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Inside Abia school for the blind where pupils are abandoned and forgotten (Part 2)
In this concluding part of his special report, skilled and unsighted journalist, Kelechukwu Ogu, exposes how the society continues to fail blind pupils in Nigeria’s South-East region
Abia School for the Blind serves both Abia and Imo states. It had well over a 100 pupils in residence as at the time of my visit.
“Ermm… we teach them Mathematics But the math equipment we don’t have enough. We are supposed to be using tailor frames and tiles,” the school official I spoke with responded after I asked if the students are taught Mathematics.
I asked how the students and teachers are able to work together then and the official casually says they manage what they have. Unfortunately, the shortage is hampering effective learning.
“They use their brain oh,” the official tells me, answering my query as to how the students write math exams.
Keeping with the tradition of schools in Enugu, teachers here read to the students during exams. Theschool owns at least two embossers but the principal says there are no operators to make them function. When I broached the subject of government’s help in getting more learning materials, a cough echoes.
“No government here oh,” the official says in a small voice. “Government here don’t pay. It is individuals and churches that give us the little support we have to feed the children, to take care of them.”
I checked my mental notes and asked if this was a state owned institution, a chorus of chuckles pre-empts the response.
“I have not received my February salary of this year, I received only January, likewise some of the teachers here who belong to School Basic Management Committee.In this school, all fingers are not equal. Staff from the Abia State Universal Basic Education Board, had not been paid since April, while those employed by the state ministry of education have it rosy.”
The official has been in the school for three years and says the government has only provided subvention once.
“Since 2016 that I resumed work here, it is only last year November that they gave us subvention,” they said.
The School for the Blind, Umuahia, has a remedial programme as well. The officials tell me theirs is a two-year course. Most of the male students have proceeded to Government College Umuahia for their secondary school education. It is the Alma mater of my guide in Abia State, Wisdom Kalu, who is the chairman of the Nigerian Association of the Blind in the State.
Constructed in the 1920s, the school still has wooden flooring. Its old boys have reached a deal with the Abia State government to take over the school and are slowly draining out all students admitted by the government.
It has two sets left and there is only one blind pupil in the schoolwhen we arrived. Our interaction is, however, with the school’s low-voiced resource teacher. There is no variation to the nature of learning for the 20 students she had upon assumption of her current position. The students had no care for maths, they studied without textbooks,they have their question papers read to them during internal exams, seek the aid of their resource teacher for external ones – where braille is provided and had almost no taste of ICT training.
Kalu, however, informs the teacher that NAB attracted the donation of a few computers to the school. He requests to know if the PCs, which are to be used for the ICT update of the students is in safe storage.
“I am not aware of it,” she replies.
Pay more, get less
At Holy Ghost College, a Catholic mission school in Umuahia, I met Tochi, one of two blind students in the school. Tochi’s parents remit N46,000 per term to procure quality education for their child from the institution.
Even though their son is one of the few children paying fees to obtain an education in the three states of the South-East I visited, his training is no different from what those who attend classes free receive. So, what does Tochi do during math class since he cannot escape to the Resource Room like I did in secondary school?
“I just relax and listen to what they are saying,”
The school has almost no consideration for this pupil. He is forced to abandon the use of his typewriter in class, because he does not type as fast as the sighted write with their pen.
“If I make use of typewriter, they will tell me I’m delaying them. By the time I meet up, their own has finished. I don’t have much time to write. That is why somebody will tell me the question, I will answer, then he or she will jot it down.”
The youngster is not bothered about the quality of education he is receiving – he knows no better. His pain, however, is with the feeling of alienation he gets in class, especially during impromptu tests.
“Sometimes, I feel so bad. If they are taking test, I will be looking at them. I do not get to write many tests.”
Before Tochi arrived at the principal’s office where I was waiting, a staff had prepared my mind to expect the neglect. After a rambling lecture on how special students should be educated, the official informedme that his institution does not have any of those in place
Rejection – the easy way out
The state government-owned William Memorial has had no blind student in school in a long while. The school officials had maintained the status quo.
“Before I came, those that were here had already graduated. One or two persons came, I told them that we don’t have the facilities here— that whoever wants to keep you here is just trying to deceive you. In a winding conversation, the official tells me the Abia State government ought to create a secondary school for the blind.
“Here, because they are in the normal school, during exams students write for them. I am a Christian, I cannot condone that kind of exam malpractice. If they want this school to take blind students, they should equip this school.”
The school refused admission to five students. Kalu confirmed to me in a phone call after I had left that he traced four of the five students to schools in Imo and Anambra.
Leaving the presence of the frustrated but passionate official at William Memorial, I met with Reverend Jane Samuel, the principal of Holy Rosary Secondary School.
She is frustrated with the services rendered by the state government to the blind pupils in her school. The thought of turning them back has not occurred yet. Telling me why her students are not numerically literate she says, “They tell us what they can do and what they cannot. Even in WAEC they don’t offerMaths. That is why we call them ‘special students.’ They know their capacity.”
Her explanation not sufficient for me, I tell her it is the school who should expand the minds of the students.
“If I have a special teacher, I will know a lot about them,”she rebuts. “During the takeover of schools by the church, I visited the ministry several times to give me a special teacher and they couldn’t give me. In that case, there was nothing we could do.” We are thinking of asking the government not to post them here since we don’t give them much services.”
Her students – five girls, receive free tuition but have to pay boarding fees. Two are fee-paying students, while the other three are sponsored by the state government. She says she has not received any payment for students who come to the institution through the government since Governor Okezie Ikpeazu assumed office.
“The government is playing pranks on us,” she complains. “We want to go and tell them, ‘Look, it is better you come and take your students,” she says.
What has government done?
Under UBEG grants, Abia has been allotted N12.66bn worth of funding since 2005. As at July 22 2019, the state had received N9.67bn, leaving N2.99bn unclaimed because of default in its counterpart contribution.
For persons dependent on UBEC funding for special education in the state, N253.13m is what they should receive if the state makes a full claim on all funds available to it, N193.36m is what these school centres should have received through the Abia State Universal Basic Education Board for various projects and N59.78m is what they will be unable to access till the state government provides the matching grant to UBEC.
The official at School for the Blind, Umuahia says she has not received a coin from UBEC or its state equivalent. While I was unable to reach Okechukwu Ananaba,the chairman of the Abia State Universal Basic Education Board, I got through to the head education services in the Abia State ministry of education, Victoria Adindu, who chose not to comment or facilitate a response.
The details of the Abia State 2019 budget is not as spelt out as that of Enugu State. The School for the Blind, Umuahia, is not listed anywhere on the budget document I found. Under the Ministry of Special Duties is a heading called vulnerable groups. This heading received a budgetary allocation of N71.08m. It is unclear, however, if this is where funds that should go to School for the Blind, Umuahia, comes from.
A curse to be blind in Imo State
Of all the states I visited, Imo, it appears, is the worst place to be struck with blindness. When Abia and Imo states were one, a school that catered to the learning needs of blind and deaf students existed in Orlu.
The creation of Abia State, saw blind students migrate to Umuahia – the capital of Abia while the school in Orlu now attends to the deaf alone. The only route to rehabilitation in the state is the Anglican Church-run vocational centre in Akpodim, Mbaise local government, where blind persons are valued enough to learn how to make brooms and old-fashioned baskets.
Trainees, some of whom have been there for nine years, say they are counting meals. Chiderah is the youngest student I spoke with.She has been at the centre since she left school in 2017. In that time, no one has taught her how to make brooms, baskets or manipulate cane into different furniture.
“My brother, I don’t see anything I’m learning here. Since I got here, I’ve been hearing that they are learning how to make beads, brooms, chairs and other things but I’ve not seen anyone to teach us.”
The centre said it teaches its trainees braille reading and writing as well as typewriting. Uche has made the centre his home for nine years now. In that length of time, he said he has seen typewriter instructors just once.
“We have some machines here. Some typewriter machines. But there’s nobody to teach us how to use it. Since nine years I have been here, only once they come. They stay like four weeks before they go.”
Another trainee I spoke to, addressed by everyone in the centre as ID, said whatever training offered in the centre is archaic and of little monetary value. He gave truth to young Chiderah’s information, saying “Well, I can say that we are abandoned. As you see, they came to our hostel to get us, you would not have had to send somebody to call us, because we are there in our shop.”
Mr. Angus Owunzurike has been the secretary of a committee set-up to look after the centre for three years. I told him of Chiderah’s two wasted years and Uche’s nine years in the centre, with just four weeks of typewriting training. He says the school has been without instructors for a long time. According to him, the last resident instructors furthered their education and took up better job offerings. He says the centre has so far been unable to attract instructors to its rural-location.
“We are still using those we’ve trained there to train the other ones,” he says. Stating how dire affairs at the centre are he says, “If we can get the instructors from anywhere to teach.” There is one glitch however. “We have to hire them with money and we don’t have much. “
UBEC reserves two per cent of the basic education funds for each state of the federation for the needs of special education schools. Seventy per cent of the sum due each state goes to government institutions, while the rest is apportioned to private service providers like Akpodim Rehabilitation Centre.
I asked Owunzurike if he has ever received any intervention from the commission or the basic education board in the state. “School uniforms, shoes and bags, that is what we’ve gotten from them I know,” he replies.
He also tells me UBEC sited a fully equipped ICT centre on the property. The centre he refers to is an e-accessibility project built by the Universal Service Provision Fund under the aegis of the Nigerian Communication Commission. He also tells me the school is looking to revive its agricultural section in order to generate revenue.
Chiderah had part of her secondary school education in Orlu Girls Secondary School, Imo State. This is the only school for female pupils that has a resource teacher in the state. She was forced to graduate in Ebonyi State though. Her explanation was “The environment of that school, I don’t like it.”
Augustine Obiagwu is the present teacher catering to the needs of blind persons in the school.
“We don’t have enough security men in the school,” he tells me,explaining Chiderah’s disgust with the environment. “Where the students live in the hostel, some bad boys always come from time-to-time to disturb them.”
I am also told there is neither power nor water in the building. Obiagwu is a redundant member of staff. All his wards have since vanished from the school.
“Parents withdrew their children from the hostel. As a result of that the blind students have nobody to stay with. That is why they have not come back to school. We have about three of them. We are supposed to have new ones but the old ones will tell them what happened. Three of them are still in their house, they have not gone anywhere.”
Obiagwu is partially sighted and was forced to go to Abia State in search of primary education. He is abhorred by the imperviousness of the state government to the existence of blind persons in the state.
“Government are not serious in handling the affairs of special students. We are managing to help them as much as we can. Otherwise the government is not doing anything for them.” I ask him why his students are still at home. “This is the only integrated school for girls in Imo State. Government has not taken note of what is happening in the school. The students themselves have failed to come out and let the government know what they are passing through.”
Hope, her sister Faith, and Ginika are the three students forced out of school. After several attempts I reached Hope, she confirmed to me that she has been at home.
“There is nobody in the hostel now…” she tells me. Just like I have heard in the state, blind girls have no choice for secondary school education within Imo State except Orlu Girls.
“No, I’m still at home. I did not see any other school in this Imo State. “I went to Anambra, they said there is no chance again in the hostel.” She is at her witsend on what steps to take next.
“School is going on now, but I don’t know what to do again,” she says in a mournful voice.
The male students have it better. There are seven of them in Mbaise Secondary School – a boys-only institution. We meet with the principal of the junior section but he is unwilling to speak with us. Sources close to the school tell us nothing different from what we observed in all the institutions we visited. What is unique to the institution, is the absence of a resource teacher in the school. Since 2015, the person who occupied that position had retired and the Imo State government is yet to appoint another. The source, who chose not to be mentioned, brought up a problem that plagues blind students trying to enter the university though.
According to the official, blind students do not offer math and it is unfair to place such a demand on them. The official lamented that institutions like the University of Calabar and Alvan Ikoku University do not wave math for blind applicants. To pre-empt this, certain teachers help their blind student get external help during government organised examinations.
“See how it happens, because of the formalities, they register Math. But, they don’t do the subject in the school because of the lack of materials in the school. In order to make up now, we have to get somebody to help them,” one teacher told me.
This, Chiderah told me, is how she made her math paper in both the junior and senior WAEC exams.
Out of the N12.66bn that should have come to Imo State from UBEC since 2005, it has received N12.04bn from UBEC. This leaves the state with a shortfall of N614.01m in unclaimed funds. Special education centres in the state like that in Akpodim, Mbaise, should have received some funding from a pool of N240.85m, with a further N12.28m to be claimed.
The present dispensation in the state made N3.8bn available as its counterpart funding to UBEC for the last three years. I called and sent text messages to Viola Onwuliri, former Minister of Education and Foreign Affairs, now Commissioner for Education in Imo State to know what provisions the positive sounding administration has toward resuscitating special education for the blind in the state. My efforts were futile though as I got no response.
The Imo State Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development is in charge of vocational rehabilitation such as services offered by the Anglican Church-run centre in Akpodim. I am able to get through to Elias Nnaka, a director in that ministry and he is blind.
“That thing has bothered me so much,” he tells me on phone. “That is why I even introduced that Lagos own [Farm craft]. I’m worried to have a school for the blind or to have a centre where these children will be trained. I pleaded with the state government whether they can employ them [blind persons trained in craft] as craft instructors so that they will be paying them small money but they didn’t accept. These children are suffering… No centre for the blind, no school for the blind… I don’t know.”
I ask him if he has ever approached the state Universal Basic Education Board (SUBEB), in the state to offer any assistance to schools offering some form of rehabilitation to the blind. He says he has never heard of such an institution.
“Okay, with this information I will make an enquiry. I have not tried it for the first time.”
Imo State budget is a lot more opaque compared to Abia’s. Its line items are unclear and appear suspicious. Under the heading, HEAD 0416 – MINISTRY OF PRIMARY AND SECONDARY EDUCATION, there are four line items related to special education. Equip for EducSchool was allotted N2m, Special Education Centres occurred twice, receiving N2m and N25m respectively. Feeding for handicapped children received N10m.
Under another heading called, HEAD 416 -1 – MINISTRY OF TERTIARY AND NON-FORMAL EDUCATION, Special Education Centre Orlu, School for the Deaf and Dumb, Orodo, Feeding for handicapped students, and the two headlines, ‘special education centre’ are listed. No funding is, however, allocated to these line items. I was told by my guides that the only provision for special education funded by the Imo state government is a school for the deaf and dumb in Orlu.
In the course of this investigation, two things became clear to me – the gradual death of braille literacy, a blind person is supposed to be able toread brailleat the first level of education. There are no up to date textbooks in braille, which makes the learning redundant. Even question papers for exams are not brailed. The second thing is that both students and those in rehabilitation are not adequately trained in mathematics due to an absence of trained teachers and instructional materials.
UBEC has a mandate to supply textbooks and instructional materials to all students in primary One to JSS3 but my observation showed that up-to-date braille textbooks and instructional materials for learning mathematics are non-existent in the schools. UBEC data on dispensation and usage of special education funds are not up to date, documents I found on their website as at the time of working on this story are as recent as 2017, when the commission claims N10.5bn had been released for Special Education Intervention.
The lack of exposure to braille, in a digital clime where tech braille tools have not gained a foothold in Nigeria, is frightening. A concentration on only audio channels, is why blind students in Nigeria cannot function in any alphanumeric discipline. Worsened by the absence of textbooks and instructional materials at basic education level, Nigeria’s academic system in the South-East especially, is breeding students that would be dependent like Chiaha’s dad, fit for begging and not for well-paying jobs. If they could see, they would probably be low-level touts.
Back to Primary VI in Oji River, Christian picks the baton from where Ifeanyi dropped it. “2 can divide 12 that is 6-6. “2 can divide 60 that is 30-30.
“Yeah, but that is not the simplest form,” I say. “Do you know another number that can divide 6 and 30?” “3 can divide 6,” whispers Ifeanyi, after Christian’s brain freezes. Ifeanyi uses 3 to divide 30 and Chukwuma completes the equation by using 2 to divide 2 and 10. We spend another time, getting the pupils to find one whole number that could have done the job. If there are reformative and empathetic persons in Nigeria’s educational industry, maybe they can be prodded like Christian, Chukwuma and Ifeanyi to arrive at a solution that has quality education for blind persons in its fundamental composition.
If the academic industry – especially the public sector, chooses to stay stiff and monolithic, the community of blind beggars at Oji River would continue to swell with members. From Monday to Saturday, a team of blind persons gather at Total filling station along Enugu Old Road, where they are picked up by buses and dispersed to Onitsha main market and other public places to beg for the day’s meal. It is a community, sources tell me, with an association and a well-formed structure. There are persons who feel the community is exploited for prostitution as well. Unsubstantiated claims they maybe, it is where the blind – including those rehabilitated without math training, run to for feeding. Ifeoma Ogbonna is one of them.
She received a National College of Education certification in 2016 and has like many, been unable to get a job. I asked how she has been surviving and she says “seeking for arms, going to churches and support from my parents.” She tells me she has attempted to apply for jobs as well. “The last one in my state, Abia, I did that should be April-May, they were telling us that people were paying N200,000 to get employment, so I had to withdraw myself.”
Ifeoma, with an NCE is unemployed and begging while the Principal of Holy Rosary College, Umuahia, Reverend Sister Jane Samuel requested for a special teacher from the state government and got none.
Zita Oba, is an administrator in Enugu. She tells me the begging community in Oji River, has been existing since 1958. She says not only unemployed degree holders like Ifeoma live there.
“Those of them that are even teaching and are blind, what they are paid is not enough for them. Because they have made themselves to become beggars, they will be working and begging as well. You will see them during the holidays begging.
The jobs of the future are alpha-numeric and blind persons in Nigeria are light years away from being fit for those jobs. In a bid to understand why the special education system in the south-east is short-handed, I spoke with Dr. Mairo Ipadeola, the president of the National Association of Special Education Teachers. She told me there are no well-trained special teachers to start with.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have much of our professionals in the south-east. If you discover, most of the universities in the south-east and colleges of education and polytechnics, rarely offer special education. Most of the people in these centres are usually caregivers not professionals.”
She further explained to me a few special education colleges have been springing up in the last few years but they are not tilted towards the pedagogical aspect of the blind child.
*This report was done with support from Ford Foundation and International Centre For Investigative Reporting, ICIR.