The Physically Challenged are Part of Us – Bishop Ezeokafor

By Uche Enem

The Catholic Bishop of Awka Diocese, Most Rev Paulinus Ezeokafor, has rolled out the diocese’s plans to accommodate the physically challenged and make things easier for them. In this interview with Fides Media Director, Rev Fr Dr Martin Anusi and Uche Enem, the Bishop explains how it will be done, while advising the youths on how to become better and fulfill the dreams of their parents.

(Editor’s note: This interview was conducted just before Christmas and reported as news on the front cover of Fides’ Christmas edition. But we promised to publish the full interview after Christmas.)

Over the past few weeks, there have been series of end-of-year school functions like the end of the year party, investiture and lots more. What is your message to the youth as they return home for their Christmas celebration? What do you tell them, to help them celebrate in the spirit of the Child of Bethlehem?
In every arrangement, people look at the end and evaluate what they have been able to achieve. The year is ending, and we have Christmas which is a celebration that has engulfed everybody, whether Christian or non-Christian. There are always activities and events and we know that young people are very vital in our arrangements. It is the way we prepare young people that will determine the meaning of our own lives.

I am happy that people are trying to arrange things for young people. We must put into cognizance that whatever we are doing for them will be those things that will help them to prepare themselves and grow as better citizens in society and around them.

The youth should concentrate on those things that will make them realize their future. In this regard, parents and guardians should assist them to grow, nurture them and take care of them. The Latin adage says that, ‘Nemo dat quod non habet’ (You cannot give what you don’t have). These children can only give out what they have acquired and if we prepare them well, the future will be fine for all of us. I am one of those who strongly believe that we should work for ourselves to make life better. Personally, I will not prefer to die before my children because I would like to get a portion of what they have gained and acquired.

As they return home, they should use this period to learn from their parents, things they should do to grow better. If the youths are not guided well, they may destroy their future. Among young people, there are certain habits they acquire, whether good or bad. Like they say, habits don’t go easily. People who are doing well in life do so because they decided to envelop good habits and it became a part and parcel of them

Christ loves children and young people and that is why when people were blocking children from meeting Jesus, Jesus said to them, ‘Allow them, they are for the kingdom of God’. These children are for the present and for the future and what they will get in the future depends on the type of formation, training and assistance given to them. They are very vital to us
My message for them is for them to prepare well for the Christmas. Celebrate it well in the spirit of Christmas according to the mind of Christ.

Some youths see Christmas from its Christ reference, but many others see Christmas just as a period to enjoy life. Such thoughts lead many of them into such vices as arm robbery, sexual promiscuity and other juvenile delinquencies. What’s your advice to young people about this growing mentality among them?
Well, their mentality of seeing Christmas as a time to eat and enjoy and even commit sin is not good. Christ is coming! He came to the earth over 2000 years ago and people saw him and met with him. Christ’s coming during Christmas celebration is not a Christ physically present, but it is a Christ we will meet in the spirit and it is only those with clean hearts that will see him. Other things like the entertainment, eating, dressing we do at Christmas, are within the material level. But at the spiritual level, it should be higher. In Christmas, we see people trying to get money through cheating and other bad acts. We have some people who eat and drink to the extent that they render themselves useless. We have some others who engage in sexual immorality. Christ’s coming is a sign of God’s love to us by redeeming us from sin and amending what was damaged by the fall of our first parents. It will be more damaging if at the end of the day, instead of celebrating the Christ who has come to give us life in abundance, we then enter sin which is separating us from God.

I get so worried when I see young people living a bad lifestyle or developing a bad habit because once it becomes part of them, it is difficult to correct in the future. It is expected that this celebration should be an opportunity to purify ourselves better as children of God. It is a wrong impression and attitude by misplacing the priority that Christmas is a time to eat and drink. Christmas is a time to live a sober life, to meditate in the life of Christ who came for us.
Christmas activities are material notwithstanding, but the spiritual aspect must be in the fore front. So, I would want the youth to focus their mind fully on the true celebration by welcoming Christ in their hearts and learning to live Christ like lives. They should welcome Christ by tying to be like him and beaming the light others can see.

A number of Western countries are institutionalizing abortion. Child trafficking and sexual abuse have taken disturbing dimensions in recent times. What do you tell our young people on how to face these issues in a world that seems to be profiting economically from these evils? What do you say about this, especially given the degree at which these influence our young people?
Well, it is unfortunate that some of us have misplaced priority by not having the real sense of what life is. Firstly, the issue of abortion which means killing an innocent person who has not in any form provoked you at all.; Killing an unborn child is aggression that is crying to heaven for vengeance. Life has the highest value that can never be offered as an alternative. You can give so many things to people in return, but you can never offer a new life. Life is a special gift from God and no human being should interfere with it. God himself arranged things in such a way that there is a process to everything. To get a child has its own process but because we want to see beyond our nose or run faster than our shadows, people go into activities that lead them into having a child when they don’t really want to have a child. If by any means, through accident or design, you have conceived a child, you must keep the child, deliver the child and give the child life.

Child trafficking is ridiculous. God arranges things in such a way that those who cannot afford children have them, while those who can afford them, don’t. In child trafficking, we talk of people who sell these children for business. It is so complicated and there are so many things involved. Poverty makes people become deceived and that is why they migrate to other countries thinking they could easily get greener pasture. Human being cannot be traded upon like animals. They must be respected! Because of the connectedness in the world today, the young people like to experiment and that is why they always have strong ambition to do something wonderful which has led to many being deceived. Like people say, ‘Experience is the best teacher in life’ and young people like experimenting a lot. Therefore, this is why some people stumble there, crash there and by the time they have realized themselves, it becomes late to correct or amend.

I want these young people to be careful about the way they live their lives and should have nothing to do against an unborn child. They should be very careful so as not to be deceived into getting into slavery by way of making money.

Notwithstanding, there are legitimate ways and proper ways of child trafficking which is adoption and it works fine. I have seen a family who adopted all their children and they are living fine. It gets bad when we sell a child for 200 Naira or make a child feel worthless. Even a good cow cannot be sold at 100,000 Naira, let alone selling human beings with all their beautiful qualities. This means making nonsense of the value of life. Life is the greatest value and it must be respected.

Many students complain against high tuition fees in non-government owned schools. What efforts is the Church making through her own schools to alleviate the hardship?
This issue has come up times without number. The federal schools are cheaper. Then when it comes to the state level, it becomes higher a bit and when it comes to private, it becomes highest. The reasons are obvious.

Firstly, the subsidy the federal government gives to their institutions is quite high and that is why the salaries of federal schools are higher than state schools. What they put in per capita of a student as a subsidy is very high. When it comes to the state level, they try what they could do depending on the capacity of the state, the availability of government and the person at the hem of affairs. Every private school, whether mission or individual, depends solely on what they collect from the students. There is no subsidy. This is what I have been advocating in Anambra State, to get grant-in-aid which was given to mission schools before the war to cushion the cost of education. Education is very expensive. We thank the former governor and the present one who is trying his best. I advocated for it again the day we had the Awka Diocesan Education Summit for a yearly support. It will enable us to budget and plan our activities better. But now, such funds come when they feel comfortable doing it.

Education is expensive! It is from what we get, we use to pay and run the school. Because of the nature of our schools, we try to accommodate everybody. If we lower the cost of what we get from the students so much, we cannot get qualified and proficient teachers. Just the way we say, ‘Good soup na money make am” Lowering the fees means lowering the standards. The Catholic Church believes that education is very vital to everyone and any sane man must accept it. We know that for a society to move forward, we must educate the people. The Church owns schools not basically to make money; but to train and prepare people for the future.

My position is that, surely, we will try to see how we can take care of those that are disadvantaged. This is where we offer scholarships and make subsidies. Those who can afford it should pay and we cannot reduce cost of running to be so low that we won’t get the quality. It is the quality of the teachers that helps promote the school. We also call on some people to sponsor these students. There are some people who can get money and decide to sponsor some students. When I went to Bubendorff School, Adazi Nnukwu, the PTA teachers were almost 70 percent of the teachers. People say that our schools are doing well and the only reason is because of the quality of teachers we have, and we cannot get them without paying them well. Good teacher, more money!

Our solution, to an extent, is to get good spirited individuals to give subsidies. For example, if the school fee is N40,000, the subsidy will make them pay N20,000. We are already in it and it is in our target. We wouldn’t like to exclude Peter University when it kicks off. Those who can afford school fees will pay and those who have will even pay more because if you have, you pay so that others can partake.

Unemployment is very high among school graduates in Nigeria. Many young people question whether it is worth it to spend the years they do in school. How do you think we can collectively correct the growing mentality of the youth that ‘Education is a scam’?
This is really a very serious question because it is the reality on ground. When I finished my secondary school, I got a job, even though the salary was minimum. And those who did philosophy and left the seminary were waited for like hot cakes. Those who were graduates got picked by companies even in their final year. But now, once you leave secondary school, you can’t get a job and even when you finish your first degree, second degree, third degree, Masters, and PhD, there is no job.

Personally, I feel with them. I ask myself, what will be the impetus or what will be driving them to work? We work so that we can arrive somewhere. More than 80 percent of those studying today are still working for their meal tickets. They are studying to become something great and to feed themselves. In some societies, acquiring knowledge is the main thing because their family background has arranged everything for them and so there is a company work available; but here, we have to look for a job, feed ourselves and even our parents and family members. With this type of situation, it is always terrible and difficult.

How do we encourage parents who have graduates they still give pocket money? And how do we encourage these children who have really worked hard and acquired education? This is endless because surely more graduates are put into the labour market and less provision for them.

I will not call education a scam because knowledge is still very vital. The days of white-collar jobs are over somehow. I am happy when the government said that before you leave secondary school or university, students must have a handwork.

I can recall that when I was at Akpu Seminary, there was a young man who was studying Building Technology in Oko and he was coming with a contractor and also working with them. By the time he graduated from Oko, he floated his company immediately and he is working up till today. As you do your study, never abandon learning skills. There was a time in the past when Teachers’ Grade 2 Certificate was no longer considered anything. But at a stage, they needed teachers and the certificates became important. You cannot say there is no job, while you have no certificate. Acquire the certificate first and we pray that the country will be better because whether we like it or not, we have what it takes to live a comfortable life in this country. Jobs could be created if things are arranged so well. Our economy is so rich and huge, and all hands must be on deck to change the situation. We can understand the plight of both parents and their children. Let them not give up.

It is generally believed that good focus on youth formation and good education will reduce crime rate. In this regard, do you think that the youths are given the needed attention by individuals, establishments and the government? What is the Church doing to help and what are the best ways the Church can empower the youths in fulfilling their dreams and living Christ like lives?
The youth are our focus and all hands must be on deck to make meaning out of their lives. They can never achieve their dreams without our support and care. It is we that will provide the things that will guide them to climb up the ladder in order to represent us effectively. An idle mind is a devil’s workshop. When a young person has nothing doing, he in open to so many crimes. There was a time the government was talking about extending time for retiring.

Instead of extending retirement time, you can reduce it and employ more young people. Because a man of 65 or more cannot take you to the forest to kidnap you. He may die before you; but a young man of 25 years old can stay in the forest for one month without eating. When young people are busy, they commit less crimes and have less evil thoughts because they are working to achieve something. We have a big responsibility to educate young people by giving them something to do. We need to give the youths attention, even within our church arrangement. For example, from the period of confirmation till marriage, there is a big gap. We are working on how to organize various programmes on what to guide the youths until they get married. We want to engage them in various social activities. As a Church, we cannot toy with their future, rather we must empower them. Self fulfilment is joyful and so, it is painful if our dreams are not fulfilled

Also, the youth must be able to dispose themselves so that they can be helped. I insist that whatever you are studying in the university, you must learn to acquire a skilled job. The job market is over saturated and therefore, as a Church, we do not have all the answers; but we try our best; because when they are happy, we are happy too.

Have you ever had any encounter with physically challenged people? Could you share your experiences with us?
I encounter them on a regular basis because the nature of our profession makes it easy to encounter people like that. People come, either through asking for help or some other thing. I can’t say that I don’t know the situation. I can remember when we finished St. Patrick’s College, the ramp was not in the building plan. The ramp was initiated later. The inspiration for that ramp came as a result of a woman who used a tricycle made for physically challenged persons. She said to me, ‘My Lord, there is no provision for people like us into this school’. I reasoned with her because I knew there was no way they could get into that school through the staircase. So, we started building the ramp which took us about N2.2 million which I know if it was in the initial plan, it wouldn’t be up to a million. That they are physically challenged doesn’t mean they are not capable people. Some of them are more talented than most of us that are physically excellent. God is so wonderful that if he denies you of something, another one comes up.

My younger brother is physically challenged. He goes on crutches. I can remember what we went through to get him educated. Firstly, he was sent to St Charles, Onitsha. People were very kind to him, helping him but he wasn’t comfortable with it. I know that if he had his two legs, he would have been the sharpest and most intelligent. Nature has kept them in a tight corner by one deficiency or the other but at the same time, when one door closes, another door opens. When they display their talents, it is always wonderful.

Some of them are beautiful and talented musicians. We need to encourage them and not to add to their already difficult situation. Sometimes, when I close my eyes for some seconds, I really imagine what is going on and how it feels to be blind for a few seconds. Some people say it is better to be blind at birth than later. While some will say it is better they see a little and know how the world looks before they go blind. Yet some others will say it is better to be blind at the beginning than later, so that you don’t know what people are seeing.

If at any time they sue the Church, they must get it because it means that we have excluded some people and they have that right. We must concentrate and give these people meaning in life. We need to help them as much as possible. Any structure we make now, we must put a ramp. We will try to educate our people to see them as part of us. Some prefer to beg while some others prefer not to be lazy.

December 3, 2019, was the International Day for persons living with disability. It was postponed in Anambra State. And December 20, 2019, there will be a Christmas Carol organized by the Anambra State Government. It is of interest that those living with disability will present their special choir that day. These show that great attention is being focused on people with special needs. Has the Diocese any plan to focus her attention on these people?
Well, surely, the nature of the Church is to take care of the needy and people in difficulty. We have seen some of the things the government is doing, I know in some parishes, they have something like this, but at the diocesan level, we will arrange and give them more attention.

They are the people who need our attention more than others. Their physically challenged situation is already a cross they are bearing; therefore, we must make less their burden by appreciating them and trying to make provision for them. We will provide things for them to be self-sustaining and remove as many as possible from the streets because if someone is trained well and meant to understand that there is ability in disability, society becomes better.

Through these trainings, the person buys the idea and lives it out. Everybody has a disability in one way or the other. The Church has been helping them on an individual level, but it is time to focus on it at the diocesan level. We are doing that by giving them jobs and taking care of other needs, but I think it is an area of necessity we must do something urgently.
We encountered a young man on wheelchair in attendance at Mass at Archbishop A.K. Obiefuna Retreat Centre, Okpuno. But there is no way he could enter the Church by himself except there are people around to carry him. This incident calls to mind the need for Accessibility pathways in public places, especially in churches and schools. This is to enable such people to have access to these places. We have been able to do it at Fides. Our question is whether the Bishop can help by calling attention to parishes and other church establishments and schools to make accessibility pathways a necessary part of their buildings.
We are aware of an outstanding example at St. Michael’s Catholic Church, Nanka, where the church, the chapel, the grotto, e.t.c., all have accessibility pathways for those on wheelchairs. Your thoughts on this.

We have discussed it at the Diocesan Building Committee. The only thing is that we haven’t spoken to the priests in general about this. The Retreat Centre ramp will be done immediately. The world is revolving, and things are changing. We need people to speak about this. This is very vital, and we will start discussing it with the priests at the general get together so that even old structures, if possible, could get a ramp. One person cannot be excluded. Everyone should have equal opportunities. In the gathering of our priests by January, they will be informed about it.

On the building committee, we are preparing guidelines for buildings in the diocese and every building must be accessible no matter how bad. The idea is a good one.

I thank God that our concern this time has been on the youths, taking care of them and preparing them for the future so that they can take care of us. If you abandon them, they will leave you. That is why I tell parents to be close to their children because after some time, the children will begin to see them as foreigners. If you take care of the children, they will see more reasons they should feed the hand that prepared them. And so, I wish all of us, Merry Christmas and may the New Year bring so many blessings to us. The parents, guardians, children, young people, should all struggle together and work for the good of society because we believe the world will be better if we join hands to prepare ourselves in reciprocity. Life will be better.