Call it luck or divine intervention, the evil expectation failed. When the driver entered the vehicle, the engine failed to start. He tried and tried. Finally, he went out of the truck and moved round it to see what was wrong. What he saw shocked him. Behold, a sleeping baby, tucked in a cloth just by the tyre.
The driver screamed. Before long, the news of the abandoned baby spread in Akera, a street in Alagbado, a Lagos suburb. Nobody could ascertain the whereabouts of the baby’s parents. Emotions ran wild when the driver narrated how he could have crushed the little baby to death if the engine had started.
For passers-by, the questions were many: “What kind of wickedness is this?” “What sin did this baby commit to warrant this treatment?” “What could have pushed this little baby’s parents to do this?” That was 16 years ago. Those questions are still begging for answers.
Pelumi’s story is a common trend in Nigeria as hardly any passes without a story of an abandoned baby on the road side, bush or gutter. The 16-year-old girl, who recently completed her secondary school education in flying colours, is one of the many dumped babies with their parents’ identities unravelled till date.
After the lucky rescue from the claws of death, fate smiled on Pelumi. She began another phase of life at the Ijamido Children’s Home in Ota, Ogun State. The orphanage is one of the oldest institutions in Nigeria and a home of succour to hundreds of abandoned and orphaned children.
It was founded by the late Mrs. Irene Willoughby, an American midwife. Willoughby, who was born in the United States in 1904, was brought to Nigeria by her parents – Pa. J.B. Liverpool and Mrs. Elizabeth Liverpool at the age of eight. She was educated in Nigeria, worked as a nurse in many places within Nigeria until she was transferred to Ota by the local government to open a maternity centre in 1956. In 1958, Willoughby founded the orphanage.
At the home, Pelumi got the succour of parenting, which her biological parents denied her, from Mrs. Victoria Awokoya, Mrs. Adetutu Eromosele, Mrs. Stella Amos and Apostle John Olawale Willoughby. They christened her Oluwapelumi, a Yoruba name which literally means “God is with me.”
Awokoya, Eromosele, Amos and Olawale, the de facto parents of Pelumi, have something in common: They were also abandoned as babies and also grew up at the Ijamido Children’s home under the parentage of their “mummy”, the late Willoughby. According to them, they realised from an early age that they were responsible for their own lives.
But who are the real parents of Pelumi? Are they still alive? In a cheerful voice, Pelumi reflected on the questions in an interview with our correspondent.
The 16-year-old recounted how she felt when she got to know she was abandoned as a child. She said, “I was told my story just like you heard it from the orphanage. I think the first emotion was shock, then appreciation to God. I wonder why my parents dumped me. I wonder what went wrong. But I have forgiven them.
“I feel grateful to God every moment. I am surrounded by some much love in the orphanage that I wonder if I would have got that from my biological parents. It does not occur to me to start looking for my biological parents because I have many amazing people here who fit in their shoes.”
At 16, Pelumi is determined to achieve her dreams. She told our correspondent that as she advanced in age, she realised her life would find meaning in being a writer and teacher. To achieve this, her next goal is to secure admission to study English at the University of Ibadan.
She said, “I admire Prof. Wole Soyinka, late Prof. Chinua Achebe, and some other Nigerian writers. I have read their works and want to be like them. I am writing a novel on the African child. It’s my gift to the world. That was why I choose to study English. I also want to teach. I am always thankful to be alive. I have no reason not to put the past behind me. I have no regrets. I look forward to my future dreams.”
I’ve achieved my life goals — Eromosele
One of those keen about helping Pelumi realise her future dreams is Eromosele. Sixteen years ago, when Pelumi was rescued from the claws of death, Eromosele was one of those who received her from the police on behalf of the orphanage.
Eromosele, 47, was also abandoned as a baby by her parents. A graduate of Business Administration
Eromoselefrom the Olabisi Onabanjo University, she lived most part of her life at the orphanage. She has dedicated her entire life to saving abandoned babies.
She refused to talk about where and how she was abandoned as a baby. She said, “That is past. That should be past. I am a gutter pikin.”
‘Gutter pikin’ means a child who was born in the gutter. When prodded further, she said her major challenge was the derision she suffered in the schools she attended, which almost dented her self-esteem.
She said, “When you don’t have someone to cry to, and you face humiliation because of your background; and you build your world around the same society that rejected you, and pick your spouse from the same society, I think it’s quite tough. Mama Willoughby was a great mother.
“It was not easy at all as a child. It was quite tough because the orphanage relied on donations and Mama Willoughby’s earnings to survive. Sometimes, we didn’t know where the next meal would come from. All along, I was quick to boldly introduce myself as a ‘gutter pikin’ to pre-empt those who wanted to mock me.
“Getting my school fees paid was also a challenge. Those days in school, people saw us as riffraff. People called us motherless children. The humiliation was so much. Despite the odds, I became a graduate. I got married with children. I became what I dreamt of becoming in life.”
My real parent is the woman who adopted me — Awokoya
Pelumi, Moses, Stella, Eromosele all regard Dr. Mrs. Victoria Awokoya as their “big sister.” Reason: In 1958 when the Ijamido Children’s Home was founded by the late Willoughby, Awokoya was the first abandoned child that was registered at the orphanage. After the death of Willoughby, Awokoya became the chief executive officer of the home.
Awokoya’s story is a typical Nigerian movie but it is indeed a true life story. One morning in 1958 in Ota, the late Willoughby found outside her door, a newborn baby girl. Nobody knew who had dropped the child there. So, she took the baby in and kept her. That child was Awokoya, now a retired teacher who currently lives with her husband in the United States.
When asked on what enabled her to overcome the difficult circumstances of her early life, she said, “If not for the glory of God, Mama William and my late mother, Willoughby, who was so supportive, I don’t know what would have become of me. She took care of me and sent me to school. Out of her meagre salary, Mama Willoughby ensured I didn’t lack basic things.
“She was caring despite not having biological children. She was ready to spend the last penny she had on me. All the best adjectives in this world are for her. I still miss her. Nobody can take that position she fills in my life. When she died, I cried. I had lost a rare gem.”
Like other abandoned children in the home, Awokoya had a fair share of stigma. She went into failed relationships because “some people don’t want to be an in-law to an orphan.” Now happily married with children, Awokoya said she remains grateful to her husband for loving her despite her background.
Like others, she is not on the search for her real parents. She has an explanation, “The Yoruba have a proverb that says, ‘Eni to ba wa iwakuwa lo maa ri irikuri.’ This means that if you are looking for a bad thing, you would surely see it. I thank God for supplying my needs through the people he used to rescue me. So, the idea of going to find my real family is out of it. As far as I am concerned, my real parent was Willoughby, who took me in as her child.”
Despite all the odds she subdued, what gives Awokoya fulfillment in life is that she has helped to rescue and train other abandoned babies. What pricks her heart is the fact that many babies continue to be abandoned in strange places in Nigeria.
She has an advice for such parents. “These parents who abandoned children should stop this terrible act because they don’t know what the child would become tomorrow. They don’t even know if such a child has been sent to lift up the glory of the family.
“For those who abandon children because of one challenge or the other they are encountering, they should know that there is always light at the end of the tunnel. If you continue striving, you will overcome. Women should not dabble into a relationship they know they can’t sustain. Once you are pregnant, accept it as the will of God, instead of abandoning the child. Despite what I faced in life, I am thankful to be alive. I entered the orphanage with cries but left with joy.”
I’ve no regrets my parents abandoned me as a baby — Olawale
Tell us your educational background.
OlawaleI attended St. James Anglican Primary School and Local Government Commercial Secondary School, both in Ota, Ogun State. I first attended Federal Polytechnic Ilaro where I studied Science Laboratory Technology. Then I proceeded to the Lagos State University where I obtained a degree in Industrial Relations and Personnel Management. I obtained a master’s in Human Resources and Industrial Relations at the Lagos State University. I am presently a PhD student of Poma International Business University, Ifangni, Republic of Benin. I am an Associate member of the Institute of Certified Economist of Nigeria. I am married with four kids. I teach in the school and I am currently a registrar of a university.
Tell us a short story about how you got to the orphanage?
I was told my parents abandoned me when I was one-day old. It’s quite shocking but I never felt their absence because I had good parents in the home that brought me up.
How were you rescued?
I was brought to the Ijamido Children’s Home by a Good Samaritan. I was brought up by the late Mrs. Willoughby who founded the home. The story of my rescue is quite vague as Mama Willoughby, who brought me up, was handling her transfer and relocation at the time. She was quite busy to be demanding details when a baby boy was handed to her as abandoned.
How did they know you were a day old?
Mama Willoughby was a professional nurse and midwife. Through her experience, she could tell how old a child is through the navel.
Have you tried to trace your real parents and siblings?
No, I have not.
Is there a specific reason?
I am happy and comfortable. Searching for them might just be asking for trouble. I had enough attention and love that I needed which has not really given room for regrets. The issue of how to relate with them may arise. Other siblings might not be that accommodating, especially the one that thought he/she is the first child. The reaction of a step-parent who sees a stranger coming to take the position of the first child is something I don’t want to think about. Life is already complicated. One should not seek to complicate it more.
What were your most trying moments?
When I got admission into the Federal Polytechnic, Ilaro, things were really tough because of limited resources. When I was offered an admission, there was no dime in the home to pay for registration. There were times I had to go to school with only N500 and a sachet of 400g Cowbell milk. I would have to manage for a month before help would come. I didn’t really suffer much when it comes to stigmatisation. The problem became serious at later years when I had to help my younger siblings overcome the challenge. It was not quite easy seeing them going through such an experience.
What kept you going all along?
I have been taught to be strong. I have always had a lot of people looking up to me. I have a loving family in the home. The greatest challenge anybody can face is to have to take on life alone.
What do you say when your children ask you for your father or mother?
That is one of the sweet things about Ijamido Children’s Home. We all have a mother, Dr. Victoria Abosede Obakoya and a father, Prince Daniel Oreoluwa Obakoya. My kids are always excited to visit their grandparents and to hear their voices. When they grow older, I will personally sit them down and tell them the whole story. There is nothing to be ashamed of.
How old are your children
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