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The Torrey Homes

In Africa, when a child is born, we celebrate. It is a thing of joy to bring forth another human being into this world. We…

In Africa, when a child is born, we celebrate. It is a thing of joy to bring forth another human being into this world. We are optimistic that the child’s future will be bright and that he will be loved by his parents. In turn, we expect that the child will grow up to be kind and successful, a succour to his parents.

But it is not always so.

Sometimes, it is the circumstances of their birth that makes parents abandon their children. Other times it is because they cannot cope with what they have given birth to. Whatever their reason, I have since learnt not to judge.

Many years ago, a woman in the village gave birth to a baby who was strange to look at. As he grew older, her neighbours whispered to each other about how he was not walking or talking by his second birthday. He had a sweet smile on his face all the time, with saliva drooling from the sides of his mouth. Gradually, he learnt to walk and run, albeit with an unusual gait. However, that was the peak of his mental capability. He was prone to fits of rage and seizures and had to be fed, bathed and clothed.

As is usual in Africa, the woman blamed it on evil spirits. Her co-wives were the usual suspects. Why they chose to strike then, after she already had 8 children was not something she wanted to consider. She ran from one mallam to another in search of a cure for what people referred to as her ‘mad’ son.

The child, however, continued to thrive, growing taller and stronger. As a young man he had to be tied with a chain to a pillar in the compound. Many a times he would loosen the chain and wander round the village completely naked and had to be forcefully returned home. At night, he would use his feaces to paint the walls of the room he was caged in and rub it all over his body.

When the old woman could no longer care for him, she finally succumbed to her children’s wishes. Her beautiful child had to be taken away from her. He had no place in society.

The quest for where to take him led them to Torrey home in Kano.

In 1961, Elizabeth Torrey, a psychiatric and social worker came to Nigeria. She was a citizen of the United States of America who had her two Master Degrees in Education and Sociology from the Universities of Colombia and Yale in United State of America respectively. Those who knew her or who were familiar with her figure reported how purposefully she moved through the congested streets of Lagos giving herself to the service of the handicapped children.

In Lagos, she helped the Women Voluntary Society to establish Child treatment and placement Home/School formally in Surulere, now in Akoka. Later, in 1965, she founded the Beth Torrey Home which was initially called Child Treatment and Placement Home/school at Babatunde Street, Surulere, Lagos for mentally challenged children. The home would later move to Kirikiri road and presently, it is located at Imam College Road, Alakoso, Amuwo.

Still feeling spirited, and encouraged by the support she received in Nigeria, she moved to Kaduna where she founded the Gida Yara Home for retarded children in 1968. The home was first established in a temporary quarters and subsequently moved to a permanent site with the help of the Emir of Zaria and his Council, and the Kaduna state Ministry of education, charitable institutions and other donors. The home is still present to date.

Then in February 1976, she crossed over to Kano where she requested for a permanent site from the late emir of Kano, Alhaji Ado Abdullahi Bayero  and started another home for mentally retarded children all by herself with the remarkable achievement over some years. The Kano state government has some interest in it and after ten years she handed over the home to the government. Most of the children encountered were abandoned children, lost and found and many more.

However, not all her projects were successful. In Enugu through her spirited efforts, Anambra State government in 1977 donated two hectares of land. However, the home is still yet to be built.

Miss Torrey died at the age of 74 after 16 years of selfless service to the Community of the mentally and physically challenged in Nigeria. Those who knew her background were impressed that she gave up so much to serve under poor conditions in which she lived with the handicapped children.

Every time, I visit a Torrey home, I am humbled by how much difference one individual can make in the lives of many. I am reminded of these children who grow up to be adults whose minds are not in this world. Stories of how the children have been abandoned by their caregivers, emotionally and financially either because they cannot cope or because they are ashamed. I am reminded that there is a world outside of mine, where children are not celebrated because they are seen as a burden.

Caring for these humans is not for the faint hearted. Some have to be lifted even as their weight is substantial. They have to bathed, clean and fed. Some have to be caged. Another one has to be locked up alone because he is a full-grown man who refuses to wear clothes. Girls have started their menses and soil their clothes with blood. And some others sexually harass their caregivers. It is a very sad situation.

Over the years, Nigerians have held on to the Beth Torrey tradition. We have continued to maintain these homes through government and non-governmental commitment. And yet, there is work to be done. Only when we visit these homes, do we fully understand the enormity of discrimination against people living with disability. Many a times, these homes are forgotten and neglected in favour of other organisations like motherless babies homes (orphanages). It is as if we do not want to be associated with humans less than perfect, and so we hide them in these homes and neglect to fund them. People would rather donate to orphans and IDPs than to people who are mentally retarded.

Today, I witnessed a stark difference in the way philanthropists donate to charity organisations. While rooms, classes and playgrounds are being built in orphanages, nothing of the sort has been done to those in Torrey homes. The children in orphanages slept in well-ventilated rooms with warm beds and solar powered fans while the children in Torrey homes slept on hard, cemented floors.

Are they really, that less deserving of comfort? Where is it documented that because someone is not sane, he or she does not feel pain?

Today, I heard of a man who has made a name for himself by providing blankets for all the mentally retarded people roaming the streets of Kano during harmattan. This warmed my heart to to no end. May Allah SWT reward him.

Elizabeth Torrey came to Nigeria in 1961 and devoted the last sixteen years of her life labouring to establish homes for mentally handicapped children before her demise in 1977. Beth, by her demise, left a gigantic programme to be executed. Our tribute to Beth Torrey can only be lasting if we keep her legacy alive.

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