Mr. David Anyaele is the Executive Director of the Centre for Citizens with Disabilities. A known advocate for persons in this category, he told ERIC DUMO how losing his upper limbs in Sierra Leone changed his life
You lost your upper limbs during the civil war in Sierra Leone; did you ever think you were going to make it this far in life after that tragic incident?
Yes, I had no doubt. I told my mother who was crying over my situation while I was in the hospital that she should not worry that I would recover well if I had the needed support.
Prior to that incident, I was involved in a business I had initiated. Everything was going on smoothly for me. But when I left the hospital and went to the government for them to get artificial limbs, I was told that it would cost N5m. This was in 1999. That devastated me a lot.
I approached the then governor of Abia State, Orji Uzor Kalu, for help but got none. A lot of people saw me as a liability, someone that shouldn’t be in the midst of people because I had lost one of the most important parts of my body.
I dealt with a lot of stigma and discrimination and this made life very difficult for me. This made my ability to participate in socio-economic activities quite tough. I was in a situation where I was trying to get myself recognised by the society but the society didn’t want to recognise me because of my situation. I lost a lot of friends after my hands were cut off by rebels in Sierra Leone. Only few people who used to know me then managed to relate with me after the incident. It was a traumatic period for me; I even had to move from Aba in Abia State back to Lagos to start life all over again.
How long were you in the hospital before you were discharged and what was the experience like for you?
I spent seven months in the hospital and in all that period, I never feared or troubled myself about anything. The only thing I was asking God was to heal me. I did not only need physical healing, I also needed spiritual healing. My understanding was that, if I was healed spiritually, I wouldn’t be lost; I would be able to interact with myself and my environment, I would be able to see things only positively. Graciously, God bestowed this upon me, all I could see were the positive aspects of life.
At what point did you get the prosthesis and how did it happen?
Getting my prosthesis was a struggle. Various government officials and even ministries denied me the needed assistance. However, it was individuals who heard about my plight that came to my aid. They were the ones that raised the money with which I acquired my first prosthesis in Germany in 2003.
Maintaining prosthesis can be expensive, how have you managed in this regard?
I spend an average of N1.2m annually on average to maintain my artificial hands. That is how expensive it is. I use it to write, drive and do all manner of office work. But they mustn’t come in contact with water. Whenever prosthesis comes in contact with water, it begins to malfunction. So, I always try to ensure that they do not come in contact with water.
How many do you have?
I have used two pairs now. The first one was damaged, so I am using the second one now. When the first one got damaged, it was quite difficult getting a new one but I thank God that I was supported by other individuals in my quest to get it.
Your fiancée at the time you lost your limbs was alleged to have left you while you were in the hospital, this must have added to your pains, wasn’t it?
It was not all that traumatic for me because before I left the hospital to return home, I had already started seeing the signs of what was to come. At that point, I made up my mind that I wasn’t going to be a liability to anyone.
The truth is that at that period, I hadn’t paid her bride price and even though her family knew me very well, I think she was not obligated in any way to stick with me. She had other proposals at the time and she had to think about her future. There was a guy proposing to her then; he had money and was well-to-do. So when she came to me to tell me about it, seeking my opinion, I told her to do whatever she wanted to do. I was going to bear my burden on my own. She said if I asked her not to go, she wouldn’t. But considering the level of commitment the other guy had made to her, I advised her to go.
One thing I told God before living Aba was for Him to make me independent and not to be a liability to anyone. He heard me. God taught me how to write even without an artificial hand. I was inspired to write, feed myself without any help, wear my clothes and bathe myself without any help. I never wanted to entrust my personal care, protection and privacy to anyone. God did it for me.
At what point did you meet your wife and how were you able to convince her to marry you?
I met my wife by miracle. Though I had other ladies that I knew and liked and thought I could marry at the time, my condition prevented that from happening. Those ladies felt my condition would put them in perpetual bondage. But at the end of the day, God provided me with my wife – a very good woman.
She didn’t know me when I had two hands; it was after the incident that we met in church. We became friends and things moved on from there.
After your attack by rebel fighters, leading to the loss of your upper limbs, have you visited Sierra Leone again?
No, I haven’t. I have only stopped over at their airport while on transit.
What business were you into while in that country?
I was selling building materials and spare parts. After importing them into that country, distributors came to buy from me while we also had special orders from some customers. Business was good back then.
You are a known advocate for the rights of people living with disabilities in Nigeria, has this sometimes earned you enemies in government circles?
Of course, it has. One thing is that when you are into advocacy, when the powers at the top do not agree with you, you are bound to sometimes run into serious confrontation with them.
Most people in government do not understand developmental issues; most of them are going into government with a narrow mind. So, when people bring in ideas, because of their lack of capability and capacity, they wouldn’t understand what has been sent to them. Such people, when you engage them on issues that have to do with amendment, they tend to struggle with it. I have run into different challenges with people in government at the federal and state levels as a result of these issues.
What inspired your interest in advocacy for people with disabilities?
It was the sad experience I went through after rebels chopped off my hands in Sierra Leone that sparked my interest in this. The struggle to overcome the stigma and isolation and also to live independently pushed me into this.
As an individual, what are some of the biggest barriers you have had to overcome to get to this point in your life?
It is stigma and isolation. The moment you are able to overcome these two barriers, you will do well with any kind of disability.
Are there things about your upbringing that prepared you for the role you now occupy?
The training I received from my parents has contributed immensely in making me the man I am today. At the tender age of eight, I was already a member of an advisory society where we were exposed to community support. By so doing, I was able to know how to contribute to the society and how to support people.
I grew up in Aba, and it is common for Aba men to be entrepreneurs. So, it has been instilled in me that I have to be successful. This upbringing has given me no reason to find an excuse not to succeed. There is no excuse for failure.
As a society, in what ways do you think we can improve the lives of PWDs?
Recognising that they are members of the society, recognising that they have skills and knowledge they can contribute to the growth and development of the society, recognising that they are first of all human beings, so they shouldn’t be discriminated against.
By so doing, there will be open avenues for them to participate and be included in the society.
There are people who sometimes take extreme measures like committing suicide as a result of their disabilities, what words do you have for such persons?
Disability is not the end of life. One of the things that helped me to survive my ordeal was the support of my family members. The family is the first port of call to accept and encourage an individual to live independently even before the community. The challenge we have is that when people are living in poverty, there is a struggle with putting up with people living with disabilities. But if the state intervenes, it will help the family to survive because disability could affect the cohesion of the family.
However, persons with disabilities must endeavour to acquire some education. This is very critical if they must compete favourably and survive in today’s world.
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