18 March 2017

Africa: Meet Omolara... Nigeria's First Visually Impaired Mandela Washington Fellow

The eye is second most complex organ of the human body after the brain; it's composed of more than two million working parts as 80 per cent of our memories are determined by what we see. However, circumstances (some beyond the human control) sometimes deprive some individuals the opportunity to using this very important organ in pursuing their dreams.

Many young and talented Nigerians have seen their dreams dashed as a result of being visually impaired. If it's not a case of marginalization, then it's about them being abandoned to their own fate with little or no support from family members and the society. Notwithstanding the challenges, there are still the likes of 28-year old Omolara Rasheed, a beneficiary of the MTN Foundation Scholarship Scheme, who has made history as first visually impaired Nigerian to become a Mandela Washington Fellow.

A native of Ogun State and graduate of English Language from the University of Lagos, Omolara was born like every normal child to her parent, but life dealt her a big blow at age 2 when she lost her sight. A second child in a family of four, Omolara's case became worse after her father deserted the family, leaving her at the mercy of her mother, a petty trader.

"I became blind at the age of two, which affected my education; my parents were trying to find a cure to my blindness. My mum explained that it all started with measles, which became severe and caused the blindness," she revealed.

From one hospital to another, Omolara's mother went in search of cure for her daughter. At a point, she resorted to churches, mosques and prayer house for healing to no avail. At that point, it was obvious that young Omolora must learn to live with blindness.

Notwithstanding the situation, Mrs. Rasheed refused to let her guard down; she was determined that her daughter must be educated.

"Eventually, someone introduced us to Paccelli School for the Blind in Surulere where I learned the basics as a visually impaired person. I was able to learn how to cope with my immediate environment using tools like braille; I also learnt how to use the typewriter and how to be mobile," she recalled.

After six years of her primary education at Pacelli, Omolara headed for the Federal Government College, Ijanikin, Lagos, for her secondary education.

"My secondary school wasn't a special school for the blind, but the trainings I got from my primary education made it easy for me to cope with my classmates, who were not blind. After my secondary school education, I proceeded to Moshood Abiola Polytechnics, where I studied Mass Communications at the Ordinary National Diploma (OND) level, before gaining admission into the University of Lagos where I studied English," Omolara said.

Financially, it wasn't easy for Omolara and her mother, but with scholarship opportunities, particularly the MTN Foundation Scholarship for blind students, she kept the dream alive.

"I had a scholarship for my secondary school education courtesy of the Parent Teachers' Association and coincidentally, my mother's petty trade business was crumbling at that time. During my Polytechnic education, I starved a lot as I encountered huge financial constraint. I sought help from the welfare team of different churches but it yielded very little response. But that did not deter me from my dreams as I kept studying.

"When I gain admission into the University of Lagos, someone helped me get some funds and a laptop from an anonymous giver during my first year in school. Soon, the money got exhausted and I couldn't get across the individual being an anonymous giver. I then heard about MTN Foundation Scholarship in 2011 and I studied harder to meet the scheme's requirement since I could only benefit from it in my second year in school. I was awarded the scholarship and also maintained it up till my final year in school; that was my breakthrough," Omolara enthused.

Omolara's story is relative with that of many other visually impaired Nigerians, who have benefitted from MTN Foundation Scholarship Scheme. From the figures given by the Foundation, over N1, 690,800,000 have been invested in the scheme since the launch in 2010, with N200,000 covering the yearly tuition fee, text books allowance and stipend for each students. A total of 8,454 students, which include 737 blind students, have received the scholarships.

"I thank the Foundation because my experience has been awesome. At the University, I did not have to worry over money or study without food like I did while I was in the Polytechnic. I had everything at my finger tips, which boosted my confidence and made me work harder to retain my scholarship every year," she said.

For her doggedness, Omolara broke the record to become the first blind Nigerian to be admitted into the Mandela Washington Fellowship. She was a part of the 1,000 Young African Leaders selected for a professional programme in the United States of America in 2016, where she got the opportunity to meet with Former President of the United States Barack Obama.

"Meeting Obama was great; it was a very pleasant experience. For me to be selected among over 1,000 persons across Africa is a priviledge I will forever appreciate in life. For me, I see these-abilities and not disabilities."

Even as she hopes to further her education, Omolara is upbeat about starting up her own family very soon. "Definitely, I will get married to someone I love, someone with a better sight than mine," she said.

To other visually impaired Nigerians, she said, "I don't believe in disabilities, though it's a general term used for those with physical challenges. But everyone has a challenge and each time I say so, I get rebuked as many associate that with spirituality. So, the question I ask is, 'when people come around you, what do they see? Do they see your abilities or your disabilities?' If they see your disabilities, then you still have a long way to go," she said.

As for parents, she said, "I will advise those, who lock up their children/wards indoors and do not send them to school to have a rethink because that child you seem to be writing-off has a lot of potentials. Some parents are very ashamed to disclose that they have children in such positions but they need to be bold and support their children. They should seek information from the right sources on the kind of education the children need and if they do the right things, they would be amazed what their children/wards can achieve," she said.


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