If you live in Nigeria, you’re probably aware that our country is one where minorities are either misunderstood, and/or explicitly discriminated against. Because of this, BellaNaija presents Living Your Difference, where sexual, gender and physical minorities tell their stories about living and surviving as Nigerians in Nigeria.
We’re hoping, with this series, that Nigerians see that there are several ways to be human, and that no matter how different we may be, we all feel the same emotions on the inside.
The first entry is by the music producer Cobhams, who shares his experience growing up and living as a blind person in Nigeria.
Cobhams on His Background
My name is Cobhams Asoquo, I’m 38 years old (wow I’m old). I’m a music producer/singer-songwriter/music business executive.
Growing up was pretty normal for me. I grew up in the barracks, and I grew up to a certain degree unaware of the implications of being a blind person in a sighted world. So growing up was pretty normal for me. I ran around and I played hard. I feel like I led a fairly normal life.
There was always a consciousness of some sort. As a child, you realise that there are certain games you can’t play. But I don’t think it was anything that bothered me too much. I think the awareness began to show up when my friends would sort of surreptitiously steal their fathers’ cars before they got to the age where they were legally allowed to drive, and I realised I could not do the same thing. I think things like that kind—limitations, sort of—that brought it to the fore, to the point where I was more aware.
Cobhams on His Difference
I feel like my life is different in specific ways because of the kinds of things I like to access, and how much of them I can access. In a place like Nigeria, there are many things I think make my life different. For instance, I wouldn’t venture on the road in Nigeria if I don’t have a lot of friends with me. This is just because I’d have to rely more on the goodwill of people, which there is plenty of, than on the system being set up to favour me. Anywhere else within Europe or America, I that’s a different situation. Although there are still problems you deal with—for instance, one of the things I think make my life different is accessibility. Technology has definitely taken care of that in many ways.
With the advent of smartphones, tablets, computers and what have you is sort of bridging that gap. But I can’t just walk into library and pick up a book and read, which everyone else can do. There are certain materials in my house that I feel like some people would have more access to and enjoy more than I do, because those materials are largely visual. We live in a very visual world. A lot of these things are visual, and it’s the sort of thing that I feel like I may not have as much access to. But I feel like that gap is being bridged every day by technology. I mean, for goodness’ sake, autonomous cars are a lot closer to reality than they used to be.
I don’t think I spend a lot of my time thinking about how my life is different. I think I spend my time living my life and making things work for me in whatever way I can, and work for other people with disabilities by using my voice.
Cobhams on LIVING His Difference
I’ve lived independently. I attended Pacelli School for the Blind and Partially Sighted Children, which, I feel, in a lot of ways, groomed me to be independent. I feel like my mother also did a great job, sort of just preparing me for the world.
I think the general misconception is that if you’re a person living with one form of disability or the other, it limits your ability to do so many things. It does limit your ability to do some things, but not, in all cases, as many as is rumoured or conjectured to be. For instance, I have lived by myself, for years, in the past. And, you know, everyone hopes and prays to make it to get to a certain station in life. And really, when you get to a certain station in life, there are a lot of things that ordinarily you don’t do for yourself. For instance, as a business executive, it’s not expected that you finish your work and then come and cook your own meal. So when you consider things like that, you realise that either because of your situation in life, or because of your independence, you are provided with and can afford certain opportunities. So I think it was easy for me to sort of ease into married life, because the infrastructure was pretty much set up for it to a certain degree.
And then, it’s also important that you marry a person that you are in love with, and who is in love with you…then they necessarily compromise to make up for the shortfall. So I think it’s a combination of those. I think it’s a combination of being a relatively independent person, together with marrying someone who is understanding enough to know that.
I am aware that I may be able to afford a driver if I can’t drive. But there are days when the driver may not be around, and so how do we navigate such situations?
So, yeah, I feel like it’s a matter of will. As long as you’re willing, there are a lot of things—I was saying to someone today: there’s a difference between what you can or cannot do, and what you will or will not do. I feel like with a lot of things in life, especially as it concerns whether domestic life or security or provision or whatever, there are more things that we can but will not do, either because society affords us the luxury of not doing those things because we are men. Or for whatever reason. Then it becomes a conversation about gender and cultural dynamics and all of those things.
For me, I divide my time between Nigeria and the States. I live in both places, and while I have staff who can help me do a lot of things in Nigeria, I take out my own trash in the States. Because that’s just the way it is, and it is something I can do, so why not go ahead and do it.
I think that I’m the product of great relationships. I think that a lot of the things that I’ve been able to do is because I have good people around me who have taken it upon themselves, sometimes to the detriment of their own interests, to help me achieve my own goal. So, yes, friendship is very important part to the life of a blind person. Like I said, there are quite a number of things you don’t have access to. But, you know, with good friends around you, it sort of fills the void.
All my life I’ve had best friends, people who have sort of been my eyes in many ways, and that’s a role that even right now my wife plays. I like to think that if I could see I would have a good eye for.
I am particular about optics. I am particular about aesthetics. I am particular about the look and feel of certain things. And I feel like the kind of friends I have around me have helped me achieve that to the standard I find satisfactory. So, as a blind person, you do have to rely on good friends to be able to get a lot of things done. I mean, your level of independence does not really matter.
Quite honestly, even for a sighted person or a person who is not living with any seeming disability, you have to rely sometimes on your friends for judgement. Of course, that is further heightened by the lack of your ability to do one particular thing that relates to your five senses.
Cobhams on How People React to His Difference
Let me use the example of something that happened with the braille bible. You see, the braille bible is extremely voluminous. I have the complete volume of the braille bible downstairs in my studio now, and I think it’s about twenty books. Because braille is voluminous. And while it is important for me to read the bible, I can’t keep lugging around twenty or thirty-something books of the bible.
So this happened while my wife and I were still friends. We weren’t even dating. She discovered a bible you could download onto a laptop. I think it was a bible on a CD, and you’d read with a screen reader. She brought it to me and proceeded to install it on my laptop. It was a painstaking exercise. This was as far back as 2001. It was a paiiiinstaking exercise. I just remember her sitting down there and just working on it, until she got it fixed. And, I felt empowered by the access that gave me to something as important as that to me. But I think I also felt empowered by the act in itself. Because I think it was just a demonstration as to how far a person would go to give me the comfort that everyone else takes for granted, that I would otherwise not have had. I found it moving, I remember that staying with me for a long time. I don’t know if she remembers. I kept thinking, “Oh wow, so what does she stand to gain from this?” You know what I mean? This is all for me, pretty much. And, you know, acts like that make you want to pay it forward.
But, anyway, I generally don’t think of my life much in the context of a blind person, so it’s very hard for me to remember experiences. I think of my life in the context of a moving person who’s going about doing what needs to be done. I mean, I am aware, but I’m not constantly viewing and valuing life on the basis of being blind. I feel like it’s a very distracting thing to do. I feel like it distracts from just the purpose of possibilities of everything else I can do.
I think one thing I find funny every time it happens is when I go out with friends and we’re about to leave where we are, and they literally just start walking and they expect me to follow them. Because our relationship is such that, sometimes, I think they forget that I don’t see. I find it really hilarious. And I find it, in a sense, a testament to how comfortable they are in our relationship, and how much trust to the point where my being blind doesn’t matter as such to them anymore. Because these are people who ordinarily start out being very careful about just about everything. And in the middle of a conversation and everything else, they just carrying on and they expect me to follow, and I think it just comes from confidence in the relationship. I feel like my relationship with my friends transcends the obvious fact about me being blind. And I like that very much. I like that very much.
Cobhams on How His Difference Has Made Him a Better Person
I think for one, it has helped me focus. I think that we’re in a very visual world, which is a good thing. But I also feel like a very visual world is full of visual distractions. And I feel like I have the good fortune of not being distracted in a sense.
I think that sight is a very beautiful thing. It’s lovely to see the birds and the bees and the trees. It’s beautiful. But because I’ve never experienced sight, I can’t really miss it as such. Still, I think that I am sensible enough to know that it is brilliant, based on how much I enjoy my other senses. I can’t imagine being without a sense of taste or touch or smell or hearing, so I can just imagine how complete, how much of an experience sight is. But I feel like the world sort of takes advantage of it in an unfair way. And I feel like, unwittingly, I happen to be the odd one out, myself and perhaps many other blind persons.
This is not to say that I am free of the attack of social media. I sit down and perfectly waste two hours of my time on social media. Even if you can’t see photos, you can listen to videos. You can read comments and captions. And I do a ton of that stuff. It is weird that I would do that, because I have a ridiculously busy schedule. But every now and again I can just sit down and just totally act a fool on Instagram. But I feel like it’s better with me as a blind person, than it is with many other people. So when I see the corporate life right now, the work life, and I see myself, I realise that I’m able to pull back from a lot of things, because a lot of things don’t catch my eye, especially when my mind is on a target. It’s easier for me to zoom in and focus as a blind person.
In many ways, I feel like being blind has helped me. It’s helped me work harder. Because, as a young producer, I had two things not exactly going for me. Number one, the fact that I started really young. I started producing when I was about 16. So to be 16 years old and to be blind at the same time meant that you were young and you were seemingly incapable of delivering on a certain level. So that put me under the pressure to prove myself. And to this day, anytime I make music, I say to people that it may not be the best out there, but it’s definitely the best I can make, and I don’t know any other way to do it. I think that what that has done is sort of kept me in demand after all these years. The fact that I can still make music and the fact that I still work with some of the celebrated artists in 2019 in Nigeria. Whether it be Teni, or it be Adekunle Gold, or it be Simi, or it be whoever else, is an attestation to the fact that when you give your best it shines through. And, like I said, it may not be the best out there, but it is nothing short of the best I can give. And I think that was the habit I picked up from having to prove myself as a blind person who can do it. Because the general assumption is that because you are blind you’re going to have limitations, which is fine with the rest of the world, but not okay with me. Fine with the rest of the world in the sense that the fact that you try alone is applaudable. But, I think for me, the fact that I am totally really able to really totally kill it, is what leaves me satisfied. So I think it’s helped me build a sense of discipline.
It’s taught me accountability and humility. I’m probably the kind of person who would prefer not to rely on anybody for anything. And as great as that is, there’s also an element of pride in it. But I think that blindness has sort of brought me to this place where whether or not I like it, I have to rely on community. I rely on relationships. I rely on people. I rely on different things to be able to move forward. And I realise that it is not something that is akin to being blind alone. It’s pretty much how we should function. As human beings. We should rely on each other and we would go farther than we are supposed to, wanting to do everything on our own.
So I think it’s a lesson I’ve been forced to learn. And I think that it’s another way that blindness—there are actually many ways that I think that blindness has helped me. I think that blindness has helped me in the way that not having light has helped Nigerians.
We absolutely loved loved loved the insight shared by this phenomenal man. Thank you, Cobhams for taking time to talk to BellaNaija on this series. BNers, stay tuned to this series because we have many more inspiring features for you. You can join the conversation on social media with #BNLivingYourDifference. We welcome your suggestions and feedback on the series, so send us an email: submissions(at)bellanaija(dot)com.