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I thought I’d never have a life – Weightlifting gold medallist

Abraham Onoja

Thirty-one-year-old physically-challenged weightlifting gold medallist, Abraham Onoja, tells ALEXANDER OKERE his story

You recently posted a picture of yourself in a wheelchair posing with a little boy and showcasing your works. What was the occasion about?

That boy in the photo is my son. I am married with two kids. I never thought a day like that would come. I usually upload photos of the shoes I make on Facebook and get one or two orders. It was when I wanted to take photos of some footwears I made for a customer that my son ran to me and that was why he appeared in that photo. When I posted the photo, people started sharing it; it got about 600 shares and went viral. On Instagram, it was shared by TuFace, Tunde Ednut and AY (Ayo Makun). I saw everything as a blessing that came through my son.

How did you lose your legs?

I was not born with a disability. I came down with it when I was seven years old. I dreamt one night that I was stung by an ant and when I woke up in the morning, I started feeling pain in the exact part of my body where the ant stung me. I was taken to a hospital and given an injection but after some days, the spot in which I received the injection became swollen. Later, my legs became swollen and sore and then they began to dry up until I could no longer walk with them. It was a week after I was stung by an ant in a dream that I lost my ability to walk properly. My mother said I could have been spiritually attacked at my grandfather’s burial. We used to live in Abuja before the burial but spent up to a month in Benue State after the burial.

 When we returned to Abuja, my father said he did not know where my mother took me and that led to a fight. Before I knew it, the person I thought was my father started hating me. It got to the level that my mother had to move out of the house and settle down in the village. I left with my mother but she died a few years later.

Did you eventually get a proper diagnosis?

It was when we visited some hospitals in Abuja that we were told it was polio.

Did your father disown you?

Yes.

Why do you think he did that?

He probably thought that with my condition, I could not amount to anything meaningful in life.

Does your father have more than one wife and other children?

It was just my elder brother and me but when we left, he married another wife and had three other children later.

Having lost your ability to walk at the formative stage of your life, how did the disability affect your childhood?

Growing up in the village was tough. People used to walk behind me and call me a crawler whenever I was returning from school. I felt bad.

How old were you when you lost your mother?

 I was 14 years old when I lost my mother.

How did she die?

She had stomach ulcer and was taken to a hospital far from our village. After a few days, she returned. One day when I was crawling back from school, I heard people shouting close to my house and some people were running towards my house. Initially, I thought one of our neighbours who had epilepsy was being attended to. It was when I got close to the house that I realised that it was my mother that was being attended to. Before she died, she told one of the women around to take care of me.

How did you cope after she died?

Life was not easy for me.

Did you get financial help from family members?

I thank God for the life of my grandmother who took care of me until a Catholic priest, Rev Fr John Adeyi, took me from the village to live with him. He became a father to me and supported me. While living with him, I did not feel like an orphan. I was enrolled in a school in Otukpa community and later at Holiness Secondary School, Otukpo, where I completed secondary school. It was at that school that the Benue State Sports Council came to hunt for young talents and I was one of the pupils selected when they saw that I could lift weights. After some weeks of trials, I was invited to a camp in Makurdi and one month later, I qualified to represent Benue at the 18th National Sports Festival in Lagos in 2012.

What was your performance at the national sports festival?

I won a gold medal for lifting 182 kilogrammes. When we returned to Benue, (former) governor Gabriel Suswam gave me accommodation in Makurdi, so I had to move to Makurdi. When I started staying alone, life became tough but I believed in myself.

Did you get a cash prize?

No. we were supposed to get a cash prize but the money did not come before the governor (Suswam) left office.

How much was the cash prize?

I was promised N500,000.

Who was supposed to give you the money?

The money was supposed to be released by the governor to the Ministry of Youths and Sports but there was nothing like that.

Had you been a sports person before the sports council discovered you?

I did not know that there was anything like weightlifting before the council came to the school. When I used to live with the priest, he told us to learn a skill so that we would be able to take care of ourselves when he was no longer there. I learnt shoemaking before I started weightlifting.

How many of you lived with the priest?

There were three of us at that time. He initially brought a lady who taught us how to make rosaries but I did not like that, so I chose to learn how to make shoes. After the sports festival, I registered with the National Directorate of Employment to learn shoemaking.

Where is the priest now?

In 2016, I was at a stadium watching a football match when someone called me from Lagos saying that she saw a post on Facebook that the priest was kidnapped. I told her that it was not true because I spoke with the priest after Mass earlier that day. She advised me to confirm it with the people living with him, so I called someone in the parish where the priest lived and that person surprisingly told me that Father John was sleeping. It was when I called again, after seeing social media posts about the kidnap, that it was confirmed that Father John was kidnapped. I learnt that he was on his way when he was kidnapped.

What efforts were made to secure his release?

I returned to Otukpo with others who were his beneficiaries and we started thinking of how to get him released. At that time, the Catholic bishop told us that the church does not support the payment of ransom to kidnappers, so we started to think of how to raise money for the ransom.

How much did the kidnappers demand?

It was about N10m; I can’t remember the exact amount. We were able to raise N1.8m through a Catholic society in Kaduna and gave it to one of the relatives of the priest to pay for his release. Immediately the money was given to the kidnappers, their phone lines were off. We did not hear from them until the priest’s corpse was found in a village in Otukpa.

What went through your mind when you heard that he was killed despite the money paid for his release?

Chai! The news of his death took me back to the point where I lost my mother. It felt like the world had come to an end. I wept bitterly but thank God for His faithfulness. It took me a month to recover from the shock.

Did some people tell you to beg for alms to survive?

When my mother passed away, it felt like everybody had rejected me. I was told to leave the apartment where she died and advised to live with my grandmother. At my grandmother’s place, things became difficult. At some point, I went to my mother’s house to ask about some of her personal belongings that could be used at my grandmother’s apartment. But when I got there, some people refused to let me enter the apartment. One of them, who used to be a soldier, physically assaulted me. He flogged me and called me a wizard. As soon as that incident took place, people rejected me. I had to live in an uncompleted town hall. This is the first time I am mentioning this and it is because of the question you asked.

While living there, I fed with the money I received from some friends. I used to buy garri with the money and beg for a plate which I used to eat the garri. Life was so difficult that my grandmother had to send me to another village before the Catholic priest picked me up.

Have you stopped weightlifting?

I stopped weightlifting in 2019 when I attempted to lift 220kg and dislocated my shoulder in the process. I still have the injury.

Did you represent Nigeria at any event?

No. The sports festival was the only event I participated in.

You described your son as the source of the blessings you have received from shoemaking. What do want him to become in future?

I want my son to become a Catholic priest but if he changes his mind, I won’t force him. I named him after Fr John Adeyi, so I want him to follow in his footsteps.

How profitable has your shoemaking business been?

I got some orders after my photo went viral and I had to raise some money to buy a piece of land because the house given to me by the state government was not mine to keep but as a temporary home, pending when I would get a house of my own. But for some time, I have not been getting orders.

Have you reconnected with your father?

No.

Do you wish to reconnect with him?

No.

Why?

He rejected me. As far as I am concerned, I am an orphan – no father, no mother. People have been urging me to reconnect with him but if I do, he might think it is because I have a family and life has been hard for me.

Have you forgiven him for rejecting you?

Yes, I have forgiven him.

Are you helping other persons with disabilities acquire shoemaking skills?

I want to have a centre where I can teach other physically-challenged persons and women free of charge and charge a token to teach able-bodied male youths. But I have not been able to buy the machines I need.

You said earlier that you are married with children. How did you meet your wife?

I met her at a filling station and we exchanged (phone) numbers. After several failed attempts to reach her, I called her and we talked and she visited me. I was introduced to her mother and that was how we started. I have not met a lady like her that loves me genuinely despite my condition. She loves being with me and letting people know that she is my wife. I have met many ladies that rejected me, so I never thought I would be married.

When you think about your life, what are you most grateful for?

Although I am not yet where I wish to be, when I think about my life, I grateful that I am far better than where I came from and I am grateful to God. Each time I see my children, my heart is filled with joy. But the most painful events in life are the loss of my mother, the priest and the dislocation I suffered. I tried to fix the dislocation but couldn’t. I locked myself in a room and cried because I thought weightlifting would take me far in life. However, I wish my mother and the priest were alive to see what I have achieved and carry my children.

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