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Bethesda: Church Where Pastor, Choristers, Instrumentalists, and Members Are Visually Impaired

Godfrey George tells the story of Bethesda, a church fully run and managed by visually-impaired persons

The skies darkened at the crack of dawn. The tiny stars that lined the previous night had gone to sleep at the sight of the unsettling dark clouds that heralded the coming of the rains. The time is 5.37am and it’s Sunday, a day when most Christians go to worship their God.

Saturday PUNCH arrived at the Agege Motor Road, Mosalashi Bus Stop, Surulere, Lagos, that morning in search of Bethesda, a church where every member of its congregation is blind.

As Saturday PUNCH reporter alighted from a cab right after an overhead bridge, the skies opened up and heavy rains pounded the area.

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Our correspondent took shelter under a shed housing a horde of men who smoked marijuana and downed some sachets of dry gin.

Loud music of the late Fuji maestro, Sikiru Ayinde Barrister, blasted from the Mp3 player nearby.

Close by, a lady in a peach hijab, who had an infant tied on her back, struggled to make a fire with wood and charcoal.

The more she struggled, the more the rains poured, with an accompanying thick breeze, frustrating her efforts.

Tired, she moved closer to the shed for shelter, greeted the men and sat on the same bench our reporter sat on.

As the angry sky took a break for a moment and little rays of morning sunshine peered through the clouds, this reporter walked down the street on the leading of a lad to the building that housed the church which is named after a pool in Biblical Jerusalem, believed to have healing powers.

Outside the high black gate, a small pond had gathered.

On the walls were large paintings of a boy and a girl, dressed in white and black and doing some creative work, and another boy working on the computer. The inscription, ‘Greater sight is in the mind,’ was conspicuous on a part of the wall.

On knocking, the gatekeeper peeped through an opening at the gate to confirm this reporter’s appointment before he opened the gate, which gave way to a large compound.

Our correspondent, on entering, discovered that the gatekeeper was blind.

“Can you see those two steps there? Climb it; go right and you will meet Mummy’s personal assistant, who will confirm your appointment,” he said with impeccable command.

As Saturday PUNCH reporter sat, waiting for the founder of the home cum church and school, Dr Chioma Ohakwe, a tall, visually-impaired young boy armed with two buckets full of clothes walked past.

He bumped into a pillar that stood leftward, which caused one of the buckets to fall. He picked his bucket right up, packed up the clothes that fell and continued his journey down the stairs as though nothing happened.

He walked almost too briskly down to a nearby tap, filled an empty bucket with water and walked back up to get a pack of detergent.

Three visually-impaired children – Kuton, Aisha and Alimat – ran across the hallway in a similar white-on-blue outfit. They held one another’s shoulders as they did, giggling and singing.

Mrs Ohakwe, who is also a preacher, said the service was set for 6 am and would begin in a few minutes.

At 6am, many visually-impaired persons trooped out of their rooms in their numbers in shining white-on-blue with red ties for guys and scarfs for ladies to the hall.

Our correspondent, who sat at the back, observed as they took their seats and giggled away with their friends.

A young man in his 20s walked up to our reporter and welcomed him to the church. It was almost like he could see the journalist.

“Can you see me?” our reporter asked.

“It depends on what you mean by ‘see’,” he replied and extended his right hand to shake our correspondent, giving out a wide grin.

“My name is Samuel Chima. Our Mummy (founder) asked me to greet the man at the back. That was why I came to you. Welcome to our service. Is it your first time?” he asked.

“Yes, it is,” replied this reporter.

He smiled and told our correspondent to ‘relax’ as he would have ‘a good time’ worshipping in the church.

After the gesture, he walked to the technical area, where he began to set up some wires.

He tweaked a thing here and there, tested the piano and adjusted the sound till it was perfect.

Then, he stood right in front of the piano, ready for the singer to begin the praise and worship session.

The church pastor, Chimaobi Onyekachi, a visually-impaired man, who looked liked one in his 30s, mounted the podium thereafter and led a series of prayers. As he left, the choir sang a chorus.

Our correspondent gathered that the pastor was married to a fully-sighted woman whom he now lived with.

Lost sight to measles

Twenty-two-year-old Chima lost his sight to measles at age nine.

The Afikpo-South Ebonyi State indigene said when the episode with measles began, his parents did not take it seriously, as it was a disease ‘common to children’.

He said he would have occasional headaches and body pains, which later became unending but painkillers were not too far from his reach so his parents used them to subdue the pain.

“My eyes would be red and I would be thirsty. My head would feel like it was too heavy for me to carry. I would cry all day but I was told that was how measles was, and I should endure. I was given some medication and some things to apply to my skin for the reddish sores, but they seemed not to work.

“My parents did not pay attention to it. They thought it was just a normal headache and body pain that would disappear with the disease, but the pain was too much for me to bear. Some days, it can be so bad that I would strip myself in search of succour because my entire system was on fire. In all, I noticed that my eyes were going dim by the day but I also felt everything would be alright once the measles disappeared,” Chima added.

In the second month, when the situation did not improve, Chima said he was taken to a hospital, where doctors said he had suffered severe damage to some of the tissues in his eyes and would need to be admitted.

His parents, according to him, rallied for money and he was given some care.

After spending two months and two weeks in the hospital, Chima said his eyes got better and he could see for a while.

But, after his discharge, the eye continued to go dim till it went completely blind.

“It was like someone was playing with the switch in my eyes, adjusting it and tuning it lower and lower every day. I would see something but it would not be as bright as it was supposed to be. My mornings were not always what I knew them to look like – bright and sunny. They had a dimness I could not explain,” he said.

Chima said he told his parents and they were concerned.

But he just came out of treatment, which cost his family an arm and a leg, so going back was not an option.

However, his parents made sure to get him some eye drops and some medications they could afford.

The body pain and headache came back, and his sight became blurry. He woke up one morning and discovered he could no longer see.

“It was like I was mad. I knew my eyes were open but all I could see was darkness. I was just nine. How do I get myself to accept that I was now blind? I couldn’t even begin to understand. I was already in school. I finished my primary education and was set to go to secondary school. How will I read? How will I write? It was a confusing moment for me. Even my parents did not know what to do,” he added.

He was rushed to a nearby general hospital, where it was confirmed that he had become blind.

“My parents cried. I am not sure I cried myself, because I was still trying to understand what they meant. The previous night, I could see. What then did they mean that I was now blind? I refused to believe it. Since I still had the measles, I told myself that once the measles healed, my sight would come back. It is more than 12 years now and I still cannot see,” he stated in a sober tone.

Chima said it was torturous for him to transition from a fully-sighted child to a visually-impaired one.

“I could not see but I wanted to play with my friends. Once they saw me coming out, they would run away from me. My eyes were still open but you could tell that I could not see anything because it had become clouded with what looked like an extra film of flesh.

“I didn’t understand why they were running from me. I wanted to just play with them like we used to, but it was now impossible. I asked one of them why no one wanted to play with me and he said his parents warned him sternly that he shouldn’t associate himself with me. I told my parents and they told me not to bother. While all this went on, in my heart of hearts, I still felt I would see again someday when I got much better. I didn’t know it was something permanent,” he added.

In search of solution

Chima said his parents would not accept the fact that their son had become blind.

They, according to him, took him to every hospital they could find in search of a solution.

The doctors were clear – Chima could no longer see again, and with surgery, it was a 50-50 chance, which they were not willing to gamble on, as the young boy still had his life ahead of him.

His parents, Chima said, did not give up.

“When medicine failed, my parents turned to religion. There was no church they did not take me to for prayers. They fasted, prayed and gave money to different prophets, who promised that I would see again if their faiths did not fail.

“We kept going in and out of different churches, till I told myself that I was done. I was almost 15 then. I had stopped schooling and lost everything I thought was mine. Life was now sour for me and I was tired of deceiving myself, believing the lies that something was going to change. That day, I accepted my fate,” he said.

He noted that when his father came to him the next day, asking him to prepare as there was another ‘powerful man of God’ coming to the city, he refused.

Although his father was insistent, Chima said he did not move an inch.

This made his father livid, accusing him of being too stubborn to search for healing.

Chima said after spending more than five years at home and having missed out on secondary school, he decided it was time to go back to school.

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That was where he met Mrs Ohakwe, who took him in.

With a little brush here and another push there, he was ready to sit the West African Secondary School Certificate Examination.

He wrote the United Tertiary Matriculation Examination the following year and was admitted to study political science at the University of Ibadan, where he graduated with a Second Class (Upper) Division in 2022.

‘I play piano, bass, lead guitar’

Chima said on getting to Bethesda, he joined the church for the blind, where he developed an interest in playing the piano.

Before his visual impairment, Chima said he was a lover of music and had a sonorous voice, but did not see himself playing any instrument till he became blind.

“At first, I thought I would not be able to do it. Then, I was still finding my way around navigating the world with my disability. But the moment I laid my fingers on the piano, I knew I was not going to let it go,” he added with a guffaw.

Chima said he would play it alone when everyone was in their rooms, practising simple tunes till he then knew he was perfect enough to play it to everyone else.

His fellow visually impaired classmates, who had learnt the instrument, also assisted him.

Our correspondent watched in awe as he played the keyboard with dexterity, smiling and tapping his left foot as he did.

He said he had been playing the piano, lead and bass guitar for more than six years and had played in important centres both in Nigeria and abroad.

“I feel good now. I have no regrets. When I look back over my life, I find out that I am doing way better than some of my childhood friends who are physically sighted.

“They are not doing as well as I am doing. They cannot do the things I am doing. I am comfortable. I graduated at 22. I will be going for national service with the next batch and God will give me a job when it is time. I have no regrets at all, and I am not bothered about whether or not I see again. I don’t need any pity,” he added.

100,000 children lose sight from measles yearly– WHO

Measles is a highly infectious disease due to a virus spread by droplets in the air.

Whenever susceptible individuals are brought together, measles will follow.

The World Health Organisation states that virtually all unprotected children have measles during childhood.

According to the organisation, the incubation period from exposure to the onset of symptoms is generally eight to 12 days.

Initially, a child with measles has a runny nose, fever, cough, white spots inside the mouth and sore eyes.

White spots inside the mouth are known as Koplik’s spots and are only seen in measles, Saturday PUNCH gathered.

“A skin rash develops after a few days, first across the forehead and behind the ears, then all over the face and down over the body and limbs. It begins to fade after three or four days, often leaving staining or peeling of the skin.

“Measles always affects the eyes although not always seriously, but it may lead to loss of sight. Some 100,000 children become blind each year following measles.

“Measles also causes many other complications including pneumonia, diarrhoea, malnutrition, middle ear infection and damage to the brain. Eye and other complications are more likely to occur if the child’s diet is poor — especially if inadequate in Vitamin A,” the apex health body stated.

The Departments of Immunisation, Vaccines and Biologicals, and Child and Adolescent Health, in a 2004 publication, ‘The Child, Measles and the Eye’, noted that severe measles might lead to blindness in children.

The WHO noted that understanding the risks of damage to the eye from measles was the first step before learning what actions could be taken to save sight.

“Measles causes a great amount of unnecessary death and blindness in children, especially in Africa and parts of Asia. Death and loss of sight due to measles are healthcare disasters that simply should not occur. Measles is a highly infectious disease preventable by immunisation.

“Reducing deaths due to measles is a global health priority. Immunised children rarely get measles and the cost of immunisation is low. The road to good health is also the road to good vision. Since the eye problems due to measles are especially dangerous in children who eat less well, good feeding habits and improved diet for the malnourished child would be the best route to prevention,” part of the publication read.

On actions to be taken to prevent measles-associated blindness, the world health body stated that eye involvement during measles should be treated as an emergency.

“Refer immediately a child with obvious loss of vision in an eye to a health worker specialised in eye care. Never use eye medicines containing steroids for eye disease following measles. Avoid traditional eye medicines which may be harmful and cause blindness,” the body warned.

I lost sight in exam hall – Peace

The skies quaked again and the rain continued; this time, slower and calmer except for occasional thunderbolts, causing some kids to quiver in fear.

The angry sky poured down rain for almost an hour and the weather became cold.

Twenty-seven-year-old Peace Ekeh mounted the stage and raised a Christian solo. She sang with a resonant alto which crescendoed with a vibrato.

She was 15 when, one morning, in an examination hall, she noticed she could no longer see again.

It was her Junior Secondary School Certificate Examination at the Community Secondary School, Owerre-Ebeiri, Orlu, Imo State. This was in 2011 and she said she had prepared all through the night for the exam.

As her question paper reached her hands, her sight left her eyes. Everywhere became dark. She knew she was with a paper but could not see it. She closed and opened her eyes countless times, but the situation was the same – pitch darkness.

“I asked the girl close to me if she was experiencing the same problem but she was confused. I requested some water with which I washed my face but I still could not see. It was like I was in a fully-lighted room and someone turned out the light. I had no issues with my eyes before, so it was something I could not explain,” she said.

Peace’s teachers, according to her, thought she was playing a fast one on them.

It was when she was bumping into every desk on her way out that they knew there was more to it.

She was led out of the examination hall and made to wait outside for her mates to finish.

When they did, a friend of hers led her back home to her parents.

At home, Peace said, it was like a funeral. Everyone was crying and wailing, asking her how it happened.

She had no explanation – she was given her exam paper and she just could not see again. It surprised everyone, particularly her mother, who, she said refused to agree.

“My mother inundated me with a truckload of questions. I had no answers. I, too, was searching for answers. I thought it was just a medical condition because I did not sleep well the previous night, and that when I slept and woke up, I would see again. But it has been more than 11 years since then; I have not used my eyes to see anything though both of them are open,” she said.

No hope

Peace said the day she became blind, her parents rushed her to several clinics in the area but were told that there was nothing they could find.

According to her, the first set of doctors said her eyes were in perfect condition and they could not explain the instant blindness.

The family was referred to another hospital in Owerri, where a doctor said there was no hope.

According to Peace, the doctor said only God could heal her, as there was no medical explanation for her condition.

Peace, who is from Ngo-Okpala LGA in Imo State, said she went back to her village to visit a church, where the pastor promised to speak to God about her case and get her healing.

But, according to her, for weeks, nothing changed. She just could no longer see.

“Another pastor gave me some prophesies that it was a spiritual arrow from my father’s village and he would deliver me. We did everything he said we should do but the situation remained the same.

“I have not lost hope in God because I know he is the only one that knows what happened to me. He is also the only one who can heal me. If, in the end, he decides not to do so, I will still give him all the glory with my voice,” she said.

Schooling in Abia

Peace said a young man saw her on the street of Owerri four years after the incident and followed her to her home to see her parents. It was the man who introduced her to a school for the blind in Abia State.

She studied there for two years and finished her secondary education there, sat her WASSCE and passed.

She was also taught mobility and independence. So, when the time came for her to move to Bethesda in Lagos from Imo, Peace said she did it on her own.

“I had not been in Lagos before and my parents were scared but I knew that I would not be lost.

“On getting here in Bethesda, I saw many people with cases like mine and I embraced God in the church. I have been here for four years. I joined the choir and began to train my voice. My friend, Vivian Udunze, who is also a singer, helped me to train my voice.

“I was enrolled to take the UTME, which I did. I got admitted to study Social Studies and Christian Religious Studies Education at the University of Ibadan. I am currently in my second year, and I have not been happier,” she added.

Dad cried day doctor pronounced me blind – Ahmed

For a 27-year-old drummer, Ahmed Kareem, learning the drums has been a dream come true.

Despite being from a Muslim background, he found solace in drumming and pursued it for more than six years after he found Bethesda in 2016.

Ahmed, who is from Isale-Eko, Lagos, said he was not born blind but began to have issues with his sight when he battled cataracts when he was a child.

Although he had surgery for it to be taken out, he said his eyes never remained the same again.

The final straw that broke the camel’s back was when, at age eight while playing hide-and-seek with his friends, he ran into a pillar and injured his left eye. Blood from that eye splashed into the other, causing it to become reddish.

“I was a very rough child when growing up. I have learnt my lesson now though because it was that roughness that made me lose my sight completely.

“When I rammed into that pillar and I began to bleed, I was rushed to the hospital and the doctors began to manage it. My parents spent a lot of money to make sure that I saw again but it was not as simple as they thought it was,” Ahmed said.

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At first, Ahmed said the doctors admitted him and informed his father that surgery, which would cost some millions, would be needed.

Ahmed’s father, according to him, sold most of his property to raise money.

He raised up to N10m and approached the doctor, who simply told him to take Ahmed to a school for the blind, adding that surgery might not change anything if done.

Apparently, the doctor mentioned a huge sum to scare the family.

Ahmed said it was the first day he heard his father cry.

“I could not see him because, at that time, my sight was completely gone. But, when I heard him crying, something in me broke. I was really sad. My father is a very strong man and I understood that it hurt him that his first son, who was not born blind, would now become visually impaired,” he added.

From the hospital, his father made some inquiries and discovered that Kings’ College, Lagos, accepted visually-impaired students, so Ahmed was enrolled and continued schooling.

However, he said his stay in the school was difficult as it was not ‘disability-friendly’, especially for the blind.

“There were no Braille inscriptions. There were a lot of staircases. My blind colleagues and I struggled there for six years till we graduated. I was given the best education I could get but it came at a huge cost. I ‘sacrificed’ my comfort to make sure I passed. It was a case of me surviving college, as I competed, not just with my blind colleagues but with fully-sighted individuals,” he said.

Learning the drums

On coming to Bethesda at 20, Ahmed said he decided to do something with his passion for drums.

He had been listening to others play, so he decided, one day, to try it out. Since then, he never left the sticks.

He now plays as a pro as anyone who listens to him from afar without seeing him, will think he is fully-sighted.

Ahmed noted that whenever he was on the drum seat, he felt absolute peace.

“It is like I am living my dream. I would love to take my drumming to levels that no one has ever reached. That is why I practice every day so I am not found wanting. It has been more than six years since I started and I am not ending anytime soon,” he added.

Saturday PUNCH learnt that Ahmed graduated this June from the University of Lagos, where he studied History and Strategic Studies.

Speaking on his choice of course, he said he wanted to study Mass Communication but did not get the required cut-off point, as he did not do well in Literature-in-English in his WASSCE.

He was then given Sociology, Philosophy and History as options.

However, Ahmed said he would still love to work in a radio station, interviewing people and telling inspiring stories.

How cataracts cause blindness

A cataract is a clouding of the eye’s lens, which blocks or changes the passage of light into the eye. The lens of the eye is located behind the pupil and the coloured iris and is normally transparent.

The lens helps to focus images onto the retina – which transmits the images to the brain.

According to an article, ‘Eye Diseases and Condition: Cataract’, by an online resource, Prevent Blindness, a person’s vision may become blurry or dim because the cataract stops light from properly passing through to the retina.

It is a leading cause of blindness and can also sometimes be found in young people or even newborn babies.

The exact cause of cataracts, to date, is unknown.

Experts have, most often, noted that cataracts can be a part of getting older. As one ages, one is at greater risk of developing a cataract.

However, there are several risk factors that predispose one to the condition like intense heat or long-term exposure to UV rays from the sun; certain diseases, such as diabetes; inflammation in the eye; hereditary influences; events before birth, such as German measles in the mother; long-term steroid use; eye injuries; eye diseases and smoking.

Born without eyeballs

Thirty-year-old Mustapha Yusuf-Olagoke is the music director of the Bethesda choir and plays at least four instruments, including the piano, lead and bass guitar, drums and saxophone.

He was born without eyeballs.

The American Centre for Birth Defect, Research and Prevention describes Yusuf-Olagoke’s condition as anophthalmia, which can occur alone, or with other birth defects or as part of a syndrome.

Anophthalmia often results in blindness or limited vision.

Researchers estimate that about one in every 5,200 babies is born with anophthalmia/microphthalmia in the US.

Although there is no statistics for Nigeria, research by a consultant ophthalmologist at the University of Port Harcourt Teaching Hospital, Rivers State, Dr A.O. Adio, published in the Nigerian Journal of Ophthalmology, suggests that its occurrence is rare in the country.

The CDC notes that the causes of anophthalmia and microphthalmia among most infants are unknown.

“Some babies have anophthalmia or microphthalmia because of a change in their genes or chromosomes.

“Anophthalmia and microphthalmia can also be caused by taking certain medicines, like isotretinoin (Accutane) or thalidomide, during pregnancy.

“These medicines can lead to a pattern of birth defects, which can include anophthalmia or microphthalmia. These defects might also be caused by a combination of genes and other factors such as the things the mother comes in contact with in the environment or what the mother eats or drinks, or certain medicines she uses during pregnancy,” part of the publication read.

There is no treatment available that will create a new eye or that will restore complete vision for those affected by anophthalmia or microphthalmia.

A baby born with one of these conditions, experts have said, should be seen by a team of specialist eye doctors.

Finding remedy

As Yusuf-Olagoke’s parents struggled to find a medical solution for the rare condition, they also considered the option that their son might never see again.

He said his parents told him that they were confused when he refused to open his eyes like other children after a few hours or days after birth and doctors, too, could not explain what was wrong.

From hospital to hospital they went but no doctor seemed to understand what was wrong.

It was a doctor at a clinic in Ogun who told his parents to consider taking him to a school for the blind and stop waiting for the boy to grow up more confused.

His father, a primary school leaver, however, vowed that come what may, his son must be educated.

That was how they found the Bethesda congregation in 2005, the year of the home’s inception. Yusuf-Olagoke was a pioneer member.

On joining the home, he said he fell in love with the piano, and later on, learnt the guitar and drums.

“I started playing when I was very young. I just mounted the place and was learning as I was taught. I was only taught how to play the piano and the saxophone. I play the two guitars and drums on my own. I developed myself and I imitated the sound I heard till I became perfect. It has been more than 10 years since I began to play professionally and I have been outside the country, playing these instruments,” he added.

In 2019, after successfully going through the University of Lagos, he acquired a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and is currently observing his compulsory one year national service.

Advising fellow visually impaired people, he said, “Do not give up on yourself simply because you are blind. You can achieve all your dreams whether or not you have your physical sight.

“We don’t need pity from anyone as blind people. What we need is empathy. Understand what is going on and offer help where you can. Parents should stop locking up their disabled children inside. It does not help. If your child is blind or has any disability or learning impairment, take them to special schools for these various conditions. Get them education. That is the only legacy any parent can bequeath a child.”

He also added that he would love to work with music stars like Wizkid, Davido and Burna Boy.

Divine call

Ohakwe, the founder of the centre, said she incorporated religious worship because she felt the need for the students to be closer to their creator despite their conditions.

The founder, who is also a reverend minister, said no condition should be too big for anyone not to worship God.

She said, “I founded the centre in 2005 and my vision was to empower the blind to become self-reliant and better versions of themselves. I started the centre from my two-bedroom flat in Surulere. I had 40 students, both male and female, as pioneers and they all had to share one toilet.

“This home, for me, is a divine calling. God gave it to me in my dreams. I abandoned my business and started the centre. People thought I was mad.

“We have challenges. We have over 127 students. Feeding, clothing and giving them education from primary to university are totally free. Even those who are done with school are still here until they can get a job before they can leave.

“Most of the kids here are totally abandoned. That is why we are a home, school and church. We don’t go on holiday. We have received help from individuals, organisations and churches. We started from just a vocational centre.”

She added that the church was open to as many persons who were blind and needed a place to worship God wholeheartedly.

She also encouraged fully sighted people to attend the services to see the wonders of blind musicians and preachers.

A senior psychologist at the Remz Institute of Research, Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, Usen Essien, said the coming together of the blind to feast and worship together might boost their morale, adding that they would know that they were not in their struggles alone.

“Whether it is a church, school, or arts and craft centre, when people of like minds and conditions come together, it aids acceptance and healing. By ‘healing’, in this case, I don’t mean physical healing but healing that comes from the inside,” he added.

A special educator with a government school in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, Nsemeke Eyoh, said incorporating a place of worship for blind students would help them to understand God in their own way.

She said, “The visually impaired are always alone. Even when they are with people; if you don’t speak to them, they would feel alone. So, they coming together to form a centre for them to approach God is a beautiful initiative that I encourage.”

She also pleaded with parents to not hide children who are living with any disability, adding that bringing them out might be the beginning of a ‘perfect’ life for them.

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