The Teacher Who Became King of Lepers
Whether in a normal society or a dysfunctional one, Umaru Abdullahi was destined to be several notches above his peers. So, when he was handed the short end of the stick and lost his job as the headmaster of a public school in Kano State for being infected with leprosy, his painful rejection would later lead him to a commune of persons with a similar affliction. Vanessa Obioha enters this abnormal world and chronicles his brave struggles to swim against the tide of his circumstance
From a distance, Umaru Abdullahi looked like any other man. He is tall and brown-skinned. A balding head sits on his neck while his oral cavity boasts of few tobacco-stained teeth.
Everything seemed absolutely fine with the 60-year-old northerner, that is, until you ask for a handshake. Then, either of two things happen. You may be repelled by the worn-down stump that has replaced what used to his fingers or you may summon the courage to grab the stump, knowing his hands are leprous. Although they are healed, the permanent scar left by the disease is still very visible.
Abdullahi was not born this way. Growing up in the beautiful state of Kano, he was full of dreams. He was young and free. Being the last child of his parents, he was not burdened with obligations. His parents made sure he was educated. He attained his primary and secondary education in different institutions in the state. At age 30, he was already a respected teacher in a primary school. Opportunity came knocking on his door while he was still in the classroom. He was asked to be one of the executives of the Nigerian Union of Teachers in Kano or to head a school. It was a difficult decision. The title of a headmaster was very appealing but not as irresistible as NUT Public Relations Officer. After much contemplation, he went for the latter.
He had a successful tenure between 1981 and 1983. He contested again in the next election. Unfortunately, he didn’t return to the seat. He went back to the classroom where he was soon promoted to a headmaster role and was later transferred to Abdullahi Primary School, still a headmaster.
Just when everything was going smoothly for the young man, life dealt him a wicked blow. In 1985, he woke up one morning to find his hands leprous. He was shaken with fear. How did it happen? Who placed a curse on him? No one in his family had the disease. Why was he singled out? A million and one questions ran through his mind.
In that state of confusion, a friend referred him to a Leprosy Centre in the state with a note for medication. Thankfully, the clinic was run by foreign medical doctors who quickly nipped the disease in the bud. He left the hospital with a clean bill of health, however, his fingers had disappeared. What was left was a mass of flesh folded inwards to show where his long fingers had once been. This scar spelt a lot of limitations to Abdullahi.
“The doctors treated me well. They certified me healthy enough to return to work,” he told this reporter at his abode.
Notwithstanding, he refused to be distressed by his circumstance. The most important thing was that he was alive, he assured himself. Happily, he went back to school, hoping to continue his tenure as a headmaster. He was in for a big shock. The school told him his services were no longer needed, because of his impaired hands.
“They said they couldn’t have a leper as a headmaster.”
The words sliced deeply into his heart. It was worse than any fustigation. Yet, he refused to give up. He pressed on, waving the doctor’s reports desperately to the authorities but they turned a blind eye and deaf ear to his pleas. With intense emotional control, he stormed out of the school compound. It was the last time he set his foot on the citadel of education.
Dejected and vexed, he sought solace in friends. They too, like his colleagues at work deserted him. They closed their doors to him and warned their family to stay away from the leper. When he waved at them on the streets, they looked away and walked on. As if the seed of rejection had not been watered enough, his in-law demanded that their daughter, his wife, should quit the marriage. With the last shred of self-esteem in him, he fought for the custody of their son.
Like a nightmare, Abdullahi watched helplessly as his once vibrant life rolled into a life of pain and rejection. He had suddenly become an outcast in a society where he had spent most of his life. That bitter experience buoyed deep hatred for his state.
“I hate Kano state. I hated it from that time,” he said venomously. “Nobody wanted anything to do with me. I just wanted to get out of there. That’s why I left. I only go there to see my mother back then when I had a need to. She recently passed on. She was 122 years old. Moreover, I’m hot-tempered. If I see you look at me because of my hands, I get very annoyed. But I don’t fight. I have never fought before because I don’t know what the outcome will be. I rather walk away than react.”
With no source of livelihood, Abdullahi was forced to pack his bags. He refused to give in to pleas of his parents and siblings to stay with them. He just wanted to be far away from home, a place where he was no longer accepted. To go to a place where nobody knew him. His first choice was Lagos. There was an uncle who suffered same fate in Lagos.
In 1986, Abdullahi joined his uncle and a dozen of lepers at Alaba, Ojo area of Lagos State. They lived in a shanty and often relied on gifts from churches and other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) for survival. Other times, they begged for alms. It took a while before Abdullahi could bring himself to beg. It was a strange lifestyle to him. Eventually, he joined the wagon.
However, Abdullahi’s education came in handy to his mates who were not fluent in English. They begged him to communicate with interested persons who usually come to ask what their needs are. The language barrier had robbed them of many gifts, they told him. Without hesitation, he accepted the task. A shed was built for him. He had his own desk and officially became an interpreter. Those who came to help them were astonishingly impressed by his knowledge and fluency in English, just like his fellows were. They were endeared to him. Soon, they began to call him ‘Teacher’, and elected him as one of the leaders in the little community. It was a freak coincidence to continue in a role he had been equipped for and played in normal society, but rejected. Now, he found himself being begged to assume that role again. Fate seemed to be playing a cruel joke on him. Here, he was not just a teacher or headmaster, he was ‘king’. Nothing happened without his approval!
As Abdullahi’s fame grew with his new status, so did his burden. People no longer wanted to give him alms when he begged because they felt he was physically able and intelligent to eke out a livelihood.
“But they don’t know that I don’t have. I went back to my place of work and they rejected me. And I stooped low to become a beggar, still I won’t be given anything. It really troubled me. So I left begging completely in 1990 and went back to Arabic school. I came out with flying colours and assumed the role of an Alfa. I started saying prayers for them. They will come and pay me for the prayers. So nobody can curse me again, because now, they come to me, request for prayers, and pay me for it. The irony of it is that nobody remembers that I’m deformed once they need prayers. And my prayers worked for them.”
He would later move to Jakande, Alaba-Rago in the same Alaba area, where he and other lepers live with their families. Abdullahi is just one out of the thousands of lepers, beggars and other handicapped persons in the populous city of Lagos. They are scattered round the state. For example, they are a sure sight in the traffic-laden Iyana-Iba Road, along Lagos/Badagry expressway. Sometimes, they line up from Igbo-Elerin Junction all the way to Iyana-Iba. For these less-privileged, begging is their only way of survival.
As early as dawn, they troop out of their abode, spreading themselves along the road. Some carry an umbrella along to shelter them from the scorching sun or the heartless rain. It is a family affair for some of these vagrants-father, mother and child/children are involved in the begging business, running after pedestrians or leaning on vehicles with outstretched arms to motorists. Often times, the children forget the biting bug of hunger and play with one another. They roll in the dirty sand in their tattered clothes, sometimes they engaged in fights and the adults have to wade in to prevent a full blown conflict. But being children, they soon forget their troubles and playfully chase one another with sticks or rolling tyres.
As early as they gathered in the morning, so do they disperse at sunset to their respective homes. Home could be an abandoned kiosk or used roofing sheet as in Abdullahi’s habitat. Over 150 people occupy the large expanse of land with no toilets. The roofing sheets have become rustic from harsh weather conditions.
Abdullahi revealed that no outsider is allowed in their abode. “Most of the inhabitants are lepers and families. But there are also the blind ones. Not everybody is allowed to stay here. They stay free. We don’t take any money from them.”
To the outsider, the lepers’ habitat is a disgusting and unhealthy habitat. Not so for the lepers, who count themselves lucky to this safe haven. Inside this dirty environment they live in peace. They don’t feel isolated or rejected in the society. The lepers usually stay with family members who may not be afflicted with the disease, but have to endure rejection from the society for being linked to a leper. Having a leper as a parent is injurious to their reputation as they are mocked for their parents’ deformity. These children do not have access to education or health facilities. Once in a while, organisations like the United Children Education Fund, World Health Organisation, pay them a visit to provide them with medical care. Amazingly, in all their abject poverty, they smile, play and exude such innocent happiness as if the world is such a beautiful place.
One of the absurd twists of fate is that robbers and thieves still make a target of these lepers despite the inhumane condition they live in. Perhaps, their biggest headache comes from individuals and companies who attempt to take the land away from them forcefully. Sometimes, they are offered bribes. It is a great tussle for the lepers who have no legal document to rightfully claim that the land was given to them by administration of former Governor Lateef Jakande.
“When they come, we usually report to the Seriki in Alaba. He tells them that he also met us here. They are directed to Federal Ministry of Housing in Festac, where they are told that the land was given to us by Alhaji Lateef Jakande.”
As our conversation progressed, one of his children walked in. She is his last child.
“I married my friend’s daughter when I got here. He is a leper too. So he is no longer my friend but my father-in-law. We have four children together. She is my only daughter.” Nature found a way to return what it took from Abdullahi. He did not just get back his role as a teacher, he now influences the mind and spirituality of those under his guidance. Perhaps, his biggest consolation is his young and growing family.