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At Christmas we are "Only As Strong As Our Weakest Point"

Dear Friends, 

Christmas two years ago, I asked my friend; Patrick Anigbo to reflect on a very personal story. This Christmas, I was reminded of the post as the issues are still as relevant now as they were then, maybe more so. The central message is that our society, indeed any society is only as strong as its weakest point….this is Paddy’s story….enjoy, reflect, do. 

Merry Christmas! 

Only As Strong As Our Weakest Point
by Patrick Anigbo

This year my first child, a son we named Odinakanna (translated – it is in the hand of GOD), celebrated his 10th birthday. It has become custom, at least amongst my friends, to mark our children’s 10th birthday with some sort of fanfare – it is a milestone of some sort. And so it was that close family and friends organised for Odi a truly breath-taking day. Not even the spring downpour and the attendant travel chaos could put a dampener on proceedings.

Along with the merriment, it provided me with a chance to reflect on the year 2000 when he was born. For those of us in the IT Industry, the biggest con of our industry’s history was finally put to bed and millions of computers round the world did not burst into flames. As Head of IT at PentaHact, an organisation that provided quality care for individuals with learning disabilities, I had spent all of 30 minutes of our Y2K emergency summit a few months before, explaining to the board that as we were only a 10 year old company and do not have any IT systems older than that, the issues of the millennium bug simply did not exist for us. You see, it was important for me that the board did not send me on some wild goose chase for imaginary gremlins armed with expensive consultants. My wife, Ngozi, was expecting our first child and I had a baby room to prepare.

Thanks to modern technology, I knew he was male and, though this simplified the design to his room, blue based furnishings still had to be acquired, assembled and installed by the resident DIY expert – reluctantly. The prospect of being covered in blue paint in the name of giving the walls of the baby room a new lease of life was also looming in the horizon. So there simply was no time for idle speculation over bugs.

Anyone who has been blessed with child birth will tell you the joys of expectation that comes with the first child. It is about the only time you get most blokes actually attend the ante-natal classes of their own accord. In fact, I remember going to a whole session, though I remember very little of what the experience was all about now.

And then, after many a false alarm, the day arrives and you do just about the only other job blokes do in the whole process – get mother and baby to hospital in one piece. I remember our 2 am dash to St. Thomas’ Hospital and then the endless wait. It was a Saturday and it showed. Everything was in slow motion. When Odi finally arrived, amidst all sorts of issues, there was no cry – total silence. That was the first sign I had that plan A had not exactly gone to form. And that began the most difficult year of my life. The baby room was not to welcome its resident till Christmas – 7 months later. The Intensive Care Baby Unit had that pleasure. Initially Odi was at St. Thomas’ Special Care Baby Unit (SCBU) and then on to the Ronnie McKeith Ward at Guy’s Hospital (now the stunning Evelina Children’s Hospital – first one in London in 100 years).

It was here that I got a first glimpse of how much value a great society puts on its weakest and most vulnerable. The attention and care Odi and the other children got at Ronnie Mac (as we fondly called it) bothered on saintly at times. Nurses worked from 7am to 7pm shifts creating an environment that sort to ease the intense suffering that little children were experiencing. They shared the rare moments of smiles from the children as well as the many moments of despair from us parents. It is no surprise that ten years later we will be sharing some part of our Christmas with Joe and Julie Nwanazia. Julie had quickly sussed out Odi’s parentage and being married to a Nigerian, she bonded with Ngozi on the ward and they have remained friends since. Ngozi sponsored their second boy in confirmation.

The efforts on the ward was supplemented immensely by that of the Ronald McDonald House at Guys & St Thomas’ who provided a home away from home to parents like us who faced months of uncertainty with their child as you waited for a final diagnosis.

I can honestly say that we got all the support possible for Odi and Ngozi who cared for him devotedly by his side. I had the dubious pleasure of having to carry on going to work to keep a roof for Odi to come home to. Once in a while, I get asked how it was for me. I almost always end up describing how it was for Odi and Ngozi as Odi in the first instance was of course having a tough time of it and I cannot think of any mother that would not have cracked in the face of the mother of all challenges and many did in Ronnie Mac including Ngozi who had some really tough moments and lots of tears.

From my perspective, it was the loneliest time of my life. My routine was simple. Wake up, get to work, then hospital and then back to an empty house. No baby’s cry, no nappy changes, no first milestones, no toddler telly. My colleagues were great. Later I realised that not many actually were quite aware of how serious things were. Through it all, I had to stay strong when in hospital to give strength to my son and Ngozi before going home to punch holes out of my walls in frustration.

I often ask myself why I was not shouting about it at the time. After much reflection, I can only conclude that prime amongst the reasons was my Nigerian background. I come from a culture that simply does not understand disability, especially learning disabilities, and attribute most of it to some mystical curse from years gone by. I had at least 2 attempts of relatives trying to present such theories to me in the midst of our struggles and that simply made me clam up. It cheapened our struggles in a perverse way. It was pretty clear very quickly that all we would get from our Nigerian community was pity and that was, quite frankly, the last thing anyone needed in our situation. We needed practical help and support from people who knew what they were doing.

This carried itself into my workplace where I should have been more forthcoming about the situation but instead I felt more comfortable in picking one or two people to confide in. On reflection, this added to the loneliness.

One of the happiest days of my life was the day Odi came home. It was significant for me as I had been living with the real prospect that my boy would not make it to his room that I had spent all my effort preparing for him. Through the years we have had all sorts of issues to deal with but it got easier once he was given a diagnosis in 2001 – Cerebral Palsy – Four –Limb Quadriplegia which is the most severe type. It takes a while to diagnose brain injuries in children as you have to wait for the brain to develop to be able to see the extent of the damage.

At 10 years old, Odi goes to a special school and learns skills every day. He gets 24 hour care and has gradually grown to enjoy life beyond his limitations. This is down to the society he was born into. Recently a friend had similar troubles in Lagos and it became clear very quickly that trying to manage circumstances this complex was not a remote possibility in Nigeria and the family have left and relocated. This is an indictment on all of us – The Nigerian Society. We are blessed with riches but currently have leaders that are poor in spirit.

All these years I have lived with the knowledge that if Odi had been born in Nigeria he would not be alive today.  Despite our resources both within and outside government, you will hardly hear a word spoken about health care, about care for the disabled, for the frail, for the mentally ill in our society. Children die in Nigeria of diseases no one else in the world is dying from. We cry a bit, moan a lot and shrug it off as the will of God.  Children loose the opportunity to live, to aspire, to happiness, because we prefer to look the other side. 

I have recently worked with different groups of Nigerians at FGCE Project HopeTEDxEuston and Enugu Old Skool and know that we are a people that are very rich in spirit and have people who carry this spirit with them more than most. While they have shown me that there are still a few such people in our society, I believe there are a lot more, standing on the fence, hoping that by some miracle, our country will get better. 

In a recent effort, Enugu Old Skool members worldwide went on a drive to provide Christmas cheer to lots of children in Homes and Orphanages in London, Lagos, Abuja, Enugu and Jos as well as contributing to a Charity for children in Southern Africa, Msizi Africa. They did not argue about “zoning” or “resource allocation” or “rotation” or any of the grandiose terms our politicians use to get us fired up against each other. These Nigerians just went out and did what they had to do for the children that are our future. They are building up Nigeria every day and leading our politicians by example. They are my heroes this Christmas; Let us continue to build a better society. 

So my Christmas wish is this; I hope you like this article. When Odi turned 10, I wrote a little about him and got lots of likes and comments from my dear friends and these were really nice. But we need to go beyond this now.

We need to get over the inertia of thinking that we cannot make a difference. We need to use the tools at our disposal – Facebook, Twitter and all the social networks to mobilise for good causes and to go beyond just clicking on “like”…to visit our local schools, orphanages, care homes and hospitals.  But not just visiting with old clothes alone but sitting down with the leaders at these institutions and asking what we can do to support, then going out and doing it. We will also have to engage with the political process, ensure we ask our politicians the hard questions on the things that matter to us. 

Do not sit back and cry for Odi or send us emails, or post comments of empathy. Give yourself to our society in the spirit of what Christmas really stands for. Engage with the challenges that face our society…..our future and the future of our children will be one we create…by our action or inaction.  

 enjoy, reflect, do…….and not just for Christmas!

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed people can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has…Margaret Mead

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