They took to music to ease the pains inflicted on them by circumstances they had no control over. They were able to earn a living and avoid begging. But many of these visually impaired artistes are fast losing their source of survival and consolation. With the biting economic situation in the land, some of the musical bands are disintegrating while some are forced to sell off their vehicles for food. While they long to continue with a life that kept them away from frustration and depression, they cannot help wondering if help would ever come their ways, INNOCENT DURU writes.
Realising that I was not like the other children while I was growing up, I resorted to playing my musical instrument each time I began to feel bad. No age mate of mine could boast the number of cassettes I had while growing up. My brothers and sisters bought me every good song they heard.”
That was Stanly Onyewuchi recalling how music saved him from the sorrowful path that life had put him from childhood.
Stanly had lost his sight at a tender age and with that began a life of solitude as his energy and joy of playing around with his peers fizzled away.
At regular intervals his mid flashed back to the days he jumped around with his peers unaided. And each time it dawned on him that he would not be able to do that again, tears welled up in his eyes and a feeling of sorrow overwhelmed him.
He, however, found joy in listening to music and playing musical instruments. His peers, who were in the habit of abandoning him to go playing around started coming close to listen to him and watch him play instruments with dexterity.
He went on to sharpen his skills when he was enrolled in a special school where singing was encouraged.
A move that started as a bid to check frustration later became a source of livelihood for the keyboardist when he joined JONAPWD Musical Band, a group of physical challenged artistes based in Abia State.
Like the defunct Oriental Brothers led by Sir Warrior, JONAPWD dazzled music lovers in Abia and neighbouring states in the South East.
“That is a kind of empowerment for our members. Some government officials at times invited us for events and we performed for them. At one of such events, a serving senator was told that we are blind but he did not believe it. That tells you how good the band was.
“It was only when it was time to eat and he saw that people were guiding us to take spoons and other things that he became convinced that we were blind,” he said.
Outstanding as the band was, the challenge of raising funds to acquire sound musical instruments and meet other financial obligations created a crack in their walls. Before they knew it, the crack widened and the band collapsed.
He said: “The band acquired instruments using a donation but those instruments were second hand. Now all of them have spoilt. We have made efforts to get replacements for them to no avail.
“This has resulted in many of our members joining other groups that are not mainly for people with disability. But they complain of being cheated each time they go out to play.
“They keep calling to plead that we restart the band but the problem is money. To have a complete instrument now,we will need more than a million naira.”
Although many members of the band were civil servants, Stanly said they could not save money to acquire musical instruments.
“The salary is not enough. Most of our members work in the local government and you know how they are being paid.
“Here in Abia State, some were owed more than six-month salaries and we are married with children.
“We have all faced our work hoping that one day we would get resources and bounce back.”
Before the group disintegrated, Stanly said, they made use of the bus that belonged to the physically challenged people in the state, which made their movement to events very easy.
“Along the line, they were involved in an auto crash while they were riding in the bus, and that compounded their woes.
“After the bus had spent about nine years at the mechanic workshop, the mechanic said the vehicle had crashed beyond repairs. We had to sell it off as scrap for a paltry sum of N130, 000.
“It was during the COVID-19 lockdown that we sold it and used the money to buy foodstuffs for members.”
Like JONAPWD band, which shone like a million stars in Abia, Pains and Pleasure Band, a musical group comprising visually impaired people, hit music lovers in Lagos and neighbouring states with lovely tunes.
A post on their Facebook page shows that members of the band attended the Pacelli School for the Blind and then formed groups in University of Lagos and University of Ibadan that constituted a band of blind men who performed exceptionally. Though plagued by such challenges as transportation, equipment, accommodation and logistics, they, over the years, carved a niche for themselves, performing in different places.
But like like other vulnerable people in the society, the band has had its fair share of discrimination. Adeniran Opeyemi, a member of the group, told of how friends and families of people who invited them for shows expressed disappointment on discovering their physical conditions.
He said: “Sometimes when some lovers of our music invite us to play at social functions, their friends and relations express disappointment seeing that we are visually impaired. They would ask the host, ‘you mean you could not get better artistes than blind people to play at your party?’ It hurts. But we have learnt to accept our fate.”
The challenge was apparently compounded by the lockdown announced by the govern ment last year to check the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Adeniran said: “Most of us (band members) are not having any income because when the lockdown started, we could not go for shows and we had nothing to take care of ourselves.
“A month before the lockdown was announced we had an accident with our vehicle. We spent all the money we had saved to fix the vehicle on feeding our members. We eventually sold the vehicle when there was no money to repair it.”
Pirates steal visually impaired group’s work, plunge leader into depression
The height of man’s depravity came to the fore when our correspondent met with Upright Wonder, a visually impaired gospel singer who also runs a foundation for vulnerable people.
After releasing her first album, which was an instant success, the soft spoken artiste skipped sleep and burnt the midnight oil composing songs for her second album. When she was done, she beat her chest in ecstasy feeling fulfilled that the time and energy she had spent writing the songs were worth it after all.
From the little she realised from the first album, she dashed to the studio to record the musical works. But before she knew it, pirates had laid their hands on her work, marketed it and laughed all the way to the bank.
She said: “When I released my second album, a lot of people pirated my song and started selling it at Alaba Market. That happened because I didn’t have a good marketer. I was frustrated and put a stop to music until God said I should start it all over. I lost close to a million naira in that project, and that made me depressed. This is a mental and intellectual effort.
“Apart from being challenged, I spent time and resources doing the work, and somebody just sat in a corner and pirated it to make money. That frustrated me. But I am no more depressed.”
In spite of the teething challenge that almost put paid to her music career, Upright Wonder said her involvement in music has been a blessing.
She said: “I have impacted people. A lot of people had been without joy. They didn’t have peace and didn’t know how to relate with God. But through my ministration, I have been able to reach out to them in churches and other places, and there are testimonies.
“I have two different bands—TESMI which is made up of only physically challenged people and another band from where I get resources to support the former.
“The physically challenged members feel on top of the world to be part of the band because there is nothing that is as good as doing what you know best as a physically challenged.
“They have forgotten about their problems. They are happy and comforted. That is why we have to keep them busy to move on in life.
“I started singing when I was quite young but never knew I would take it up as a career. The career took off in 2000, and in 2002 I came out with my first album.
“In 2004, I started a band called TESMI for physically challenged and vulnerable persons.”
Benjamin Ogedengbe, another visually challenged individual, has never been a victim of piracy. But he has at different times suffered one form of discrimination or the other while performing, even in churches where he expects the vulnerable to be treated with utmost regard.
Unlike the previous artistes, his band comprises sighted members.
He said: “Definitely, discrimination comes. I go to sing in some churches and when they want to introduce able bodied artistes they complement them and list their achievements. But when someone like me is to be introduced, you will hear something like ‘there is ability in disability.’ I have had to caution them against giving me such introduction.
“A friend of mine was once introduced as abirun (handicapped) in one church, and that was derogatory. It took that pastor a whole week to appeal to the conscience of my friend.
“That is part of the soft the discrimination that we get that people don’t seem to take into consideration. Why not introduce us as artistes and not with some derogatory words?”
Aside his concern about not properly addressing vulnerable people, Benjamin is also worried that no record label has deemed it fit to sign any visually impaired artiste.
“You can’t go round the country today and see a record label that signed a blind musician. It pains me a whole lot that Nigerian record labels have not seen that a challenged person who is highly competent and who is worth his onions as far as music is concerned can make them earn more than they would ordinarily earn from able bodied artistes.
“My major challenge has been about getting support. Here in Nigeria, people just look at you somehow because you are visually impaired. They feel that they want to help you and as a result would not place you on the same pedestal with those without physical challenges.
“They don’t look at it from the point that one is good at what he is doing. I have performed with a lot of celebrities, but all you get are claps and no assistance.”
In Jos, Plateau State is also another group of visually impaired band that has been painting the state red with their sonorous voices and unimaginable skills.
The exploits of the band was brought to the attention of our correspondent by someone outside the state who had seen them perform.
Like their colleagues, they also are bedeviled by myriads of challenges that may force them to close shop in no distant time.
“We are having challenges getting instruments for our performances. If we have instruments, we can do better than we are doing now because we have good singers,” the Music Director, Mathew Evi, said.
“We do rent instruments and at times use those of the church where we perform. We started the band because we believe it is important for us to show our talents and bring many to Christ. We also want to use our talents to show that there is ability in disability.
“We are not being adequately rewarded but people are trying for us. So many others want to join us but the resources are not there. If there is help, we can do better.”
‘Discrimination, flair for singing made us to float music bands’
Floating a musical group was originally not on the agenda of the visually challenged young men who started JONAPWD Musical Band. Individually, they were talented and enjoyed good music, but they never saw the need to start a band.
They were, however, forced to start one after some of their members faced serial ‘insults’ from artistes they had invited to perform at their functions.
“It began after one of us wanted to do his traditional marriage. He contacted a musical band to perform on that day. He exchanged contacts with them but when he started calling them to remind them of the date, they were not answering his calls.
“He had to go to the house of the band leader but he didn’t meet him at home. He however met the wife who said he must be the one that the husband had been saying he would not perform at his wedding because he was not sure of him paying. That our member was on level 12 in the civil service then.
“Annoyed by the woman’s remarks, our member dipped his hand into his pocket and brought out the money that the band leader requested to perform at the wedding. Many of us face this discrimination.
“That was why we formed our own musical band. It was also an opportunity for us to train some of our members who are being rejected by other bands.
“It was also formed so that we could cover the events of our members. Today, some of our members have learnt how to play the keyboard. Some play for churches and some play for musical bands, and they are getting paid for it.
“We have more than 10 of our members playing keyboard in Abia State and also many who play drums. It is over five years that we went our separate ways now because we don’t have musical instruments.
“Back then, whenever we hired equipment for a show, by the time we paid for the equipment and settled the band, we would not have anything left.”
For Benjamin Ogedengbe, music is inborn. “Going to Pacealli School for the Blind also enhanced my music career. Today, everything I have has its roots in music.
“Several times I cry on stage. Music is emotional and it moves me to tears. At times when you are performing and you see the way the crowd is cheering, it can be emotional. Sometimes I wish I could see the people that are cheering me.”
He added: “I have it in mind to have my own studio where I can do digital and live recording and can always do rehearsals.
“This year I started having serious rehearsals with my band and we have been renting studios. I feel it is important to have my own studio back at home where we can rehearse at any time.
“It boils down to getting support. I don’t need the whole world to support me. All I want is just one or two people to believe in what I do. If that happens, one would be happy.
“My music has taken me to about 31 states out of the 36 in the country. I have been to Egypt and have from here ministered to the US, Germany and several other countries via digital platforms.”
‘How we lost our sights’
Had the parents of Mathew of Redemption Band listened to their kinsmen, the UNIJOS undergraduate probably would not be alive today. His father’s kinsmen had condemned him as a weird creature for being blind.
“My sight challenge started when I was in primary five. I was copying note and suddenly tears started coming out from my eyes and that began my journey to losing my sight. I was never sick and did not hurt my eyes in any way before then,” Mathew said.
He recalled that when the challenge began, his father’s kinsmen stopped seeing him as a human being.
He said: “There was a time they told my father that they had never seen this kind of thing before in their clan, wondering why I was coming with such a problem.
“I thank God that before my father died, I was already into music and he really enjoyed it. He was always finding joy in me. For me doing music is an opportunity to bring people from darkness into light.”
The sight challenge also started at a tender age for Ogendengbe. As a baby, he said, “I was considered not to be seeing with one eye. And at age one, the other sight was lost. But then my family just wanted anything that would make me happy.
“I wasn’t locked in for any reason, but they wanted me to do anything that would give me joy. That made it possible for me to be able to express myself even from childhood.”
Reliving how he lost his sight, Stanly of the JONAPWD Band said: “I lost my sight at the age of five. My parents were busy taking me from one hospital to another. In one of the hospitals, they were told it was glaucoma. I was taken to a special school for the blind thereafter. Music means everything to me.”
31m persons with disabilities denied access to budget for 20 years – Lalu
Prior to the establishment of the National Commission for Persons with Disabilities, there were no provisions for the vulnerable group and issues around them in the national budget. The bill was signed into law recently by the President Muhammadu Buhari government.
The pioneer Executive Secretary, James David Lalu, in a recent interview, said the refusal of previous administrations to sign the bill into law led to the national budget side-lining 31 million PWDs.
“That is a huge number that can be gotten from bringing six states together. We are a major stakeholder in Nigeria, being the largest minority group benefiting from the national budget should not be regarded as an opportunity but a way to ensure there is equity for all.
“What we want to achieve is to make Nigeria a country that is comfortable for PWD by ending discrimination and providing adequate reporting system. We have received a lot of cases on discrimination against PWD and some involving high profile persons, so we want disciplinary measures to take its course, backed by law.
“We are working in the area of education, mass housing projects and liaising with the Federal Housing Authority and the Federal Mortgage Bank. We will encourage our community to form cooperative societies across the 36 states to be able to benefit from the national housing fund project. We need to get home because it makes life comfortable.”
He added: “Part of our intervention as well is accessibility in the transportation sector, and we are collaborating with the Ministry of Transportation. Our commitment to help in gaining quality health services for the disability community is already pulling weight with the support of the National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS).
“We are also working with relevant stakeholders to put a stop to discrimination in the airline sector. Discrimination against PWD by airlines is much as they bring unnecessary policies while boarding planes. The highest form of discrimination is denying someone access to what they can afford.”