In INTERVIEW on January 9, 2014 at 8:00 am

Solomon Elusoji writes about a physically challenged journalist with a life-long dream of going back to the university to teach Mass Communication. He recently made history to become the first blind journalist to win the highly coveted Nigerian Media Merit Award, in the category of the most innovative reporter of the year

When Gbenga Ogundare lost his sight in 2009, many would have thought that was the end of him. But three years later, he has proven that physical handicap is not necessarily a limitation in maximising one’s potentials. Recently, he was awarded the Nigerian Merit Award, sponsored by Etisalat, in the category of The Most Innovative Reporter of the year.

Asked about his winning streaks, Ogundare shrugs: “The same way an average journalist who is worth his salt win awards was the way I won mine. Firstly, you must have done something that is submitted as an entry to the body organising the award.

“The story that won me the award was about how young Nigerians have been coping with poverty. In this case, you go to an eatery in the guise of wanting to buy something and then you go to their restroom and write on the walls things like ‘are you looking for hot sex?’ or ‘are you looking for a babe or a sugar mummy or daddy’. Then you leave your number there. So, over time, since 2007, I started gathering the information from walls of restrooms across Lagos, Oyo and Ogun states.

“After compiling those information, I now began to call the numbers I got and eventually I did the story. Initially it was titled ‘How Nigerians Cope with Poverty’, then later I changed it to ‘Coping the Hard and Dangerous Way’. It was that particular story that attracted the panel of the Nigerian Merit Award, and they thought they should give it the Etisalat prize of the Most Innovative Reporter of the Year.”

At his office somewhere in Ikeja, Ogundare is seen working on his Laptop. His fingers move with sharp reflexes across the keyboard. His back is hunched. The computer keeps voicing out the commands entered into it. He is writing, and at the same time editing stories for compilation.

Despite without his sight, Ogundare does not see anything difficult in his job. He says: “Editing is not a difficult job if you know what you are in for in the first place. When you came in, you saw me writing and editing at the same time. The truth is that I have been a journalist for over a decade. I didn’t start as a blind reporter. I started as a sighted reporter. Between the time I started and the time I lost my sight, I had been able to foreground myself in my profession so well that even when I lost my sight, it was not a difficult thing for me to still carry on as a writer, a journalist, and above all, as an editor.

“What it only requires of me is that I use a laptop (just like every other person) but my own talks to me. You can hear it. When I am writing or editing, my Laptop is there to guide me. I go out if I need to cross-check facts or investigate anything. If it would require that I see that thing, I would take a reporter along with me, so that he or she can be my eyes. The reporter describes to me what he or she sees. The other aspect which deals with delivering the narrative falls on me. And after writing, I edit. The rule of concord is what any sophomore communication student should know, talk less of someone who has worked in the field for ten years as a reporter and editor. So, it is not in any way difficult.

However he says one challenge he has on the job is that people sometimes want to take advantage of him because he cannot see. “The challenge is the normal challenge that any physically challenged person in any part of the world would face: Abuse. People want to take advantage of you. That is what an average disabled person face. People want to abuse you, they want to disrespect you and say all manner of things because they feel that you should not exist at all, especially of you are competing with them. They feel threatened. How can a blind person be editing?

“People don’t appreciate that your physical challenges does not necessarily have to bring you down, and that you can still do wonderfully well in whatever career you choose. Apart from that, people rarely want to believe you. When you tell them that I can do this or that job, they always have second thoughts about your capability to deliver.”

Ogundare believes that the physically handicapped have been neglected by the government. He wants the Disabled Welfare Bill to be passed. He remarks: “Remember when the president was going to run for election in 2011, the women folks in Nigeria came up with the fact that they have been unequally represented in government. And at the end of the day, when President Goodluck Jonathan came into power, he was quick to appoint a sizeable number of women into his cabinet. I think that the first thing that any sensible government should do for the population of disabled persons in Nigeria is to pass the Disabled Welfare Bill pending before it, so that physically challenged persons in Nigeria would now have a document to demand for their rights, particularly rights of inclusion. They would be able to ask for economic security, political inclusion.

“If you look at statistics, physically challenged persons hardly vote in Nigeria because there is no concerted effort by the government to include them in the process. And this is what we keep talking about. The bill should be passed.”

Also, he talks about his own aspirations. “Personally, what I want, apart from knowing that there is a law that I can run to if my rights are breached, is a chance to teach. I have always liked teaching Mass Communication at a university or polytechnic. I like to teach budding journalists how to write, how to do what I am doing that have won me a lot of awards. So, my most immediate need is getting a scholarship or fellowship that would enable me do an academic masters and a PhD, so that if I decide journalism and teach budding journalists what I have learnt practically on the field.”

Still on the issue of his desire to further his education, Ogundare notes that lack of financial resources is the only stumbling block before him. He explains: “Coping with blindness is very expensive in terms of medicals and your own welfare. By the time you take care of the medicals, and a bit of your own welfare, you realise that you are left with little or nothing to want to do some other things that you would have loved to do, for example: applying for a masters degree in the university. I have an HND in Mass Communication, and the dichotomy in Nigeria is such that an HND student cannot do an academic masters.

“The only university that would allow you do an academic masters in Nigeria is the Pan-African University. And if you are going to go there, you are going to spend about 1.8 million naira. And that means doing a PhD would be much more expensive. That kind of fund is beyond me. I have also tried to apply at the University of Ibadan, but you would need about 350,000 naira to be able to cope with your tuition and materials. And don’t forget that journalism is not a lucrative profession. So, with the little that you earn, ad with all the gamut of demands before you, you find out that you are not able to certain things you would have liked to do. Even still, I have tried to do my masters three times, but had to jettison it because the fund is not just there.”

Ogundare’s blindness is as a result of Glaucoma. Glaucoma is a devastating disease condition of the eyes that inflicts the victims with irreversible blindness. In other words, when the victim loses his sight to glaucoma, he cannot regain it, medically. However, according to Ogundare, there a tree of hope is sprouting.

He says: “Recently, because I have been talking with doctors abroad, I learnt that there is hope for nerve regeneration. The reason why blindness as a result of glaucoma is irreversible is because it does irreversible damages to the retina glandular cells and that is the organ that is responsible for carrying visual information through the optic nerve to the brain. And because they are nerves, they cannot be regenerated. But now, there is hope of regeneration or actual replacement of the optic nerve. That means, for people like me, we can still see if one has the money to go for the treatment. There is hope. And also, every positive person should not overlook the fact that there could be a divine healing for him or her.”

Notwithstanding his blindness, Ogundare is a very busy man. “At the moment I live alone. Usually, I sleep around 1am every day, and I wake up by 6am. By then, I would begin with combing through all manner of news sites to get informed and update myself about the events of the day, locally and internationally. I would comb through Nigerian and foreign radio stations, then I go online and read stories. I normally do that for two hours after my prayer, before I have my bath and come back again to monitor events on radio.

“Don’t forget I am blind, so I don’t watch the television, it watches me. After then I come to the office and meet with my reporters. We discuss story ideas and progress of ongoing stories. We talk, argue, and agree on particular perspectives. I monitor them, don’t forget I am the editor of the magazine. If they are not in the office, I have to keep tabs on wherever they are. I would to that till about 8pm, pack my machine, leave for home, find something to eat and rest before I begin my work. Usually, I take a lot of work home because I have to constantly update them. Then I sleep by 1am again,” he enthuses.

For someone who has had little time to adjust to blindness, Ogundare’s attitude towards life is phenomenal. He laughs when people ask him how he maintains such high spirits. “Except if one is going to commit suicide or do something unthinkable to himself, your attitudinal disposition towards your condition must be positive. It is by so doing that you encourage yourself,” He says.

“Don’t forget that I mentioned that people around you discourage you. People desert you immediately they know your condition. The first thing that I experienced when I lost my sight was that people that thought I was useless; that I cannot be of any use again. As a result, some of my friends and people deserted me. The only thing that can really bolster my confidence is to remain positive and hopeful that despite my condition, I can do anything and everything through Christ who strengthens me.”

Written by Solomon Elusoji, on the Features Desk of ThisDay Newspaper, Nigeria


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