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Visually impaired cantors and a nation that supports the vulnerable

“As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth.  His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he…

“As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth.  His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work.  While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” After saying this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means “Sent”). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing” (John 9:1-6).

Jesus sees a man who was born blind, and the disciples ask him about the cause of the blindness (9:1-2). The disciples assume that the blindness must be a form of divine punishment for sin. For them, the question is whether the man himself had sinned—presumably in the womb before birth—or whether his parents had sinned, with the result that their child was born blind. Their way of thinking is based in part on some biblical texts that assume a child could be punished for the sins of the parents (Exodus 20:5). Jesus, however, shifts the frame of reference. He insists that the paradigm of sin and punishment does not fit this case of congenital blindness. He also refuses to speculate further about what caused the blindness and shifts the focus to what can be done about the blindness.

Some translations paraphrase the passage and obscure the dramatic shift that Jesus makes. For example, the NRSV has Jesus say: “he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (John 9:3). But the words “he was born blind” were added by the translator. They do not appear in Greek. A word-for-word translation could be something like this: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but in order that the works of God might be revealed in him, we must do the works of him who sent me while it is day.” Jesus accepts the blindness as a given and refuses to speculate about what caused it. For him, the question is how to address the situation so that God’s works might be done in it.

Jesus does not heal the man immediately. Rather, he puts mud on the man’s eyes and tells him to go and wash. Jesus’ words prompt the man to go, even before he has received his sight. For much of the chapter, the man will bear witness to Jesus whom he had never seen. That makes the story especially valuable for readers living in later generations. They too must bear witness to Jesus whom they have never seen except through the eyes of faith.

This week’s reflections is inspired by the Psalm chanted last week, the 4th of October 2020. It was the 27th Sunday of ordinary time. The melody for the liturgical psalmody was rendered by the three visually impaired brothers: Honest Austine Oyama, Prospect Austine Oyama and Salvation Austine Oyama. They chanted it alongside Bishop Anselm Umoren, MSP (Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Abuja). All thanks to the Obiblo Studio. The brothers moved viewers and listeners to do an introspection about the mystery of life. How life can be so “unfair” to one family by giving them three virtually-impaired children? It is inspiring to see the determination of their parents to help them make their contribution to the Church and to their country.

According to a 2005 estimate, the number of people with visual impairment (which includes both low vision and blindness) is 314 million worldwide; 45 million people are blind while 269 people live with low vision.  Ninety percent of the world’s blind population live in developing countries, out of which about 1.2 million people live in Nigeria.  The Nigerian national blindness and visual impairment survey in 2007 estimated that 1,092,028 Nigerians (0.78%) are blind. This poses a big challenge for the population especially in terms of public health and socioeconomic productivity. Blindness leads to social dependence, lack of access to education, loss of productivity and income (BB Kombo, Raphael; Port Harcourt Medical journal 2016).

Just like the early disciples of Jesus who asked him about the man born blind, I am sure that many of us may have nursed similar questions. In fact, in some Nigerian communities, the woman may be accused of having a pact with Aljanus (spirits). It is possible to imagine the perplexity of the parents of Honest, Prospect, and Salvation. How can God permit their children to battle with a congenital challenge? In Gospel text, Jesus who accepts the blindness as a given and refuses to speculate about what caused it. For him, the question is how to address the situation so that God’s works will be done in it. Perhaps, the action of Jesus inspired the Oyamas to shift their attention from blindness to how best they can help their children to realize their talents and potentials. Visionary leaders have maintained that the greatness of any nation is shown by how it takes care of the weak and the vulnerable in the society.

To learn more about them and their training, I got in touch with their teacher in Abuja, Mr. Joseph EKandem who himself is married to Ann Ekandem – a visually Impaired woman from birth. Mr. EKandem works with the FCT School for the Blind. The school has a coral group and a foundation called, Special Persons Choral Foundation, Abuja. The choral group has 41 members who are all visually impaired. According to Mr Ekandem, the students are children from poor families who cannot afford to cater for themselves. Learning about the existence of such school in the Federal Capital Territory, makes me hopeful that Nigeria is capable of looking after its most vulnerable citizens. I would like to use this medium to appeal well-placed Nigerians and corporate bodies to come to the aid of people like the Oyamas, their children and the schools for the blind that care for them. Every child whether virtually impaired or not, deserves to the right and the enabling environment to succeed in life. A society is great when its vulnerable members are lifted up with no one left behind.

Fr Stephen Ojapah is a priest of the Missionary Society of St Paul. He is equally the director for Interreligious Dialogue and Ecumenism for the Catholic Diocese of Sokoto, a member of IDFP. He is also a KAICIID Fellow. ([email protected])

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