I’d heard so much about the occupants of Modupe Cole Memorial – a  care and treatment home for children living with disabilities. With those stories, I felt like I had been there a thousand times. I was told I couldn’t go into a particular dormitory there without being overwhelmed by the sight. There were children living in conditions not fit for human habitation, they said.

I’d heard that some of the children were chained to their beds like animals, that their caregivers were immune to their sufferings. I had the opportunity to visit on the 15th of September, 2018, courtesy of a friend of mine who donated some CP wheelchairs (wheelchairs suitable for children who have cerebral palsy) to the children at Modupe Cole.

Modupe Cole is a popular orphanage that has a special needs school and a physiotherapy clinic located in Yaba, Lagos. At Modupe Cole, there are children living with different types of disabilities, ranging from cerebral palsy, autism, down syndrome, hydrocephalus, polio, and many others. From my research, I discovered that the centre was founded by late Modupe Cole in 1961 under Child Care Social Services-Women Voluntary Organisation (CCSS-WVO). The home-school was established in recognition of the desperate need for the physically handicapped and mentally challenged children to have an environment where they can be taught, loved and helped to live a full and normal life as much as possible. Children cared for in the home-school were brought in by their parents, schools, hospitals and missionaries. When the school started in 1961, late Mrs Modupe Cole was the principal, with other professionals and volunteers.

Unfortunately, in 1979, Modupe Cole (home and school) was taken over by the government (along with other special, private and missionary schools). It has been managed by the government till date but the physiotherapy clinic remains under the management of CCSS-WVO.

Coincidentally, on that day, I met Adebayo Adeyemi-Cole, the son of late Modupe Cole. Adebayo Cole is a soft-spoken gentleman who is probably in his 70s and currently the secretary of CCSS-WVO. One of the officials at Modupe Cole Memorial told all the people who came to witness the donation that we will be taken on a tour around the dormitory I had heard so much about. The people included the person making the donation, her husband and children, and her friends. Some of her friends also came along with their children.

I was invited to witness the donation and also to speak about cerebral palsy and how it can be managed. We were a group of about twelve people which included some children. As we walked into the dormitory, I could barely control my curiosity. I couldn’t wait to see the place for myself.  At least when others talked about the children of Modupe Cole, I would also say I have been there.

We all moved towards the dormitory and a lady introduced herself to us as our guide. When we got to the entrance of the dormitory, some of children that followed us turned back. I guess they had heard some scary things about the children they were going to see and did not want to see them. I encouraged them to go back to where the wheelchairs to be donated were kept and wait for us. We had been told that this dormitory was for children who were fully dependent on their caregivers to do everything for them. I assumed they would all be in diapers and would need someone to feed them, clean them up and dress them up too. They definitely would require a lot of care and attention.

Right by the door of dormitory, we met a very slim girl who was about 5 feet tall. She stood looking at us as we walked in. She wore a gown that looked like a nightie, which was knotted at the back of her neck. I guess so that it wouldn’t fall off her shoulders. She seemed to be inspecting each person that entered. As I moved closer to her, I realized she was not a young girl. She was a woman with numerous grey strands on her short, bushy hair. One of her hands was bent at the elbow and she could only extend her palm slowly. Even though her face looked peaceful, she could still have scared a child. It was hard to tell if she was mentally stable but I decided to be friendly. I gave her a very warm smile and said, ‘Hello, I am here to see your home. How are you doing?’ She gave me a shy smile and extended her free hand to me so I gave her a high five.

I followed the others as we went through the door that led inside the dormitory where the children were. The room reminded me of a general hospital. It was crowded with children lying down on the beds, on the floor, or simply sitting down in different positions. The room was divided into two, with several beds lined up on each side of the room. At a glance, there were about fifteen or more children in that room. The smell of urine mixed with disinfectant attacked my nostrils, but guess what? It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I was more concerned about the plight of the children that occupied the room and the smell faded away. I could have stayed in that room for hours, not concerned about the smell, and believe me when I say I have a heightened sense of smell.

The first bed was occupied by two young children around the ages of nine or ten. I couldn’t tell if they were boys or girls. It was obvious that they had mobility problems which is associated with cerebral palsy. Cerebral palsy is a disorder that causes damage to the part of the brain that controls the muscles which controls movement. They were lying on their backs on the bed and they looked like they couldn’t talk but I moved close to them and reached for their minds. I have learnt to look beyond a twisted body and to talk to the mind buried within what can be seen.

‘Hello, my darlings. My name is Bukola Ayinde,’ I said with a smile. I encouraged them to say hello to me and they did. I moved to the next bed. I decided to spend a little more time with each child as our tour guide was giving a little history of a few of the occupants of the room.

I met two little boys about the age of six who were lying on a small wooden bed. The boys were smiling at me and I couldn’t resist their smiles, so I made a detour to their bed and told them I loved their smiles. They actually looked like twins. I asked them if they were twins but they only smiled at me. The women who took care of them told me they weren’t twins. I walked away from there and saw a little girl eating her breakfast. She was lying down flat on her back. When it was time to eat, she opened her mouth in that position. I told the caregiver feeding her that the child’s position was unsafe as the child could easily choke. She told me confidently that that was how God created all the children living in the dormitory and feeding them that way would not affect them in any way. In fact, she told me boldly that that was how the other caregivers fed most of the children. I smiled at her ignorance. It was pointless telling her that her feeding method was wrong. Even if it didn’t choke the child, it could cause respiratory infection if the food went the wrong way. I smiled at the woman and kept moving. I made a mental note of the feeding habit so I could later discuss with Rev Cole.

I saw a little boy lying on the floor in front of a bed, tied to the bed with what looked like a cloth, but I did not bother to ask any question because I already knew the answer. A friend of mine who had visited the place earlier had asked the caregivers why he was tied in that manner. They told her that the child often fell from the bed and moved around the room on the floor and therefore caused injury to himself and others.

I saw another little boy who was seated on the floor close to the corner of the room. It seemed he was sleeping in that position so I moved closer to inspect him, but his eyes were closed, though I was sure he was awake. I left him and walked around the room. At this point, I didn’t bother to catch up with the tour guide and the other people I came with. I could hear some of the things the tour guide was saying but I decided to spend a little more time with the children.

Most of the children were lying down on their beds in awkward positions. Their bodies were twisted in angles better seen than imagined but like I said earlier, I have learnt to look beyond twisted bodies and reach for the beautiful minds within. No matter how twisted the body may seem, there may still be a mind not touched by the imperfections of the body. It only needs a little patience, a warm smile and a charitable soul to reach out to the beautiful mind lying beneath a twisted body. How do I know?

My daughter, Nimi, taught me that. She is five years old and she is living with cerebral palsy. Some of the children said hello to me and most of them smiled happily. I shook their hands and gave some a high five. The caregivers told me that the children were always excited to see visitors. I imagined they would. Who wouldn’t? Some of them were always on their beds, all day, all week, all month, all year. In fact, probably all their lives. In that dormitory, there were more children than beds. Two or three children shared a bed, depending on their sizes. The beds were quite small, by the way. They were best suited for one child at a time.

Looking at it from a different angle, it may have been better for these children to share their beds, at least during the day. It was like having friends come over to your place to visit. It may be comforting to know that another human body like theirs was lying right beside them. Just my thoughts. I heard the tour guide telling everyone about a boy who was fully dependent. He was lying down on his chest on his bed yet he could draw with his toes. I moved close to him and told him, ‘I heard you are an artist.’ The boy looked like he was in his teens. He smiled and I smiled back at him.

I was the last person to leave the dormitory. I wanted to put a smile on each child’s face. I wanted the children to feel special, even if it was for the moment. I didn’t want them to feel like some ornament in a museum that some tourist came to see. They are children. No matter how twisted their bodies may be, they are human beings.

After everyone I came with had left the dormitory, I stayed back to speak with the caregivers. They were elderly women who seemed nice and loved taking care of the children. I strongly believed that they couldn’t perform beyond their capacity. I think they were doing their best when one compared their level of education and training to the kind of children with complex medical disorders they were to care for.

As I got to the door of the dormitory and was about to leave, I met a very little boy of about seven years old lying on a bed next to the door. His left leg was twisted in an awkward angle. One of the caregivers told me that he asked if he could get one of the wheelchairs that we came to donate. I didn’t know if he would get one and I didn’t want to give him false hope, so I smiled at him.

Though I had left the place, my mind kept wandering back to the children who had been abandoned in that place. It was apparent their parents were never going back for them. Many of them would have thrived if they lived in a society that believed that they just had a medical disorder and not strange children from the devil. They would have thrived if they had the backing of a government that could build functional rehabilitation centers. They would have thrived if their parents had damned the societal or religious beliefs and refused to give up on them. If only they had families who cared for them, loved them in spite of their disabilities, they certainly would have thrived.

You know, even the boy who had the most twisted body in that dormitory had a very genuine smile. I didn’t leave the dormitory sad or heartbroken like I thought I would. Rather, I left there hopeful. Though their bodies were twisted in awkward positions, for most of them, their minds were still alive. As I left with my companions, I knew that wasn’t going to be my last visit to Modupe Cole.

Not to forget, the little boy at the door of the dormitory was the first to get a CP wheelchair.

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