Wheelchairs for Nigeria

Wheelchairs from Jesus - Chapter Two

Dr. Ron Rice

Early Friday morning we set out on the 11-12 hour trip north to Jos. Fortunately we were able to off-load the 300 heavy teachers' manuals in Abia in anticipation of this future distribution and training workshop, so on the return trip the jeep didn't hit bottom quite so often on the punishing potholes.

Returning from a long trip to Abia State and other states in southeast, the plan was to meet my partner in the wheelchair ministry, Ayuba Gufwan, about halfway. Andrew and Reuben would return to Jos, and Ayuba and I would travel east to a rather remote part of Taraba State for a presentation of 30 wheelchairs on Saturday morning. This was to be the next installment in the account written up in the July-August 2008 issue of Mission Frontiers entitled "Wheelchairs from Jesus."

Ayuba, who walks on his hands from polio, had not charged the air conditioner in his Honda minivan with hand controls, so the long trip was hot and miserable. This road was good, but it gets dark at 6:00 in Nigeria, and driving at night is nerve-wracking. People walking along the highway in the dark, along with bicycles and motorcycles without lights, are a constant worry, to say nothing of the occasional armed robbers blockading the road. But God answered our prayers and we safely pulled into Tella about 8:45, exhausted. Apollos met us on his motorcycle and led us to the "VIP Guest House" on the outskirts of town. Accommodations were basic: a large bed and a fan, a tiny bathroom with a toilet, large container of water, plastic dish for pouring water over you, and a drain in the floor. It was wonderful to take a "shower" but with the oppressive heat, I was sweaty again in a few minutes. Amazingly, Ayuba's cell phone had reception, so I was able to briefly call Sharon in Seattle to tell her I was OK. Fortunately the guest house had a generator to keep the fan going until 5:00 am. It had been a long, long day and I slept like a log in spite of the heat.

In the morning one of the ladies brought us breakfast and we drove to the venue for the 10:00 program. It was held in a school yard instead of a church, since about half the beneficiaries would be Muslim. Many disabled and their families were already on the long covered veranda of the school, a band was playing, a couple hundred plastic chairs were covered with canopies to shade from the hot sun, and in the center were the 30 wheelchairs, neatly lined up in rows, with ribbons around the whole group. Nobody expects these programs to start on time, but by 11:00 over 500 had gathered, including many curious children, attracted by the crowds, the loud music, and the presence of a white man, a rarity in these parts.

Apollos had everything well organized and arranged, including the presence of several traditional rulers and community leaders, a video photographer from the state capital, and the Special Advisor to the Taraba State Governor on Youth and the Disabled, who arrived in a shiny new Camry. When he told me he was a barrister (law school graduate), I said, "Let me introduce you to another barrister, my partner Ayuba Gufwan." I think he was a little taken aback. He said he had no idea this was going to be such a big event, and if he had known, he would have brought some others, and a video camera, to give a better report to the governor. When I told him we were from Jos, he asked if we were from Relevant Technology, a tiny vocational training place that makes a few wheelchairs a year. "For every wheelchair they make at Relevant Technology, we make 100," I told him.

I also told the Special Advisor that the governor's wife of Zamfara State was arranging with Ayuba to build 550 wheelchairs and promised to pay the full cost, 16,000 naira each. Since several hundred disabled folks had staged a protest at the governor's office in Jalingo, Taraba's capital, several days before, I suggested he go back to the governor and try to get him to donate several hundred wheelchairs to the disabled of Jalingo. Ayuba gave him a copy of the Nigerian version of our wheelchair video to show to the governor.

In my talk to the crowd, which was translated into Hausa, I told the story of Jesus healing the paralytic, and that even the Qur'an tells about Jesus giving sight to the blind, healing the leper and raising the dead. I told them that these wheelchairs are being given to both Christians and Muslims in the love of Jesus. I always tell Ayuba's story, how his father told him after the 3rd grade that it was a waste to spend any more money on school fees for a boy who walked on his hands, that it wasn't until he was 19 that his uncle built him a wheelchair and he went back to the 4th grade, that he is now the only university graduate in the history of his village, and that 1500 came to his wedding in his remote village two years ago. I also tell the story of Franklin Roosevelt, the only president in US history elected 4 times, that he had polio, and that he ruled America from a wheelchair. I tell these stories to inspire the beneficiaries and to try to change attitudes, that just because you are disabled doesn't mean you can't amount to something.

I was honored with a traditional Jukan outfit, one large square of fabric wrapped around the waist and another square tied over one shoulder. Ayuba told me the outfit would help protect me when we crossed the large Benue River on the primitive ferry on our way home, because the Jukan were noted fishermen and river people. I was already cooking in my white shirt and tie, so this added layer didn't help!

When it came time for the presentations, the Special Advisor cut the ribbons around the wheelchairs, the names were read, and one-by-one the children and adults crawled from the veranda on hands and knees to their wheelchair. I knelt down so I could video each one at eye level. Ayuba says they will remember this day the rest of their life.

As the last several names were being read, two beautifully dressed Muslim girls, about 12 or 14 years old, crawled out from the veranda. Obviously their names were not on the list, and they sat in vain as the last wheelchair was claimed. Then a small boy on homemade crutches came out and also stood in vain. It was heartbreaking. I didn't want to know how many others were still on the veranda, their hopes crushed. I got the microphone and the translator and stood before them and told them how heartbroken I was. I told them I would be back again next year, and I hoped that this time we would have enough wheelchairs for everyone.

Before he left, I told the Special Advisor that I was counting on him to get the governor to donate a lot of wheelchairs. "I'll be back next October," I told him, "so that is your deadline. I want to be in Jalingo next year to help give out a minimum of 100 wheelchairs." He assured me he would do even better. We'll see if I am able to write Chapter Three next year.

We were anxious to leave because it was already about 2:00 and we had at least a 6 to 7 hour trip home. A dozen small boys gathered around the car window wanting to shake hands with the white man, while an older teenager came with a pole to shoo them away. I told him that Jesus said to let the children come, because of such are the kingdom of heaven, and that I was happy to greet the children and that they were important. Then we were off. Near the town was the Taraba River and I videoed men unloading at least a hundred or more 110 lb. bags of rice from a huge canoe, perhaps 60 or 70 feet long.

After an hour and a half we came to the half-mile wide Benue River, and a kaleidoscope of color and activity, long canoes loaded with 30 or 40 people, a motorcycle or two and even a cow, men arguing and shouting, women with trays of food on their head, boys throwing fishing nets in the water. I didn't know which to video first. The ferry was a barge that held 4 vehicles with a long canoe tied on each side, one with a new outboard, the other with an old one without a cover. There was not a life jacket in sight! But I was still wearing my Jukan outfit, so at least I was safe. One man sat with his eyes closed, afraid to look at the water. The crossing took 45 minutes because we had to slowly move some distance downstream and then up a more swift tributary to where the bank was high enough for a landing, even in high water.

It was now 4:15 and we still had a 4.5 hour drive to get to Jos. Since we hadn't had anything to eat since breakfast, we kept looking for bananas to buy along the road for at least a snack, but we didn't want to waste any time and we never saw anything to eat. The road was good, and as darkness approached and we began to climb onto the 4000 ft. plateau it cooled down until we actually had to roll up some of the windows. At the infamous spot near Barkan Ladi where there have been so many armed robberies in the night, including Ayuba a year or two ago, the army has now built a small outpost, which has drastically reduced the danger. "Thank you officer, for your good work," Ayuba told the soldier at the check point.

We finally pulled into the McCains at 9:00 pm, 3 hours later than I like to travel in Nigeria. I don't think I've ever been so exhausted, and I didn't realize how dehydrated I was. I devoured a whole bowl of cold papaya and watermelon and glass after glass of cold water. While I was eating, Danny told me the story of his meeting with this very same governor of Taraba several weeks before. He and his team were in Jalingo to conduct an AIDS Awareness workshop for area pastors. While there he attended a Nigerian Independence Day service, also attended by the governor. Several of the speakers were criticizing the corruption and other ills of Nigerian society. The governor in his speech continued in this vein, attributing Nigeria's problems to greed. About three minutes into his speech, he said, "Our special guest today, Professor McCain, from the University of Jos, is a good example for us to follow. He goes all over Nigeria conducting AIDS workshops and speaking at conferences, and he never charges one naira for his services." He then turned and looked directly at Danny, "I've been to your country and I've seen how Americans live and how generous and unselfish they are. They do not look at social problems as opportunities to enrich themselves. Americans go all over the world, helping people and giving unselfishly. That's what has made America so great and that is why God has blessed them so." Danny said he went on for about six or eight minutes praising and thanking him and America, until it got a little embarrassing. So it certainly won't hurt when the Taraba governor finds out our wheelchair project is also connected to Professor McCain!

I slept like a baby that night, thanking God for the privilege of being part of this wheelchair ministry and the joy and fulfillment of being Christ's representative in bringing hope and the love of Jesus to these forgotten children and adults. And I thanked God also for all those who have given so generously to make the giving of these wheelchairs possible. It had been a grueling, exhausting, yet wonderful week, and I wouldn't trade it for anything.

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