have closed for the year, compliments of the season,” is the response he gives me.
Meanwhile, a scrutiny of the budget shows that special education is not on the list of concerns of the Enugu State government. The state runs two special education centres, that at Oji River and another for the deaf in Ogbete. A three-year probe into funding for the school shows a gradual decline. In 2018, the centre was allocated N14.29m in the budget but got N3.95m, a reduction from the N4.8m they got in 2017. This allocation reduced to N9.3m in 2019, but the total amount released could not be verified at this time. A source in the school informed me that they receive N750,000 monthly from the government, an increase from N400,000 in 2017.
*This report was supported by Ford Foundation and the International Centre for Investigative Reporting