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AT THE DOWN SYNDROME DINNER

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Ahaoma Kanu sort of stood up for all Nigerian men who are often accused of being unromantic. He literally brought the evening to a memorable climax. The compere, Yaw, the celebrated broadcaster of Wazobia FM fame, who had been co-ordinating the awards for different persons and organizations who have been supportive suddenly announced that the last award would be for Vanilla. She stepped forward. She is well known as a volunteer and has been actively involved all week. One of the children also walked towards Yaw. The hall was still full, and guests had followed the events of the evening with keen interest. The mood at the event had alternated between sobriety and sympathy, and the shedding of tears; but a successful event all the same, quite a number of guests had made generous donations. For a moment I thought Vanilla had elected to adopt a child as her own contribution to the Save-A-Life Project, and that was why she was getting an award.

Just then, Ahaoma Kanu who had been busy all evening and all week, seeing to this and that, waltzed towards the compere, paused in front of Vanilla, and went on his knees. With all eyes on him, and shared incredulity in the hall, he uttered the words: "Vanilla, will you marry me?" And the lady, initially flustered, considering the occasion and the crowd that was witnessing this life-changing moment said: "Yes," and then burst into a fitting smile. The audience applauded; some people screamed: "great," "fantastic," "nice". When last did anyone see a full-blooded Nigerian kneeling down for his fiancée in public to propose marriage?

Black men acquire their wives, they don’t marry them, and of late in the papers, there have been many stories about Nigerian men bludgeoning their wives and girlfriends to death, claiming provocation. Someone brought a bottle of champagne and served Kanu and his fiancée. All the children in the hall, together with Mrs. Rose Mordi and other volunteers rushed towards the new couple. I joined them too. We took photographs, amidst shouts of congratulations. The DeeJay, as the champagne forced its way out of the bottle and made a big pop, pouring all over the excited couple and the children, slotted in the famous track by Dr Sid and DBanj: "Pop, pop, pop, pop something…" People started dancing, particularly the children and the volunteers, as the guests began to take their leave…

It was with such joy and excitement that this year’s fundraising dinner and awards night of the Down Syndrome Foundation of Nigeria (DSFN) came to an end. What had begun as an occasion for drawing attention to the challenges of the unfortunate in our society who require support and encouragement, was in many ways a celebration of life and hope. The Down Syndrome children, in spite of their condition, were in a joyous mood. They had dressed specially for the occasion and you could see that they knew that this was about them, their event! This was on a day when politicians were busy misbehaving in Abuja, calling each other names over the Abuja bomb blasts of October 1. This is at a period when politicians are desperate seeking opportunities in the next elections, and yet no one of them has said anything about children in difficult circumstances in Nigeria. As usual, not many state governments turned up to support the event. The biggest official support that the Down Syndrome Foundation of Nigeria has received so far has been from the Lagos State Government.

In January, Mrs. Abimbola Fashola, the wife of the Lagos Governor donated a brand new bus to the Foundation. She often attends our events. The Deputy Governor, Mrs. Sarah Sosan has also been supportive, and at this year’s dinner, she was the Special Guest, and she came in person. It was also nice to see someone from Cross River: Mrs. Obioma Imoke, the Governor’s wife sent someone to represent her. But most of the people in attendance were non-government people, ordinary people who had responded to the Foundation’s invitation and had turned up to identify with the Down Syndrome Family. In spite of all the problems in this land, we get reminded again and again that there are still many kind-hearted persons in Nigeria, and it is one of those things that give us hope; perhaps if we could increase the number of such people in the corridors of power, we may well achieve the Nigeria of our dreams. During the fund-raising segment, one man donated an acre of land in Ikorodu for the building of the permanent site of the Down Syndrome resource centre. DHL, the courier company donated the sum of one million naira. The company’s Managing Director in addition attended the event. Other people gave their widow’s mite. When the children were shown in a documentary, I saw a few persons in the hall shedding tears when the children came together to make a final appeal: "Give us a chance." Even the stone-hearted will be moved.

But what the children need is not sympathy; they need support. One major area of support will be for governments at all levels to begin to take interest in the plight of children under difficult circumstances. Public funds can be saved from such expensive overheads as logistics and protocol and deployed to better use such as the saving of lives. Members of the National Assembly can spare a million naira each from their fat pay and support this kind of initiative and they should do so without insisting that the photographer must take their pictures and that CNN/local television stations must announce their donations! Foundations engaged in the care of street children, and children living with autism, Down Syndrome, HIV/AIDS, and orphaned children and so on deserve support. They have needs which the resources of volunteers and their few supporters cannot entirely address. It would have been better to provide more support for such groups rather than the wasteful golden jubilee jamboree which brought additional shame to Nigeria. The main problem however is that there is so much prejudice and stigma attached to this area of social work. Some people are afraid to associate with children living with Down Syndrome.

They think they are imbeciles, or the "rejects of the gods." Even their parents don’t want to identify with them publicly except for a few enlightened ones. Incidentally, many Down Syndrome parents even stay away from the Foundation’s activities. They don’t want to be photographed as a parent of a Down Syndrome child. They would rather dump their children with the care centre and have other people worry about them. We can all help in telling others that these children are not victims, and should not be treated as such. They just happen to be living with a condition that is irreversible: one unnecessary chromosome just shows up in the genetic make-up by a twist of biology and that is it – excess genetic material- and it is not necessarily hereditary. But when cared for, these children are capable of great humanism. They can be helped to acquire useful skills, live decently and fulfil their potentials. Their parents also need to be counselled and those who care for them need training.

The Down Syndrome Foundation of Nigeria has been kept going and has managed to achieve great success due to the commitment of a number of volunteers, led by Mrs. Rose Mordi, the tireless, kind-hearted and passionate woman who is the founder of the association as it then was, and now National President of the Foundation, and grandmother of all the children at the Resource centre at 43, Adegoke Street, Surulere, Lagos. She is supported by a Board of Trustees, and an indefatigable team of volunteers who work tooth and nail to get things done.

The energy and the commitment of this team is amazing: Ahaoma Kanu is a big source of inspiration for me; the energy that he throws into this selfless service encourages me to aspire to do more; we also have Chibuzor Ifeanyi, a quiet and effective flagbearer; he is Chairman of the Planning Committee, there is also Muyiwa Majekodunmi, the chief spokesman for the Foundation at public events, and you have Michael Ajayi, Kingsley Ita, Bruce Ugiomoh, Lawrence Okon and then the ladies, Amaka Awogu, Mosun Sofola, Moji Onafuwa, Cynthia Ogoke, Elizabeth Alebiosu, Mercy Samson, Elsie Akerele, Grace Bakare, Benny Chiedozie. These and others of their type are the people who should be getting Nigeria’s national awards, not those who became rich stealing public funds and who would never do anything for charity.

But given the challenges involved in this task and the increasing needs, the save-a-life project deserves the support of the larger population. The Down Syndrome Foundation of Nigeria seeks to transform the lives of people living with Down Syndrome by providing them opportunities to achieve their individual potential. This includes an Educational Programme focusing on Reading and Writing Skills, Numeracy Skills, Speech Development, Social Development, Vocational skills, and Perceptive Skills. It also has a rehabilitation programme for street boys and girls with Down Syndrome, organises counseling and enlightenment programmes, and can be called upon to offer house-to-house emergency service. The Foundation is entirely not-for-profit. In fact, many of the beneficiaries of its services have never had to pay a penny; and many parents, including those who dump their children on the Foundation are not major sponsors. At the moment, the Foundation needs to send eight children to India for corrective surgery: this will cost about N12 million. Every month, the Foundation spends One million Naira to maintain the care centre (the feeding of the children, their healthcare, the running of the generator, and the bus) and pay staff salaries (teachers and other support staff). The Foundation also publishes a magazine: Down 2 earth. Its long-term target is to build a comprehensive resource centre. Mr. Femi Giwa-Amu has donated an acre of land in Ikorodu. God bless him. MTN, First Bank Plc, Julius Berger, Tantalizers, DHL Express, Tranex, Grange School, and the media: The Guardian, Proshare, NTA, Nigeria Village Square, Next, Daily Independent, The Nation, National Daily, ThisDay, and Vanguard have all been supportive. We thank them all even as we play Oliver Twist and ask for more.

The greatest gift that God has given us is the gift of life. You too can advance God’s work and purpose by also helping to save a life. It is a worthy thing to do; and a decent way to be there for those that are vulnerable and need our help.

Jonathan And The North

President Goodluck Jonathan and his strategists need not lose sleep over calls by Adamu Ciroma and other Northerners that the President should resign because some bombs exploded in Abuja on October 1. Such calls are frivolous. Presidents don’t resign because some terrorists are at the door. That is precisely when they are required to stand up and stare the enemy in the face and stare him down. For the threat is ultimately, a threat to the integrity and the stability of the state.

Those who are playing politics with everything should be able to make the right distinctions between what is intelligent and what is downright mischievous. However, President Jonathan must be worried about something far deeper in terms of the responses of the North to his Presidency and his 2011 ambition: it is the manner in which the North is becoming united against him. That should frighten the rest of us.

In the long run, the biggest bomb in the Abuja incident was Henry Okah’s telephone interview in which he revealed that the Jonathan group wants to implicate Northern politicians as the architects. Since then, both the Jonathan campaign team and their Ijaw sympathisers have been targeting a particular candidate from the North. Coming after the long debate within the PDP over whether it is now the turn of the North or not to complete the Yar’Adua tenure, any attempt to isolate the North or its candidates as the threat to Nigeria could have far-reaching consequences.

PDP Northern Presidential aspirants have already spoken with one voice on the bomb incident. Should they decide to announce a consensus candidate as they have been threatening, and they successfully do so, that will change the nature of the game. If Babangida emerges, then it will be a do-or-die encounter at the PDP primaries. If Saraki is the consensus candidate, then Jonathan can no longer talk about youthfulness. If it is either Atiku or a PDP outsider like Buhari, the effect will just be as devastating. If the Jonathan group still wins at both the primaries and the election, the North may be left feeling hurt.

Yet in all of this, there appears to be less talk about the people or scrutiny of the persons aspiring to become the CEO of Nigeria Plc, and their policies. The tone of current politics is dangerous for Nigeria and its democracy. Jonathan should act the statesman and begin to talk to the North and its aggrieved children within the PDP and not respond to the bait for a ‘roforofo’ fight which serves no abiding purpose.

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