By Toheeb Babalola
Eugenia Omere, a dedicated professional nurse, celebrated her 34th birthday by welcoming her fifth child, Solomon Omere, into the family in 1990. When Solomon was one and a half years old, his mother observed a delay in his speech development and a struggle to meet his developmental milestones. Concerned, she consulted a pediatrician who diagnosed Solomon with Down syndrome.
Individuals, whether children or adults, who experience developmental delays, mild to moderate intellectual disability and exhibit characteristic physical features are classified as having Down syndrome (DS). Medically, it is attributed to the prenatal stage when a partial or complete chromosome 21 is copied as the embryo develops. This additional chromosome affects the body and brain.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that Down syndrome affects approximately 1 in 1,000 live births worldwide. However, the prevalence rate of Down syndrome in Nigeria is unknown because of a lack of data.
As noted by the Nigerian daily newspaper Leadership News, people with Down syndrome face many challenges, including discrimination, stigmatization, lack of access to education, healthcare, employment, and other basic human rights.
Omere experienced days of sorrow after her son was diagnosed with DS. In an interview with Global Voices, she expressed her anguish, saying,
“The pediatrician kept saying to keep pushing him; he will get there, and tears started streaming from my eyes. We are in Lagos, but my husband's family is in Benin. My husband thought I pampered Solomon too much, and that's why he's slow.”
At the age of six, Omere enrolled Solomon at St. Bernadette Nursery and Primary School in Akoka, Lagos State. Although he initially coped well, he began to struggle academically in primary four. Despite having special needs teachers since the age of three, Solomon faced challenges progressing to secondary school after graduating from primary.
In 2003, Omere chanced upon the Down Syndrome Foundation Nigeria (DSFN) through a national television advert. As a nurse, she believed the organization could help Solomon unlock his potential, so she enrolled him there. DSFN is a non-governmental organization dedicated to working with individuals with cognitive disabilities and helping them discover their hidden potential through assistive support systems.
Solomon's cognitive abilities didn't extend to writing, but the foundation introduced him to sporting activities such as basketball and choreography. A few years later, he joined the school’s basketball team and was part of 42 athletes who represented Nigeria at the Special Olympic World Summer Games in Los Angeles, United States, in 2015. The team secured second place, earning Solomon a well-deserved silver medal. In an interview with Channels Television, the team’s coach, Michael Ani, praised his team for their victory against Belgium.
Reflecting on the participation of Solomon Omere and other students from the foundation in the Special Olympics over the last decade, DSFN President Rose Mordi revealed to Global Voices in an interview that the National Sports Commission, through its scouts, regularly patronizes the foundation for sporting activities. She mentioned that scouts seek recommendations every four years.
Mordi said, “Solomon Omere was not the only student from our foundation to represent Nigeria. Students like Yemi Oshin and David Ikoje also participated in the 2011 Special Olympic Floor Hockey in Greece. While they didn't secure any medals, they performed excellently and made the country proud.”
According to Mordi, Oshin and Ikoje graduated from their foundation years after their Olympic participation. Yemi and his mother have established their own foundation in Nigeria, while David traveled abroad.
However, she said that Solomon has more theatrical prowess in him as a result. He was featured as a protagonist in a popular Nigerian movie series, Godwin, which was directed and produced by Wale Adenuga Productions in 2014:
“Wale Adenuga Productions has been collaborating with us due to our media involvement in event organization. One day, Chairman Wale Adenuga expressed interest in writing a storyline about Down syndrome. When asked if we had someone suitable for the protagonist role, we recommended Solomon. They took him to their studio, auditioned him, and we sent our Special Educator, Helen Bassey, as a support staff to help him regain confidence in a new environment. They spent a month on the film location, and she was appropriately compensated.”
Acknowledging the film contract, Eugenia Omere told Global Voices in a virtual interview that Wale Adenuga Productions contacted her family through DSFN for negotiations before featuring her son. “Solomon was compensated as a professional actor, and we are proud of him,” Eugenia affirmed.
Chukwuemeka Nkocha, father to six-year-old Chinaza Nkocha, who also has Down syndrome, observed that there is a lot of discrimination affecting children with disabilities in Nigeria.
Chukwuemeka added, “DSFN foundation is bridging the gap to create awareness and ensure that discrimination is being eradicated to the barest minimum. I am very happy to have come across DSFN and witnessed its program. There is an improvement in my child’s rehabilitation. One should not expect automatic improvement because it is a gradual process.”
Another parent, Oladunni Juliana Ayegbogun, a teacher and mother of a 14-year-old boy, Oluwatifemi Ayegbogun, asked the public not to sympathize but to empathize with the children with cognitive disabilities.
“I want to urge parents to stop keeping their children with disabilities at home. They should look for a foundation like DSFN to enrol their wards. Within the period of seven years of my son’s studentship here, we have witnessed a lot of changes in him. To mention a few, when he was in a regular school, he could not write, read and identify alphabets and numbers. But we thank God that he has passed through those challenges now, and we are glad to send him on an errand without fear.”