Living in Denial

Mr Matthew Agada, a livestock trader, sits silently on the couch in his living room in a posture of serene calm, yet his surface calm is unable to mask his deep unease. His furrowed brow is visibly etched with a frown, as his left hand on his chin betrays the vestiges of worry that trouble his mind.  The father of six children finds himself at the heart of a problem confronting the future of Stephen, his fifth child.

“You don’t want to be serious with your future,” he said, pointing sternly at Stephen who looks to the ground.

“If you want to become a wheelbarrow pusher, tell me, so I can stop wasting my money since you don’t want to learn,” he said, throwing away a copy of his son’s result sheet for the last term, as he laments his grades.

11-year-old Stephen, a grade-five pupil of Police Children School, a public primary school managed by the Nigerian Police Force in Makurdi,  Benue State, is always at the receiving end of scathing humiliating taunts from his classmates at school because of his consistent declining grades. He barely escapes coming bottom of his class on a few occasions. There’s also the thinly veiled threats and physical injuries from beatings he has received from his teachers at school for being unable to grasp what is taught in class at a speedy rate. Whenever books are mentioned, Stephen’s vivacious side recedes into a shell. Despite coming bottom from his class two years in a row, his biggest challenge yet is his inability to read. It is compounded by difficulties he experiences when linking letters to form words and “sounding words in his head” because the letter “dangles” and “dances” in his eyes whenever he attempts to read.

Efforts made by his older siblings to complement the work of his teachers at school by taking turns to give him extra lessons at home have yielded little results. Their philosophy of using the cane to “flog” knowledge into him simply inspired fear in him. His mother, Grace, sought to lend help to the situation by taking him to a spiritualist’s home to get a solution to a problem that has humanly defied all solutions.

After paying the compulsory N500 tagged as the consultation fee, the spiritualist granted them audience and demanded that he should be subjected to intense prayers to break the evil spell cast on his memory. After subjecting Stephen to swirls of incense amid prayers for over two hours, the spiritualist assured them that the evil spell had been broken. Two months later, Stephen has not made any remarkable progress in reading.

After watching a movie whose theme centred on dyslexia, Stephen self-diagnosed himself as being dyslexic. This announcement to his family elicited strong rebuke from them, especially his father who felt he was looking for excuses to cover up his reluctance to face his studies squarely. According to him, there is no apparent brain impairment or mental condition that runs in his family.

Speaking to the reporter, Stephen confirmed his fears about his perceived problem.  “I have Ishaan’s problem…..everything that happened to him in that movie happens to me”, he explained.  There is something instructive in his analogy of Ishaan’s problem. It pictures the certainty of someone who has discovered the hidden treasure. (Ishaan was the eight who had dyslexia in the Indian thriller, Like Star on Earth).

How can Stephen’s condition be managed to prevent him from losing interest in learning, so as not to drive him from school into an unstable and uncertain future without education?

A paediatrician’s perspective

“Stephen’s claim that he has dyslexia is a strong possibility because the traits he exhibits are those of someone who is dyslexic. Dyslexia cannot be cured, but managed to reduce its symptoms. The left hemisphere of the brain is responsible for reading, and accurate word identification in reading depends on the amount of activity in the left hemisphere posterior system. In dyslexic people, there is low activity in the left hemisphere of their brain, so to compensate for this, they rely on the inferior frontal and right hemisphere regions,” said Dr Vincent Mamfea, resident paediatrician with Benue State University Teaching Hospital.

He said further that Stephen’s case should be quickly handled to prevent it from degenerating into a long term disorder.

“Persons with dyslexia should present their cases before health experts early for observation, so that treatment can be administered by proffering strategies that would make reading more comfortable and may allow reading for longer periods. Stephen needs the support of his friends, teachers and family members for his self-esteem to be preserved,” Dr Mamfea explained.

He also spoke on the challenges facing dyslexic children in Nigeria. “Most parents do not think dyslexia is a medical condition that demands conventional approach. They think it’s the problem of not being good enough to study hard and improve. Throughout the whole year, there have not been any case of dyslexia reported or brought to my notice,” he said.

A cause for concern

Dyslexia is the impaired ability of a child to learn to read with normal proficiency despite conventional instruction, proper motivation and normal intelligence. This learning disability is associated with the inconsistency they display as children. They appear intelligent and articulate, but unable to read or spell. They might have high IQ levels, yet may not have it easy when it comes to the written word. The physical development of children with dyslexia has contributed to the under-diagnosis and possible neglect of the disorder. It is estimated that 20 per cent of children around the world have learning disorder, according to a study carried out by the American Academy of Pediatricians.

With the United Nations projecting a Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) to ensure inclusive, equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunity for all by 2030, it is imperative that priority should be given to children with learning disorders to make this goal attainable in Nigeria. It is stipulated that over 65 million Nigerians lack basic literacy skills pegging its illiteracy level at 50 per cent, according to a survey carried out by the UNESCO regional office, Abuja last year.

With a declining budget allocation to the education sector and educators’ indifference to people with dyslexia, is there a strand of hope that they would ever read again?  Professor Bola Adelabu, a linguist and lecturer at the University of Agriculture, Makurdi, pointed out that positive attitude towards reading is only chance of dyslexic children.

“In our modern world, if you cannot read, you are bound to have problems. A person with a learning disorder has to identify the problem for it to be tackled effectively. Reading is a process. You can’t begin to read an entire text when you have not mastered the basics of reading because it is a skill that is acquired. Teachers have to take their time to expose them (dyslectic children) to these rudiments and monitor their progress,” she added.

A looming reality that poses a serious challenge to the management and control of dyslexia in the country amongst children is the absence of current statistics to keep track of the rate of dyslexic occurrences.  In a telephone chat with Ben Arikpo, the chairman, Board of Trustees of Dyslexia Foundation, Nigeria, made this disclosure to this reporter.

“There is no statistics to assess the increasing or decreasing rate of dyslexia in the country. Though some researchers have estimated that 1 in 6 children in Nigeria is dyslexic, but the scope of this research has been subjected to certain demographic factors that make its validity not all-inclusive. Next year, we intend to embark on a full scale campaign to catalogue dyslexic cases in the country,” he said.

Twin minds, different approaches

Reading is a passage rite into the world of knowledge and learning for every civilisation. For Rachel Adazze, aged 12, the initiation process into the world of people who can read is a tasking and less enticing venture to her. The JSS2 student of Livingstone Academy, Otukpo, is dyslexic. The hopelessness she feels has destroyed her psychology and inflicted her with a jaded view that her average brain capacity is not good enough. One year earlier, Rachel nurtured the dream of being an investment banker, but her poor grades in class, inability to read and comprehend the “mystery” behind the written word on the chalkboard conspired to rob her of that dream she once cherished. She revealed a new path she could likely take as an option.

“I must not be a banker because I might eventually want to get married and have children,” she said with uncertainty. How does a 12-year-old think of marriage as a priority at that age? A stroll through Rachel’s mind reveals weariness as the source and solution to her condition seems elusive.

Her mother does not think her daughter’s problem is medically inclined.

She said: “My daughter is not made for school. Some people are good at academics and some are not. I’ve seen people without education succeed in life and even people with the so-called certificates don’t excel. After all, when she gets married, what will be the use of the certificate? ,”she asked.

Ignorance is no bliss

With limited funds available to numerous state-run schools within the country and private schools complaining about the astronomical costs of running a school system, the prospects of attending to children with varying degrees of learning disorders appear dimmed.

A visit to many secondary schools in Makurdi revealed the myopic views of most educators to the plight of children with learning disorders. Shehu Salau, a guidance counsellor with Goodnews Secondary School, North Bank, argued that children with special needs can only be helped, if they help themselves.

“You can only help them to help themselves because the best place suited for them is a special school which is costly, and the manpower to run it is really huge.”

Ghulam Ioron, a rights activist with the Samuel Ioron Foundation (SIF), an NGO based in Makurdi, lamented the level of awareness on learning disorders.

With many parents living in denial by clinging to the notion of childhood laxity of their wards towards academics, there is no gainsaying the fact that timely and accurate interventions may not be feasible.

As it stands, there is no better time for NGOs and governments to educate parents on the necessity of monitoring their wards in order to prevent the likes of many more of Stephen dying in the system.

More from our Blog