39-year-old Political Science graduate from the University of Lagos, Babatunde Obalereko, tells GODFREY GEORGE how he discovered his passion for fixing computers after becoming visually-impaired in 1997
How did you lose your sight?
I lost my sight on the day I was taking my promotion examination in Senior Secondary School One. That was in 1997. When I was given the question paper, I just discovered that I couldn’t read the questions. It looked like the page was blank. I called on the examination master to change the question paper for me and he did. I called on him again to change that one, as it was a plain sheet. He did. On the third call, the people who sat close to me told me that the paper was not blank and there were words on it. I was surprised because my eyes were open and all I could see was a bright white paper, nothing more. I should be about 15 or 16 years old at the time. Since then, I have not been able to see anything.
Before that time, did you have any issues with your sight?
Yes, I used to be short-sighted. I used to use recommended glasses when I was in school, but I didn’t always use them. I only used them at night when it rained, because of how dark the skies were. Apart from that, I could see anything clearly without the glasses.
After the incident in the examination hall, what happened next?
The principal of the school–Ikorodu Senior High School, Lagos–arranged for me to be taken to an eye clinic around Ikeja. I did the examination orally though. My teachers read the questions to me while I responded to them and the teacher wrote down my answers. It was such a devastating and shocking experience for me.
When you got to the hospital, what was the diagnosis?
After a series of tests by the doctors, they couldn’t find out what was happening. They ran the test over and over but it showed nothing. The eyes were in perfect condition. “Why can’t I see?” I asked, but I was greeted with silence. I was taken home and the search for a solution began. I am a Muslim, but there was no church I was not taken to. I was even taken to one mountain in Ekiti State in search of a solution to my impairment and they promised ‘heaven and earth.’ I fasted and prayed, ate and drank all manner of substances hoping a miracle would happen. I visited a lot of alfas who promised me that I would see again, but God is faithful. When my mother’s friends also came, they introduced her to one solution home or another. In my search, I travelled to Miami, in the United States, in 2011. The US doctor said everything was fine from his examination, but what he found out was that my eyes couldn’t produce light, and there was no machine to correct that abnormally at the time.
One thing is that my eyes are actually open and look pretty much like those of everyone. If I don’t tell one I am visually impaired, one may not know. I waited for nine years for my sight to come back, but it didn’t. A doctor in Ogun State introduced me to blind education at Surulere. I attended Pacelli School for the Blind, Lagos.
What was the experience like for you while you were searching for a solution?
People were just extorting money from me and did nothing, I am sure. When I went to Ori Oke in Ekiti, they just took me to the mountain for a special prayer, and for once, I thought I was going to see. Well, I am thankful to God for everything. I felt so bad at the time. The day I was told to go to a school for the blind, I called my parents and asked them if I was blind as they had resorted to taking me to a blind school. “Have you lost hope that I won’t be able to see again?” I asked my mom. It was like I was being tortured. I was so uncomfortable around them (visually-impaired people). After a while, I just needed to concur with them, so I could move forward.
How would you describe your time at Pacelli School for the Blind?
It is another world entirely, a whole new life. I am a Muslim and the school is a Catholic missionary school. It was also my first experience in a boarding school. Before the incident, I was a day student. I was so scared because I don’t eat any food not prepared in my home; that was the way I was brought up. I always asked myself, “How will I be staying with blind people? Am I blind?” It was like a nightmare. I just accepted to stay, because I felt it was temporary. I felt I would just wake up and my eyes would be alright. When weeks, months, and years passed, I just needed to accept it, since it didn’t look like it was going to change anyway, I accepted my reality.
Would you say your parents were well-to-do when this incident happened?
My parents are not multi-millionaires. We were just a comfortable family, living the regular life lived by all Nigerians. My father, Alhaji M. A. Obalereko, was a civil servant; he was the head of Nigeria Ports Authority at Ikorodu, Lagos State (the place Aliko Dangote is using now). My mother was a businesswoman who sold drinks in bulk.
After Pacelli School for the Blind, what did you do next?
I spent one year at Pacelli. That was the 2007/2008 rehabilitation session. Then, I moved back to my former school to continue my education. I started from SS1. That was from 2009 to 2011. I later gained admission into the University of Lagos to study Political Science. I graduated in 2017.
What was your experience like at UNILAG?
It was tough, but it was not like secondary school when I was still learning how to navigate through this new world. When I went back to my secondary school, all the teachers were ready to help me. During recess, some teachers would call me into the staff room to revise with me what they had taught others. Mathematics was really a problem for me. I used to be good at mathematics before then, but when I became visually–impaired, it became tough, especially the diagrams and graphs. There was no way they’d explain it to me that I’d understand. My West African Senior School Certificate Examination was tough. They had to read the questions to me and I’d supply the answers. One time, the external examiner came to me and did the reading by himself to be sure I was not engaging in malpractice. When he saw I could answer, he left.
Was it always your dream to study Political Science or you had to go with the flow?
I had to go with the tides. I wanted to be a medical doctor, but how will I do it? I was initially in science class, but when I went back, I moved to art class. I just chose political science because I didn’t have many options open for my kind.
What was your support system like when this happened?
My mom was very supportive of me. Anytime I tried to pick up something at home, my father would shout that I wanted to spoil it. It made me feel so bad because these were the things I could handle before the incident. My mom would always stand by me; sometimes, even quarrel with my dad to let me be, that if I spoilt it, she would buy another. That was when my love for repairing things came from. If I ruined anything I touched, I should learn how to repair them. So, the interest in repairing electronics came, and it came so strong.
How was transitioning into the world of the visually-impaired like?
I just had to adjust to the new system. If I didn’t, by now, I should have been on the streets begging. I prayed about it and I had so much conviction about it.
How did you meet your wife?
We welcomed a baby over a year ago. She is 26. We met at UNILAG. She studied Philosophy and was a year ahead of me. She is not physically challenged. She was a sister to one of my roommates who became my best friend. She used to cook for her brother and he would invite me to join him. I loved the way she spoke to me. I loved the way she acted, and even though I couldn’t see her, I knew I was going to marry her. I just told my friend to help me tell her about my feelings. I collected her number from her brother and we scheduled a meeting. I told some of my friends to tell me more about her and they did, and I loved what they told me, and I tried my best to get her. I told her I loved her and wanted to marry her, but she thought I was joking. She just told me she wanted to concentrate more on her studies. She was so kind; she didn’t discriminate against me.
Before your marriage, did you have any other relationship with any other female?
Yes, of course. I just got out of one before I met her. The lady I was dating, once she entered the university, said she needed space and wanted to concentrate. We drifted apart from there.
How did you venture into computer repairs despite your degree in Political Science?
I would say, first, it was a gift from God. I cannot explain it. I did not learn it from anybody. As I said, I started with my father’s home appliances. If I spoilt any, I would try to repair it. Sometimes, it came back on; other times, it didn’t. But I made sure I bought another one, dismantled it, and started working on it again until it began to work. I started with remote controls, radios, and went further to start repairing TVs, and much later, computers, which is where I majored. I own a business now, but I am still looking for a space at UNILAG, even if it would be an open space so I can continue my business. I have been writing a series of letters to the management. Last year, they said there was no space for now.
How have you been coping all this while?
When I was in school at UNILAG, I enjoyed repairing things and that is what I am fully into now. My wife is a make-up artist. She also contributes to the family income.
Is your child visually–impaired?
No, he is not.
Did you have fears that you might have a visually–impaired child?
Truthfully, yes. That thought came to my mind. I had to ask doctors and other professionals who told me that since I wasn’t born blind and didn’t marry a visually-impaired wife, then, there was hope for me. So, when my child came, that was the first thing I checked, and was so excited when I found out he was okay.
What would you say has been your greatest achievement?
I thank God. Though we may not have all the money in the world, we keep pushing and striving for the best. I am happy for my lovely family. Despite my condition, I have a wife and a child, and God has not allowed us to go to bed hungry. During the onset of the pandemic, it was really difficult. I didn’t have clients. There was no work to be done. We were simply managing. It was really tough, but I thank God for life.
Are you into any activism for people living with a disability?
No, for now, but sometime in the future I would start a foundation where I can train people in computer repairs.
Do you feel the Nigerian government should do this for people living with a disability?
Employment is the first thing. The ones that have gone to school should be gainfully employed. All forms of discrimination should not be encouraged. If I get a job with the government right now, I would go for it. Some Nigerians see us (physically-challenged) and feel we want to beg them for money or we want to initiate them into witchcraft. That is not true. We are humans just like everyone else and we need as much help and care as society can give.