When violence erupts and people get maimed, it increases the number of people living with disabilities. Emmanuel Ugwu was at a conference on disability and rehabilitation held at the Hopeville Rehabilitation Centre Uturu and captured the message of peace sent by the inmates

Immediately the Nigerian Civil War, commonly known as the Biafran War ended in 1970, a rehabilitation centre was set up to repair the damage done to human lives and limbs. Located in Uturu in Isuikwuato Local Government of Abia State, the Hopeville Rehabilitation Centre has remained a sore reminder of the sad lessons of Nigeria’s brutal civil war.

The post-war inmates of the centre whose disabilities were caused by the civil war had all been trained and rehabilitated. The present inmates of the centre are people living with disabilities (PWDs) of various forms. Though these PWDs are by no means victims of war they sure know the devastating effects of war and violence hence they could not understand why war and violence should be part of human existence.

“I don’t know why people fight in this world when they have little time in this world…vanity upon vanity,” the inmates of the centre sang in a welcome song they rendered during the Disability and Rehabilitation Conference on October 24, 2017. It was instructive. “The message of peace can only come out of a centre like this,” said Uche Ogidi-Okonkwo, the coordinator of Yet Network Resources, the organisers of the conference with the theme: ‘Overcoming Disability and its Challenges’. He said that apart from infusing self confidence on the PWDs the choice of Hopeville, fondly called the Home of Hope, to host the conference was also a means to send out the message of peace.

The pioneer inmates of the rehabilitation centre emerged from the Nigerian Civil War without one or more limbs. They were from the Biafra side and in dire need of care and help to repair their devastated lives. According to the director of the centre, Rev. Br. Evans Okpalanachedo, “Hopeville is a brain child of the Marist Brothers of the Schools, province of Nigeria, through the ingenuity and empathy of late Rev. Br. Francis McGovern, an Irish missionary in the year 1970.” He said that the centre commenced with the training of the inmates in various fields of trade/handcraft such as shoemaking, bag making, cabinet making, tailoring, radio-television mechanics, and automobile mechanics, among others. “The centre renders absolutely free training and services to all her inmates,” he said.

The historical account of how the Home of Hope came to be was corroborated by the traditional ruler of Umuanyi Autonomous Community, Eze Uwadiegwu Ogbonnaya, who lauded the Marist missionaries for their humanitarian activities during and after Nigerian Civil War. “People came to the centre with lost limbs,” he recalled, adding that the establishment of the rehabilitation centre brought huge relief and hope to the people with disabilities (PWDs). The royal father noted that living with disability is never a choice for those affected hence the PWDs should not be blamed for their conditions.

Ogbonnaya, who is a veteran journalist and fellow of Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE), called on both federal and state governments to make budgetary provisions for the rehabilitation of PWDs. He argued that PWDs need special care hence they should not be allowed to depend on charity before they could realise their potentials. Nonetheless the monarch urged the inmates of Hopeville and indeed all PWDs not to allow their conditions to weigh them down. “You can be whatever you want to be in life. The sky is your limit,” he said.

The organiser of the conference, Ogidi-Okonkwo lamented the neglect of PWDs in Nigeria as those in policy making positions hardly take them into consideration when planning and constructing social infrastructure. He said that PWDs should not be allowed to struggle with able-bodied people for access to public transport, adding that they should also be provided with special facilities at public buildings.

“They are special people; they deserve the best and we should give them the best,” he said. But the keynote speaker at the event, Professor C.C. Ekennia said that irrespective of the way the society regards and treat those with disability what matters most was the personal attitude of PWDs to their condition.

“Your attitude and the environment created by the society can make you achieve what a full bodied person can achieve,” he told the PWDs, adding that attitude is a major determinant of how far a PWD can cope with his/her condition.

Ekennia, who is a professor of psychology at the Abia State University Uturu (ABSU) explained that disability “is in everybody’s ecology either temporarily or permanently” and could be experienced at one point in a person’s life. But according to him, a condition of disability really becomes a disability when the affected person “looks at it as a challenge.”

The university don, who some years back experienced disability after a road accident, therefore advised the PWDs against indulging in self pity and hopelessness. “Disability doesn’t mean that God doesn’t love you. The worst could have happened,” he said, adding that PWDs should always hold their heads high as they have the same intellect as able-bodied people to accomplish great things.

“Don’t allow your impairment to give you inferiority complex. You should emphasise your ability and make it to be your pride. You should build your confidence around the area you have comparative advantage,” Ekennia advised.

He expressed regret that Nigeria is a country where people in government “only think about 10 per cent for the people and 90 per cent for themselves thereby making it difficult for PWDs to be reckoned with in the scheme of things. Recalling the events of the civil war, the Psychology professor noted that a lot of Biafran amputees “would have committed suicide (but) this centre gave hope to a lot of Biafran amputees.”

According to him, “the first clutches we saw after the war came from Hopeville. Ekennia said that if government was sincere about the plight of PWDs it should give scholarship to the inmates of Hopeville and others in similar situations. He also advised that government should initiate and implement policies that will make it compulsory for public buildings to have special facilities for PWDs.

At the conference were PWDs, who have risen above their physical limitations to achieve their dreams. Their testimonies serve as inspiration and encouragement for the Hopeville inmates. For instance, Hon. Chinedu Obialor the Senior Special Assistance to Abia State governor on disability matters told his fellow PWDs that he got his political appointment not out of pity but hard work. He said that the administration of Okezie Ikpeazu has changed the perception of PWDs in Abia by appointing three of them into his cabinet.

“Disability is no excuse for laziness. We can overcome through hard work,” he said, adding, “If you are not announced, you can announce yourself through hard work.”

He told the inmates of Hopeville that they should be serious with their training and acquire the necessary skills and education to compete in the local and global stage. “The world is interested in people with relevant skills,” he said. “If you can solve problems with your skills and ideas they will look for you whenever you are.”

On his own part, a former inmate of Hopeville, Chief Innocent Mary Ojukwu said that he has risen above his disability to become a chartered banker and accountant. Ojukwu, who was among the ‘12 Apostles’ as the pioneer inmates are called, said that he had on March 16, 1970 “trekked on my knees from Acha in Isuikwuato to Uturu in search of clutches. It was in his desperate search for mobility aid having lost one of his legs during the civil war that he encountered the founder of Hopeville, McGovern, who took him in and added 11 other PWDs to start the journey of their rehabilitation. Ojukwu was trained to become an expert shoe maker and after he had completed his vocational programme in shoe making, he was rehabilitated at Okigwe where he became a popular shoe maker.

Along the line Ojukwu took another look at himself and discovered that he could do more despite his disability. “It occurred to me that I have all it takes to be educated,” he said while recounting his journey into academic pursuits. He registered with the Rapid Results College and studied through correspondence and in 1978 obtained GCE Ordinary Level certificate with credits. He also cleared his papers in Advanced Level GCE. With this qualification Ojukwu was in 1979 hired to teach Economics, Accounts and Commerce at the Juniorate in Uturu from where he later proceeded to ABSU and obtained his B.Sc and MBA. “What matters to me is attitude, not matter of the fact of my disability,” he said. He therefore advised his fellow PWDs: “Do not allow yourself to be impaired by your physical impairment.”

The kind of self confidence that both Obialor and Ojukwu exuded is what the inmates of Hopeville are trained to imbibe. Director of the centre, Okpalanachedo said that depending on the chosen area of vocation, it takes a year or two to train the inmates and mould them to believe in their capabilities. He said that the centre has for decades been making huge impact “in meeting the needs of thousands of physically challenged people all over Nigeria since the civil war ended.”

According to him, “available records prove the fact that Marist Rehabilitation Centre (Hopeville) Uturu has trained for the states and federal governments over 50,000 inmates since inception and made them economically independent people of their own.” He said that the feat was achieved without financial inputs from either states or federal governments.

Okpalanachedo said that presently the centre has gone beyond merely training the inmates in vocational skills as the inmates are now sponsored and encouraged to engage in academic pursuits. “It may interest you to know that today this centre is championing seriously, the education of these physically challenged people from primary, secondary and university levels.” He emphasised that the centre has been striving to meet the vocational, medical and academic needs of the inmates “without any help from any quarters except few philanthropists who made some donation to the Home.” He said that with prudent management of resources and dedication of staff “many of our beneficiaries have excelled in their various fields.”

To lessen the financial burden of caring for the inmates, Okpalanachedo solicited for support from government, philanthropists and corporate organisations “to enable us to continue to meet the needs of our ever growing inmates.” He specifically stated that the charity centre needed financial assistance and it would be highly appreciative if government could extend fund allocation to Hopeville Rehabilitation Centre to give the inmates a sense of belonging as Nigerian citizens with special needs.

He also said that the centre needs a bus to ease the movement of inmates who usually crawl or wheel to the major road to catch public bus to go for medical treatment or excursion. “The awkward and embarrassing looks could only be imagined than observed, hence the need for befitting mobility for the centre,” the director said. In addition, he requested for a recreation hall to be built at the centre because even though the centre provides good education to the inmates there is no befitting facility to accommodate available library books as well as computer systems meant for their education and training.

Though the Hopeville Rehabilitation Centre Uturu came into existence in the aftermath of the civil war it has continued to serve as a reminder of the evils of violence. This was aptly captured by the director in his passionate appeal to Nigerians to always work for sustainable peace and harmony in the country. He said: “It is my prayer that we live peacefully and united as one family devoid of violence and war, acts capable of increasing disability and death rates and making life miserable for our teeming populace, especially the youths.”