“I wasn’t born blind. I was born and brought up like a normal young girl but life has way of throwing things at you. In life, things are not always rosy; we are born to face challenges, so I have taken my sight issue as part of my challenge which has not made me deformed but rather made me stronger. That’s just the little I just have to say about myself.” Life indeed has not really been rosy for Grace Atikpa, although her teenage years were quite promising until she clocked 12. She was doing well with her Secondary School education. Atikpa was filled with so much hope and planning for a great career. At 12 she noticed she was having trouble with her sight. Her mother took her to the eye doctor thinking she might need glasses. But far from it, this was the beginning of a 2 year excruciating and winding journey of wrong diagnosis, erroneous treatment and the devastating loss of her eyesight.
At 14, Atikpa was faced with an overwhelming challenge of life without vision. Several years later she was in more trouble as death loomed. Her mother took ill, her worst fears were confirmed. She received the terrifying words, “Your Mother has passed on.” Her life came to a screeching halt. She couldn’t imagine how she was going to live the rest of her life. But another mummy came her way. Her Mother’s friend and professional colleague, Dr. Grace Achum helped navigate her blindness with confidence and saw her through school. Today, Atikpa has acquired the requisite qualification in her maternal and surrogate mothers’ field – journalism. But life isn’t still rosy. Enjoy excerpts of the interview NETA NWOSU had with Grace Atikpa.
Please tell me about yourself?
My name is Grace Atikpa. I’m from Cross River state, although, I was born and brought up here in Lagos state. I’m from a family of five. My mum is late, but God has a way of consoling people that are broken hearted and at the lowest point of their lives. He consoled me by giving me another mum. I’ve been blessed with two mums in my life. She’s in the person of Dr. Grace Achum. She is someone that has always been there for my family right from the time that my mum was alive and young, and when I was still a baby. She has always been in the picture, but she came into the picture fully when my mum’s family turned their backs against my younger brother and I. I wasn’t born blind. I was born and brought up like a normal young girl but life has way of throwing things but l won’t like to start throwing blames at anybody right now. In life, things are not just always rosy; we are born to face challenges, so I have taken my sight issue as part of my challenge which has not made me deformed but rather made me stronger. That’s just the little I just have to say about myself.
For how long has this happened?
Hmmm, let’s say it’s over ten years now
You just woke up one morning and you didn’t see anymore?
I was misdiagnosed; twice. It was still my mum, Dr. Grace Achum, it was still by her help that we even found out the real thing that was wrong with me. The first time I went to the hospital I was told that it’s short sightedness. I was still very young then, I can’t remember the name of the hospital. Then, the second time, they said it was cataract. So I was actually going for the wrong treatment for the wrong thing which kind of complicated the whole problem. But along the line, Dr. Achum became worried at why my situation was getting worse despite the treatment. So she decided to take me to a specialist, it was then I was diagnosed with glaucoma.
Can you tell us your educational qualification and likely jobs?
I am a HND holder, I graduated with a distinction, I graduated from Nigeria Institute of Journalism, Ogba, Lagos. I was a print journalism student. I’m in print journalism, I think I can major anywhere. I served with National Agency for Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP), in their public enlightenment unit. I can work as an administrator because I did a three-month training programme on human resources and administration. I’m computer literate, but somewhere along the line maybe because of my challenges in life I fell in love with humanitarian services. But there is no where I will see myself that I don’t think I can function.
How do you relax? Do you like to have fun?
She Laughs…..I love having fun that sometimes my friends doubt if I’m actually visually impaired. While at school, some of my friends confronted me, “Grace, are you sure you are actually blind, Grace, you’re deceiving us.” I don’t allow my situation to weigh me down. I like to do what other people like to do. I love reading, singing, mostly music. Music has a way of calming my nerves down.
Grace you are a beautiful girl. Before you got married, what was the biggest challenge you faced with the opposite sex?
Hmmm….The experience…. I was been criticized by my ex’s mum who always said it’s over her dead body that I will ever settle down with her son. Even when the son was like mum Grace is not a liability on me, but she kept seeing me as a liability. And she will go on and on “ Over my dead body, number one, you are a Christian; number two you‘re omo Ibo.” Being a Yoruba woman, she saw where I am coming from, my impaired vision, and everything, as drawbacks, she was just against the whole relationship. Basically, I will say it’s from the area of my Ex’s mum.
How and when did you meet your husband? Please share your experience so far?
He knew me years before I even got to know him. I never knew someone had been admiring me all these years. When I was in ND one, he knew me but I didn’t know him. God has a way of doing things, along the line, during my N.Y.S.C, God brought us together, we started as friends. It wasn’t up to a year of dating he was like you know what, Grace you are just everything that I want. That’s just it.
Now, you have a baby, how has it been?
Well, we just have to thank God, we thank God for everything, that’s just what I will say. He’s generally a calm person.
Have you ever felt bad with God? Have you ever asked God, why did You do this to me?
Honestly speaking, yes, at certain times in my life. Yes, there are times I will just break down and say God, why me? Why does it have to be me? And sometimes, Nigerians cannot even help matters; they will just say things that will break your spirit down. Sometimes, I hear people exclaim loudly, “Ha! Why this beautiful girl?” I try to always want to remove myself from that position, always wanting to fight God, like God, I’m not going to worship you anymore because come to think of it God had been faithful to me, He has always been there for me, I don’t need Him to come down from heaven to say, “Grace I’M here,” He has always shown me His love from the distance. I know He’s there for me. Yes, there are times when I get down cast and ask “ God, why does it have to me? Why does it have to me that will have to lose my Mum? But then, he gave me someone that is even greater that my Mum to comfort me. At a stage I have had to ask, “God, why does it have to be me that is blind, but look at me I came out with a distinction when I was the only blind student among my peers, yes, there times as a human it’s okay to feel bad but at the same time you should just know that God truly exists, you call yourself to order and tell yourself that He’s actually there watching over me and He will make a way for me.
I want you to describe your relationship with God
I love God and aside the fact that I’m a Catholic, I’m a very strong Christian. I don’t joke with my prayer life and whatever I do, I always put God first. So in all I love God. Without him I won’t be alive today, I won’t be where I’m today, He is my all and all.
How do you go about shopping? How do you buy things without people ripping you off?
It is not actually easy with our Nigerian system. Nigeria still is very far behind in the area of accepting people with disabilities. Our roads are not suitable for the disabled, the market system here is not also suitable, so you still have to rely on people helping you around. In the Western world things are very easy for them but over here, it’s a different ball game.
Does being visually impaired make you feel lonely?
Initially, after my mum died, I thought it was the end of the world for me, I thought that there is nothing in this world left for me. I felt like it’s just the end of the race. But Dr. Grace Achum said to me, “Grace, you can still be what you want to be”, I asked “Like how? And she responded, “Go for craft.” Right from time, I have never seen myself as a craftsperson, I have always been an education lover, I have always wanted to have the best education, and I always tell myself that I really want to be educated, I really want to be sound, I really want to impact on people. And the only way I can see this happen is by been educated. So I just thank God for everything. I will say it’s a second chance in life because initially I thought it was the end of the road and there is nothing left in this world for me. That period I almost lost my life. But Dr. Achum encouraged me the more, she said “let’s just give it a trial.” She instantly supported me, she kept pushing, even when I didn’t have any support from my family, she kept pushing me, she saw what I never saw in myself. She’s not a family member but has been more than a family to me. She’s my bedrock. I thank God, that’s the reason why I can always stand anywhere, speak anywhere and say yes, this is who I am. She’s is everything I have today. She made me who I am outside God. In print journalism, you have to use systems.
You can’t separate technology from print journalism like in other professions. Do you use computer? Do you use phone? How do you use these devices?
Yes, I have my laptop, I have my phone which are specially designed with specific softwares, the one on my laptop is called JAWS (Jobs Access With Speech), I use an iPhone with VoiceOver feature. All this technologies are there to aid disabilities’ we have advanced in technology. Been blind is not even a hindrance for you to be where you want to be, get what you want and achieve your dreams. I interacted with all my lecturers, there was no special preference, my examination was the same thing, I was the only blind student during my time, there was no special preference, I did the same number of questions, the same questions, the only thing that was different is that sometimes they will give me just an hour extra but because I’m a very fast typer, most times, I end up finishing even before those who write with their pens. So it’s just determination.
Do you have any regret or resentment or is there anything about your life that you don’t particularly like?
There’s nothing about my life I don’t like right now, there’s nothing I don’t like about myself right now, because the first thing that got me to where I am today, was to first of all accept who I am. I reconciled myself with what has happened. I said to myself, “Grace, I just have to move on, accept yourself, just be yourself, give yourself a self love.” Without that self love I wouldn’t have been able to be where I am today, so I just have to love myself.
If you are to change two things about your life, what would you change?
I really want to still see with my eyes, which I’m still hoping and praying that God should make a way for me. There is nothing else I would want to change.
Do you cook? Do you have any challenges with cooking? What are your challenges?
I cook except it’s a new environment that I’m not familiar with. But if it’s where I’m familiar with, you won’t even know I have any challenge.
What are your plans for the future? What are your plans for your career?
It’s too bad that our Nigerian system is terrible, getting a job as a visually impaired is difficult. And sometimes, when you go for an interview, they will be so impressed, you will think you will immediately be called up. Even the ones that will offer you the job will want to work you out, use you as a means of earning more popularity for themselves and the pay is very small or they will prefer giving the job to someone else which is not very encouraging. I went to school; I expected that government would put in place structure for those with disabilities to bring them into the system after being educated. Despite the disabilities, you go to school, study so hard and still, you are jobless, it’s not just encouraging I still want to go back to school, I promised myself that I will read to the extent that someone will say “Grace it’s okay.” I need a job to support myself, support my family and support my dreams, which I’m not getting right now.
What are you hoping to get from this interview in The Catholic Herald Weekly? Do you have any expectation?
Yes, like every other person I do have my expectations. To be sincere, I’m a Catholic right from birth, I was baptized in the Church, I have done my confirmation in the Catholic Church, but I still haven’t gotten that support from a community I belong to. Like I would always say, if I have five (5) Dr. Grace Achums in this whole Lagos state, Lagos will be wonderful, how much more in the entire Nigeria. I expect a lot from the Catholic community I belong to. If there is any way they can reach out to help in getting me a job, or whichever way, it will really go a long way in supporting someone like me or people like me that are in the system as well encourage us to just continue being the Christians that we are, it would really go a long way.
Do you see yourself as an inspiration to others?
Maybe because I don’t like to be taking myself too high, but yes people see me as, I would not say I see myself, they see me as an inspiration to them. I don’t like taking myself high but all my life I have always want people around me to be like Grace; to say Grace is actually an inspiration to me, but I don’t like putting myself high