By Janet Ogundepo
JANET OGUNDEPO examines the stigma, job exclusion and relationship difficulties confronting little persons
A businessman and entertainer, Ganiyu Ayinde, is undoubtedly one of the lucky few who enjoy reciprocated love early as a little person.
However, growing up for Ayinde was not a bed of roses. Memories of his secondary school days cast clouds of sadness over his heart. Ayinde recalled being bullied, abused and tagged “Baba kekere” (Small man).
He told our correspondent that he discovered he was a little person when he met with a man with the moniker, Oosa. Ayinde said he understood through his mother’s explanations that he had the same nature as the man, then seeing other persons like him, his shyness reduced.
Eyes shining with love as he looked at his wife seated beside him, Ayinde said, “I am married to a woman like me and we have three kids. My daughter is like us and I have two average children. Our love is mutual and my wife is a good wife and mother.”
The father of three said being a little person, he desired to marry an average person to have kids who wouldn’t be seen as dwarfs.
He stated that his mindset changed when he realised that most female little persons had turbulent relationships with average people.
Ayinde said, “I discovered that when they get married, the relationship most times has issues or when the lady gets pregnant the guy would then realise that he married a dwarf, which would then lead to a misunderstanding and they end up being single mothers. I reasoned that with the way things are going, our females who marry average persons are abandoned at the end of the day.”
Armed with the information, Ayinde sought love among his kind and found it in the woman who was now his wife.
Like people without disabilities, the businessman’s love story was also riddled with challenges. He said that the more he got to know his wife, the more he “discovered that she was a nice person.”
Despite marrying a little person, Ayinde noted that the marriage agreement between both families didn’t come on a silver platter. The victory came after he was able to convince his In-laws that his intentions were genuine.
He added, “My wife didn’t marry me because of money. I was okay when I got married but it wasn’t because of money. My in-laws, who have become my family, only ensured that I was not going to deceive her and once they discovered that I loved her, they gave us the go-ahead.”
Having a child who is a little person, Ayinde stated he was tasked with infusing courage into his daughter to rise above the abuse and intimidation she currently faced in school.
The entertainer added, “My daughter tells me of the challenges she faces whenever she is home from school. I encourage her that I passed through the phase when I was in school and that she should face her education. Anytime I remember my school days, it dampens my mood so I try to encourage my daughter to focus on her studies because that is her tool and power to excel in life.’’
Myths, proven statistics
It is estimated that 651,700 people globally and 30,000 people in the United States of America live with dwarfism.
WebMD defined dwarfism as a person with a short stature because of their genes or a medical reason. Little People of the World Organisation and Little People of America defined it as an adult with a height of four feet 10 inches or under, as a result of a medical or genetic condition. While there were other groups with certain forms of dwarfism with five feet, the average height of an adult with dwarfism is four feet.
The United Nations dedicated every October 25 as International Dwarfism Awareness Day to celebrate and spread awareness of Achondroplasia; a bone growth disorder that causes dwarfism.
According to MedlinePlus, Achondroplasia is a genetic condition that affects about one in 15,000 to one in 40,000 people. It makes the arms and legs short in comparison to the head and trunk. The head may also have a larger head and a weak muscle tone.
The Museum Journal, originally published in 1927 and uploaded on the Penn Museum website, stated that disabled persons such as dwarfs, albinos and any person who has a striking difference from the physical norm of their countrymen were, “regarded by the Yoruba as uncanny in some rather undefined way, having a form similar to certain potent spirits who carry out the will of the gods.”
It noted that they were also considered unnatural beings suffering the vengeance of the gods and as such were usually kept as priests and priestesses to the gods. It further stated that the deformities were regarded as the work of Obatala, known to “form the child in the mother’s womb,” as punishment for neglect of the god, or a reminder to the worshippers of his power.
Understandably, these age-long myths formed the alias given to little persons. Ayinde recalled being called “Egbere, bush baby, akuru, ikeregbe or orenmbe.”
Bittersweet love stories
Unlike Ayinde whose love still waxes strong, the story is not the same for Memunat (not real name) said to have married an average man and blessed with two sons. Narrating Memunat’s ordeal, her friend, Abigael Memu, said Memunat was the breadwinner of the home but when she lost her job, she lost her average-height husband also.
Though cases of separation in marriage were not new, such cases were reportedly common among female little persons. Though born with a silver spoon, the path of life for an actress and little person, Evelyn Solomon, was not paved too smoothly. Her last encounter with love, which left her with scars she wanted no one to see, made finding love the least of her concern.
Solomon said she realised she was a little person when “someone laughed at my physique. Before then, I thought I was still a growing child.”
The actress said she was accepted by her family and given the best of care and education, as a result, she was saved from bullies.
Solomon said she studied English but practising as an entertainer and event planner.
She added, “The only challenge I face now is mobility. I grew up having a driver take me around. But now I don’t have a car and don’t know how to hop on buses. Most times I take a cab and it’s expensive.”
Though finding love was not hard for Solomon, she said that she was “careful of getting into relationships because there are people with bad intentions. Some have requested a relationship in the past. But I declined their request because I didn’t want what happened in my previous relationship to reoccur.”
She noted that her money was what her “ex-lover with average height was only interested in.”
The actress stated that while she hoped for another relationship that would lead to marriage, she was indifferent about her physique, adding that it was “not the prerequisite for a successful, long-lasting relationship.”
Abigael Memu is an athlete and single mother in her late twenties. She told our correspondent that rejection by family members of average men who asked her for her hand in marriage was not new to her.
She further stated that scorn and abuse by society and children was something she had had to live with since she discovered that she was a little person.
Memu added, “The fear of giving birth to dwarfs was the reason given by the family members. Some also believe that we are not persons to be associated with in society. So they say they are no longer interested. Friends at times can be the ones to advise them wrongly.”
Growing up wasn’t an easy one as Memu recounted being shoved to the front for being the shortest during school assemblies and to “attract people to spray more money on them” was the reason for being a front line dancer during cultural performances.
She stated, “I didn’t believe people like me existed until I saw them in large numbers sometime in 2012 at Bariga, Lagos State. I was scared on that day but that was then, I am now happy to be with them.”
Memu, who serves as the Secretary, Dwarfs Association of Nigeria, narrated the ordeal of a friend whose husband refused to walk by her side in public. She added disdaining families of average height persons whose members married dwarfs also caused late marriages, divorce and separation among little persons.
The athlete added that the small pelvis size of little females made childbearing through caesarean section. Sadly, Memu recently underwent CS but lost the child.
She decried the discrimination in the employment space, stating that excuses given by employers of labour when denied job offers were “so people won’t be scared when they see you.” The Silver and Bronze medal winner in the 2018 and 2021 Discus games stated that she derived joy in sport and didn’t face any discrimination.
Memu said she found love with a little person but his “family was discouraging the union. If the family agrees, we are good to go but if they do not, I will rather leave him. It is hard finding love when one does not have money. One can’t even get one’s taste without having money.”
Memu said she survived through dependence on her mother, calls for acting roles and dance in music videos including offering catering services.
For a fashion designer, Oriyomi Olaewe, growing up as a little person was not a palatable experience. He said he was denied admission into primary school twice because his hands couldn’t touch his ears when passed over his head. It took his father’s insistence and presentation of birth certificates, Olaewe said, before he was enrolled in primary school at seven years old.
He added that he was bullied in school but his intelligence endeared him to the teachers who in turn became his saviour from the bullies.
Olaewe stated, “Each time I walk on the street, people call me names such as “short man” this and that. At first, I was angry and sad but I later decided not to let it weigh me down. I couldn’t get a job.”
Olaewe said he was encouraged when his father took him to a hospital to watch as a doctor who is a little person successfully went about his job and commanded the respect of his colleagues.
The cloth designer said that finding love had been difficult, adding that the ladies (average height) would initially accept, but after some time, expressed their disinterest.
He added, “The fear of having little people as children is why I don’t want to date someone of my kind. The average height persons are only interested in money so they leave because I don’t have money to buy them a car or expensive phones.’’
Olaewe said he was in his late thirties but suffered rejection five times, noting that on three occasions after the introductions, the relationship ended.
He recounted, “I dated someone who after our introduction, a week to our traditional and church wedding date, brought up another demand which I couldn’t meet. That was how all the money spent and plans went down the drain. I went through hell and I took it that when one falls, one will rise again. She returned five years after the relationship ended and pleaded for reconsideration.’’
“Those without disabilities have challenges too’’
The President, Dwarfs Association of Nigeria, Israel Akiode, popularly known as Oosa said that marriage between disabled persons and vice versa was common.
Akiode, who is also the state Special Physically Challenged Leader of the All Progressives Congress, Lagos State, stated, “People think we can’t get married and have children but I am married to an average-height woman and I have children. My first son is a practising lawyer who is of average height and currently a practising lawyer and married.’’
Sharing his difficulties in finding love, he stated that his marital journey was not straightforward as he faced several rejections, adding that he first got married in 1989.
Akiode said, “Before I got married there was a problem of rejection. why would they (the women) marry a short man but when God says yes, nobody can say no. Later I saw my choice and married her and God answered our prayer. The mother of my lawyer son left me because she was being humiliated by her family for her choice of marrying a short man. I am married to someone else. This problem is also faced by people without disabilities.”
He added that their members faced abuse and discrimination both at home and abroad, adding that it was worse in Nigeria.
Akiode stated, “I give thanks to my parents. Even though my father did not expose me much, my grandfather did. He would take me along to his chieftaincy meeting and I would carry his regalia. He exposed me and from there I crossed to the Theatre. I started acting in films in 1977 and the name Osatola, which is the full name of Oosa, was one of the roles I acted in a movie.”
He added that at times disabled persons were not recognised and maligned in society.
The DAN president further advised disabled persons to be grateful to God for their existence, adding that God cannot be queried or blamed for the way they were created and that one cannot recreate oneself.
“Everyone that is created, you have to accept what God has done for you. God created me as a dwarf but among my family, I have hefty and tall siblings. My son is also tall and I can only thank God for the way He created me,” he said.
The Nollywood veteran further debunked the myths surrounding little persons that they were spirits and demons, adding that they were humans as other persons without disabilities.
Not all disabilities are transferred to offspring–Association
The President, Joint National Association of Persons with Disabilities, Abdullahi Usman, stated that female little persons faced a higher risk of rejection and exploitation.
He added that disabled females suffered more from marriage rejections and were more prone to being jilted.
Usman said, “Some physically challenged females have been indiscriminately arrested and abused because they do not have the power to defend themselves.”
He urged disabled females, who could learn martial arts for self-defence, to do so.
The president further said that “Little persons do not have a problem with sexual intercourse and conception. Not all of them bear children with disabilities. Some of them have beautiful and average height children.”
He urged members of society to stop the marital discrimination against disabled persons, stating that in most cases, the disabilities were not transferred to their offspring.
Dwarfism doesn’t affect mental alertness – Marriage counsellor
A family and relationship expert, Bisi Adewale, said that dwarfs faced the same problems as disabled persons, stating that the problems stemmed from emotional, cultural and social beliefs.
Narrating the experience of a dwarf he knew, Adewale said, “he spoke to almost nine women before one of them decided to marry him. Despite being rich, eight of them bluntly refused. Others did not even move close to listen to him and the lady he eventually married, the marriage was delayed for a long time because a family member vehemently refused that they would not get married.”
The author stated that the main reason for marriage refusal was the probability of giving birth to dwarfs.
Adewale added, “It is more difficult for women among them to find husbands because some people believe they cannot get pregnant and carry babies to term. “Though people of a particular height may have some challenges when carrying babies that does not mean they can’t be fertile. It has been known that dwarfism doesn’t affect mental alertness and ability to impregnate a woman, have babies and make money. But many of them have low self-esteem.”
The cleric noted that cultural and societal stigma was hampering intermarriages with dwarfs.
Everyone despite height or shape is a human being–Sociologists
A professor of sociology at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Kaduna State, John Gyong, however, said that little persons were considered second-class citizens, stating that they were discriminated against by society, in family, at workplaces and even in politics.
Gyong added that discrimination affected the rising of disabled persons in society, stating that those who overcame it had been able to rise.
The don said, “There are two dimensions to the issue. First, some families who have such individuals have accepted the societal discrimination against them and as such have been unable to rise above such negative connotations. Once you are labelled, it is difficult for you to mix in various settings in society and when you accept such, you become a victim of that label and it becomes hard to rise above such negative connotations. But then like every other disabled group, there have been individuals who have been able to rise. In Nollywood, some little persons have risen above societal negative discrimination and have been able to make it in the industry and are even married and living their lives like another person.”
He described the disability as a challenge that could be risen against, adding that family acceptance, care and education would aid their positive presence in society.
Gyong also said, “It is expected that when it comes to marital relationships people will always be careful because they would imagine that the genes would flow to the children if they can cope as a couple, what happens to the next generation. Those that are successful in business, entertainment, and learning among others can more easily find marital relationships because the success will blur or reduce the negative feelings from the other side.’’
He encouraged adequate advocacy towards reflecting that everyone, regardless of height or shape, was a human being. He added that once the discrimination against disabled persons stopped, there would be increased intermarriages among them and average people.
Another professor of sociology at the Bayero University, Kano, Mohammed Aminu, said that disabled persons in society were discriminated against and not seen as normal.
He added that little people in society became a taboo for those associated with them, saying that it created another problem for their partners.
The don emphasised that they were humans and deserved humane treatment and support in every way possible.
Aminu said, “On the other hand, they are human beings like everybody else and it is good for them to be accepted. For example, we can put ourselves in their shoes or view them as someone who is a member of one’s family who would not like them to be discriminated against or oppressed.”
The sociologist further said that the same level of acceptance extended to other disabled persons should be granted to them in society.