‘Childhood for me was a very challenging period’
Dr. Gabriel Oyediji, Secretary General of Association of Orphanages and Homes Operators in Nigeria and Founder of Christ Compassionate Ministries, Lagos, who turned 60 recently, shared some of the difficulties he faced growing up as a child, his passion for child protection and other engagements he is involved with DANIEL ANAZIA.
How does it feel to turn 60?
I am excited, even though I still wonder if it is true or not, because when we were in our 20s and 30s and people mention age 60, we usually exclaim, ye arugbo, meaning old one. We didn’t know we were walking towards it.
What was life like growing up as a child?
Childhood, for me, was very challenging. My growing days were challenge-filled. In fact, it was so difficult that it seemed to me this day will never come. Due to the mirage of challenges, I was never sure if I would get to 30. I was a victim of circumstances, childhood emotional and psychological abuse.It all started from birth and gradually escalated to a point that I almost reached a dead end. Initially, I didn’t know why. I think there should be an advocacy for children/people who lost their parents before they were born or at birth, so that there can be a cultural change.
My father passed on a day or two before I was born and my mother was passed on to my father’s brother (my uncle) as wife, as demanded by our tradition. I was the last child of my biological father. Like I said, I didn’t know why I was made to face so much alienation, rejection and confusion growing up. If you do something bad and you are being punished for it, you know you are serving such punishment for doing something wrong.
But in my case, nobody was willing to tell me what my crime was; I was kept in the dark. I was regarded as an evil child, one who brought a bad omen into the family. It took me so long to find out this fact and it was a heartbreaking period for me.The death of my father made me a victim of circumstance. Apart from being treated with disdain and hatred, deprivation characterised that period of my life. I found out there was a silent cultural resentment for people like me who lost their parents before birth or at birth. They are seen as child or children that brought adversity to the family and they silently given them bad treatment.
Even though they smile at or hug them, it is not a good smile or hug; it is usually feigned. In some cases, they are dreaded and treated as outcast. I was called all sorts of name, such as Babarimisa, meaning, my father saw me and ran away. How can a father see his child and run away? This shaped my life and introduced a lot of challenges to me, even as a child. If something was going on around other children, they will know and pay attention, but in my case, it was a different scenario.
At some point, I summoned courage to confront my stepfather and told him if I didn’t look like my siblings, I would have said my mother brought my pregnancy from outside. I asked him why I was not being favoured like others, why I was alienated and what my offence was. But he said nothing. I think I should be around 18 years old then.
Was your mother aware of all these and what efforts did she make to have things corrected?
If not for the love and support of my mother, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Even though she had seven of us, she still managed to do her best to support me.
That was why when she died, I cried profusely, because it was as if my mother and my father were being buried at the same time, as she played both roles in my life.
After secondary school, when the other children had gone to higher institutions, I struggled to get myself into the Lagos State Polytechnic to study Agriculture and Animal Health. Like I said, other children got whatsoever they wanted from my stepfather, but it was never so with me. It was so bad that there was a day when my stepfather arranged for a thanksgiving ceremony for all the children who were undergraduates in the family, about 20 of us, and we were all in the church. The priest asked for the names of all those celebrating. One of my siblings compiled the names, including my own name, and gave to the priest.
But my stepfather collected the list from the priest and struck out my name. He said I was not part of the event. I couldn’t stop crying that day. By the time we got back home, I thought life had ended for me. I was enveloped in confusion.
Were you, as a result, forced to do certain things you ordinarily wouldn’t have done, just to survive?
Even though I was treated badly in the family, my perspective about life wasn’t really threatened, because there was wealth in the family.Though none was coming to me, I consoled myself with the thought that one day, it would be my turn to enjoy from the wealth. My stepfather had absolute control over the wealth and resources of the family and determined who got what. For the fact that he considered me a cursed child, nothing good from him ever came to me. Eventually when I realised that he wasn’t going to help me in any way, one day, I told myself that if I didn’t do anything about my situation, frustration was going to kill me.
Apart from my mother, who was ‘donated’ to him due to our cultural practice, he had about seven other wives and several children. So, it was a very dicey situation for me. It got so bad that he refused to give me my own room, despite the fact that there were dozens of rooms within the massive compound where we lived. To make matters worse, if any child was sick, he would tell me to look after them, but when I fell sick, he would simply look away, showing no care.
Considering the rejection you faced at the time, did you ever nurse any sort of ambition or found no reason to do so?
I had to walk away from the family after things became unbearable for me. Though it was tough nursing any dream or setting any sort of goal at the time, I believed I wasn’t going to end my life in a miserable way. The search for a new life took me to Tribune newspapers, where an uncle, who occupied a top position, managed to get me a job there. As a result of my performance in proof reading and sub-editing sections, I was soon handed an identity card to start going out to cover news. I thought my worries were over.
One night, after closing from work, I came across some policemen harassing and trying to arrest a commercial motorcyclist (okada rider), who they claimed was not wearing protective helmet. I asked them why they were harassing the man and they warned me to steer clear, that it was not my business.
Out of anger, I copied the registration number of the policeman, who eventually alerted his superior of my action. At the end of the day, the commercial motorcyclist and I were bungled into their van and taken to the Police station. We were left at the counter and when the Divisional Police Officer (DPO) came by midnight, the policemen who brought us there lied that I was preventing them from doing their job and that I verbally abused them and tried to beat up one of them. The DPO ordered them to throw me into the cell.
The next day, when they were searching my pocket, they saw my work ID card. Unfortunately, the police had issues with my employers at the time, so that complicated matters for me. I was subsequently taken to court, from where I was moved to Agodi Prison, without being allowed access to a lawyer, colleague or any family member. I was there for three days before somebody who knew me saw me and went to inform my mother. Later, my employers also found out the trouble I had been into and thereafter sent a lawyer to rescue me.
Angered by the way I was treated, my editor at the time asked me to write a diary of my ordeal, which was published in two pages; it was centre spread. I thought that was the end of the matter, but I was wrong.The next, most national dailies wrote an editorial on the issue and this further escalated the matter. I was only 21 at the time and the troubles I had experienced even at that point was more than what people four times my age had seen in their lifetimes. I had to leave journalism as a result of the events that followed that incident. In fact, the trouble was so much for me that at a period in my life, my mother withdrew me from school and enrolled me at a mechanic workshop to learn the trade.
Even though I started brilliantly in school, I began to regress at a point. Some people said it was spiritual attack, but I didn’t know what it was at that point. It got to a point that people warned my mother to take me out of the family and community, because it seemed as if there were certain forces inhibiting my progress in life.
Did you at some point then thought you were jinxed?
To be honest, I felt that way at some point, because things weren’t really working out for me the way they should. I felt there was a strong enemy that saw my glory and was doing everything possible to stop me from fulfilling my potential. There were so many strange things about me that I also couldn’t understand or explain. It was really serious.
However, one day I went on my knees and told God that if He could help me overcome these challenges I was facing, I would dedicate my life to serving Him and cater for children who didn’t have parents or people to take care of them. I got to a point in my life where death did not mean anything to me, because even as a living being, I wasn’t making any sort of progress in life. To break this jinx, I engaged in all sorts of tough jobs, including occasionally using my brother’s bus to run commercial transport between Lagos and Ibadan. In fact, there were times that I ran seven trips in a day between both cities, just to survive.
Would it suffice to say that your experience sparked your involvement in charity work and caring for people in need?
I had always assisted people in need when I had nothing, but it was around 2004 that I really took the work more seriously.That year, I organised some of my friends and we started sleeping under the bridges of Lagos to identify with the homeless. In fact, I was so popular around the Ojuelegba area that others started buying into what I was championing. I encouraged people who had the means to provide shelter for the homeless or identify with them by not sleeping in their houses on some nights. This was just to give the underprivileged people some sense of belonging. It was from this charity work that God started a church, Christ Compassionate Ministries, through me.
What was it like taking the message of hope to street urchins and homeless people, especially in Ojuelegba, known to be a hub for the good, the bad and the ugly?
At first, they thought I was doing undercover, but when they realised I meant well, sleep with outside with them and feeling what they felt, they began to open up gradually. This is not to say there weren’t challenges. I cannot count how many times the street urchins (area boys) attacked me. I was threatened with death several times by some of them for trying to help them.
In fact, it was on one of such encounters with them that I realised that one of them I employed as my driver was formerly an armed robber, who had killed many people before he was arrested by God and started coming to church. I never knew this before then. So, hostility from people in this category is not strange to me.
Did you nurse the thought of sacking your driver after then, considering that he could one day harm you?
Such thought never crossed my mind, because I had dealt with worse situations than that in the course of my life journey. As a deliverance minister, I had been told by my many people that those I was trying to deliver could harm me and that I should take absolute care while dealing with them. I have come to understand that fear does not solve any problem and that we must face each challenge if we hope to overcome.
So, I did not sack the driver, instead I used my knowledge of the Bible and experience in life to encourage and lead him deeper into Christ. But generally speaking, it has not been easy dealing with and trying to change people who had been into all sorts of crimes, including armed robbery. Many times, they come to me and threaten to harm and even kill me if I don’t give them money. They feel I am getting so much money and not giving them their fair share. Out of anger, some of them go back to their old ways of life (crime), warning me not to come near them again or I will get killed.
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