A cursory look at her will not betray the daunting challenge she daily lives with as she walks with a spring in her steps, boisterous, full of life and witty. But lo, Grace Atukpa is Nigerian Institute of Journalism’s fresh blind graduate set to take on the world. BABAJIDE OKEOWO reports for your weekend treat.
Grace Atukpa is a pretty lady with a sound fashion sense, highly intelligent and with high hopes and aspirations. A victim of circumstances, Grace recently graduated from the Nigerian Institute of Journalism, where she did very well despite her challenges.
An indigene of Ogoja in Cross River North Local Government Area of Cross Rivers State wasn’t born blind: fate played a crude one on her at the tender age of 14.
Grace had just finished her senior secondary school examination, written the Joint Admission and Matriculation Board examination which she passed with flying colours, secured admission into the prestigious University of Calabar to study Accounting and was waiting for school to resume when her world came crashing, irretrievably; like a pack of badly arranged cards, Grace became stone blind.
“I was always complaining of headaches some years back, but my step mum always thought would say it was a ploy to avoid house chores. She would say, ‘Grace doesn’t want to work, she is lazy, she is a drama queen’ and was always quick to rain all sorts of invective on me,” Grace told The Daily Times.
When it became obvious that she wasn’t pretending, Grace was taken to see a doctor who diagnosed her of being short sighted and prescribed some drugs with the assurance that all would soon be well.
Instead of getting better, Grace’s health deteriorated further and she had to pay the doctor another visit. After series of tests, the doctor changed the story and said she was suffering from Cataracts, and that she needed to undergo a surgery that would cost some N30,000. That was a huge sum for her family over a decade ago, yet after spending this sum on the operation, the situation still did not improve.
At this point, it became obvious that something serious was happening to Grace. Her godmother, Dr. Sandra Achums, who also doubled as a big sister to Grace’s mother, stepped in and went looking for solution.
The quest eventually took Grace to an eye specialist who diagnosed her of advanced level Glaucoma; (a degenerative eye condition), and that all the wrong treatment and surgery had made her case irreversible.
Thus began young Grace’s journey into perpetual darkness.
Few years after she became blind, her mother who had hitherto been her pillar of support passed on, leaving Grace alone, heartbroken in a cold world.
Her father who should also have been there for her too, in the course of her challenge, lost faith in her and took to his heels, leaving the poor little girl alone. As if that wasn’t enough, Grace and her younger brother were chased out of the house her mother left behind. For Grace, it was double jeopardy.
“I practically cried for death. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t drink water. It was a dark period in my life. The will to live was not there anymore” she told The Daily Times.
Just then, divine intervention knocked on her door.
“One day, my brother came to meet me in the balcony of Dr. Sandra Achum’s house because that was where we were living immediately after my mother died and her family chased us out of our mother’s house. He cried and hugged me, and said, ‘look, we have lost our mum, I can’t afford to lose you as well; you are the only one I have left in this world.”
That brotherly love jolted her back to life and gave her reasons to continue living. Then she heard about Pacelli School for the Blind. Initially, she wasn’t aware of the availability of any special school for the blind.
If she and her parents, particularly her mother while alive, had been aware of the existence of such a school, she might not have stayed that long at home without any formal education.
“Prior to that, I didn’t even know about the existence of such a school despite the fact that it had been there for ages, even the likes of Cobhams Asuquo, the renowned Nigerian musician, attended this school. So, when I heard about it, we went to make inquiries and I was told that since I already had my secondary school certificate, I only needed to undergo one-year rehabilitation programme where I learned how to use the Braille.
“When I got to Pacelli, I began to “see” things differently as I met students who had been blind all their lives due to one complication or the other and I began to thank God. Some of them would come to me and ask me to describe certain things to them. They motivated me to become stronger,” she explained.
She recalls the times she stayed at home doing nothing before she discovered Pacelli. According to her, it was a tough and very dark period in her life.
“Believe me, it was tough. I stayed home for about seven years doing nothing. It was tougher on days when my mates were taking the Joint Admission Matriculation Examinations, JAMB, I would lock myself up in my room and just cry and cry and cry.
“I have always believed in education and the world is going to a stage where even a Bachelor’s degree will not suffice. So, whenever I have the opportunity of speaking to younger ones, particularly the female, I always make them realise that there is a limit to what they can achieve without education,” she said.
It was this burning desire for education that propelled Grace into enrolling at the Nigerian Institute of Journalism, NIJ, despite her state.
“Initially, I had wanted to be an Accountant but due to my challenges, I had to change over from Accounting to study Mass Communication, I enrolled for a fresh WAEC, took JAMB and ended up at the NIJ. I will be going for my mandatory one year National Youth Service, NYSC this November.” Talk about the strength of the human spirit!
She explained the various challenges she has faced and how she had been able to manage the rigours of academic life.
“The sad realisation of how the Nigerian public reacts to blind people is quite unfortunate. When they come across us on the street, they are always full of pity and this gets me angry. Everyone in life has one form of challenge or the other. If this is what God has destined to be my challenge, I’ve taken it in good faith; I want to be empathised with, not pitied; because when you do that, you kill the morale of the blind person and make them feel low about themselves.”
A major challenge she has is with the funding of her education.
“The cost of the instruments we use in reading and writing is prohibitive. Governments in other countries subsidise learning aid for their physically challenged. Sadly in Nigeria, you are largely on your own. Take the speech software that I use for my laptop, it is sold for about N130,000. How many people can afford that? This is beside the Braille materials.
“Then there is the issue of sponsorship. The welfare departments of churches are doing the little they can, but they are limited. The onus is on the government to come to our aid,” she lamented.
“I attend classes, studied hard and I am graduating amongst the best in the whole of the school. I help out with other student’s assignment. My course mates are most times baffled with the way I handle academic affairs and they will say, ‘Grace, are you sure you are blind like us? You must be deceiving us!’ and we will laugh over it,” she recalled.
When questioned on how she manages on her own, she replied in a manner that belies the challenges she is living with.
“Remember that I wasn’t born blind, and coupled with the fact that I stayed with my stepmother for a while, I have been used to doing things for myself since my early age. Presently, I don’t have challenges taking care of myself, I pick my dress myself, I cook well,” she gave a throaty laughter.
Grace is a big dreamer and she shared some of her dreams and aspirations with The Daily Times.
“After my service, I hope to get a job. That doesn’t mean that I am giving up on education as I hope to further my education up to my Ph.D. level, she enthused.
Her dreams and aspirations are as lofty as always. She shared some of them with our correspondent. “I would love to be a household name in Nigeria politically. I am also passionate about teaching and hope to pin down a teaching position in a tertiary institution” she quipped.
Like every human being, she yearns for love and a man to call her own but, it has been a Herculean task finding her knight in shining armor. She put it thus.
“It has not been easy. In fact, it has been very tough. My present relationship is going through a torrid time because my boyfriend is Muslim and his mother is against our relationship, telling him you cannot marry a blind girl, the union will only be over her dead body, so it has been hectic.”
The courageous Grace has this piece of advice for anyone going through any form of challenge.
“Being physically challenged is not enough reason for you to hit the streets and become a beggar. I have heard about visually impaired people who have gone on to make a success of their lives. There are so many opportunities out there; all you need do is to upgrade yourself and build a standard for yourself” she advised.”
All said, responding on how she manages on her own, Grace replied in a manner that belies the challenges she is living with.
She, however, calls for the support of government and public spirited people to intervene in cases of people living with any form of disability by providing the enabling environments for them to thrive.
“First of all, governments have a big role to play by providing sponsorship in form of scholarships for people living with disability. This is because there are so many of us who want to go to school but cannot because of the unavailability of fund. Then governments need to provide jobs for us, because after getting education, we need to work in order to earn a living.
“Also, in the areas of learning equipment, our computers, software and materials, there is need to make these things easily affordable for us as they are so expensive. They should find a way of subsidising it for us.”
She also made this passionate appeal for help.
“Grace still wants to go far in life. I want to further my education, go for my Master’s and Doctorate degrees, so I need sponsorship. If any non-governmental organisation, Government, or public spirited individuals can come to my aid, I would be eternally grateful.”
The Daily Times learnt that Grace has been able to come this far because some people have blind faith in her; one of such is Dr. Sandra Achums, to whom Grace is full of gratitude.
“Dr. Achums has always been a family friend even before I was born. She has been a big sister to my mum and has always been there for my mother even when my mum became separated from my father. She was the one who encouraged my mother to go back to school and get trained as a journalist, so she has always been a constant figure in my life. When my mother died and her family chased us out of the house and confiscated it, she took it upon herself to become responsible for our well-being.
“I know the stress Dr. Achums went through to look for sponsorship for me without any success before she took it upon herself to be responsible for my education.
“Today, I am a graduate of Mass Communication from the Nigerian institute of journalism, all thanks to her. To get to where I am today, it has cost her over N1 million. If not for her, I wonder what would have become of me and my brother,” she wondered.
Grace is looking forward to the future with faith, optimism and dedication. It is sure that with the blind faith she has towards life, the sky is definitely her starting point.