Catherine Edeh, who was recently called to bar, tells Nonye Ben-Nwankwo how she overcame her disability to study law in Nigeria
How do you feel achieving this feat of becoming a lawyer despite living with hearing impairment?
I feel more than good. I have always echoed into every listening ear that there is nothing like ‘disability’. People you see around on wheelchairs and crutches, with white sticks and dark glasses, those whose main languages are signs and gestures, do not live with disabilities in the sense many see them. We have so much potential but we need acceptance, support and encouragement from the society to be the best we can.
What was your dream while growing up?
Growing up as a kid, I did not have the dream of becoming a lawyer. I disliked lawyers because in my naive mentality, I always pictured them as callous people who made the innocent suffer. Right from primary three, I aimed to be a nurse; the rationale behind this being that unlike lawyers who hurt and victimise innocent people, nurses care for and cure people. I wanted to heal bodies and souls of sick and suffering people. But the devil struck. I became ill and went deaf in primary five. Subsequently, my family lost interest in sponsoring my education. I was asked to go and learn either sewing or hairdressing which I flatly turned down. To register his seriousness in his decision that I should leave school and go into sewing/hairdressing apprenticeship, my late dad refused to sponsor my common entrance examination when I was in primary six.
Months after my First School Leaving Certificate Examination, I was enrolled into a commercial school because I flatly stood my ground that I must go to school, deafness or no deafness. This however killed my dream of becoming a nurse because the commercial school I was admitted into did not offer physics and chemistry.
How did you become deaf since it wasn’t from birth?
It was accidental, a resultant effect of a high dose of chloramphenicol injection administered on me when I was very ill as a kid and was hospitalised at University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital, Enugu.
How have you been able to cope with it?
Initially, I used to hide the fact that I was deaf from as many people as I could, because of the stigma. But I thank God for the divine pathway He paved that led me first to Federal College of Education (Special), Oyo, where I was truly rehabilitated, orientated and re-orientated. Today, I manage my deafness very well because I understand almost everything relating to deafness and deaf people.
How was growing up as a deaf child?
Growing up as a deaf child was very challenging. This was because after I became deaf, I neither got rehabilitated as early as possible nor joined the deaf community till 12 years later when I got admitted into Federal College of Education (Special) Oyo where I started interacting with deaf colleagues and learning sign language. It has been an interesting and rewarding journey since then. Nevertheless, despite the challenges I had before I proceeded to Oyo for NCE in Special Education, I had supportive friends I met during my commercial school days, and my family, neighbours and relatives who believed in me and would always go out of their ways to make me feel comfortable, happy and protected.
When did you decide to take the bold step to further your education?
I have always been a strong and determined child. My family, neighbours and relatives always say I have a lion’s heart. I do not allow anything or anyone to decide who I am or will be. So when I lost my dad in my third year in the commercial school, I forced myself to learn how to stand on my own because my mom was unemployed and had nine young children to cater for. I pushed out one of the talents inherent in me for my benefit and I started braiding hair right from my home. The quality of my service was, and is still unbeatable. I would invent some styles, freely or cheaply braid any of the styles on any friendly customer and off they go, bringing more customers to me. Sometimes I would double, or in some cases, triple my charge/cost. Soon after, I started doing home services for big ladies such as local government chairmen’s wives, state commissioners’ wives, top bankers’ wives and so many ladies in my area. This did not in any way deter me from going to school. Despite my speedy progress at that time, I refused to open a hairdressing salon even though I was an expert in all kinds of hairstyles. I was only saving for my education. After my commercial school and nobody seemed interested in sponsoring me to take the West Africa Senior School Certificate Examination, I sponsored myself. I got myself into Federal College of Special Education, Oyo, till help started coming from my family, relatives and some scholarship bodies like Nigeria Women Association of Georgia, Gani Fawehinmi Scholarship Foundation, Senator Gilbert Nnaji, Enugu State Government, and Federal Scholarship Board, etc.
Were there people who tried to discourage you by telling you that you wouldn’t make it?
Yes, there were many people who tried to discourage me with their pessimism. But then, I had already been fully rehabilitated at Federal College of Education (Special) Oyo. I had grown to understand myself and the society. I had been tasked with the responsibility to go out and change the pessimistic views about disability of many in the society. So advocacy was my weapon against pessimists.
The schools I attended however were strong pillars of support to me. I made use of interpreters throughout my university and Law School programmes, with the total support of the schools. More importantly, they were financially responsible for the remuneration of the sign language interpreters and speech to text caption provider I used, thus making me the first deaf Nigerian/West African female to make use of the system, and even influence Law School to start adopting the system. I did not for once hide my deafness from any of the school authorities.
How easy was it with your studies?
It was not easy. Studying Law is a very difficult task for those who are not deaf. To a completely deaf person, the challenges can be argued to be ten times greater. I passed through so much unspeakable stress. But all these need to be kept behind. The fact that I have been admitted into the Bar has rewarded my efforts.
By the way, why law?
I know many people are always curious to ask me why a deaf person would opt for Law. But my desire to study Law was intensified after I got into the deaf community and discovered the magnitude of human rights violation deaf people are subjected to daily. I used to think that I was the only deaf person in Nigeria that suffered so much discrimination and stigma until I joined the deaf community. The extreme human rights violation many of us passed through are unspeakable. There is need for structures to be put in place to safeguard the rights for persons with disability in Nigeria. My passion for fairness, justice and equity; so that innocent kids and unborn children with disability do not grow to suffer the same fate and discrimination we passed through, necessitated my choice of law. That is not all though.
Nigeria till today has yet to have Disability Law. I did not major in disability Law. What I majored in was Common Law. Common Law is a grand law that is made up of the received English law, Nigerian legislation or statutes, case laws and delegated legislation/judicial precedents. There is no single activity or expected task/responsibility that I was granted waiver on ground of disability. Be it seminars, mooting, assignments, tests, exams, court and chamber attachments; I did all just like my other non deaf colleagues did. So nothing stops me from practising what I was trained in. Therefore, wherever I see the platform and opportunity, I will practise and help promote equity. I want people to have faith in me and give me all the needed support to continue to bring out my best. If I could make it through the university and NLS beautifully, it means I will make it even much better in the courtroom.
Right now, I am still observing my three months Mandela Washington Fellowship. When I am through with the internship, I will forge out how to move forward. I observed my chamber attachment with Chief Mike Ozekhome’s law firm in Abuja. Also my court attachment was with Court 4 of Federal High Court Headquarters, Abuja.
Were there times you were mocked or ridiculed when you were younger?
Yes, there were numerous occasions. It was not easy growing up as a deaf child in the SouthEast without rehabilitation. But I thank God all these are now in the past. I have been rehabilitated. The mockery or ridicule I passed through for over ten years before my rehabilitation also helped to remold and strengthen me a lot. So today, ridicule or whatever it may be no longer gets at me. Everywhere I find myself, I make it my primary responsibility to advocate for inclusion. The gallon of tears I have shed every night in solitude for so many years and the stigma have taught me that if I continue subjecting myself to endless tears without taking steps to redress the injustice, things will never change.
Could that be the reason why you have an NGO?
Yes it is. I strongly needed a platform through which I can always reliably sensitise the society and project virtues and benefits to community of people with disability in Nigeria and beyond, hence the NGO- Voice of Disability Initiative (VDI). The NGO has been touching the lives of many people with disability in so many ways. For instance, with my experience as the first deaf Nigerian Mandela Washington Fellow, we in VDI mentored the second Nigeria deaf female who is currently with Presidential Precinct.
What kind of experience have you had with men?
It has not been totally bad. I have met hearing men who admired me but do not have the guts to make moves because of my deafness. I have also met some who tried hard to scale the wall of deafness and get close to me. But I must admit that the problem is more with me than with those men. I play hard mainly because I feel insecure. I find it hard to trust hearing men because within me, there is always this feeling, this voice that always reverberates and warns me not to trust hearing guys too lest they ruin me, reminding me always that I am deaf. Even with the deaf guys, there is little or no difference. There was a time I got the nickname ‘deadwood’ from deaf guys because of my manner of resisting overtures. But I thank God who paved a path through which I met the man in my life now without either of us planning it. He is deaf too; a very responsible and God-fearing person. We understand each other very well and have never had any issue since we came together. I thank God for having him.
Were there times you almost gave up because of your challenge?
Yes. After I became deaf and yet to learn sign language or join the deaf community, there were times I would feel too bitter, especially after seeing some of my old playmates who at that time were avoiding me out of ignorance. When I got so humiliated or stigmatised, I would give in to self pity which bred frustration and on very few occasions, gave way to the thought of committing suicide. I thank God however that I did not give in to such thoughts of suicide. When eventually the divine plans of God started to unfold in my academic life, the thought of giving up for whatever reason never got entertained. My slogan throughout was ‘Winners never quit and quitters never win’ and ‘Today’s pain is tomorrow’s gain.’