Wheelchairs for Nigeria

Breakdown in the Bush

Dr. Ron Rice

Darkness had descended with a vengeance as it does in the tropics, unlike the lingering twilight we are used to in Seattle. We were anxiously trying to get to Agwanga to spend the night with our colleagues, John and Char Lotzgesell, recently arrived to teach Christian Studies at the College of Education there. If we hadn't been having car trouble, we would have almost been there by now, but Akwanga was still two hours away. Finally Danny McCain's old Hyundai jeep sputtered and backfired for the last time and gave up the ghost.

Driving at night is very dangerous in Nigeria and we try to avoid it as much as possible. Nigerians all have stories about themselves or friends who have encountered logs or big stones across the road in a lonely place at night, with armed robbers relieving all passing vehicles and passengers of their valuables -- or worse. Equally dangerous is to break down in a dark lonely place as we did. Trucks and decrepit old vehicles break down all the time and drivers sleep till morning on the ground underneath, with little risk. But an expensive vehicle broken down beside the road, obviously belonging to a "big man," would be a very tempting target. Even worse would be a white man inside: easy prey.

We were returning from a big wheelchair presentation in Kogi State, at a leadership conference of the Christian Evangelical Fellowship of Nigeria. At least 2000 were present in the huge church, as we presented wheelchairs to 30 disabled children and adults and folding white canes to 5 blind folks. The congregation had been very responsive to my talk and Ayuba's talk, as it was translated into Igala. What an inspiration my partner, Ayuba Gufwan, is to all these disabled folks -- the first university graduate in the history of his village, despite walking on his hands from polio and not able to go back to the 4th grade until he was 19, when his uncle built him his first wheelchair. When Ayuba climbs out of his station wagon with hand controls, everything stops, because Nigerians have never seen a disabled man with his own vehicle. Together Ayuba and I have now built and donated 985 of our 3-wheeled self-pedaled wheelchairs, as far as we know more than any other organization in this vast country.

Normally I ride in Ayuba's old Passat station wagon to these wheelchair presentations, most at least 3 or 4 hours away. But this one in Ayingba was at least 7 hours each way, and we decided to use Danny's big jeep, because it has air-conditioning (!) and we thought it would be more dependable and safer on Nigeria's dangerous highways. Thomas, one of our two wonderful drivers, but not a mechanic, would drive.

The day before, Ayuba had engaged a truck to transport the 30 wheelchairs the long distance to Ayingba. When the boys at our shop had finished loading the truck, the driver tried to extort more money than the agreed upon $250. Threatening to unload the wheelchairs and get another truck, but knowing time was running out, Ayuba finally gave him an extra 1000 Naira ($7) and they were on their way. Accompanying the truck was our friend Samuel Alifa, Christian Studies lecturer at the Federal College of Education in Kano, who barely walks with his club feet, and who had been working for two years to arrange this presentation in his home town and home denomination. Also riding along was Dantani, the young man from our shop who would reassemble the partially dismantled wheelchairs when they arrived.

Back at the breakdown in the dark, Ayuba and Thomas would not let me out of the jeep. "Your safety is our number one priority," Ayuba told me. "We Nigerians can always manage, but a white man is too easy a prey." I knew it was an electrical problem, but we had already checked everything we could think of that might be wrong, to no avail. Now in the dark we didn't even have a flashlight, and Ayuba's cell phone was out of range of the network. I started to pray. Suddenly out of nowhere in the pitch dark, two young men appeared. After a brief conversation with Thomas, they left and soon returned with more people. They started to push and I jumped in the driver's seat to steer. About 35 yards down the road was a tiny break in the 6 foot high grass which lined the highway. Thomas ran ahead and motioned for me to steer into this tiny footpath, and they pushed the jeep another 35 yards into a clearing, lined with several mud-brick houses. I was incredulous. Here was a Tiv family compound, miles from nowhere, completely hidden from the busy two-lane highway. Here the jeep would be safe for the night.

I jumped out to thank the young men, told them about our wheelchair project, and that I was a pastor. "We're Deeper Life," they said. "Then I know we can trust you," I responded, for Deeper Life is probably the most conservative and strictest major denomination in Nigeria. What an amazing answer to prayer, that these angels of mercy came out of nowhere to provide us a safe refuge, in a lonely and dangerous place, in the middle of the African bush.

The decision was made that Thomas and Dantani, who was riding back with us, would stay with the jeep, and they would try to flag down a "taxi" (decrepit small vans which ply the main roads, trying to jam as many people and farm produce in as possible) for Ayuba and me. We would try to get to Lafia, the next major city, an hour further, find a hotel and return in the morning with a mechanic. Thomas would wait at the road in the morning so we wouldn't miss the tiny footpath. In a few minutes a small van stopped, with plenty of room, and for $6.50 for the two of us, we were actually able to get a ride the two hours all the way to the main gate of the College of Education in Akwanga. When we got in cell phone range, Ayuba was able to send a text message ahead to John Lotzgesell and he met us at the gate. Again, we were amazed at how God had provided.

In the morning we called Andrew, our main driver and mechanic back in Jos, and learned that the likely problem was a small plug in the ignition wiring that sometimes worked loose. John drove his car with Ayuba the two hours back to the jeep, while I stayed at the Lotzgesells. (Ayuba didn't want to have to look out for two white men!) Thomas gave the imperceptibly loose plug a squeeze, the jeep started right up, and by 10:30 they were back. Thomas was famished, but when he started giving food and drink to Dantani, a Muslim, I stopped him. "He's fasting." (This is still the month of Ramadan.) Thomas and Ayuba explained that because there was no food available before sunrise that morning, Dantani had broken his fast that day. But he would have to make it up after Ramadan. In another two hours of driving we were back in Jos, safe and sound, thankful that God had protected us so miraculously.

We have presented 60 wheelchairs so far this trip, but our two major presentations scheduled this Wednesday are on hold. A couple of days ago the Muslims calculated from the moon that Ramadan is to end Tuesday, which means Wednesday and Thursday will be national holidays.

We presented 85 folding white canes at the graduation of the Vocational School for the Blind outside of Jos. I publicly challenged all the government officials present to do more to support this desperately poor place, where they have not had electricity or water for 2 years and get very few supplies and food. "I don't know your system," I said, "but either the Plateau State Government is not appropriating enough money, or it is being chopped" (stolen in bureaucratic corruption -- most likely). The Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Women's Affairs and Social Services took offense at my remarks, but Ayuba and all the blind people and staff silently cheered. Hopefully the public calling to account will bring about some changes. I felt that providing all the folding white canes, plus 50 bundles of jute for weaving mats -- almost a year's supply, had earned me the right to speak up. Of course the principal and staff of the blind school don't dare say anything, for fear of losing their jobs. Sharon thinks we're getting out of town just in time, because I've done something similar at a couple of Local Government offices.

As we head back to Seattle next week, I realize I have to work even harder to get the word out about this project. I hate for it to have to slow down. As we get out into neighboring states, we are finding even greater needs. At every wheelchair presentation we get more names and see more disabled people who desperately need wheelchairs. One Local Government official told us last week about the presentation in his area, which I missed, and how he was deeply moved by a crippled boy who showed up, but since his name was not on the list, was taken back home, heartbroken, in a wheelbarrow.

If you would like to contribute, please visit the donation page for more information. I also have several videos I would be happy to send so you or your group can see the need with your own eyes.

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