Thursday, February 17, 2011

NIGERIA: What Is Government To Me?

 By Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye

As I walked leisurely into my street last Sunday afternoon, trying as much as possible not to think about the obviously enraged sun bathing me with its stinging golden rays, I would have been forgiven if I had thought I had missed my way and strayed into some very busy industrial area. But then, the place I had just gone to was a yelling distance from home, and so, there was just no way I could have missed my way.

I live in a very small street, secured at both ends by two gates manned by some nice Mallams, whose salaries are paid from the Security Levy I unhappily part with every month. As soon as I passed the gate, I was greeted by the tormenting din and clatter of several power generating sets locked in a clearly mad competition to out-roar each other.



Every house contributed to the bedlam. Eardrums came under serious threat. Hypertension cases became more complicated, drawing victims closer to their graves. Sanity struggled to take leave of several people, as the roaring noise from every house tore into the very hot Sunday afternoon with violent rage, piercing fierceness and tormenting loudness.

Very lethal, thick, black fumes also oozed into the atmosphere, targeting the hearts and lungs of men, having successfully turned the area into one huge fatally saturated gas chamber. Why did everybody suddenly choose to set the machines roaring this afternoon? Maybe, this was what always happened every other afternoon, but because I was not always around in the afternoons, the whole thing now assailed my ears with menacing strangeness.

After sometime, I paused and listened, trying to make some form of meaning out of the whole chaos. What came into my mind was: Yes, this is a failed state! Like Prof Chinua Achebe once said: “This is an example of a country that has fallen down; it has collapsed. This house has fallen.”

My mind went to Countee Cullen, the African American poet, whose 1925 poem, Heritage, opened with a very significant question that had bugged his mind at that time, “What is Africa To Me?”

In the same vein, I could not help asking: What Is Government To Me? Or put differently, of what relevance is Government to me in a clearly ungoverned enclave like Nigeria?



If I provide for myself virtually everything Government is supposed to make available to me as a law abiding citizen, how then does Government justify its relevance, or even existence before me?

Take the issue of security that I mentioned earlier, for instance. One of the very basic functions of Government is to secure lives and property. But in Nigeria, this has since ceased to be part of Government’s priority. In fact, it is doubtful if those in authority still remember that provision of adequate security is part of their responsibility towards the citizenry.

Government has since conceded defeat in this area and seems to flaunt with nauseating relish its inability to protect Nigerians. In other words, it has since relinquished the monopoly it ought to exercise over the instruments of violence and coercion, and Nigerians have become mere lame ducks before hoodlums and criminals who invade homes and offices, taking their time to steal and even sexually abuse women with every fearlessness and fanfare. Robbers are no longer in a hurry because they know very well that nobody would dare disturb their operations, and that policemen would rather take to their heels at the sound of their rifles than attempt to repel them.

And so, because we are now “on our own,” we had to, like many other residents of other areas in Nigeria, engage the Mallams to man our gates? But as we all know, our protection is in the hands of God, because, these same Mallams would be the first to beat Ben Johnson’s track records at the first sound of the gun! And where is the Government in this picture? An absentee as usual!

Nigeria presents the best example of how a nation could be in the absence of any form of governance.

Again, what is Government to me? Darkness, Darkness and more Darkness -- everywhere? The clatter of generators I encountered last Sunday afternoon was a very sad reminder of the painful and oppressive fact that for several weeks now, power supply in my area has gone down to almost zero.


When we could be considered lucky, power would be supplied for an hour or two, and that would be all, in a whole week! But the normal thing now is that week after week, no one sees the slightest hint of power supply, not minding that the agents of that useless body of sadists called NEPA/PHCN would keep sending their huge bills with religious zealousness.

We used to complain of irregular power supply, not knowing that that time was our finest hour. Now, total darkness has enveloped the whole place. I know how much I have spent for some weeks now on fuel to generate my own megawatts for my household. That automatically means that I am my own President and Energy Minster, no matter the clearly idle, unproductive fellows pretending to occupy those offices in Abuja.

If then I am doing for myself what Government is supposed to be doing for me, it can only mean that as far as I am concerned, Government does not exist, having since lost its relevance, the basis for its existence. It might as well be scrapped. A tree that bears no fruits only emphasizes its crying irrelevance.


Powerless Power Plants?

 If anyone needs potable water in Nigeria today, such a one must provide it for himself. Reason? Government is on an interminable recess. In the eighties, one could just walk to any tap, even by the roadside, open it and drink clean water. Whoever tries that now, if at all any liquid gushes out from the tap, could be tried for attempting suicide. And I can guarantee that not even a very large-hearted judge would agree to set him free!


Today, because Government only exists in name, people must sink boreholes in their compounds to provide potable water for themselves. Others must make do with the generous typhoid distributor they call “pure water” (or pure gutter).

In fact, it has got to a stage that if my children ask me today the functions of Government, I wouldn’t know what to tell them, because I wouldn’t want to tell them lies. As far as I am concerned, the most inactive and unproductive institution in Nigeria today is the Government. I had to put it that way because I do not want to simply say that it is useless. Well, Government is not exactly inactive. It has duly distinguished itself as that far-removed, very distantly located band of men and women who only exist to plunder and squander our commonwealth.

They only remember us during election time, not because they really need our votes to acquire power, but it makes them feel good to be able to say that we gave them our mandate – something they had already appropriated long before they came to us canvassing for our votes. They also come to us as occasional sources of irritation, demanding taxes or “more sacrifices” from us in the form of punitive policies like fuel price hikes. We equally encounter them when they run us out of the roads with their blaring sirens.



The Radiance Of A King!
 President Goodluck Jonathan


 
Today, in most places, if the road leading to one’s house goes bad, the people inhabiting that area would have to contribute money to fix it, or else, it would be there ruining their cars and giving all of them body aches. Public schools which are supposed to be maintained by the Government have since collapsed, so one has to cough out the very high fees charged by quality private schools if one desires that one’s child should get quality education.

Most Government hospitals have long become very smooth expressways to the grave, which only those who cannot afford any other alternatives still go to gamble with their lives. It is sad, so sad. It is most painful and overly frustrating. It is provocative.

And as I think about these things, I am compelled to ask myself again: What is Government to me? I would have compared it to a refuse dump, but I am reminded that refuse dumps serve some useful purpose. At least, they provide manure for farmers to grow their crops. But as for Government in Nigeria, I cannot readily recall what it stands or exists for, or any form of use it presently is to the generality of Nigerian people, except that it has become a dispensable burden too heavy to bear, and a very easy route for a privileged few to gain entrance into the billionaire club. So sad really.

 -----------------------------------------------------------------
March 2008

Why Looting Persists In Nigeria

By Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye 

The Nigerian state thrives on a very a solid foundation and enduring, pervasive culture of very crude selfishness. Maybe, “selfishness” is not the most appropriate word to convey the exact meaning I have in mind.

But there is this consuming desire and deep craving by the average Nigerian to always have an unfair advantage over his neighbour, to ensure and emphasize the exclusive nature of whatever he does or possesses, and ultimately become the envy of others. 

(pix: online.wsj)

 This should, however, not be confused with healthy striving for excellence and distinction. Rather it is this mindset that makes someone to value whatever he has, only when he has established that no one else has it, or that only a select, privileged few have it.

I have observed that the average Nigerian derives peculiar animation, and in some instance, consolation, from constantly calling to mind some evidences of the advantages he has over his neighours, and some privileges he presently enjoys which his neighbour can only dream of.  
Mind you, this is not an exclusive habit of the affluent and highly-placed in society. Even the very marginal advantage the poor, suffering fellow thinks he has over his neighbour  automatically constitutes the little flame that keeps his heart aglow, and makes him feel like a king in the neighbourhood. He derives profound, refreshing feelings of joy by the fact that he has, and can, at least, flaunt what his neighbour doesn’t have.            

 Many years ago, when heavy traffic on Carter Bridge consisted of several new Raleigh bicycles racing along, some motorcycles and a couple of cars, a man returned to his village from Lagos, with a well tailored new dress, with which he hoped to cause a stir in Church the following Sunday. As his kinsmen converged to welcome him, he brought out the dress and told them he was sure no one had won that dress in the entire community.


















How Much Thought Is Spared For these Labouring
Nigerians?


In fact, only very few people had at that time possessed it in the whole of Lagos! On Saturday, as he basked in the pleasant expectation of how he was going to be the centre of attraction in the small village Church on Sunday, he decided to take a leisurely walk towards the marketplace. Along the way, he saw an old wine-taper on an old rickety bicycle, heading to the market to sell his palm-wine. As the man got close, he discovered, to his utmost shock, that the man was wearing that same cloth he was hoping to flaunt on Sunday; but the difference was that the wine-taper’s own was now well-worn and terribly stained, meaning that he has been wearing it for months, ever before our Lagos man thought of purchasing his own. Indeed, he was thoroughly disappointed and pained. His flag of pride automatically dropped. The cloth instantly lost all its value and glamour, for the simple reason that a wine-taper had won it before him. And, so, he refused to wear it again.

That is the Nigerian!   I don’t know whether it was the British that planted this insidious seed in Nigerians or merely helped to water and tend it, for their own self-serving reasons. The British had created the Government Reserved Areas (GRAs) and several other segregating and divisive facilities, and took some special “natives”, the educated and privileged few, away from their own people, put them in those secluded areas and planted in them a mindset that made them regard themselves as “special” and “different” from the rest.

This may have helped them to perfect their divide-and-rule policy, but also succeeded in engraving in the minds of those lucky natives that they were indeed better than the others. And so, when the British unwillingly granted what they called Independence to Nigeria, they ensured that this iniquitous status quo remained. Through this privileged class which they had created and successfully alienated from their own people, the British still ruled Nigeria.
That is why our rulers live in fortresses, far removed from the people they claim to be serving.  In Nigeria today, a successful man is one who has “left the others” to join the privileged, eating class. In several cases, this may not be as result of hard work, but merely because the “lucky” fellow has some acquaintance with some other fellow in the corridors of power.

The truth we all know is that one may just start swimming in boundless opulence tomorrow just because he had got the “right connections”, which may merely be that he is a distant to cousin to the hairdresser of  the girlfriend of the ADC of one of our rulers. When that happens, the person quickly leaves his fellows behind to “join them” to enjoy. This situation exists in degrees and categories, as I mentioned earlier, and it has created a craving in everyone to strive, not just to better his lot, but to show how he is  “better” than he his neighbour. And that is why, at the slightest opportunity, anyone with access to the public till will seek to corner all the juicy advantages there to himself, and create another world of limitless comfort for himself which would automatically place him far above the rest of the people. This is the situation that produced the “big-man” syndrome.  








































President Goodluck Jonathan and VP Namadi Sambo At
The Inauguration Party In Abuja


Recently, one of my ardent readers sent me an email to say that in Warri where he grew up, what they call these toy generators from China is: I-Better-Pass-My-Neighbour. So, when NEPA/PHCN envelopes everyone with impenetrable darkness, and those who have these toy generators put them on, they mean to demonstrate to their neighbours choking with thick, oppressive darkness that they are better than them. Yes, I better pass my neighbour!  

This mentality appears to be what guides the conducts of public officers in Nigeria. And when you look at the situation closely, you then begin to understand why Nigerians are suffering in the midst of plenty. For those in authority, it is a complete insult to suggest that the rest of the people should enjoy basic amenities like electricity, good roads, potable water and security. No, that would make everybody equal.

The GSM was a huge mistake that must never be repeated. Initially, they collected so much money from telecom operators and unleashed them on Nigerians to cut their necks with prohibitive prices, so that only the rich can afford GSM phones. But, the era of exploitation did not last. Globacom, just came into the market, overthrew the heartless, inhuman cartel, and today, the poor man in Lagos can call his poor mother in the village. Now, the rich can only emphasize their wealth by the number and type of expensive handsets they carry at the same time.    I-better-Pass-My-Neighbour.

That’s the mindset that rules the Nigerian ruler’s mind. There was a Nigerian ruler who was asked why he banned tokunbo vehicles during a phone-in radio/television programme. He did not know when he let out his grouse, which was that there were too many cars competing for space with his convoy on the streets of Abuja! “Everywhere in Abuja, what is you see is Golf, Golf!” he fumed. Now “Golf” is that Volkswagen vehicle thy call “pure water”, which the poor man, at his  own level, too, flaunts, to show that he is better than his waka-waka neighbour.

Now the Oga up there is not happy that private cars were becoming too common on our roads (even when the public transportation system is in such a chaotic state), that it was no longer the exclusive preserve of rulers and the rich, their children and cronies. And so, a ban had to be placed to put the poor back in his place, in the spirit of  I-better-Pass-My-
Neighbour.


   obasanjo-pic.jpg
   Olusegun Obasanjo: Nigerian President When
   This Article Was First Published


Today, the roads are so horrible that each time you ply some of them, you may have to visit your mechanic. But in order to rub in his marked difference from the rest of us,  President Olusegun Obasanjo does not use the roads to get to his home. Once he arrives at the Murtala Mohammed Airport, Lagos, a helicopter will pick him up and drop him gently on his farm in Ota. How else can his neighbours be made to know that the “big-man” was returning if not with the flourish that the helicopter noise ushers in? I-better-Pass-My-Neighbour! 

 So, in Nigeria today, instead of a ruler to provide social amenities to benefit for everyone, he uses public funds to create limitless advantages, privileges and comfort for himself, so that everyone looking at him, his wives and children would really realize how unlucky he was to not have been born into such a family.

That is why a state governor can have the heart to steal N126 billion from state coffers. While public schools here are left to decay, children of rulers are flown out of Nigeria to attend quality schools in Europe, America, South Africa and even Ghana; they hop across to see “their” doctors in far away Canberra to treat common cold, and go to Kuala Lumpur to see “their” dentist. Nigerian public officers steal so much money to buy themselves houses in France, UK and the United States. Yet they have not asked themselves how many Americans have homes in London or France, or even how many people born in Boston have ever visited New York, let alone own a home there.

People steal and accumulate even more than they would ever need, just to ensure that forever they can always say: I-better-Pass-My-Neighbour


Volkswagen Golf: Its Proliferation On Nigerian
Roads Threw The Ire Of The President


Like I said, this mindset is at play anywhere. Go to any embassy and see how Nigerian Security men employed there will treat you.

One day, while conducting an investigation for a story on the thriving visa racket at the British High Commission, I was reading a notice board outside the High Commission’s gate when a Nigerian Security man came and told me that I had stayed too long on the notice board and  should  leave. In fact, I had been there for less than five minutes. As I looked at him, flaunting his badge of slavery (uniforms), I knew exactly what was at play. He was working at the place where Nigerians scrambled to get visas to Mars, and I wasn’t! I-better-Pass-My-Neighbour.

 Until we kill this spirit, looting will never stop in Nigeria. The rulers would always ensure that mass poverty continue in the land because that is  the only situation that emphasizes how “lucky” they and their families and cronies are. That would also ensure that during elections, the poor can easily be manipulated with little gifts to sell-off their votes. In many countries there is nothing like “inferior” or “superior” hospitals.

Everybody, whether President, Governor, Senator, the jobless or school boy, is entitled to quality healthcare. But here, the craving is to show our advantage over others. Some even ensure they prepare their executive graves before they die, so that even in death, they would still be able to make the statement: I-better-Pass-My-Neighbour.

                                    -------------------------

First published in March 2006 in Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye's weekly column (SCRUPLES) on the back page of Daily Independent newspaper. 
 scruples2006@yahoo.com 

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Pastor A.C. Ohanebo: A Rare Gem At 60

By Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye

[First Published In July 2004, A Few Days Before Pastor A.C. Ohanebo’s Sixtieth Birthday On July 17, 2004]

With proven men of God like Pastor Aloysius Chukwuemeka Ohanebo still around and  standing resolute and unmoved in their insistence on old-time, Christ-like Christianity as practiced by the apostles of Christ, and strongly determined to continue practicing and teaching this “narrow way that leads to eternal life” to all men and women in the face of the polluting influence of the perverted gospel issuing from the pseudo modernism and outright backsliding being advertised all over the place, genuine believers can take consolation that there still remain in the land  a number of  “knees which have not bowed unto Baal.”




























Pastor A.C. Ohanebo Ministering

Indeed, we still have a few men, holding aloft the shinning light of true godliness, selfless service and unquestionable Christian character, and beckoning on all others to follow. This is especially important and reassuring, because over the years, the whole landscape appears overrun by charlatans, clear backsliders and a mass of unregenerated men  and women found these days on every  hole and cranny of our city and rural centres “spreading” their  kind of gospel and “performing miracles.”

Unfortunately, these appear to succeed so well in their Satan-inspired and directed mission: to attract immense discredit to the most holy faith by their ugly lifestyles, confuse so many, and eventually lead  them away from the only hope for salvation available to mankind into eternal punishment in hell.  

But thank God for His mercies, a few like Pastor Ohanebo are still around, like lone voices in the wilderness, calling on all and sundry, to shun all worldly,   perverted and substandard Christianity of whatever hue, no matter the flashiness, status, flamboyance and dignity of their propagators, because, at no time has God changed His standard.

Pastor Ohanebo is the General Superintendent of the Watchman Catholic Charismatic Renewal Movement (WCCRM), with its headquarters in Lagos. I am told that the word “CATHOLIC” in the Church’s name is used in its original and proper sense, to mean, “universal” or  “for all.”  In his over two decades in ministry, Pastor Ohanebo’s view that Christianity must remain an “all-round package” has remained consistent.

What this means is that any person, whether preacher or prophet, who claims to use the power of a holy God for miracles and wonders must equally vindicate such a claim by right-living and  personal holiness in every  conduct and relationship with others. Indeed, God who he claims to work for is a holy God. It is difficult to believe that God could bestow His power on an individual without imparting in him His nature and attributes, which distinguishes His children from carnal men or the devil’s children and servants. The devil can give powers for miracles, prophetic insight and visions. But he lacks the power to regenerate people, sanctify them, and impart in them the life and nature of the most holy God.







































Pastor A.C. Ohanebo Ministering To Gospel Ministers From 
South Africa And Other (Neighbouring) Countries At The
International  Gospel Ministers’ Conference Of The Hour
(IGMC) Hosted By The WCRRM In East London, South
Africa( September 2008)

That is why the lower media now derive characteristic vulgar excitement from celebrating on their covers the unedifying, scandalous lifestyles of mostly flamboyant “miracle pastors” who are only manifesting the very nature of their “father.”

Pastor Ohanebo’s ministry has seen a lot of miracles, where incurable diseases are rolled away, but this hardly gets into the media. Yes, people must be healed and delivered, but real  emphasis should focus on the salvation of their souls. His name rings bell among the multitudes that had encountered him and  his God-directed and God-centred ministry.


Throughout the about fifty parishes of his Church in Lagos, and many others in several parts of the nation and abroad where thousands of worshippers convoke weekly to serve their God in truth and spirit, this man of God insists on the same standard everywhere. 

The WCCRM is built on a very strong foundation of discipline and godly character, which he believes should be the hallmark of any Christian congregation.  That is why he insists that the WCCRM members everywhere must be identical in character and appearance. There is nothing like an Americanized or Europeanized version of the Church. All forms of worldliness and indecency in appearance and conduct are abhorred with unyielding resoluteness.



Pastor A.C. Ohanebo Ministering To Thousands Of
Pastors, Evangelists And Several Categories Of
Church Leaders/Ministers From Several Parts Of
The World At The 2003 Edition Of The International
Gospel Ministers Conference Of The Hour (IGMC)
Hosted Annually By The Watchman Catholic C
harismatic Renewal Movement (WCCRM)
--Venue: Rock Chapel, The Watchman Education
Project, Awo Omamma, Imo State, Nigeria.

We have before us a man with a great burden and vision for his generation, who has schooled himself to remain undistracted by the several irrelevant matters that consume others. He, for instance, does not court publicity. And even though he heads such a large ministry with branches all over Nigeria, several parts of Africa, the Middle East, Europe, Canada and the United States, I have not once heard that he addressed a press conference, nor granted any press interview, though, they keep seeking his attention.

 His Church organizes well-thronged programmes and crusades regularly, and he is always ministering at those events,  but people are always amazed that the posters and handbills advertising the programme do not carry his photographs.  He is so careful about projecting himself instead of God. All he wants at all times is that multitudes be won to Christ and the entire glory goes to God.

It is equally the same reason that his face does not daily adorn TV screens despite his awareness of the immense publicity such a preoccupation would accrue to him and his Church. If Pastor Ohanebo honours an invitation to preach at any government event, he insists on picking all his bills during  the trip, and collects no gifts. His gospel is just too costly to be compromised in any way.

For some years now, the Watchman Catholic Charismatic Renewal Movement (WCCRM) has hosted an annual International Gospel Ministers Conference of the Hour (IGMC) where pastors, ministers and Church leaders from all over Nigeria and several parts of the World, whites and blacks, gather to hear him teach on “The Lord’s Three Fold End-Time Programme,” an assignment God has given him to raise a great army of Christians from several congregations (who would not be asked to leave their Churches) for the end-time harvest of souls and revival in the Church of Christ, and to prepare the Church for the rapture.

The peculiar character that must mark out this army wherever they are found and their mode of operations are what this conference addresses. Participants attend this conference annually at no cost at all. The host ministry pays for the air tickets and local bus trips to the venue for all participants from Nigeria and any part of the world. Also, feeding and accommodation is free. In seeking to spread this end-time gospel, the WCCRM is sparing no cost.

The belief is that the pastors would be encouraged by this incentive to come, get the message, and go home to transfer what they had got to their congregations. I have been informed that this year’s event coming up in October may have in attendance, double of last year’s number because multitudes of people from several parts of the world are indicating their interests to attend. Invitations are extended through WCCRM ministers and previous participants. Also, invitation cards are usually available at all WCCRM locations world-wide.




























Pastor A.C. Ohanebo Ministering To Watchman
Ministers And Leaders From Several Parts Of The
World At The Rock Chapel, Logos International
 Secondary School, Awo Omamma, Imo State,
In January 2011

This writer participated in this conference last year which held at the very serene, off-city Watchman Education Project Centre. About seven thousand participants came from Nigeria; twenty from Canada; eighteen from the Caribbean Islands and South America; ten  from the United Kingdom; five from the United States; one from Germany; two from Italy; one each from Iran and China; and many from several African countries. It was four days of sitting still in an airy ambience and listening with rapt attention to a man who knows God as he dug out the rich treasures of God from His Word and distributed them freely to all sincere seekers of truth.

Jameel Ali, Pastor of Oakville Christian Centre, Ontario, Canada, told this writer last year that the conference has totally changed their perception of Nigerians. He, like many others confessed the conference had taken them to a new realm in Christianity and ministry. He said that for three months, he could not take serious the person inviting him to the conference. He was so amazed to hear that a pastor in Nigeria (of all places) was inviting people from several parts the world  to attend an all-expense-paid conference. He said he kept asking: “What is this man going to gain from this?”

It takes only a man of Pastor Ohanebo’s temperament, discipline, and resolve to organize such a great annual event for some years now, and no one had seen him on CNN. No press conference precedes it nor are reporters invited to cover it. He is content to go on quietly with His Lord’s bidding in anticipation of his praise and reward at last.

















[From Left] Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye, Rev. Jameel
Ali (From Oakville, Ontario, Canada) And Pastor
Mike Iheanacho In Lagos

It impossible to hear Pastor Ohanebo and not be awed by his strong passion and deep concern for souls of men and the declining state of the Church; you cannot but be humbled by the exceptionally sharp intellect that orders his presentations. A trained Quantity Surveyor, Pastor Ohanebo had worked with a number of very reputable Construction Companies where he left enviable records of dedication, honesty and efficiency.  In line with the character of sacrifice he teaches, he had continued to combine his secular work with the ministry until the workload made the combination impossible.


Like the Biblical Joseph, Pastor A. C. Ohanebo has stood on his chosen path of integrity and righteousness at very great costs. No one expects the devil to be happy with such a man with unyielding determination to liberate all that Satan and his agents have tied with destructive bondages. He has incurred many devastating losses on the rough road he is traveling, but he remains undaunted. His commitment has not wavered.

His God whose ways he upholds so jealously has remained his great pillar of strength. And as he turned 60 recently (July 17, 2004), my prayer for him was that the almighty God should keep him for us. He needs to be around to continue his determined task of prosecuting the “second exodus” of men from all forms of error and ungodliness to the liberating gospel of Christ.

Happy Birthday, Sir, and may God’s matchless grace and abundant blessings remain  with you, as you continue to remain a great blessing to this generation.

---------------------------
www.ugochukwu.wordpress.com
scruples2006@yahoo.com


-------------------------
This Article Was First Published On The Back Page Of
Daily Independent Newspaper in July 2004, A Few Days
Before Pastor A.C. Ohanebo’s Sixtieth Birthday, And Later
On The Website:  kwenu.com on Tuesday, August 3, 2004

-------------------------


Thursday, February 3, 2011

Mattie Stepanek: A Fan Remembers

By Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye


"I want people to know that in every life, there are storms. But we must remember to play after every storm and to celebrate the gift of life as we have it, or else life becomes a task, rather than a gift. We must always listen to the song in our heart, and share that song with others"
Mattie Stepanek (July 17, 1990 – June 22, 2004)
---------------------------
In a well received article in the summer of 2003, I celebrated Mattie Stepanek, the then 12 year old and terminally sick American poet from Rockville, Maryland, whose five volumes of poetry had at that time sold more than a million of copies. In fact, three out of the five volumes had by that time made the New York Times Best Seller List.

I am compelled to remember Mattie again today: a child I never met, but who became my friend through his very moving poetry and public statements.





















Mattie Stepanek

But, sadly, Mattie Stepanek is no more. On Tuesday, June 22, 2004, just before his 14th birthday, Mattie passed on at the Children’s National Medical Centre in Washington as a result of complications related to muscular dystrophy, the disease he had battled with since he was born. He was only 13. 

At 11, Mattie introduced himself thus: “My name is Matthew Joseph Thaddeus Stepanek. I am almost 11 years old, and I home-school, doing a high school curriculum. I began writing poetry when I was about 3 years old, and now have a collection that contains thousands of poems, dozens of illustrations. I have even bound some of my books at home, and a bound anthology of my writing was presented to the Library of Congress during the Fall of 2000. I have also won many awards for my writing, including the Melinda A. Lawrence International Book Award in 1999 for ‘most inspirational work.’ I have a rare form of muscular dystrophy called mitochondrial myopathy, and I also have something called dysautonomia. That means that ‘my automatic’ systems, like breathing, heart rate, body temperature, oxygenation, digestion, and things like that don’t always work well on their own. So, I use extra oxygen all the time, and when I am tired or sleeping I use a ventilator that breathes for me and save energy and move my medical equipment around. My two brothers and one sister died during childhood from the same thing I have, and my mother uses a wheelchair all the time because she has the adult form of this disability.”



Mattie Stepanek With His Mother, Jeni Stepanek,
When He was 11, In Their Home In Upper Marlboro,
 Maryland, USA, On Monday,  November 5, 2001(AP Photos)

Mattie’s life and story had a way of melting one’s heart each time one encountered them. He began writing poetry at the tender age of three. Although he had   this terminal illness, he was able, with his very appealing poems and emotional speeches, to affect the lives of many people around the world.

 Each time I read his poetry or anything written about him, my heart melted, tears came to my eyes, and I longed to meet him, pray for him, say nice things to him, and see him get well and indeed possess in full the life he loved and celebrated so much. It was amazing how a child so sick and dying could inspire so much confidence in others and make them see reasons to “celebrate life” despite the odds.

After watching Mattie’s celebrated appearance on Oprah Winfrey Show, 81-year old Elizabeth Haestie said: “I ‘met’ Mattie for the first time on the Oprah Show. I am an 81-year old English lady, in good health, but sometimes feel somewhat depressed that I don’t have a great many more years ahead of me in this life. But Mattie has knocked all the feelings out of my mind altogether, and I don’t think they will ever return. I am an ‘old soul’ too, Mattie, as you are and I shall remember you and your mother all the rest of my life.”  





Mattie Stepanek With Former United States
President, Jimmy Carter

In 2001, Mattie was appointed the Maryland Goodwill Ambassador for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. A regular face at big events where he spread the message of peace and hope, his enthusiasm and positive outlook despite his fragile state was the challenge many distressed people needed to keep hope alive. He featured regularly at fundraising events aimed at helping the efforts to find a cure for neuromuscular diseases, and offer support to affected children and their families, to go on “celebrating life” till a cure is found.

Mattie Stepanek had told Washington Post in 2001 that he believed a cure would be found for this disease, maybe after his life time. Mattie had been interviewed on Larry King Live on the CNN and on several other top television shows in the United States, and his appearances made tremendous impact on many viewers.  

Heartsongs! That’s one word, (his own coinage) that dominates all of Mattie’s poetry and appears in the titles of all his best-selling collections of poetry. Mattie’s consistent counsel to all was: life may be full of stress and pains, but never allow them overwhelm you; resist despair and don’t allow yourself to sink. Listen instead to your ‘heartsong,’ the profound melody that rings deep down your heart: discover it, follow its rhythm, and with it usher sunshine into your life and that of others.  





Mattie Stepanek With Oprah Winfrey

In 2001, VSP Books collaborated with Hyperion Books to publish Mattie’s maiden book of poems which he called, HEARTSONGS. It was a venture that turned out an outstanding success. Mattie soon became a national bestseller and an American celebrity. With his books, Heartsongs, Journey Through Heartsongs, Celebrate Through Heartsongs and Loving Through Heartsongs (released in 2003 by Hyperion Books), Mattie’s pride of place in American poetry was firmly established. Mrs. Cheryl Barnes, who with her husband, Peter, and their company VSP Books had collected Mattie’s poems which they issued in a paperback in a 2001 collection, told Washington Post that she “had a hard time believing a child could write with such wisdom…He’s bright beyond his years. He is a   truly remarkable child.” 

Former U.S. president, Jimmy Carter, became Mattie’s hero due to his global peace efforts and rigorous disease-eradication campaigns. In September 2001, while Mattie was confined to a hospital bed in the intensive care unit, staff members of the hospital arranged for him a 15 minute telephone chat with Mr. Carter where Mattie raised such issues as the problems in Bosnia and Africa. Surprisingly, he did not talk about his ill-health. Highly affected by this brief encounter with such an exceptional child, Carter decided to write the foreword to Mattie’s next book, Journey Through Heartsongs. But Mattie and Carter were to meet face-to-face when Dianne Sawyer featured both of them on her live television programme, “Good Morning, America.” 

In his emotion-laden eulogy at Mattie‘s funeral service in Wheaton, Maryland, on June 28, 2009, Mr. Carter stunned the congregation with the following words:  “Since I left the White House,” he said, “my wife and I have been to more than 120 nations. And we have known kings and queens, and we've known presidents and prime ministers, but the most extraordinary person whom I have ever known in my life is Mattie Stepanek.”




Mattie J.T. Stepanek
Mattie Stepanek

Mattie’s speech during his October 19, 2001 appearance on OPRAH TV Show dwelt on his desire to be a peacemaker in the world and his love for life and poetry. Oprah Winfrey was so moved by the passionate concern of this ailing little boy for peace in a world that had no answer  to his health problems that she had to exclaim, after reading a portion which she said was her favourite lines from Mattie’s poetry: “I think that’s so important, especially now, when everybody is feeling a sense of fear and having been terrorized, to look at what you have in your life and have a sense of gratitude and see the miracles in your life. And you, even though you’re hooked up to all this equipment --and we had to plug you in during the commercial break, give you more oxygen -- you still see miracles everyday in your life.” 

It is sad to note that Mattie Stepanek could not have seen his first birthday let alone dream about writing poetry if he were a Nigerian boy. Where are the medical facilities in today’s Nigeria, especially, after a succession of thieving rulers had passed through town, to sustain the precious life of a boy so sick, so tender, and yet so amazingly gifted and determined?

After my 2003 piece on Mattie, his mother, Ms. Jeni Stepanek, then 47, sent me a very moving email    and said: “I was surfing the net… [and] came across …your article about Mattie, and was so touched by your words. Mattie’s reward in life is the ability to touch others deep in their lives such that it makes a difference to them …Thank you, and perhaps we will meet you during August. Take care, Jeni Stepanek (“Mattie’s Mom).”





Oprah Winfrey: One Of Mattie Stepanek's Big Friend

 I also got another email from an American lady who informed me how happy she was that I could celebrate her hero.  

As, my heart goes out today to wheelchair-bound  Jeni Stepanek and all who loved Mattie Stepanek, I feel compelled to tell every youth in Nigeria reading this piece not to miss the lesson in Mattie’s short life, namely, that no one has any reason to fail in life.

Here was a child who had every reason to relapse into self pity and debilitating passivity, live a miserable and unfulfilled life and pass on unnoticed. But he chose to ignore the obstacles before him, fully realized his potentials within the little time he had, and became a national hero. His last literary effort, a book of essays, entitled Just Peace, is also a best seller.  

So, every youth should look into himself or herself, identify his or her God-given potentials and make the best use of them to excel. Surely, the obstacle most youths complain about would pale to insignificance when compared with Mattie’s, who according to Jimmy Carter had suffered more than anyone he had known.

Yet, he succeeded, and in one of his poems, Heavenly Greetings, he wrote this appeal to God:

Dear God…
I have wondered about
How You will meet me
When I die and come to
Live with You in Heaven.
I know You reach out
Your hand to welcome
Your people into Your home…
 …my mommy…told me that You
Reach out both of Your hands,
And welcome us with
A great big giant hug.
Wow!
I can't wait for my hug, God.
Thank you,
And Amen.



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