Dr Gabriel Oyediji is the General-Secretary, Association of Orphanages and Home Operators in Nigeria, ASOHON. As a child, growing up it was hellish as he suffered deprivation and rejection for a reason he still guesses till date. In this interview, he speaks on the motivation for championing the cause of the Nigerian child, challenges of running orphanages in Nigeria as well as other issues affecting the Nigerian child.
Looking back at life @ 60, what major lesson would you say life has taught you?
Life is all about living and loving. It is also about impact. The beauty and value of life is not about what you achieve as an individual but how you are able to affect the lives of others; it is the impact you are able to make in the lives of others; how you have become a source of blessing to other people. The biggest assignment in life is making impact in other people’s lives. That has been my utmost desire, to see people thanking God because of my existence. Our essence in life will always be measured by the number of people we are able to affect positively. There is no sense living in affluence while your neighbour is wallowing in poverty. You need to share with people and let other people live.
What was your growing up like?
My growing up was traumatic. It was extremely traumatic. If suicide was cheap, I would have attempted it when I was less than 20. I experienced all manners of deprivation, all manners of rejections, all sorts of alienation and lovelessness, unprecedented and unwarranted lovelessness. I saw what I can call emotional abuse and neglect. I did a lot of crying and nothing suggested I could amount to anything in life; nothing suggested any value would ever come from me in life until God took me up, visited and turned things around for me. It was that bad, bad by the reason of my birth. My father died a month before I was born. I think my mother raised me up under the fear of how I would survive and how she would cope. She hadn’t come out of the depression of widowhood by the time she gave birth to me and that was a big juncture in her life, a sad reality when the husband died suddenly before my birth. My father was a police officer and we don’t even know till today whether his death was a case of murder or whether he died naturally. So, it was a big challenge for my mother and that is why I will continue to celebrate that woman. It had to be her and me, although I have other siblings. She is a person I could point to that had deep feeling for me; she gave me an unforgettable help and back up in life. She passed on at the age of 92 and I decided to set up an orphanage in her name. Thank God for my eldest sister too and my other siblings. The journey was a very rough one, rough in many parts: was it the time of sickness that could not be diagnosed medically? I had to leave home for three and a half years because of it.
You said if suicide was cheap you would have opted for it. What solace did you get that made you not to consider suicide?
At every point when I considered that decision, a natural encouragement would come; something would just encourage me to trust in God. My major problem and what escalated my fear in life was that I focused more on the family I came from. My family was one of the ten richest families in my town that were supporting people and helping the village, sending people abroad. If I go to my village and ask for help I can’t get help because they would think I have come to deceive them. My family name was everywhere and many people were looking up to it for help. So there was nowhere I could get help when people realise I am from that family. It was like a son of Dangote going to knock at people’s door to beg for job. Who will give me a job? But when I shifted my focus from the family just like Esther who said, “if I die, I die,” things began to change. I said to myself that if I had to sweep the floor, if I had to carry loads in the market, if I had to hawk in the market, I would survive. It dawned on me after waiting for sometime thinking that one day the family wealth would rub on me. But I realised it was not coming so I had to make the decision to look elsewhere. So I went all out to take all the risks others were afraid of. I made up my mind that I was going to succeed in life not minding what it would cost me. I made up my mind that I would do anything apart from stealing, to succeed. I also made up my mind not to mention my family name because I knew I would not get any job with that name. Oyediji is my name but sometime I had to say it was Oyedeji. Rather than the family become an asset to me it became a baggage, it became an obstacle to getting help.
Your deprivation as a child was occasioned by your father’s demise. How do you feel seeing children with both parents in such situation?
As I said, that’s what motivated my decision to set up an orphanage and that is why I have also chosen to live with children passing through similar road. I could have lived elsewhere but I choose to live with them because I want to be a father figure to them. That is why I stand to defend them, even in their school if anybody tries to molest them, I try to fight on their behalf because I believe they need defense, they need security, social and emotional stability. My case was a case of emotional abuse. I was neglected and alienated. I didn’t know what was responsible and it was more spiritual than physical but there was no reason for it. But today, the same place where I was abused, I have become somebody everybody in that place wants to see. Even my stepfather, who never looked at me with mercy for one day to the extent that I had to walk up to him and asked him what my offence was but he had no answer for my question. Some forces just sealed up his heart against me and made him not to have empathy for me. I left home for three and a half years, I didn’t really know if he asked after me. But now that things have turned out the way it is, I have become sought-after. I have now become the person God is using to solve every problem. In life no one knows the child that will take care of him, it is only God that knows. But I won’t blame them for treating me that way because I don’t know what they saw that made them react that way but I saw myself as a victim of some strange circumstances like Moses. Let me give you an instance, in those days I would go out to play football and many of my mates would gang up against me and give me with many hard tackles and I would not fall down but whenever I retaliated, one of them might go home with injuries. Later, they would come to report me and then I could be punished by not going out to play football for months.
You said you were from a polygamous family, don’t you think the treatment meted out to you was transferred aggression? Perhaps your father didn’t quite like your mum?
No. this is the fact: I was born a month after my father died, so I didn’t know if my father had any issue with my mother. It was my stepfather who took over my mother as tradition demanded then. They just said my mother could not be allowed to go and marry an outsider after having four children for my father. But what I guess that happened in my case, which I still notice now is that there is this cultural belief: Babarinsa (father runs away because of me). If your father dies before you were born or your mother dies when she was giving birth to you, they will term you as a child of adversity. They won’t tell you but they will regard you as a child of adversity. In my own case, I was purely a victim of circumstance.
Since you established the orphanage, have you ever had a reason to contemplate shutting it down?
Yes, it is not very easy running an orphanage particularly when you have to work with the government. Most policies of the government are capable of discouraging people. I am the national secretary of all orphanages in Nigeria and they refer cases to me which we sort out. The biggest issue facing orphanages is in relating with government. And this is a matter of distrust. They will always think you have a hidden agenda. Some feel you are merchandising, others feel you are doing it for some financial gain; and all kinds of notions that are very discouraging. In school we learnt of demand and supply but in relating with government it is only demand, no supply. Government does not offer any financial support yet we must follow their directives. There are some policies formulated by government that are not in the interest of the children. We live with the children and know what they want more than anybody. Government will say things should be done in the best interest of the child.
The term, to me, is subjective because what is the best in the interest of a child might not be in the best interest of another child. Those policies hamper progress most of the time but you have to obey. If they say they want to give a child out for adoption and you know the family wishing to take up the child cannot take care of the child, you may find yourself under some pressure. We had a similar matter which was recently ruled in our favour after about a year. The family was well known in the neighbourhood and because of the disposition of the woman we felt the family was not suitable for the child. But the family involved leveraged on its influence and got the backing of somebody who we expected would take side with us. So we had to get the child in question a lawyer and we were in court for over a year until the case was determined in our favour. Another painful experience we had was that of another child. One day, a call just came that they were looking for a child who had lived in the home for eight years. Just over the night, the call came that they had seen the grandmother of the child and requested if we could bring the child to them the following day. We told them it was not possible because we were yet to see the mother and we were yet to carry out DNA test but they insisted we should bring the child to them. So, I told them we didn’t have a vehicle to bring the child. The next day we just saw a governments vehicle coming to pick the child.
What happened? That child was a grand-child of a popular actress. When the child was given birth to, the son of the actress who fathered the child denied the paternity. So he and the mother of the child went and dumped the child in a day care before police brought the child to us. The father relocated to London. So after years of childlessness he was told that except he was able to find the child he abandoned somewhere there was no way he could have any child again. That was why the search for the abandoned child started. Should we not be carried along in such situation? I don’t know the grandmother, I don’t know the mother, nobody came to say thank you for keeping the child for eight years. Those are the discouraging times I felt like closing down the home. Working with government has never been easy.
Why do we continue to experience violence and incessant infringements on the rights of the Nigerian child?
It is even getting better because now we are promoting and shouting all over the place that the child has a right. There are lots of hindrances. The children are powerless and voiceless. Children are sent away when decisions are being made about them; they are not allowed to vote and they don’t have voice anywhere, that is the first problem. There is also a feeling of parental autonomy: I am the owner of my child and I can do whatever I like to him. So when we are advocating against that, they will say we want to spoil the Nigerian child. They will even quote the Bible where it says spare the rod and spoil the child. But we will always tell them that that is not the rod the Bible talks about. Because if it so, the Psalmist would not say, “thy rod and thy staff comfort me”. How can the rod comfort him if they have been slamming the rod on his head? The rod the bible talks about is direction, shepherding and not the other way round. We have been advocating against some abusive culture which people are not ready to stop, but now we have some centres where people can report cases of abuse against the children. We have telephone lines a child can pick. We have family courts that will not compromise against the child. We have over 20 states that have bought into this but the northern family is still saying the Child’s Rights Law is against their customs and culture, and they feel they have family autonomy to handle their children. Essentially, before we can get the problem permanently solved there must be early life intervention. We are responding to issues. I have been advocating a pre-natal counseling that even in maternity wards our people go there to tell them that the child to be given birth to is not the one you can treat anyhow.