In Francisca Onyekachi Olamiju, you’d find a paradigm of how to help the helpless. She is a study in selfless service to humanity. A graduate of Lagos State University where she earned her Bachelors degree in Zoology, she also holds Masters in Medical Parasitology from the University of Lagos. Today, she is the Executive Director of MITOSATH, an indigenous Non-Governmental Organisation devoted to the treatment of river blindness and other Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs). In this interview with Saturday Sun, she talks to MAHMUD UMAR about the tasking and thorny challenges inherent in community service. Sacrifice, she says, is what service to humanity entails.
How did all of this start; your community work, I mean?
In 1993, during my final year in Lagos State University, I did my project work at Ibereko village, located along Badagry expressway. Our focus was on malaria and we had to collect blood samples from the local people. In those days, Ibereko village was an out-of-the-way community. There was no vehicle going that way; when you get off the road to Badagry, you’d have to embark on a strenuous journey into the interior on rough roads. The people sort of accused us that “you know our problem; you don’t want to solve it for us.” I remember promising them, that “don’t worry, one day we will come back and help you solve this problem,” even though I had no idea how. I had the conviction that something can be done to better these people’s lives. Though I have not been able to fulfill the promise I made to that community, the desire is still burning in my heart. I know that I still owe that community.
The idea for MITOSATH, how did you come about it?
It was during my National Youth Service. I served as a project assistant with AfriCare, an African-American organisation involved in the treatment of river blindness. We used to visit rural communities and check for cases of river blindness. Though based in Jalingo, we travelled to all the local government areas, especially the one we were mapping, Kurmi, which was very close to the Cameroon border. My interest waxed stronger when we visited Bali and other communities on the Mambilla Plateau road where a lot of people were afflicted with river blindness. I wondered why these people would go blind when there is a treatment drug. Back in Jalingo, I told my fellow corpers and they wouldn’t believe that there were blind people in that number.
How did that shocking discovery mature into a concrete initiative?
I went back to my boss, and took permission to do a documentary, if not for anything but to convince my fellow corps members of what I saw since some of them would not want to travel that far to see the situation. Along the line, the then state military administrator, Governor Yohana Mamman Dickson, heard about a corps member interested in making a documentary about the people’s plight. He provided us some media films and camera. Then documentary was expensive for a corps member, but with that support, we were able to do the documentary and it created some awareness. After I finished my youth service I went home. Not too long after, I heard that AfriCare had left. My first thought was for the blind people. My thought was that: If they are leaving, we have to get a Nigerian team on ground that would take over and go ahead with the programme. There was a corps member that used to publish Taraba Hall of Fame, a publication that contained information about the state’s Who’s Who, where we easily found the names of General TY Danjuma and a lot of other philantropist of Taraba origin. We decided to send letters and copies of the documentary to them.
Was it as easy as that?
It wasn’t quite easy. We couldn’t afford to type the letters at a computer centre. At that time we needed about N200 or N250, if we had that then we should have been able to type those letters, but we didn’t have such money. That was around 1995. What we stated in the letter was that we needed a vehicle to take us around to distribute those drugs; we weren’t thinking of having a big structure; our thought was to help those people. But along the line we discovered that we needed to set up a structure.
How many of you set out on this project?
I was not married then; back then, my husband was a colleague. We were together. He knew how interested I was in community work. There were a few others, about six people that were around the first day I voiced out the vision I had. Everybody saw the need to work together. We were about five, but there was no money to pay salary.
Didn’t your family insist you come back home after your service?
My family wanted me back as soon as possible. Taraba is far from home. Besides, they were worried about the language differences and the need for me to get a paid job, but for me really, life as a Christian is not really about the money you earn but the impact you make in the lives of people. Indeed, I would have loved to work and earn some money, but I don’t think it would have given me the kind of satisfaction I derive from making impacts in the lives of people.
Given that all of you were unemployed, how did you scale the hurdle of take-off fund?
The start-up fund we had was about N15, 000 which was donated to us by the then board members to enable us to kick-start activities. Precisely, we got our first funding from General Theophilus Yakubu Danjuma. The programme started in 1996. The basic activity then was to be able to get transport to Federal Secretariat, to meet with people who were helping us to put together proposals, and go to register our presence at the Federal Ministry of Health. We had no office initially. We started from the house where I was living at that time until a place was provided for us by one of the board members. People like Comptroller Nahum Haruna Angyu and General Danjuma, provided us the launching pad.
Did their involvement also solve the financial needs of the individual volunteers of the project?
After the initial donation, that is the first year funding, the first time we ever received any form of remuneration was when we had the first board meeting and one of the board members (one or two of them) offered to pay every one of us N3000 per month. That was in 1996. That happened for two months and he got tired. There was also a time when the operation fund was not forthcoming, after we had an accident and we lost a driver while we were going to the field. For about four years the fund (from General T.Y. Danjuma) wasn’t forthcoming. Other board members – Comptroller Angyu, the late Professor Olikoyi Ransome-Kuti, who was our first board chairman, and others were able to get us some funding, that kept us afloat until General Danjuma came back on board and continued his support.
If AfriCare had not left suddenly creating that window of opportunity, what would you have done instead?
I would have looked for jobs elsewhere and then do community service as a hobby. The fact that the international organisation left and there was no other person or group on ground to help the afflicted spurred me on. For me it was the passion; my reason was simple: maybe in the first year I wouldn’t have enough money but if I was able to reach two people that was enough for me – that to me was success.
What if the help you were expecting hadn’t materialized, what would you have done?
I would have continued seeking for help because as at the time we wrote to General Danjuma, we had written to other people, we wrote to all the people featured in the Taraba Hall of Fame, and I had the belief that one or two persons would respond. I also knew that we could go to churches and mission groups, to ask them for help. As for government, I had the belief that the government could help; it was just a matter of when or how.
Had your plan not worked out, what would have been your plan B?
Sacrifices. I remember not too long after my wedding, we had difficulties going to the field because we had issues with funding. But thank God for my husband, we had to practically dispose of some personal things to be able to get at least the drugs to the people who needed them that year. The Plan B was: whatever it takes we have to be there. I have had to arrive at Jalingo at 2 am at the time the programme was kicking up.
What personal sacrifices did you make to keep the project alive?
That would be when we disposed of some personal things to raise money to buy some drugs. This was at a time we had to restrategise. At that point, some of our colleagues had to leave, because they were growing, getting married and having families of their own. I had asked my husband: what do we do? There was neither staff, nor funding at that point in time. I can’t remember how much we had, but certainly it wasn’t a lot of money, and there was no food. All the funding we could find was what we had as our personal upkeep, but my husband was ready to make do with that. “Take this half and go do what will help you get these drugs for these people,” he said. Again, we needed to get to Lagos, it was a trip we must embark upon at that particular time – if we missed that timing it would be difficult to get the applications through to get the needed drugs. But we didn’t even have a driver. Again, my husband gave me a very strong support. He said: “Okay, I’ll drive you down there whatever it takes.” Those are moments I can never forget.
Aside funding, what other difficulties did you have to deal with?
Sometimes, travelling for a meeting, you wouldn’t know how you will be able to sit through that meeting, which sometimes took place outside the country. Sometimes, a senior colleague in the sector would give us the needed lift by offering “are you coming to this meeting, can we get you a ticket?” though they had no idea what we were passing through. It was such a lonely task. At times, we struggled to get to that meeting, and people forgot that we were there. Sometimes, I was moved to tears. I just wanted to cry because it was quite emotional I couldn’t take it. You could wait all day to see a board member; if that board member’s response fell below your expectation the rest of the planned programme is jeopardized. It was that bad. All through the hassles, I had a consolation: it wasn’t as if I couldn’t get a job; I was only begging to make sure that the next generations of people do not go blind.
How long did it take you to break even?
It took more than five years of hard work before we started getting recognition and support and it was because we were able to put ourselves in the right places, get ourselves to where others were in terms of meetings and conferences, where we tried to make our voices heard in the sector.
Didn’t those challenges make your faith to falter even if for a minute?
Even though I didn’t doubt the vision, there were pressures: the financial pressure, of getting fund to pay the staff as well as do the other activities; the emotional pressure was there as well – mine was a young family, I needed to stay at home with my husband and family but there was a task ahead that I had to do and deal with. Second, the fact that this is a local NGO, a Nigerian NGO, while all the others operating in Nigeria were foreign NGOs had its own peculiar challenges – there was nobody to learn from, so when the other renowned NGOs were talking, we could hardly join in with them: before you mention one or two things you have managed to do, people form those organisations would have shown the overall figures of their long achievement. Hence, to get a face in that sector was not easy; we needed to prove that we can deliver. More so, the people we were looking up to for assistance had their own doubts. In a lot of ways, we were condemned to set the pace and do things right.
When did you experience a turnaround?
That was in 2002. It is difficult to say really that we have arrived fully because each day brings new and different challenges in the communities that we serve. However, we can say that from 2002 we got more funds from donors and since then we have been able to work within planned budget. What I think attracted this donors to us is our past record and because we are also indigenous. One of our international donors in describing MITOSATH said we “put forward a very ambitious objective and we surpassed it.”
How big is the fund from international donors?
Donation is not only in cash; most times, it comes as drug donations. In 2012, we got about six million worth of Mexotan tablets. Mexotan is about 2.5 dollars per tablet. So, that is a whole lot of funding. Aside that, we get annual donations from MITOSATH donation programmes, which has been on for about seven years. We also get funds from Chevron and Shell, but the Niger Delta crisis affected us adversely in the last three years. We also get support from World Health Organisation. Then we have funding from Sapetro Oil company and also from the government who gives us staff, who go out and work with us, but most times we have to pay their wages.
How much is MITOSATH’s project worth now?
The international donation, the cash donation – the project’s worth right now is no less than N90 million annually.
What are the lessons you learnt out of all this?
We as Africans, as Nigerians, have to do more to help ourselves. Sometimes I would go for a meeting and would sit in a room of 5,000 people talking about problems in Africa and less than 10 per cent are Africans. You sit in a meeting and they tell you that “70 per cent of this problem is in Nigeria” and you look around and you can barely find Nigerians. The expatriates want to help, but how many of them can actually come and work with the security problems that we have? They have plans but their embassies would not allow them come; United Nations would not allow them come. You can’t blame them. Yet there are people who belong to these places, these villages, who know the way to pass to get to the needy there without getting hurt. Yet we don’t have enough people working in the development sector simply because people are not ready to make sacrifice – everybody would like to have a well paid job, made jobs.
I have also learnt that fund is not the first thing to look for when you are setting up an organization. The first thing is vision – the idea. When you have the idea well packaged, you might not see someone that would buy into it that day – sometimes not even in one year, or the next five years – but one day you will stumble into that person and at that point you’d barely have enough time to start packaging your idea. The lesson here is: be prepared – get your idea ready.
What plans do you have to expand your scope of operations beyond Taraba?
In 1996, we were able to treat 26, 000 people for river blindness. For us, it was a great achievement. In 2011, we treated about 1.5 million people. Between 2010 and 2011, we delivered five million treatments, in more than 1, 600 communities in Taraba State and we have distributed close to nine million drugs of different types treating neglected diseases. We have 13 paid staff both in Jos and Taraba, as well as personnel seconded to us by government. We started in one local government in Taraba State, now we cover 16 local governments in that state. We have also added four more diseases to our portfolio such as elephantiasis, bilharzia, and trachoma. Aside Taraba we support programmes, in Lagos and we also support programmes in Ondo State.
How do you hope to make a difference in the development sector?
There is a demand for training, not university training, but programme management training in the development sector. At MITOSATH, people who work with us are mostly greenhorns, people that just left school. Most development organisations hunt for people with as much as 10 years experience. That is not appropriate. It means you want someone with 15 years experience because you want a made person. You want to take zero risk. MITOSATH takes young people as interns. Thought it is a risk – because after we trained them, they are apt to leave for other organisations that offer them bigger salaries – but we are proud to say that we gave them the opportunity to learn.
Why didn’t you become a medical doctor instead?
When growing up, I thought I’d become a doctor, but I couldn’t stand the sight of blood. I don’t have the nerves to stand the sight of blood. I don’t like seeing anything that cruel or seeing people struggle or suffer. By my second year in the university, I knew there were other things I could do around the medicals without becoming a doctor.