Elijah Akinyemi retired as a permanent secretary in the Ogun State Ministry of Education despite being visually impaired. The father of five from the Ifo Local Government Area of the state tells ALEXANDER OKERE how he reached the pinnacle of his career in the civil service against all odds
Were you born blind?
I was not born blind but lost my sight when I was two years old due to measles. At that time, it affected many other children and people, but I was fortunate to have the blessing of blindness. Many died from measles in the neighbourhood. My parents knew it was measles but with the traditional values of those days, it was believed that it could be fixed. So, a lot of money was spent and it almost made them (my parents) bankrupt. I am even assuming that that might have been one of the causes of the divorce of my parents when I was about six years old – when people became hopeless, wondering how a blind person would function and be up to standards with their siblings. These are just internal psychological things that might have happened; that is why I said it might be the probable cause.
How did losing your sight at that age affect you socially?
I see blindness as a form of blessing because it came at a time when I had not been used to the sense of sight. So, I functioned like a child without sight and the community was proactive with me, made sure things were out of the way and accepted me. But the wariness of how I would function and have a livelihood was there. That brought so much despair to people in the community until a traditional healer, Gbangbayawu, who was moving from one village to the other circumcising boys and placing tattoos on children came and gave the good news that there was a school for the blind that I could attend but people did not believe him because they wondered how a blind person could read, more so, my parents could neither read not write. He insisted that we should give it a trial and eventually, through the recommendation of the general hospital at Ikeja, I was admitted to the Pacelli School for Blind Children in Surulere, Lagos.
Can you describe your experience at the school?
Being sightless did not affect me when compared to a man who could see but suddenly lost his sight. What really brought the trauma was moving away from my village setting to the urban centre in Lagos; that took me some time to adjust to but eventually, I did. At Pacelli, we all were blind pupils and mine was no different. It was easy for me to read in Braille. It is the only format I have known; it is just like a child learning to read. It was a boarding facility and we spent most of our time at school. When I went home during the holidays, initially, I stayed with my dad and, later, stayed with my mother. My education there went smoothly. The feeling people in my neighbourhood had about me was very positive. In those days, a child who spoke English was highly regarded. I was given Braille books to read and when I did before the villagers, they thought it was magic. So, they started believing in me; I was allowed to attend community meetings. Even when villagers were harassed by security agents, I came out to defend my people, so they felt they had someone to help move the community forward.
Did your parents reconcile their differences?
No, they never did but that is the business of adults.
What did you do when you completed your education at Pacelli?
From Pacelli, I went to Igbobi College (Yaba, Lagos). At Pacelli, we did what every other child would do; we did gardening, took care of pets, and participated in competitions. I got to know about Igbobi College through the radio broadcast of football commentaries in those days, so I was interested in the school. I thought I would like to attend a school that plays good football and eventually, I got into Igbobi College in 1972 and we were only two blind pupils admitted for the first time. My stay at Igbobi was very interesting. Pacelli is for only blind children but at Igbobi College, there were children from different facets of life; some were accommodating and some were not but we were all children. Some of the pupils were helpful by dictating to us (the blind). The teachers were also accommodating, despite not having a background in special education.
Did you have adventurous moments there?
Everywhere I grew up was adventurous. At Pacelli School for the Blind, we used to go about looking for palm kernels, climbing trees, and mimicking things. At Igbobi College, I played football with the rest of the pupils, and sooner than they even thought, they forgot that I was a blind pupil. Everything that happens early in life is a blessing because you don’t have to pity yourself and you cannot compare yourself with the past. All through, I have lived without sight and my independence has been built without sight, so I never had any fear.
How did your interest in education as a profession begin?
After Igbobi College, I decided that I wanted to go further in my education but no longer in Nigeria because I knew the efforts we put into education. For instance, in those days, we had to Braille out our books through the help of fellow pupils and Pacelli School for the Blind was also handy. I knew it was difficult, so I decided to go to school abroad. One day, I was reading a magazine supplied by an American printing press and found Northeastern University. I had always dreamt of being a rich man. I saw the School of Business Administration (at Northeastern University) and fell in love with that aspect, so I said I would go to Northeastern University, study Business Administration and be a rich man.
Unfortunately, Northeastern did not work due to finances, so I had to abort it and work at the Vocational Training Centre for the Blind at Oshodi for three years, after which I was fortunate to have a scholarship from the Ogun State Government to study Special Education at Eastern Washington University, US.
How were you received there?
I was trained by Europeans (in Nigeria) and we knew so much about the United States. In those days, there was a Geography lesson about North America, so that built the frame for my stay in the United States. But the only cultural shock I might have had was discrimination for the first time in my life. At Pacelli and Igbobi College, I did not face discrimination. Eastern Washington University offered me admission but three days after getting my visa, they wrote back to revoke the admission because there was no provision for blind students. I threw their letter to a corner, went to the school and they accepted me and I performed to their astonishment. Of course, my performance proved them wrong. They probably did not know so much about Nigeria and did not want to disappoint a Nigerian with a disability. I did very well in the first semester. Another student that was discriminated against like me was asked to reapply as they were ready to admit him. So, they accepted their fault, not like Nigeria where we don’t accept our faults.
Did you join the civil service as soon as you returned to Nigeria?
I served at the Kwara State School for Handicapped Children in Ilorin for one year. As a government scholar, I was to serve Ogun State for five years but the problem now started. What made me go for special education was my experience at the vocational training centre at Oshodi and Pacelli. I saw that everybody wanted to speak on behalf of persons with disabilities. People thought we could not make decisions on our own, so I was bent on studying to be a voice for my people and to be a voice, I had to work in the ministry (of education). In those days, people with disabilities were expected to be telephone operators, Braillists or one of those mediocre jobs but I insisted that I was going to work in the ministry, though some people felt that a blind person had no position to fill in the cadre of the service and more so in the ministry. They recommended that I should teach in a primary school but with my master’s degree, I said I didn’t think we were on the same page and insisted that I would work in the ministry.
Did you succeed in getting a job in the ministry?
The stumbling block they used against me was that the governor needed to approve for me to work in the ministry and that took the next eight months. So, I had to go to the governor’s office; unfortunately, I did not meet the governor but I met his private secretary, Mr Adeyemi Olusola. He submitted my letter and within two weeks after the adventure, my appointment letter was brought to me at home and then I started working with the Ogun State Government.
How did those who wanted you to become a primary school teacher react when they heard about your appointment?
Well, they did not see my letter. After getting my clearance from the civil service commission, I just submitted my clearance to the ministry and they were surprised because they had urged me to be patient.
Rising through the ladder to become a permanent secretary is no mean feat. How did you do it?
Hard work is the first thing; I believe so much in hard work and have a very strong belief in myself that there is nothing that can come my way to limit my ability. The third thing is determination and the fourth is understanding the politics of one’s job. I studied this for the first four years.
Understanding the politics of one’s job? How?
My boss initially did not give me any responsibility but fortunately, he retired, but he did not hand over responsibilities to me. I had to walk up to the director to say that I was ready to take up the responsibilities. He (the director) had confidence in me, gave me the opportunity, my colleagues were ready to support me and the rest is history. I rose through the ranks to the position of director and eventually became a permanent secretary.
However, I should point out that the situation in Nigeria is still the same. Unlike other colleagues of mine who were moved from one department to another to gain experience, I was not. I was only placed in the special education department, which I was happy about, at least, to be a voice for my people, to give them recognition and employment. But I was afraid that eventually I may be discriminated against when I rose to the position of director. I had to protest my not being given an opportunity like others but I was told that I was in the best position to help my people, which I agreed with. But, at least, I made my feelings known. So, I did not allow adversaries to overwhelm me.
When I became a director, I was the only director that was not given a department because special education at that time was under another department. I protested again and through my efforts, a special education department was established in the ministry and I became the pioneer director. I thank God that where people thought I could not reach, I even went further.
Was your appointment as permanent secretary popular?
Ah! If you are talking about being a PS, I think everybody wanted me to become a PS. It is ironic. My ability had already been proven beyond doubt moving through the ranks. But moving through the ranks was a problem. I rose, just like other colleagues, to the rank of deputy director and a deputy director ought to be assigned to a department but I was not, but then people felt that documents might be secure under my protection. My colleagues saw me as a rung of the ladder. Unfortunately, in 2015, there was a sudden imbroglio in the Ministry of Education where some directors were let go and without even advocating, I became the most senior director handling the responsibility of the ministry without a commissioner and a permanent secretary at that time. That really mesmerised everybody and I think that was what paved the way for me to become a permanent secretary without resistance.
Are there other persons living with disabilities that you know who rose to the position of permanent secretaries either in the federal or state civil service?
Not in the Ogun State Civil Service but I am aware of Dr David Ofomata in Anambra State; he also rose to that position I think in 2017.
Yes, of course. I have five children. A person with a disability has to go through several hurdles in life. My five children came from three different women.
Do you have three wives?
I had a problem with the interference of my mother-in-law in my first marriage which I could not stomach because all through, I have always believed in my independence and I do not want people to violate my independence.
How did she interfere?
She wanted to control her (daughter’s) activities in the home from outside. I got a job for my wife but she (my mother-in-law) pretended that she wanted to help her get another job in Lagos. To me, that would break up the marriage. So, rather than succumb to evil, she (my wife) left home but I made sure I did not reconcile. I married another woman and unfortunately, a similar problem occurred but this time, it had nothing to do with me. It was a mother-and-daughter (issue). I don’t know what might have created the conflict between them but eventually, it entered the marriage and we had to part ways. The third woman I married is still with me. We have been married for 21 years. She is a special educator trained to understand people with special needs; maybe that is why she understands my psychology. Her parents are also accommodating. Everybody has a disability; if one cannot control their household, that is a disability for me. My children were born into my home knowing that I am blind and they are proud of their father. I live up to my obligations. One of them currently works with the Ogun State Government and another just completed his national service. The others are still in institutions of learning.
How did you cope with the pain that comes with separation from one’s spouse, having experienced that also with your parents?
There is nothing that can be more painful in life than losing one’s limbs or sense organs. The moment I lost my sight as a child, it built independence in me. I don’t believe in biting my fingers where there are problems; I even don’t like problems, all I like is a solution. Before something breaks up, there will be warning signs and with the warning signs, one needs to plan so that when it happens, one is least affected. When the first marriage broke up, I took control of my child. I did not want to have my child outside my home, considering my disability. So, the child lived with me from the age of two and now, is an adult. Similarly, I took control of the two children from the second marriage and trained them single-handedly. So, I will not say I had any trauma. People with disabilities should not see themselves as objects of pity. We are movers of society and not objects of pity.
You said earlier that you were fortunate to be blind at two…
Yes, my blindness is a blessing to me. I am from a very humble beginning. My parents could not afford all I have got through blindness. I got a good education, travelled to the United States, worked in the Ministry of Education, and rose to the position of permanent secretary. What more does one want God to do for them? In retrospect, I see blindness as a gift and a blessing.
Do you think you would have reached the pinnacle of your career if you were not blind?
Never! I would probably be a farmer or even be dead by now, I might have been a land grabber.
Why land grabbing? Was it rampant at the time you were growing up?
I was just saying that life would not have been as good as it is. Most of the people in my generation would have taken to land grabbing, farming, or something. I was just trying to make a reference.
Did you retire by age or years of service?
I retired as a result of age. I retired at the age of 60 and I am 64 now.
What have you been doing since you retired?
The first few months were not easy. I was used to going to work in the morning and having a good time with my colleagues. All that disappeared. I just found that I was a bit under the weather but then I planned to travel out of Nigeria just to relax and I did. After travelling, I became well and kept myself busy with exercises, my computer and matters about the elderly and persons with disabilities. I also have an autobiography, titled, ‘Vision beyond sight’, to inspire people with disabilities and parents of people with disabilities.
Are your parents alive?
My mother is alive but my father died in 2013.
How did she react when you became a permanent secretary?
Even before I rose to that position, she had faith that I was more like their messiah to come. They felt that the blindness came to make my life better. Both of them believed in me.
Interview Credit: Punch