Dr. Gabriel Oyediji is the Secretary General, Association of Orphanages and Homes Operators in Nigeria (AsOHO).
Founder of Christ Compassionate Ministries, Lagos, he narrated some of the difficulties he faced as a child
We learnt you lost your father shortly before your birth, how did this affect your growing up?
Childhood for me was a very challenging period; in fact I can say it was the most difficult season of my life to the extent that I never believed that a day like this would ever come. Due to the type of challenges I encountered, I never even believed that I could live up to 30. I was a victim of emotional and psychological abuse as a child. The death of my father shortly before I was born made me a victim of circumstance. Apart from being treated with disdain and hatred, deprivation characterised that period of my life. It was much later that certain things began to become clearer to me.
After my father’s death shortly before I was born, my mother was passed on to my uncle to be his wife as demanded by our tradition. So, from that period, I was regarded as an evil child, one who brought a bad omen into the family. It took me time to realise that there was a silent resentment to children like me whose parent died shortly before they were born or even when they were being given birth to in that society. Such children were seen as having brought adversity into their families, and so were silently given a nasty treatment by the society they lived in.
I was called all sorts of name like ‘Babarimisa’, meaning in English that ‘My father saw me and ran away’, as a result of this circumstance. This shaped my life and introduced a lot of challenges even as a child. Nobody was willing to tell me what my crime was; it took me so long to find out this fact. It was a heartbreaking period for me.
Following the hostile treatment you were subjected to at the time, were you forced to do certain things that ordinarily you wouldn’t just to survive?
Even though I was treated badly in the family, my perspective about life wasn’t really threatened because there was wealth in the family. Though none was coming to me, I consoled myself with the thought that one day, it would be my turn to enjoy from the wealth. My stepfather had absolute control over the wealth and resources of the family and determined who got what. For the fact that he considered me a cursed child, nothing good from him ever came to me.
Eventually when I realised that he wasn’t going to help me in any way, I had to talk to myself. One day, I told myself that if I didn’t do anything about my situation, frustration was going to kill me. Apart from my mother who was ‘donated’ to him due to our cultural practice, he had about seven other wives and several children. So, it was a very dicey situation for me. It got so bad that he refused to give me my own room despite the fact that there were dozens of rooms within the massive compound where we lived. To make matters worse, if any child was sick, he’d tell me to look after them but when I fell sick, he would simply look away, showing no sort of care.
While all these were going on, what efforts did your mother make to have things change for you?
If not for the love and support of my mother, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Even though she had seven of us, she still managed to do her best to support me. That was why when she died, I cried profusely because it was as if my mother and my father were being buried at the same time. This is because she played both roles in my life.
After secondary school when the other children had gone to higher institutions, I struggled to get myself into the Lagos State Polytechnic to study Agriculture and Animal Health. So, there was a day when my stepfather wanted to conduct a thanksgiving ceremony for all the undergraduates in the family, we were in the church and the priest asked for the names of all those celebrating. One of my siblings compiled the names including mine and gave to the priest. But my stepfather collected the list from the priest and struck out my name. He said I was not part of the event. I couldn’t stop crying that day. By the time we got back home, I thought life had ended for me. I was enveloped in confusion.
Considering the rejection you battled at that period of your life, did you ever nurse any sort of ambition or found no reason to do so?
I had to walk away from the family after things became unbearable for me. Even though it was tough nursing any dream or setting any sort of goal at the time, I believed I wasn’t going to end my life in a miserable way. The search for a new life took me to Tribune Newspapers where an uncle who occupied a top position managed to get me a job there. As a result of my performance in proof reading and sub-editing sections, I was soon handed an identity card to start going out to cover news. I thought my worries were over.
One night, after closing from work, I came across some policemen harassing and trying to arrest a commercial motorcyclist who they claimed was not wearing protective helmet. I asked them why they were harassing the man and they warned me to steer clear, that it was not my business. Out of anger, I copied the registration number of the policeman, who eventually alerted his superior of my action. At the end of the day, the commercial motorcyclist and I were bungled into their van and taken to the police station. We were left at the counter and when the Divisional Police Officer came by midnight, the policemen who brought us there lied that I was preventing them from doing their job and that I verbally abused them and tried to beat up one of them. The DPO ordered them to throw me into the cell.
The next day, when they were searching my pocket, they saw my work ID card. Unfortunately, the police had issues with my employers at the time, so that complicated matters for me. I was subsequently taken to court from where I was moved to Agodi Prison without being allowed access to a lawyer, colleague or any family member. I was there for three days before somebody who knew me saw me and went to inform my mother. Later, my employers also found out the trouble I had been into and thereafter sent a lawyer to rescue me. Angered by the way I was treated, my editor at the time asked me to write a diary of my ordeal, which was published. I thought that was the end of the matter but I was wrong. The next, most national dailies wrote an editorial on the issue and this further escalated the matter. I had to leave journalism as a result of the events that followed that incident.
I was only 21 at the time and the troubles I had experienced even at that point was more than what people four times my age had seen in their lifetimes. In fact, the trouble was so much for me that at a period in my life, my mother withdrew me from school and enrolled me at a mechanic workshop to learn the trade. Even though I started brilliantly in school, I began to regress at a point. Some people said it was spiritual attack but I didn’t know what it was at that point. It got to a point that people warned my mother to take me out of the family and community because it seemed as if there were certain forces inhibiting my progress in life.
As a result of all these happenings in your life, did you get to that point where you felt that there was a jinx on you?
To be honest, I felt that way at some point because things weren’t really working out for me the way they should. I felt there was a strong enemy who saw my glory and was doing everything possible to stop me from fulfilling my potential. There were so many strange things about me that I also couldn’t understand or explain. It was really serious.
However, there was a day I went on my knees and told God that if He could help me overcome these challenges I was facing; I would dedicate my life to serving Him and cater for children who didn’t have parents or people to take care of them. I got to a point in my life where death did not mean anything to me because even as a living being, I wasn’t making any sort of progress in life.
To break this jinx, I engaged in all sorts of tough jobs, including occasionally using my brother’s bus to run commercial transport between Lagos and Ibadan. In fact, there were times that I ran seven trips in a day between both cities just to survive. It was that tough.
Considering the difficulties you faced in the family, how were you able to sponsor yourself through the polytechnic and the university you later attended?
My sister, who was already working at the time I got admission to the polytechnic and later university, was of immense help to me. She supported me with money, food items and other things I needed to carry on with my studies. Without that support, I don’t know what would have happened to my education.
At what period of your life did you start your involvement in charity work and caring for people in need?
Even though I had always assisted people in need when I had nothing, it was around 2004 that I really took the work more seriously. That year, I organised some of my friends and we started sleeping under the bridges of Lagos to identify with the homeless. In fact, I was so popular around the Ojuelegba area that others started buying into what I was championing. I encouraged people who had the means to provide shelter for the homeless to do so or identify with them by not sleeping in their houses on some nights. This was just to give the underprivileged people some sense of belonging. It was from this charity work that God started a church through me.
Did you experience any attack while taking the message of hope to street urchins and homeless people especially those ones sleeping under bridges?
I cannot count how many times people like that have attacked me. Apart from that, I have been threatened with death several times by these guys for trying to help them. In fact, it was on one of such encounters with them that I realised that the guy I employed as a driver was a former armed robber who had killed many people before he was arrested by God and started coming to church. I never knew this before then. So, hostility from people in this category is not strange to me.
When your driver opened up on his past, did thoughts of severing ties with him cross your mind, especially considering the fact that he could one day harm you?
Such thought never crossed my mind because I had dealt with worse situations than that in the course of my journey. As a deliverance minister, I have been told my many people that those I am trying to deliver could harm me and that I should take absolute care while dealing with them. I have come to understand that fear does not solve any problem and that we must face each challenge if we hope to overcome.
So, I did not discard with the driver, instead I used my knowledge of the Bible and experience in life to encourage and lead him deeper into Christ.
But generally speaking, it has not been easy dealing with and trying to change people who had been into all sorts of crimes like armed robbery. Many times they come to me and threaten to harm and even kill me if I don’t give them money. They feel I am getting so much money and not giving them their fair share. Out of anger, some of them go back to their old crimes, warning me not to come near them again or get killed.
Do you think the society is doing enough to take care of orphans and underprivileged children?
We are not doing enough. The problems they face are still very much unaddressed by the society. The major challenge is that people expect government to do everything but it does not work that way. To make progress, other sections of the society must come together and complement the efforts of government. It is only that way that we can make life better for orphans and the underprivileged children in Nigeria.
At what point in your life did you meet your wife and what are some of the biggest lessons marriage has taught you?
I met her in a fellowship on campus. We became friends soon after and before long, she agreed to marry me. The fact that she also had a similar experience as a child made it easier for us to connect.
As a child, my wife also faced emotional trauma like I did, so it made her appreciate me as a person when we met and helped us get along well. Being a lover of God and all things related to him also brought us closer to each other. These aspects were a big attraction for us. That was how our love story and subsequent marriage started.
How long did it take for you to persuade her to marry you?
As a result of the similar experiences we had during our different childhoods, it wasn’t so difficult to convince her to marry me. The truth is that things took a natural form. Our backgrounds and past prepared the ground for our union to thrive.
Apart from that, one important consideration was her commitment to the things of God. After I realised that I would probably end up being a clergy, I felt that having a woman like her in my life would complement my ministry work. So, there was no problem bringing her on board.
As a church leader and social worker, do you ever make out time to go on vacation?
I am not so much into holidaying because I am somebody who loves to be involved in activities at every point in time. As a matter of fact, sometimes I fear that I would fall sick if I am not engaged in any activity. I fear void and vacuum more than activities.
There was a time I was invited to Cameroon for holiday and the second day, I fell sick. To keep myself busy, I had to request them to organise a programme in collaboration with churches in Cameroon for me to be able to get myself.
What I have learnt is that if one maintains a particular pattern of life, the body system gets used to it. But as soon as this is altered, the body responds negatively. As a person, I am used to being involved in activities at every point, so going a day or days without being engaged in such will perhaps lead me to sickness. So, it is for this reason that I hardly consider going on holidays.
However, I do play table tennis at home and also jog when I have the time. These are part of ways I relax and refresh myself. If I must travel, I prefer to go to my home in Ibadan and relax. I am not a big fan of travelling to another country for holidays.
Are there special meals that you cannot afford to miss for too long?
I find it hard to go one week without eating Amala. It is one food I like very much. But then, I hardly eat, in fact that is one problem my wife has with me. After spending hours to prepare a meal, she’ll later find out I am not even ready to eat it due to the nature of my work. It distorts her plans many times but then, I make it up to her in various ways.
Considering the path you have been through in life, what are some of the biggest lessons you’ll say you’ve learnt so far?
One big lesson I have learnt in life is that God can turn around the circumstances of anybody. I have learnt never to write anyone off in life. The journey of my life is an example in this regard. Anybody who does not believe in the transformational power of God should take a look at what people like us have passed through.
I have learnt also that people who are experiencing a downside in life should not give up. They should not put their hopes in men but only rely on God because He is the only one who does not and cannot fail.
Anybody willing to move forward in life must not listen to what people say. They must remain focused and work very hard while allowing God to perfect His plan in their lives.
One of the things that give me joy today is the fact that I and my stepfather are best of friends now. Despite all that I encountered at his hands, we are a happy pair today. He is still alive even though quite old and I pray God give him more years to enjoy us. – Punch.