‘We beat life's setbacks to excel in our careers’

Crystal Asige with  Julius Mbura. She was born with normal sight, but says she realised something was amiss while in high school.

Photo credit: Pool

Sympathy, pity and condescension are what most people think of or see when they encounter people with disabilities (PWDs).

However, Nation.Africa interacted with a few who have defied the odds and are living their full potential.

They walk us through their journey as they advocate for equal opportunities for all and shunning ableism.

Cobhams Asuquo, a Nigerian musician, is a star in the music industry despite being visually impaired. Asuquo, who was born blind, says that from a young age he would find rhythm in drumming his hands on the table and at times using cutlery to produce music.

Cobhams Asuquo, a Nigerian musician, is a star in the music industry despite being visually impaired.

Photo credit: Pool

Starting his career from behind the scenes, the singer and music producer admits that at first, he did not like the sound of his voice.

“I never loved the sound of my voice, that’s why I enjoyed being behind the microphone as a producer.”

Coming from a close-knit family, Asuquo reveals that his mother always hammered it into his head that he would become a great person in life, though he did not fully understand what she meant until he made it in his music career.

“Having been in an integrated school that lacked equipment to aid the visually impaired, I had to work five times as much as my sighted counterparts.”

Determined to keep his record as stellar as it was all through school, Asuquo, 41, says he was driven by the competition to lead his class despite being blind.

He joined university to study law but dropped out to pursue music.

“I was always skipping class to make music in my room. When I decided to ditch law, it was at a time in life when I needed something to identify with.”

Asuquo ventured fully into music production. However, one time, when he was supposed to meet an artist to produce his music, the person did not show up.

"I was in the studio and I waited for eight hours."

Asuquo later learnt that the musician in question was uncomfortable working with a blind producer. He ditched the production job and decided to record his first song, “Ordinary People”.

“It was very well received, much to my shock. I was 33 years old.”

Saying that his Afrobeat music is inspired by putting together people’s feelings into words and melody, Asuquo adds that this has enabled him to work on collaborations with Davido, Sauti Sol, Joeboy and Yemi Alade, among others.

Asuquo identifies himself as one who knows his worth, saying this has helped him in his life.

Having married and been blessed with two children, Asuquo notes that he was able to meet the expectations of his wife’s family despite being blind and they don’t discriminate against him.

Normal sight

Asuquo’s script is similar to that of Crystal Asige, though the latter acquired her visual disability later in life. She was born with normal sight, but revealed that she realised something was amiss while in high school. Being a backbencher, Asige says she would struggle more every term.

Thinking that the solution would be wearing spectacles, as her family members wore them, Asige visited an optician and was prescribed glasses. But her eyesight continued deteriorating.

A couple of months later, Asige consulted an ophthalmologist, who informed her that she was suffering from glaucoma – a group of eye conditions that damage the optic nerve – and prescribed some eye drops. She was never told more about the disease.

In the UK, where she was studying for her undergraduate degree, her poor eyesight persisted. She was told that the disease had worsened and that it would alter her life and was offered free surgery.

Frustrated and in denial, Asige was torn about telling her parents and was uncertain about whether she would finish her film and visual arts degree.

“It spiralled into reckless behaviour, over-partying and over-drinking, hanging out with people I would not normally do.”

After surgery, she came out with poorer eyesight. That is when it dawned on her that she had to prepare for the changing times ahead.

“I called home and told them about my condition and encouraged them that I would finish my school.”

Upon finishing her degree, Asige came back to Kenya and went through roughly a year of depression.

Even though her family accepted her, the singer-songwriter notes that her mother was affected by her visual impairment.

“My mother went through a lot of guilt. She thought maybe it was something to do with her health that she passed on to me, maybe she did not do something right when I was a child and such.”

Having lost friends who could not stomach her inability to see, Asige had to discover herself as that would help her in the next phase.

“Going through interviews while job-hunting, I was never successful and my blindness stood in the way, though they never said it to my face.”

Decided to create a job

She decided to create a job for herself, though it was not easy.

Being in the music industry and having done collaborations with Sauti Sol, Asige says that society needs to change its view on people with disabilities, adding that they are able and can deliver.

She was one of the powerful vocals in Sauti Sol’s masterpiece “Extravaganza”, which also featured Bensoul, Nviiri the Storyteller and Kaskazini.

But despite her blossoming music career, Asige feels that being in the industry is an extreme sport with ableism a tick that feeds on people with disabilities.

“We have to work twice as hard to get half as far.”

Asige and Asuquo come from families where they were the only ones with disabilities, but the script is different for Bernard Chiira.

The computer science guru says that four of his siblings had disabilities. Chiira has osteogenesis imperfecta, also known as brittle bone disease, an inherited disorder characterised by fragile bones that break easily.

Bernard Chiira, a computer science guru, says four of his siblings had disabilities.

Photo credit: Pool

Chiira also has scoliosis, a sideways curvature of the spine.

However, this has not barred him from scaling heights and excelling in computer science and helping in the creation of assistive technology.

Chiira recalls that learning was difficult, with many integrated schools providing excuses for not accepting him due to his physical disability.

Upon joining a school for people with disabilities, Chiira shined academically and in extracurricular activities.

One headteacher

“I remember doing well in public speaking and competed until the nationals. NTV broadcast it and my parents were thrilled to see me.”

After primary school, Chiira requested to join an integrated high school, saying he needed a fresh type of competition because he was always in position one or two.

During the search for a school, one headteacher told his parents: “These type of people have their school, why are you bringing them here?” This was a thorn in his flesh but his parents did not relent.

Chiira finished high school, joined university, excelled and found a job after graduation.

Starting as a consultant in IT at Strathmore, Chiira rose through the ranks as he continued studying and is working on a master's degree.

The father of four adds that despite life’s hurdles, he has been able to draw people who understand and support him. He attributes his success to determination and hard work.

Chiira also says he still faces people who look down on him but he hopes the general public and the media can understand that people with disabilities do not need sympathy but opportunities.