Samuel, the young boy with crippled legs, grips the red dirt of Nigeria with his fingers and pushes with the one leg that he can partially control. He slides forward, then repeats the process. The stones bruise his leg, but he again slides forward. Children with strong limbs laugh and dance around him, calling him “small leg” and “cripple.”
Their hoots torment him, but still he moves forward — grip, push, slide, then again and again, grip, push, slide, moving with the methodical patience of a snail.
It was 1978 and little Samuel had somewhere to get to. He was dragging himself toward an education. Each school day for three years, starting at age 8, he left his orphanage and scooted to and from his school, a distance of one mile each way.
If you say that’s impossible, then you don’t understand rural Nigeria, and you certainly don’t understand Samuel Nehemiah.
Among the poor of Nigeria, crippled legs are common and polio vaccine is suspect. Crutches are a luxury. Wheelchairs and walkers are magic carpets. A child scooting along the ground would simply be an object to step over or around.
But 22 years later, that little fellow had become a man and a world-class wheelchair athlete. Nehemiah used that athletic status to wedge himself out of the orphanage and into a new life in this country. Today, he is a 43-year-old family man living in El Cajon.
Pastor Mark Jappe of Gateway Church in El Cajon, who traveled to Nigeria with Nehemiah in 2006, says he has seen disabled people crawling on the streets and has talked with witnesses who remember Nehemiah and other boys dragging themselves to school each day.
Today, Nehemiah is the founder and main focus of ChampsHeart, an organization that purposes to inspire young people in the importance of dedication, perseverance and patriotism. As a motivational speaker, he devotes special attention to disabled children and tells them about his experiences in the hope that they will stand taller, at least figuratively. Jappe calls him “a passionate advocate for the disabled, particularly in Nigeria.”
Because of his athletic training, Nehemiah has an upper body that would make a preening gym rat put on a shirt. His lower body, though … well, it’s the body of a polio victim. But it took both parts to get him out of Nigeria.
Nehemiah was born in 1970 to a family of poor farmers in the village of Kpor. His name in the Ogoni language was Barizuadu Kpogah, and his baptismal name was Samuel. At age 4, he was stricken with polio. The disease left him with one useless leg and one over which he had minimal control.
In his birth village, the disease represented more than the work of a virus. It was taken as the sign of a curse. His parents took him to the village witch doctor, who said the disease was an attempt by an uncle to kill him. No reason was given.
Although polio vaccine was available in Nigeria, many tribal chiefs banned it from their villages because of a bias against Western medicine. Unfortunately for Nehemiah and many other children, there was an even greater bias against those crippled by the virus.
Nehemiah says it was not unknown for parents to leave crippled or deformed babies out in the bush for the weather or wild animals to dispose of. He knows of babies left on train tracks. These drastic steps were taken not only because of the prospects of an unproductive mouth at the sparse family table, but the stigma of having a child whose presence was a reminder that the family was accursed.
Though most in his village were professing Christians, the old beliefs were as stubborn as a smoker’s habit. The waiting rooms of witch doctors were seldom empty.
Another, more enlightened uncle took the crippled boy to a medical doctor who easily recognized polio. The uncle then took him to a nearby city, put him in an orphanage and left him. The uncle told the orphanage his parents were dead, and later told his parents that he had died. Nehemiah surmises that the uncle wanted a clean break — both ways.
Nehemiah entered purgatory. He was thrust into a warehouse for discarded children who were regarded as assets to be exploited.
“They would not provide the children with crutches or wheelchairs because they wanted us to look pitiful. They would put us out by the gate to beg from passers-by. They used to whip us,” he says. “For eight years, I had a nightly bed-wetting problem until I was 12. Every morning, I’d be beaten with a whip. I would scream at the top of my lungs hoping someone would come and stop it, but nobody came.”
Children and even adults would come to the orphanage to laugh at the disabled children, mock them and curse them for being a drain on community resources.
“Most of the time, children were locked in because they tried to run away. I tried to run away. I didn’t know to where, but I just wanted to get out of there. I didn’t get far and they brought me back.”
The only way Nehemiah knew of the larger world was by a flickering, black-and-white TV on which he saw American programs, including lawyer dramas that impressed him because he hadn’t realized that anyone would actually seek justice for others.
“People who would come to the orphanage to donate, they would encourage us. Some were Western missionaries and from churches. They told us to not worry about our disabilities, we still had our brains and those worked fine.”
The children were offered the opportunity to attend a government school located a mile away. Samuel, by then 8, volunteered because he had learned enough to realize that an education was his only escape from his prison. And maybe he could become one of those justice-seeking lawyers on TV.
The first day of school, Samuel was out front waiting for the bus. And waiting. No bus came. The orphanage had taken the children to the school for registration, but made no provision for them to attend.
He started crawling and dragging himself. And he crawled and dragged. For three years he did that. His hands toughened, but there was little protection for his knees and thighs, so they cracked and seeped blood. But he didn’t stop.
The road was cluttered and dangerous. He recalls an incident that happened to his crawling partner, a boy named Sonny. “One time, Sonny had a nail drive into his knee. They heated a knife in a fire and put it into the wound (to cauterize it). We watched that and heard him scream.” Sonny is now a lawyer in Nigeria.
One incident that still troubles Nehemiah is when another child tried to stand erect with the use of a stick. He fell, and the healthy children around there started laughing and taunting: “Look at small leg, he fall down. Come, chase us, small leg …”
Nehemiah says the humiliation of that moment, looking up at those bullies, will never leave his memory.
A critical moment came at the end of second grade when the morning broke as a blinding downpour. It was the day of final exams, which had to be passed before Nehemiah could advance. He couldn’t possibly crawl to school that day, and he could see his education being washed away.
Suddenly his teacher, Mrs. Fubara, appeared. She had walked from school in the rain to get him. She said, “Samuel, get on my back. I will carry you to school.” He passed his test and Mrs. Fubara became “the person that I loved most on Earth.” (On a recent trip to Nigeria, he learned that she died.)
He eventually was granted transportation and finished elementary and secondary schools, plus two years of college on government scholarships. Along the way, he adopted the biblical surname of Nehemiah.
The world opened for him in 1988 when Nigeria put out a call for wheelchair athletes. Nehemiah knew almost nothing of wheelchairs and nothing of racing, but he signed up and by pure athletic ability made the squad.
For the next 12 years, he trained himself into world-class status. That brought him in 2000 to the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, where Nigeria sent him to train for international competition. Later that same year, he was told to return to Nigeria because of political unrest. He instead extended his visa twice and eventually became a U.S. citizen in 2007.
In a subsequent trip to his village, he made contact with his family. Both of his parents were still living, along with six of his siblings. He says his abandonment left a lingering bitterness that he suppresses, but he has forgiven his parents, and his love for his mother is as strong as if he had never left the family home.
In a what-if exercise, I ask what his life would have been had he not become a wheelchair racer and left the orphanage. “A beggar on the streets, I suppose,” he says.
And if he had not contracted polio? “An uneducated transport driver in my village or a worker in the fields.”
He thinks of that when his legs get in the way.
He has sung the national anthem at Padres games four times, and he serves as a volunteer worship leader at Gateway Church in El Cajon. Through his nonprofit group and with assistance from the church, he has sent three shipping containers to Nigeria loaded with crutches, walkers and second-hand wheelchairs. His old crawling buddy, Sonny the lawyer, distributes them for free to the needy.
Nehemiah is now living productively in a country he loves, and he has a California-girl wife, Debra. He is the father of two children, Rachel, 18 months, and Shawn, 9. Life is working for him. But if it turns south on him — and it can, as he learned early on — he knows what he will have to do: grip the dirt, push and slide. Grip the dirt, push and slide …
Fred Dickey of Cardiff is a novelist and award-winning magazine writer who believes every life is an adventure. He welcomes column ideas and other suggestions; contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org