Blind World Magazine

People Who are Blind are Not Blind People.

ThisDay Online, Nigeria.
Tuesday, September 12, 2006.

By Wiliams Afolabi Ojo.

One of the ethnic groups in West Africa, the Wolof, say that when you see a turtle on top of a fence post, you know he had some help. Dr. Bitrus Bani-Ikilama, is one proverbial turtle, who having been helped to the top of a fence post, has worked hard all his life to ensure that other turtles are helped in a similar fashion. He was not born blind, but was blinded by measles at childhood. He could have lost all hope of becoming a useful vessel in society.

But, a man, Dawuda who he still talks about fondly and whose black and white photograph adorns his sitting room in Zaria, restored hope in his life. Kwanca looked at the young Andrew in the church back in his hometown in Taraba State and said 'this boy will go places if he is helped.' He helped in financing his schooling. That helped change the life of the young Bitrus and gave him a vision. After graduating abroad in 1967, he became the first Nigerian physiotherapist who is blind. He went on to actualise his vision six years after graduating and returning to Nigeria. That actualisation is now 30 years old; it is called Hope for the Blind Foundation, based in Wusasa, Zaria. The Foundation, which was started with N20 now provides a massive and amazing support for people who are blind across Nigeria.

The Foundation has built a reputation for delivering crucial support and vital services to persons who have gone blind and their families. These services include, Braille transcription and library, counseling, books on cassette, orientation and mobility training, craft skills training, scholarships, training and research through Hope Institute of Development and Research, and provision of medical and social care. The mission statement of the Foundation is: 'To be a circle of support around blind people, assisting them through service provision and training that will help them to be dignified, independent contributors to society.'

"I am a big dreamer," says Gani-Ikilama, the chairman of the foundation. When asked what motivated him to start the foundation, the genial man replied that that is self-evident. "I was motivated by blindness. When I returned from Lagos to Zaria in the 1970s, my friends who were blind who grew up together with me asked me what I could do for them, because given my own education and exposure government would listen to me. Even though I knew that government did not listen to anyone, I wrote to the government on what could be done. They never replied. I thought hard and then arrived at the this: We Can Give Hope. That is how we started by giving hope to people who are blind. I was hoping, however, that government will wake up. But, in 30 years, government has not even taken notice of us. President Obasanjo is my friend. He has invited me and we have chatted, but I don't think he too has taken notice."

But, while government may not have "taken notice" in the sense of assisting in this awesome task of helping the visually-impaired, it has taken notice of Bitrus Gani-Ikilama's service to humanity. Obasanjo recognised him in 2002 as an Icon of Hope and later honoured him with the award of Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON).

"People who are blind are not blind people", says his son, Andrew Gani-Ikilama, who is now taking charge of the foundation to his father's utmost joy. Andrew, who not visually impaired, graduated from the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria in 1991, has thrown himself into the service of the visually-impaired. He took over from his father as the executive director of the foundation in 2001. Already his youthful dynamism has led to the creation of Hope Institute of Development and Research, which is a training, consulting and research arm of Hope for the Blind Foundation. The Institute has a partnership with Kansas Wesleyan University, Kansa, USA.

For the laudable activities and immense contributions of the father and son to humanity, through their care for those who are blind, the Gani-Ikilamas were nominated by people as positive leaders in the Alternative Who is Who that will be released soon by the Centre for Social Science Research and Development (CSSRD) headed by Professor Bayo Olukoshi.

Andrew's experience as a stock broker and associate member of the Chartered Institute of Management has been quite useful in taking the foundation to new heights. The foundation gets calls and visits from people in need of its assistance from all over the country.

The story of Hauwa Ishaya is a key index of the wonderful work that the foundation is rendering. Hauwa was born blind and never went to school. Her father threw her mother out of their home with Hauwa and her brother, who were both born blind. At 11 in 2005, she was introduced to Dr. Gani-Ikilama. Within a few weeks the foundation found a place for her in a school for children who are blind. Hauwa's performance in school shows what a terrible waste it would have been if she was not helped by the foundation. In her last exam, she led her class. The foundation spends an average of N50, 000 per year on each pupil/student under it's care. Currently there are 35 of such pupils all over the country. The foundation therefore calls on charitable Nigerians to adopt a pupil and pay the annual expenses. For such charity, the adoptee receives the academic report of the student and other news on the 'star child'.

"We don't have charity in this country", laments Dr. Andrew Gani-Ikilama. "What we have in terms of charity is so small, and we don't even promote that. We don't encourage it. I hope others will wake up like we did and do something for the communities. Government will not do it."

An optahmologist from the US who is a friend of the Hope for Blind Foundation regularly comes to Nigeria to perform free eye tests and treatments, including surgery. About 370 people have been treated this year. Apart from this form of volunteering, the foundation gets founding from churches in Nigeria and Torch Trust in the UK. But, such assistance is usually too small for the task of the foundation.

"What I have done speaks for itself", says the energetic former ABU don. "We have helped people who are blind to go to school, get employment and get into society. But the government is not even willing to duplicate what I have done. The governments of Rivers, Benue and Gongola States invited me in the past to talk to them on what needed to be done, but nothing came out of all that. I have lost faith in government."

CSSRD, the organisation that organised such positive leaders as the Gani-Ikilamas, is an independent social science research organisation based in Ikorodu, Lagos. It is involved in a project funded by the Ford Foundation as part of a worldwide initiative that seeks to build knowledge on, promote and recognize, new leaders in various communities whose work and personal example have contributed to positive social change but do not yet command national attention. Such leaders provide leadership for organised efforts that offer new perspectives on critical issues and take action in the present with the future in mind. The aim of this global initiative is to contribute to the diversification of the notion of leadership beyond national leadership or public office holders. It aims to bring to prominence new ideas for social change.

End of article.

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