Nseobong Okon-Ekong examines the life of one of Nigeria’s most popular physically challenged creative artistes, Yinka Ayefele, who is exposed to perpetual pain from a spinal cord injury, but has converted his trauma to a source of inspiration for countless fans and himself

There are many sides to living.
YinkaAyelefe, the physically challenged musician has seen it all. Maybe he has not appreciated all sides to life. But he has gotten many flip sides.

A long time ago, he used to walk.
For 30, of his 50 years, he went everywhere his feet could take him. He could stand, walk, run, jump or do any of those things he needs to with the aid of his feet.

Those were mostly joy-filled years, when he hoped to accomplish many things as a voice-over artiste, broadcaster and budding musician.

In the last 20, of his 50 years, he has been confined to a wheelchair; rolling around in excruciating pain. The years have been difficult and he has to smile through the pain, with undying optimism that he will walk again, even if some people only see the apparent material comfort he has attained.

Following a car crash 20 years ago which damaged his spinal cord, Ayefele is the subject of an engaging spectacular legend wrapped in the bizarre and the outrageous. Most surprising of all is that a man in a wheelchair is a source of inspiration and motivation to countless numbers including over 140 employees who call him, ‘Chairman’. His growing enterprise includes hospitality business, a band, multi-media and a radio station, Fresh 105.9FM.

No one expected this inexplicable turn of fortunes; from a seemingly hopeless situation to increasing prosperity. Evidently, ‘glory to God’ is a perpetual phrase on his lips. The ghastly accident that almost took his life occurred on December 12, 1997 along Ibadan –Abeokuta Road. The tragic event has since become the defining moment that transformed his life. With the accident came a Midas touch. Everything he touches turns to gold.

There were 40 persons in different stages of trauma at the time he was admitted in the University College Hospital, Ibadan for treatment. He alone survived. The rest died. Looking back now, the accident impressed on him the importance of the spinal cord to human life, particularly, when he was told he might be confined to a wheel chair for life. At first, he thought it was a death sentence. The initial shock over, he resolved to live. And he is still alive!

The spinal cord is a long, thin, tubular bundle of nervous tissue and support cells that extends from the medulla oblongata in the brainstem to the lumbar region of the vertebral column. The brain and spinal cord together make up the central nervous system. According to UCH sources, a spinal cord injury is damage to the spinal cord that causes changes in its function, either temporary or permanent. These changes translate into loss of muscle function, sensation, or autonomic function in parts of the body served by the spinal cord. There are fewer than 100 cases per year in Nigeria. Treatment can help, but this condition can’t be cured. A traumatic spinal cord injury may happen because of a sudden blow or cut to the spine. Rehabilitation and assistive devices allow many people with spinal cord injuries to lead productive, independent lives. Treatments include drugs to reduce symptoms and surgery to stabilise the spine.

On the 20th anniversary of the life-transforming accident, Ayefele has set aside over N70 million to execute various charity interventions. The week-long activities traversing Oyo and Ekiti states climaxes today, December 17 with a thanksgiving service, launch of the 20th year remembrance album and public presentation of his first book, ‘You and Your Spine’. Other highlights of the goodwill gesture include the commissioning of a multi-million naira hall donated to his alma mater, Ipoti High School. One hundred women in that community will receive cash gifts. Ayefele and his team visited various orphanages, old people’s homes and hospitals, particularly, the University College Hospital, UCH in Ibadan to present buses, cash gifts and food items to the less privileged in the homes and patients in the hospital.

Though, he has become very wealthy, living a life of restriction on his wheelchair leaves him at the mercy of others. In a weird turn-around, Ayefele has converted his agony to a source of motivation for many powerful and inspirational albums which provides happiness and comfort to a lot of people. He is also a recipient of over 200 awards including Member of the Order of the Niger, MON, a recognition bestowed on him by former President GoodluckEbele Jonathan. He has recently been notified that a street is being named after him in the Federal Capital Territory.

Ayefele could have gone down the inglorious path of drug addiction to kill the pain that ravages his body constantly, but he choose to use his trauma to bring happiness to others. So it depresses him more when people suggest that he may after all be enjoying life in a wheelchair. “Can one prefer to be in pain? I am in terrible pain for 24 hours every day. I have five ribs broken and I still have that persistent pain. I live in pain every day. The alternative is to take pills. This might lead to addiction or damage to my kidney, liver or lungs, so I decided to live with pain. I cannot prefer to live in pain; it’s impossible.”

“God has a purpose for everything. Some of my friends say if they can achieve what I have; they don’t mind having an accident too. It’s only me that knows what I am passing through. All they see is YinkaAyefele on wheelchair making it. I didn’t pray to have accident before I make it. If I was not involved in that accident, maybe I would have worked towards traveling out of the country. Perhaps, I would play music or do something else that will make me prosperous. Medically, I am very fit. (He rolled his trousers up to show that his legs have not become smaller or unequal) I do everything that you can do (including sex) except that I cannot stand up. I am very agile. I don’t have any other health issue. If I did not tell you, nobody knows that I am still passing through serious pains. Whenever, I am in a gathering, I forget the pain and play along with them. Eventually, if I walk, they won’t add to the past 20 years that I have lost. I need to enjoy the one I have now. Whenever I am on stage trying to make people happy, I am always ready to give them what they want.”

It was the musician’s suggestion that the group of journalists interview him at his business headquarters called ‘Music House’ in the Challenge area of Ibadan. This building had evoked much emotion for Ayefele when the Oyo State government attempted to demolish it a few years ago. Meeting him in Ibadan was a last minute change. The interview was originally scheduled to hold in Lagos, but travelling back-to-back in the week of the anniversary took a toll on him.

Throughout the conversation, Ayefele shared his appreciation to God and his team who work very hard. The journalists also discussed the direction of his music, including its acceptance by a broad spectrum of society. The journalists were with him in his office. He was behind a massive brown table. His comfortable office chair was empty because he was on his motorized wheelchair. He shook hands with the visitors; one after the other. If he was apprehensive, he did not show it. Wearing a permanent smile, he scrutinized the faces before him. He looked quite good for a 50 year-old. The formality was not long. His manager extended the latitude of the interaction. The journalists were free to ask any question, he said.

The journalists hesitated for a while then they all wanted to speak at the same time. “I am most grateful for life,” he said. “I won’t be able to achieve what I have today without life.” It’s not my doing. It is God. I have a lot of friends doing what I am also doing but cannot be put side-by-side me.”

We had been talking for some time when he demonstrated how he exercises himself by holding the arm of his chair and lifting his buttocks up like one doing a sit-up. He has become used to that motion, from trying to jump out of the wheelchair. “I want to jump out of the wheelchair especially whenever I am on stage. I wish I could stand up. I want to show a lot of people that I am still very fit and whenever I see people dancing to my music, I feel like joining them. I believe in miracles. I have been waiting for it and I know it will come unexpectedly.” Ayefele has done a few awkward things in the cause of looking for a miracle. He readily recalls one. “I went to the Synagogue Church for All Nations in those days when I was looking for a miracle. A lot of people advised me to go to the church and I took the pain to go. Unfortunately, Pastor T. B Joshua could not see me on the first, second and third day. On the third day, he sent someone to give me Five Thousand Naira for transport. That was about 17years ago. I decided not to go there again. I believe that God won’t share his miracle and glory with anybody. Many men of God have told me that God said he would do it at His own time and no man will take the glory. If I had stood up at any of the churches, a lot of people would have trooped down to such church.”

He frowned at the idea that he may have received patronage only from people who want to show some compassion. “When I released ‘Bitter Experience’, a lot of people said it was patronised because of my condition, then I came out with the second album. It was accepted. I came out with the third album and over five others, were those records bought based on sympathy, as well? No. It only takes the favour of God. There is nothing special about me. There are lots of musicians across all genre and they are making it yet they are not on wheelchair; you can see that they are also favored. The irony of life is that there are some people who don’t like the Ayefele brand.”

Ayefele agrees that he is a pathfinder. “Tungba is my own kind of music and the Tungba is the sound of my talking drum. It is my own way of preaching the gospel and if you like believe it or not. I am the only Nigerian gospel artiste with lots of Muslim fans.”

His pride as a musician stems from the broader achievement that he has been able to perpetrate himself. He explained that his style of music had been adopted by many. “I feel so happy because it’s a legacy. I am not bragging but the truth is that I changed the face of gospel music. Before me, we only had Mama Bola Are and FunmiAragbaye; they didn’t play danceable music. Also if you listen to Juju music, they play like YinkaAyefele’sTungba, My Muslim brother Ere Asalatu plays like me. That phrase ‘Like Ayefele’ is my pride.”

Whatever attitude Ayefele has injected into music, he insists that he has done the same in other areas of endeavor. “I was a guitarist and played with the likes of ToyeAjagun. We started Wale Thompson’s band together. I was a tenor-guitarist. Those are the things I did before joining FRCN. When I joined FRCN, I had the opportunity to produce musical jingles. I changed the face of Nigerian jingles. Before that, we used any artiste’s song in the beginning, then you read your script and at the tail end, you use the same music to bridge your jingle. As time went on, I started producing songs for jingles. I produced two songs before I had the accident. My first album turned me into a musician because I still wanted to remain in the broadcasting world. When I saw the acceptance of the albums ‘Bitter Experience’ and ‘Sweet Experience’, it encouraged me to perform more music.”

His office complex which accommodates a recording studio, a multi-purpose hall and a radio station is designed to create a barrier-free environment to allow Ayefele move around in his wheelchair. Before the journalists left, he invited them to witness the presentation of official cars to two deserving staff.