Ending the isolation of People with disabilities: speech delivered at the Focus on Disability Foundation event on 5 December 2015

December 5, 2016

Last year, I was honoured to be asked to speak at this event in London to mark the International Day of Persons With Disabilities which is celebrated on 3rd December.  After giving my address, I had to race back to Lancaster, because reports were coming out that the city was flooded.  I managed to kame it with great difficulty, to find out that the city was plunged into darkness.  It took about three or four days for Lancaster to get back to normal and by then, there was just so much to catch up on.  Now, one year on, I present an account of what I said on that day.


First, let me thank this isolated group for inviting me to share thoughts on how to end the isolation of disabled people.  I say we are an isolated group, because the small number of us gathered here could have joined the large crowds at one of the many football matches taking place today.  The great thing is that we all live in the UK, even if a sizeable proportion of us were not born here.  Which means that we have a broad perspective on the issues under discussion.


Which is also why the first question is actually to what extent are disabled people isolated.  After all, there are international conventions such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the International Conventions on Human Rights.  There is also the Marakesh treaty on international copyright which means that books produced in an accessible format in one country can be used by those in other signatory states.  In the United Kingdom, there is the Equality Act, and in the US the Americans with Disabilities act.  Many in these countries would point to these legislations and say how much disabled people are being brought into the mainstream.  We have computers that have been adapted, as well as other digital and electronic aides for people with all manner of disabilities.  In fact, accessibility is so mainstream that roads, buildings, parking spaces, … even medicine packages which have Braille instructions are routinely adapted for disabled people.  People would point to Stevie Wonder, David Blunket and even the disgraced Oscar Pistorius as evidence that disabled people are taking advantage of these and entering mainstream society.


But consider this. In most countries, about 15% of citizens are registered disabled; yet, in the UK, recent figures suggest that about 60% of disabled people of working age are not in employment.  How does this compare to the national employment statistics?  Despite all these laws, only about 5% of all books produced in the United Kingdom are in a format that is accessible to people with a print disability.  Why have we stopped at enacting our good intentions?


First, people don’t realise that disability affects them.  If we did an unofficial poll, we’d probably find that most people here have relatives who are disabled; or a sizeable number of us are ourselves disabled.  Others who should be here do not admit to or see themselves as disabled.


Growing up as a Nigerian teenager, there were some books that were all the rage; they were called pace setters.  I recall a friend reading a pace setter to me.  It told the story of a village chief who was being accused of something, I can’t remember what.  By all accounts, he was such a kind and noble man.  One of the character witnesses at his trial made the point that as an important chief, he had many wives.  It was generally assumed that he had 31 wives, but he actually had 32.  The reason why nobody knew of the 32nd wife was that she was blind and nobody would marry her, so this noble chief married the girl and shut her away in his big house.  Even as a teenager, I felt uncomfortable about the imagery here, and it was not only the polygamy portrayed that worried me.  First, why should this disabled lady be so hidden that nobody even knew her as one of the wives of this great chief?  And why was it considered a kindness to her to do this?


In Nigeria (and perhaps in the UK as well) other disabled people have been recategorised as elderly and therefore their needs are different.  Age is a major cause of disability, but also the most unrecognised one.  Many elderly people walk about with hearing aids but do not consider themselves disabled.  They believe they have lived a full life and their hearing aids are a sign of their age.  Others cannot even face the fact that they now need hearing aids.  Some use walking aids, others can no longer read; but they are not disabled, just elderly.  Even as they play less part in society, they are revered for their age.  But society is doing nothing about their real need to still be relevant.


Why?  Because in our culture, nobody is permitted to be less able than others.  If I admit that I cannot see you, something is missing … incomplete.  But it was ever thus.  As a Christian, I’m familiar with the story of the paralyzed man who was healed by Jesus after staying by a pool with other disabled people for several years.  The reason he did not get his healing earlier? No one was available to take him to the pool when the angel stirred the waters.  What isolation! People crowded into a place only because they’re disabled; All waiting for their healing.


I believed Jesus healed that man as a commentary on the society which did not accept him or provide a means for his acceess to other forms of healing.  I’m not so sure it was because he was disabled, because there were many others by the pool and we only have the record of one healing.  The Bible also says that when God had made everything, He looked at His creation and it was very good.  According to the Bible, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made”.  It is humans who see imperfections, not God.  He picked the most isolated one to demonstrate that God does not isolate us, we isolate each other.


So, for the 4th time, it is hoped that the disability bill will pass the legislative stage and be presented to the president of Nigeria; and that after three such presentations before past presidents, this one will receive assent and become law in Nigeria.  But is it really about the law?  Laws, technology, … all these things are the logical products, the progression of a liberal mind.  They’re there because we say that we cannot be advanced and still lack these laws or facilities.  But it is time to progress from logical concepts of equality to emotional compassion.  It is time to look at disabled people as humans, not consider the theoretical framework of disability and practical implementation of objectives.


The real question isn’t why disabled people are isolated, it’s “how will I feel if I am disabled? How will I want to live? And if I’m not disabled, can I give that kind of lifestyle to those who are “? Remember Jesus healing that paralized man.  It was about enabling, raising him from what we call the medical (or even the rehabilitation) model to the social model of disability.  The experts say that the social model is about looking at the person and providing what can enable him or her.  In the end, it’s not about cold facts, statistics, figures, logical conclusions.  It’s about warm feelings, compassion, neighbourliness and inclusiveness.

The Bible’s Political Thriller

January 11, 2016

I thought I’d read the book of Esther … again. It’s a relatively short book, not like Isaiah with 66 chapters, or even the psalms. As I started with the first chapter, I remembered again what I’d read somewhere, that God was not mentioned in the book of Esther. And as I’ve done so many times before, I decided to test this out. They’re right you know! Not even in the famous “for a time like this …” passage (Esther 4 v14).


If this is the case, why do I like this book so much? First, it tells a story. Books like Genesis, Judges, 1 and 2 Kings and Acts are historical narratives; Joshua, 2 Samuel and the gospels are biographies. There are lots of prophesies, sayings, doctrine and so many other kinds of books in the Bible, but Apart from perhaps Ruth, Ezra and Nehemiah, there are few other books that tell one story.


And I love stories! I grew up on bedtime African folktales that dealt with such significant topics as why the shell of a tortoise is rough, and addressed such moral issues as selfishness and greed. Then, when I started to read, I found princes and princesses falling in love and living in castles, fairytales, Enid Blyton and all the other children’s books, just waiting to be devoured. Those I couldn’t find in Braille, friends and family read to me. Even now, I still spend a lot of time telling stories, listening to stories and reading stories.


Sometimes, I think my love of stories affects my Bible reading. Ask me anything about a Bible story – what Abraham, Moses, David, even Jesus did – I’d probably be able to tell you. I’m not so hot on epistles, prophets, the laws of Moses, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, or the conversation between Job and his friends.


The book of Esther has a clear storyline, with a beginning and an end. Imagine picking up a book and looking in the back cover and reading: “Haman was a top official of Ahasuerus, king of the Medes and Persians. His one aim was the destruction of the Jews. As the lives of the Kingdom’s Jews hang in the balance, only Mordecai and his niece Esther can stop him. But to do so, they have to first persuade king Ahasuerus that Haman’s plans are evil”.


It’s also a page turner, a political thriller complete with the good and bad guys, conflict and suspense. Like all good stories, it starts by introducing us to the main characters, describing the end of the Vashti era and how Esther becomes queen. We’re also introduced to King Ahasuerus and Mordecai who had brought Esther up. Then we meet Haman and discover his hatred of Mordecai as a person and the Jews as a whole.


But if God is not mentioned once in the book, you see His power everywhere. This is a thriller with a difference. Imagine reading a book where the good guys are discussing strategy. One of them says “The odds are stacked against us, but there’s only one way, we fast for 3 days”.


The immediate result of the fast was that Esther was able to step out in faith and walk up to the king. This demonstration of reliance on God is significant; if king Ahasuerus had not held up the sceptre to Esther, the law says she’d have been executed. But there was more; the day Haman had planned for Mordecai to be hanged, the king couldn’t sleep. He just happened to pick up the record of how Mordecai had discovered an assascination plot and he remembered that nothing had been done to honour him. What a transformation!


This is where you will find one of my favourite passages of scripture. The king asks Haman what should be done to someone the king desires to honour. Mordecai, thinking that it is he who should be honoured says that such a person should be made to wear the king’s own robes, then placed on the king’s own horse and paraded throughout the city with a herald shouting, “this is what is done to the one the king desires to honour” (Esther 6 verses 9-10). And so, Haman who had planned to hang Mordecai now had to lead him throughout the city and proclaim that the king desires to honour him.


One day, as I read this passage, it was like God was telling me that this is what He, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords has done for us as Christians. He has put on us His robes of righteousness (Isaiah 61 verse 10). By ourselves, we have no righteousness to speak of, nothing that would lead us to be honoured, or even to approach God. And according to 2 Corinthians 2 14, he leads us in a triumphal procession. In psalm 23 verse 5, we read that He prepared a table for us in the presence of our enemies. In that famous passage Matthew 5 verses 13-19, Jesus says we shouldn’t hide, we are a city built on a hill and so should let our light shine to the glory of our heavenly Father. God wants us to be clearly visible as Christians, to the Glory of our Heavenly Father; we are His honoured children.


Hold on! If I’m reviewing the book, I shouldn’t give the ending away. All I will say here is that I want to be like Esther and all the other Bible characters who took a step of faith and because they trusted God, great things happened. We read about some of them in Hebrews 11, but there are more. Imagine Peter hearing Jesus saying he should come, and he walks on water! Or even after he’d fished all night and caught nothing, hearing Jesus say go and cast your net and he catches the largest haul imaginable.


As I say, I didn’t see God mentioned in the book, but He was everywhere. Oh and by the way, something else which always catches me out in Esther, how short the very last chapter is. Now what should I read next? Another story, a prophesy, an epistle, …?

The Anatomy of an Unsolved Crime

December 16, 2015

I was standing at the top of the stairs, leaning against the stair rail when I heard it. It was breaking glass … it went on and on, perhaps for a minute or two … it sounded like breaking glass falling on marble. I now had two choices. I could go back to the bed where my phones lay, or come downstairs and confront the intruder. To pick my phone, I would have to be real quiet getting to it and calling 999. In my small house, I’d certainly be heard. But to confront the intruder? Surely that was suicide if I had no weapon and no sight. I was still pondering these when I woke up.


In truth, there were many differences between the dream and the events of a few days before. I was lying in bed, lazily drifting off to sleep. It was after midnight, so it would have been Saturday morning, 17 January 2015. I heard a ‘woooosh’ sound, as though something had dropped from some height onto my living room floor. My bedroom is above my living room. I was too sleepy to get up to investigate and to my mind, it couldn’t be anything major anyway. I’d completely forgotten the incident when I woke up in the morning, but when I went downstairs, there was something crunchy underfoot. It didn’t take long to establish it was glass, but where had it come from. And then I saw a stone at the foot of my settee. And why, when the central heating had kicked in, was the living room so cold?


This was obviously beyond me, so I made two calls. One was to a Nigerian couple who lived two doors away, Michael and Gbemi; the other was to Brian. Brian is my go-to person for anything from reading mail to fixing my printer. If he can’t find an immediate answer, he’ll always think of an alternative while working out the solution. But he’s more than that, he’s a rock, a solid friend. If you don’t believe me, just ask anyone in church. He was round, in as long as it would take to sprint from his house. My neighbours were here too. I can still hear Gbemi’s voice as she approached the house. I knew there was trouble because she was just going “oh no! Oh no!”


It was only after my initial observers had described the scene and explained which window had been damaged that I called the police; they said they’d show up about lunchtime.   I knew from all the crime stories I’d read and watched that I shouldn’t disturb the scene of the crime. This worried Brian who wondered how I’d survive till the police came; I simply retired upstairs to wait..


I had called the police before and thought I knew what would happen. They usually came in pairs, but to my shock, only one gentleman visited me this time. He said there was no need for a scene of crimes investigation because the stone that hit my window was thrown with such force that it had broken in two. According to him, as it was a stone, they couldn’t get any fingerprint or other evidence. anyway.


Now, you probably don’t know this and I shouldn’t be saying it loud; but when I don’t like what I’m hearing, I argue and fight back. This time, I was so desperate that I even played the blind man card. I told him that in my view, this had to have some foreknowledge, as most people here actually know where I live. On several occasions, I’d be walking and someone would stop me, perhaps asking if he could help me cross the road or something. Then he’d say “I know you, you’re the one who lives …”. And he’d be right! I’m recognizable as one of only two black visually impaired people in this town. I told him that in my view, this could be either a hate crime or a crime against a vulnerable person.


I fought hard because all the time, there was a picture in my mind. Just three days earlier, on Wednesday 14th, I’d had a really long day. I’d gone to London on a very early train and had returned just in time to head for church and worship group. When I finally got home, at just before 10 PM, I was so tired that I just sat on the settee till I woke up at about 1 O’clock. What if that had been the night he’d struck? The sound would have been much clearer then, I’d have been directly facing that window. The stone might even have struck me on its way down to rest on the carpet. And if the guy had realised he’d startled me awake, his reaction would have been either fight or flight. and if as I suspected, he knew I couldn’t see him, would he have fled? Or fought? And if he had other stones with him?


But my policeman wasn’t budging on this one. He made only one concession, that he would ask for increased patrols around my house and that when doing their rounds, some police people would call on me to reassure me. I did get a crime report number, but I’m afraid that was the last time I saw any police man or woman. I cannot confirm that patrols were increased because nobody came to reassure me on the point.


So now I know, if a stone is thrown through my window, no need to keep away from the scene of crime, as the police can do nothing to trace the criminal. I could go about my life, which I did by calling my friends to help me clean up. Two sisters, Ola and Yinka, came from the other side of town and joined Michael and Gbemi. When she’s not cleaning vandalised houses, Yinka is a network administrator. She agreed with my brother who moonlights as my long distance security adviser, that I need some surveillance equipment, cameras, CCTVs, etc. She was so disgusted that she took photos before the clean up began.


Later on, Ola’s husband, Ayo came around to board up the window as a temporary measure. He showed me the torn curtain, and suggested that the guy with the stone might alsohave wanted to get into the house. Apparently, he’d tried to use the curtain to hold the window, near the break, to see if he could get to the latch and open it. And I didn’t think there was anything to worry about when I heard the sound?


I have moved on since that day. So many personal triumphs and some difficulties. I thank God for so much in 2015. The rest of the world has moved on too. Other crimes have been committed, even our church was broken into. And there have been floods, wars, terrorism; yesterday, as my sister celebrated her birthday, three people were climbing onto a rocket and heading for the international space station. In the light of all this, the incident was just another unsolved crime; after all, nobody got physically hurt and nothing was taken. The house was cleaned free of charge, it was probably tidier than the night before. All it cost was fixing the glass that was broken.


Even though I’ve moved on too (I haven’t had that dream since) I remember the day because tomorrow, it would be exactly 11 months since I woke up to crunching glass on my carpet floor. As I’ve already written here, the police seem to have forgotten the incident; but that’s because it didn’t personally affect them, they don’t see it from my perspective. You see, I know just how vulnerable I am. Most people say how wonderful it is that I’m always on the move; London today, Manchester tomorrow, the States, Nigeria, everywhere. But nobody knows of the times when people have walked up to me and shouted right in front of me to see if I’d flinch. About 20 years ago, some children were throwing stones at me; when I didn’t respond, one got so angry that he (or she, let’s not be sexist here) picked up several stones and flung them at me. In one sense, you could say this was just the sinister end of bullying the vulnerable. But it could be worse than that; it could have developed into a real attempt to exploit the vulnerable for advantage. I know there are limited resources, but I was still left asking myself exactly what would make the police take my case seriously.


Again, I must point out that this is really about me, just one person among 6 billion. So maybe I should say I learned something really wonderful. I learned about people caring for one another, naturally and without fuss. While taking the photos, Yinka was evidently upset, but we were laughing through it. Ola saw this as an excellent opportunity to upbraid me for my untidiness and introduce some form of order into my living room. On the next Tuesday morning, I was in church for GUGU (grown ups and growing ups).   I sometimes play nursery rhymes when I’m in town. Several of the parents had walked past my house, further confirmation that many know where I live. All were concerned to see that I was fine. In the end, for just one person out of 6 billion, how much does it matter what the police do or do not, when there are people who love and care so much? Thank you all, thank God for you.

10 Years Ago

September 11, 2011

Today is another of those days when people are asking, “where were you this time, 10 years ago”. There are so many programmes, so many memories, so many stories. I suppose if I add another one, nobody would bother to read it, especially if they’ve read so many other more dramatic ones.

It seems to me that there are three kinds of connections to 9 11. There were those who were tragically caught up in the event, either because they were in the aircraft, or in the buildings. Those who are in that category can only tell us what happened if they survived it. Others were caught up in the aftermath, either as decision makers, rescue workers, or even as travellers. The third group comprises everyone else, those who were at work, were at home, were at play, were doing something when … “the latest from New York is that a plane has crashed into the World Trade Centre …” and suddenly, they all knew that things would never be the same again.

at 11:40 AM, I was in an aeroplane, taking off from Heathrow airport to visit my sister in Washington. With me was her 5 year old daughter; I was looking forward to a 2 week holiday to celebrate my recent doctorate, she was looking forward to being spoiled. Our expected arrival time in DC was 3 PM local time, but by 11:40 (DC time) I knew we weren’t going there.

I would have remembered the flight anyway, because the captain was one of the friendliest I’ve ever met. As we prepared for takeoff, he told us we were gong past the specially designated area for Concorde, which was undergoing tests after one of them had crashed. The final decision on its fate hadn’t been taken then. I thought “what a friendly guy”. Then we took off. It was a Boeing 767, and it was one of the smoothest takeoffs I’ve ever experienced. Indeed, the landing was smooth too, and takeoff and landing 2 days later. I think it must be a 767 thing, because the next time I travelled in one it was just the same.

Then our friendly captain informed us that we were going to have to make an emergency landing. You can imagine the thoughts that went through my head before he told us that he had very little information, but the US airspace was closed. Closed? Why? We didn’t know, not even when we landed in a usually empty airstrip in Newfoundland, I think it was called Stevensville. We sat in the aircraft We sat in the aircraft, being fed information by the captain, until about 7 AM the next morning, UK time. I hadn’t changed my watch settings yet, but I believe Newfoundland is 3 and a half hours behind UK time. And as we got more information, I had to explain to a 5 year old that some very bad people had done something really bad and that meant we couldn’t yet see her mommy.

I was glad to get off that aircraft, even though the security was tight at this unknown airstrip. I think they kept us waiting while they assembled the people who would process us in. It wasn’t only that it was cramped, it was also that I, the great follower of news stories was, for once, almost completely in the dark. In that confined space, rumours were flowing; Someone even said that nuclear war was under consideration. Maybe everyone else was in the dark too, but how was I to know. I had access to one of those expensive aircraft phones, the one you had to pay using a credit/debit card. I kept trying to ring my sister in DC and failing. It was only about half an hour before we disembarked that it occurred to me that the US was probably the most difficult place to reach. So I rang a friend in London and finally got information about what had happened, what governments and people were saying, and crucially, who had contacted my sister.

Eventually, we got off, were met by the Canadian Red Cross, were bused to a little town called Cornerbrook. The Canadian government and people were just wonderful. We stayed in some hotel and were given full access to the telephone to ring our families. We could watch television and actually find out what happened. A lovely lady from social services, who acted as a volunteer, took my niece and I out to buy some clothes, as ours were still in the plane. Her dad came along too, she even brought her boyfriend to meet us. On the morning of the 13th, we returned to London, despite my loud protests. I knew the captain was right, security meant we couldn’t go to the States, but I wasn’t thinking rationally. I just wanted it to be over and for life to continue. I wanted to relax again. Besides, my 5 year old niece had heard enough about bad people and wanted to be with her mum. The good captain came to me in the middle of the return flight and spoke to me and my niece. It was a calmer talk, because I was resigned to returning to London. BA took us to a hotel, and eventually, on the 15th, we were headed back to Washington.

My thanks goes to you (Cornerbrook residents) forever. Maybe I’ll come visit, a proper visit this time, not one forced on us by “very bad people” who wouldn’t let my niece see her mother.

I’ve done a lot of reading about that day, mostly from the political angle. That doctorate, it was in international politics, and my area of interest was Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and the UN efforts to remove them. I knew about weapons of mass destruction, if of a different type. I knew of government foreign policy, damaged national pride and all that. I’d read enough about terrorism and anti-American feelings among some elements in the Middle East and predominantly muslim world. This was terrorism, it was the use of a weapon of mass destruction, and it had the hallmarks of anti-American feeling, but in every other respect, it was unprecedented. I suspected even then that an unprecedented act was likely to lead to unprecedented reactions.

I sat on that plane, wondering what would happen. My knowledge scared me; You can’t imagine what was going through my mind. I remembered that the good thing about Canada is that it’s foreign policy stance is quieter than the States, and if there was an international explosion of violence, it was probably safe to be in Canada. But if security meant that we couldn’t ever get to DC, would I have to remain in Canada with my niece for an indefinite period? How would I manage, as a single blind man with my 5 year old niece, if things really god bad? What if the unthinkable happened, and those rumours about nuclear war were true?

When you’re in an aircraft in the middle of nowhere, with limited information, but sufficient knowledge of international relations to conjure worst case scenarios, that’s the sort of thing you think about. I think there is a time for rational thought, but that wasn’t it. And I couldn’t get over the thought that I was flying. Never mind that it was domestic flights that were hijacked. I was actually in the air, and one aircraft is as good as another for hurling at a building.

I didn’t want to write about international relations, not today. Everyone else is doing that. I wanted to write about something I really knew about. I could never tell what was happening outside the aircraft, and I’ve learned that nobody ever truely understands those high sounding things like foreign policy and strategic thinking. Too many others are involved, nobody has the full picture. Why should I speculate when I can write of what I know.

This week, it occurs to me that the American open tennis tournament is on. I tried to remember if it was on then, it’s the same city, New York, if it’s in a different location, Queens. I can’t remember, perhaps because I was too busy working on my viva, then getting ready for a holiday. But when I once again focussed on the news, I heard that the Rider Cup, which was supposed to have been held that year, (probably about that time) was cancelled. I’m trying to remember the news stories around that time. For someone so normally clued up on international relations, I can’t remember a thing. It just goes to show how some things can overshadow everything else. Come to think of it, do I still remember any of the world leaders of that time? Apart from President Bush and Prime Minister Blair, I’m not sure I remember who was in power in any of the other permanent members. Was it Shirac in France? Putin or Yeltsin in Russia? I’m sure I can’t remember who was in charge in China.

Have we learned anything in 10 years? I heard of a guy, he spoke at the memorial service this morning. He said he’d decided to be a forensic scientist after he’d lost his dad on that day. It was so moving. Then I heard that there were 3000 people being remembered as victims of those terrorist attacks. The same guy who said this on radio also said the US had lost 6000 people in Iraq and Afghanistan as a result of the war on terror. The US is in a state of high security alert right now. It all happened 10 years ago, but the effects are still here, in the mourning, the foreign policy, the memories.

I can write of my apprehensions, or the shock of full realisation, long after most others had fully grasped what had happened. I can write of my friends, with total gratitude. I heard later of those who started ringing round asking each other “wasn’t Ife supposed to be travelling today?” I know of how my sister worried. As a doctor, she was on standby. But that didn’t stop her pestering everyone she could. She knew I was going to the Comfort Inn in Cornerbrook, even before I got off the plane.

And all my friends who knew how to reach my sister, they just kept calling. She thinks you’re all angels … I know better, but I haven’t felt it necessary to disabuse her. (joke). Someone rang my sister and said “if there’s any place where there’s trouble, you can be sure Ife would be there”, then realising it was the wrong thing, she added “and if anyone is going to get out, you can be sure he will”. Thanks for that vote of confidence. I wish you could have told me that when I was on the plane. I just needed to hear that everything would be all right.

I was listening to a play about the Caesars. One of the characters said that a historian wishes he was there, when the event occurred, but a wise person wishes they weren’t there at all. Strangely, I always thought of myself as the historian, the one who would grab the radio whenever there was something happening … but this time? No thanks. I spoke to my niece, she still remembers the day. She remembers the people who helped, and the fellow passengers. I didn’t tell her that passengers and aircrew told me that she was the best behaved 5 year old they’d ever met. I was so proud of her, but she’s a teenager now. She’s still the best behaved teenager I know, but I don’t have that much experience of that.

And finally. On Sunday 16 September 2001, as we prepared to go to church in Washington DC, I was doing my thing, listening to the radio. I always take a radio with me to every city and spend hours going through the stations until I pick my favourites. America is good for that, there are so many stations.

But back to my story. I heard a 5 minute monologue from a pastor. I don’t know who he is, so I can’t attribute this statement, but I’ve never forgotten it. He said “God is SAFE”. God is
Actively working for the victory of good over evil
Focussing us on the truth, that we could never exist without Him;
Encouraging us in His word.

I learned something good from that terrible day.

Whirlwind is back

September 12, 2010

It was probably during the halfterm, or perhaps it was Easter. Anyway, one Monday morning, I stood with my sword, then aimed for Mike’s head. I didn’t miss, but he parried brilliantly, then attacked me. But I too was quick. As soon as his sword started to move, I was ready with mine and having blocked his attacked, resumed my own. This carried on for a while … and it was fun.

Because it wasn’t a real fight at all. It was the first day of the swordfighting workshop organised by Whirlwind Theatre. I’ve often written about the benefits of Whirlwind Theatre for the children. It’s great to work with the children, to watch them grow, even to see how my own acting skills have improved. This time was different. Was it three years ago that I first did something more than singing and moving around? It was the song “build a wall” in the Selfish giant. I took my first tentative steps towrds acting in a choreographed scene when, while singing, I did a little dance and moved the wall into place. But if I thought I’d faced the ultimate challenge, the dances in “around the pond in 80 days” were even more difficult; and add to that the changes of character. I started as a frog, moved on to be the king of the toads, then a newt, then returned to my original role. Playing Brilliant in “Brilliant the dinosaur” had its challenges too, not the least of which was that multi tasking scene where I had to keep the head of the dinosaur in place, sing, walk and lead a group of children in single file. Then, of course, I had to die, while still holding the dinosaur.

This time, the powers that be have decided that I’m playing Aslan. It turned out that although I took full part in the fight workshop, I’m not required to use my sword in the actual play. Pity, I could have shown off my newly acquired skills. I do have to kill the witch at the end, but that’s with my claws, not the sword.

Oh we had 6 and 7 year olds with swords as well. but before you conjure those images of decapitated children, be reassured that although we were taught how to handle our swords, they were not real. And although they can indeed injure, the children were really good. Those who have been with Whirlwind for a while have had the need to take care of stage props drummed into their heads. We sing it to them, play games, etc, just so that everyone knows that we have to work together and support each other.

This year is different in another respect. We’ve now been rehearsing for well over a year. We must have started early in 2009. It’s been 2 hours every week; this means that the children have learned slowly, but we hope more deeply.

There is a fight scene at the end of the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, and you do need to see it and marvel at how good these children are. But you also need to see the story; I’ve become more familiar with it than ever before. Of course, we all know it’s a story about Christ, and in that alone, Whirlwind has taken its first step into real Christian territory. I’m always struck by the scene in the play where the children go off to the professor to report that Lucy is talking nonsense. The professor asks why they think so and they say she’s been talking about a wardrobe and strange animals. They also remark that she says Edmund has also seen these things, but Edmund denies seeing any strange creatures. So professor asks them whom they would normally have believed. They respond that normally, they’re more likely to believe Lucy. What would I do if I heard something that was really strange and could only have come from God? Would I try to explain it away or even deny it?

Enough. What I really wanted to say is that this year, it’s staged in a different venue. Although King’s Community Church has been refurbished, (the work was going on as the play was being planned) the play is being staged at the Storey’s Institute, near the castle, in Lancaster. It’s the 9th, 10th and 11th of December. I gather there are two performances on the 11th. You can see the details at the Whirlwind Theatre website, http://www.whirlwindtheatre.org.uk So if you’d like to hear me roar, watch me kill the witch, and watch the amazing swordfight, the children playing all sorts of animals, with masks that some of them made, then please come and see.

Happy new year

January 7, 2010

Ok, I haven’t blogged for a while. What’s happening?

It’s the new year, happy new year. It’s snowing round the UK and all around me people are either walking carefully or sliding. As someone once reminded me, I’m getting older, it would be worse for me if I fell now.

I’ve been thinking of last year … you know, as you do when you come to the end of a year and the beginning of the next one? I never knew last year would turn out like it did … but that’s exactly what happened. For a lot of last year, I wondered why things weren’t going as I wanted … then at the end of the year, I decided things weren’t so bad after all. Here’s how I worked it out: At the end of each year, I think back and find one reason to thank God in each month, one thing that really made me happy. I usually find that there’s more than one reason every month. In January, someone spoke some really prophetic words to me. In March, God preserved my dad’s life and health, in November, I had one week’s notice before going to Nigeria on a very successful trip. I went to St Martin In the Fields twice last year … I’d never been before. Once in March, I said a prayer at the commemoration of Louis Braille’s bicentenary, and once in September, with the Sunbeam’s music troupe, where I sang ‘Amazing Grace’. Even in June, at my very lowest point in a very long time, I received encouragement from some unexpected quarters. This year, I did some new things too, (apart from going to St Martin in the Fields). I got into Twitter, and just before Christmas, into Facebook. Wow! I have 130 friends already. On 31 December 2009, I realised I’d moved forward from where I was exactly a year earlier. Thank you Lord!

And what of those I know? I did lose a very dear friend in April, (though I hadn’t seen him in years) and one or two others who had been influential in my life. But several good friends got married. I was at two of them; a big one in Barrow and an intimate one in Somerset. Several other couples had their first babies, including miracle Lilly. Her parents had been told she’d be born with some birth defects. God’s answers to the prayers of the church meant that she was born a healthy joyful baby, and every Sunday, when I see her, I marvel again at how God can change the things we hear from experts, if we believe. I bet her parents remember every second. Thank you Lord!

Yes, last year was difficult. Halfway through the year, I observed that nothing but God could hold me up. I still think so, even though I can say that things are much improved. Trusting in God is the only way.

And this year! I’m looking forward to it just as much as I looked forward to 2009. Things didn’t exactly turn out as I expected, but God taught me how to trust in Him, and I think I can take the lesson into 2010 and prosper. It’s no longer just clever sounding words, it’s the real thing now.

Going back to clever sounding words though. Maybe it’s like walking on ice in the cold. The Bible talks about being clothed in the right armour, right up to our shoes. Right clothes are useful in the cold too. The wrong shoes and I slide. Clothes that aren’t warm enough, and I die of hypothermia. Walking carelessly … well remember I don’t want to break any bones. But I think it’s most important that even if I’m cautious when I walk, my steps are sure. Maybe that’s what God does, makes me surefooted on the icy roads of life. Happy new year.

Mum Heath

October 9, 2009

When I was in primary school in Nigeria, I used to read a bi-monthly magazine for young christians, called “The Torch”. Another was called “Flash” and yet another “Searchlight”. These were produced in braille by the Torch Trust for the Blind, and mostly contained articles which first appeared in other print magazines. But there was always an editorial, usually by someone who called herself Mum Heath.

Much later, I discovered that this lady was called Stella Heath. When I got to England, I even got to meet her. I went with a friend to what was then called Torch House in Hallaton Hall, just outside MarketHarborough. This was in 1993 I think. Her husband Ron was still alive then, and they took some time to talk to me. I was awestruck by their simple faith. They said how they’d pray for something, and someone would just donate it. I don’t mean £100, I mean braille presses, buildings, etc. And for them, it was just natural, just quitely calling on God.

I remember spending a day in the Torch library. I love to read. I found a book which had been out for a while, telling the history of Torch. I believe the first lines were “it all started with …” and the mention of a girl. Can’t remember her name now. Apparently dad Heath was a bank manager and they lived in Sussex, where they ran a home group. There was this girl who had not yet become a Christian, but had started to attend the group. That was when they discovered there was no literature in braille for her.

And that was how Mum Heath and friends began to produce braille material for this girl. When they discovered that the whole house was full of braille, it occurred to them that they needed a bigger place. God provided Hallaton House. When I visited, they’d used up most of the house for braille production, had converted some of the sheds, etc. Even that place couldn’t hold Torch activities. It was really interesting how many people would come in as volunteers, stay in some of the rooms provided, get fed, work all day and return to their homes, feeling most fulfilled. I remember the staff taking me on walks through the village. It was for me a most wonderful time.

The purpose of the visit was to explore setting up a Torch Fellowship group in Morecambe. It happened for a few years, then stopped, but my impression of Mum and Dad Heath lasted. I believe there’s a photo of me reading a book in the old Torch House. Or maybe it’s lost now. When I was in Nigeria, all the blind people knew three British institutions: the Royal National Institute for the Blind, (or as it is now known, the Royal National Institute of Blind People), the National Library for the Blind (now merged with the RNIB), and Torch. It was only when I got to the UK that I found out about such charities as Guide Dogs for the Blind, Action for Blind People, etc. To think that one of those organisations was a specifically Christian charity. When I visited in 1993, they even had a project for transcribing Russian Bibles. They had, )and still have) projects in Malawi, and sent books all over the world. I know that from the letters in the penfriend pages, and from those who had passed their beginners Christian courses.

I write all these because I heard that last week, Mrs Stella Heath went to be with the Lord. By the time I started to visit Torch House again, she was no longer there. And things had changed too. Torch had moved to a purpose built place in the middle of MarketHarborough, all office space. Accommodation was moved somewhere else. The chief executive is now a lovely man called Dr Gordon Temple. It looked and felt more like a modern charity, and to tell the truth, I missed the old one. Indeed, I first visited the new building as a member of a project to present a programme about disability on Premier Christian Radio.

Though it faces the challenges of modern charities, it is still a Christian institution. Every morning at 9, all the staff gather in the chapel for a time of devotion. They sing from hymn books which have been transcribed in Torch House, read from a daily devotional, also produced there and commit the items on the calendar to God. The first time, it felt strange leaving the building for their guesthouse. But it’s run by a lovely couple who have been round the world on mission.

It turns out that Torch is 50 years this year. It’s amazing, it all started with a girl who did not have Christian literature in braille. Thank God for the excellent work that Torch is doing all over the world. And thank God for Stella and Ron Heath, who I still call Mum and Dad Heath, because they responded to a need and filled the life of a 7 year old in far away Nigeria, (who was in a boarding school far from home) with books about Christ. I took the decision to be a Christian much later, but those books certainly helped.