August 26, 2011 is a date etched on the minds of many. Among them is Member Feese. On that day, a suicide bomber’s cowardly act at the United Nations Headquarters in Abuja changed her life forever. She was badly injured, lost a limb and underwent a grueling rehabilitation. Today, she has completed the Masters’ degree interrupted by her recuperation, and would like her NGO to help trauma victims and is getting on with her post-accident life. She shares her story of positivity and regrowth.
The first thing that comes to mind is that curiosity about your accident doesn’t seem to wane? Does the attention and questioning bother you now?
It doesn’t. Before the accident, I was someone who used to stay in the background but if talking about it is creating awareness and helping other people, I accept it.
Almost six years after the life-changing events of the UN House bombing, how would you summarise your journey?
I would say it made me stronger. I live every day like it’s my last. I wake up and just say ‘thank you to God’ because I have been fortunate. I experienced a bad thing and was given a three per cent chance of survival, so I have been through hell and back, but I am grateful to be alive. Some people are in car accidents where there is little damage to the car but they don’t make it. It has made me appreciate life and also to appreciate and identify with other people.
Before my accident, I was never aware of the plight of a disabled person. For instance, if you notice in many banks, there are flights of stairs that people in a wheelchair cannot climb because there are no ramps. I have been made aware of the challenges that others face.
Year in, year out, there are reminders of the incident such that your identity is almost certainly intertwined with your accident. Have you been able to move away from this?
This is the new me. The accident impacted my life in a huge way. It made me aware of the challenges that other people face but it has not put a barrier for me. Things that I was doing before, I can do now,only that it might take me longer to achieve the same things.
Every year, I have been able to grow stronger. For example, I had a stroke which affected my right side. Now I can write and move my fingers; only selective movement is difficult. Basically every day, it’s getting better. I can type now.
Was the stroke because of the accident?
Yes, it was. When I woke up and regained consciousness, I noticed the effects on my right side. If I had woken up earlier, maybe the day after the accident, the doctors might have picked it up, but it had weakened my right side. However, it gets progressively stronger.
Were you a religious person before your accident and did it change your views in any way?
I was religious but not over the top. I don’t think I’m over the top now but I think I appreciate religion more.
Do you believe your life was saved for a reason?
Yes, definitely, and that’s why the NGO, Team Member, came into being. It is because of the little things – we are not the richest or the most fortunate but things came together at the right time for me. The richest person without the right medical care cannot survive, so I’m grateful to First Bank for the medical evacuation. They took care of me and I went to the UK where I was stabilized. I am just grateful and trying to give other people a chance.
Concerns about inadequate health services and medical emergency response teams in the country led to the growth of Team Member. How much has changed in our health services?
I would say that it has got slightly better. It doesn’t mean that it’s only the work of Team Member, but we are doing our little bit. When we started, it was more of an information sharing group on BBM. My friends and family wanted updates on where I was and what was happening. Then, for example, if blood donations were needed somewhere, the group would cascade the information and you find that things were happening.
While I was first in hospital, I needed a CT scan but the machine was faulty. So we have highlighted this issue and the National Hospital ended up replacing the machine, so I think a little impact like that is encouraging. But I emphasize that we are not fighting government. Even advocacy has taken a back seat lately. Since the UN building bomb blast, there have been other bombings. Government promised to pay victims’ bills. Many of them need prosthetic limbs. We are now trying to link them up with prosthetic limbs and also to organize a rehabilitation centre. This will negate the need for travel abroad to get medical checkups, especially in the case of children, where they need frequent prosthetic change because they are growing;even for those who have suffered a stroke and have nowhere to go.
On the subject of financial aid to victims of bombing, during the last administration, the Committee on Victims Support was set up to support victims of terror activities and a reported
N80billion was raised with no apparent benefit to victims. Bomb Victims Association of Nigeria (BVAN) requested that the president open an inquiry into the use of the fund. Would you perhaps have an update on this?
One of our partners is BVAN; when they hold events, they invite us. BVAN keeps a database of bomb victims. Together, we wrote a letter to the secretary of the committee on the issue but we have not received a response. We hear billions were raised. These people are only looking for millions for prosthetic limbs. Why don’t you help them? Why can’t a rehabilitation centre be opened for these people? Stroke victims – what do they do, where do they go?
How do you get funding for the NGO?
The project we are working on now is to assist victims of trauma. Most need prosthetic limbs and we are trying to raise funds to attend to them. You have hawkers, average people who cannot afford the medical bills required. After the last bomb blast, we sold T-shirts and asked for donations. We are in the process of increasing our fundraising drive.
You work full time, how do you also manage the running of Team Member?
I have help from my father’s secretary. One of the most important things is updating the website and we have IT specialists doing that. As we grow, we have to engage more people, but for now the main thing is website update and account management.
You use a logo that includes a leaf. Was this chosen at random or does it hold any particular significance?
We worked with a friend who is a creative person and who designs similar things. We played around with various designs. The colour orange was selected by chance but the leaf represents regeneration and growing.
Boko Haram has arguably not been stopped. It has claimed responsibility for other atrocities since. Recently the Manchester bombing killed over twenty people; does each attack bring back unwanted memories?
The good thing is that God has helped me through. My accident happened on 26th August. The latest memory I recall is 19th August. From that time to a month or so afterwards is completely blank. Apparently, I woke up at some point and was communicating by blinking but I don’t remember that. I only remember when I started trying to talk. I don’t remember making an appointment to go to the UN building. It’s only recently that I was reminded of the name of the person I went to see, so that had been wiped off. I don’t know if it sounds insensitive but I’d say that it is not traumatic because I don’t remember the actual incident, but I feel sorry because I have been told how my family suffered in the chaos of the aftermath of the bombing. I imagine it and I feel for the victims and their families.
What are your thoughts on how best to handle extremism and terror-related criminals?
With Niger Delta militants, their requests centre on oil and its revenue. With Boko Haram, is the request that everybody follow Islam? It might seem unreasonable. Maybe dialogue will help to find out what they really want, but I don’t have a solution.
Do you harbour anger, resentment or bitterness for a group that can target innocent people?
Yes, bitterness towards Boko Haram; anger towards the Nigerian system that fails its people and the shortcomings of the Nigerian medical system. If there had been equipment, I would not have lost my leg. Because of the tourniquet used to stop the blood flow in the leg and no other attention being paid to it because of lack of facilities, I had to lose it. Correcting the issue of lack of facilities does not seem to be a priority.
Did you ever ask yourself, why me?
The good thing is that I don’t think I have ever sat down to say, “why me?” While I was unconscious, the doctors told my family to make the hospital room as homely as possible so that I would not be shocked when I woke up. Even though few, if any visitors, were allowed in the ICU, my friends used to sneak in (laughs). There were photos around and music, so when I came round, it took me a while to realize what was happening. The impact of the accident didn’t immediately sink in. In intensive care, a nurse is attached to you 24/7. Once the nurse went out to get something and I was determined to get out of bed, and I fell, because when you have not used your legs for a while, the muscles are weak. That’s when the impact dawned on me. I had tubes down my throat and had to be fed.
Are you fully independent now?
Very much. It has been a long journey. When I started, just sitting up was one of the first progressions.
During your long stay in various hospitals as you were nursed back to health, did you at any point feel like giving up?
I am very grateful to be alive. More so these days, technology helps. With this limb, there’s nothing I can’t do. It’s only high heels that I can’t wear. As I have previously said, what I can’t do now, I couldn’t do before my accident.
How were you able to find the strength and determination when everything was so changed? You returned to complete your Master’s degree and came back to Nigeria to work and also to run an NGO.
I think God just gave me the strength. I never thought I could be this strong. Another thing is that I don’t like people who wallow in misery and complain but do not do anything about it. I just say that I was in a bad situation but if God has given me the chance, then I take it and don’t ask, why me? The only thing I don’t like is that I can’t wear heels! But the doctor has said that with advancing technology, there’s hope. For now, because the foot cannot be raised, it isn’t possible.
Getting your life back on an even keel must have been quite challenging. Who formed your support network?
I can’t take anything away from the medical support. I had a physiotherapist, an occupational therapist to teach me the little things like brushing my teeth. I had a speech therapist; when the tubes in my throat were taken out, I lost my voice. I had a psychotherapist to evaluate my condition and to prevent me falling into depression. All this really helped. I think that is what we need to get in Nigeria, not just the physical treatment and sometimes they give physiotherapy, but the whole thing. You need someone to teach you how to do so many things. For example, with my occupational therapist, one day might be to learn how to get dressed, another would be how to get on a bus again. They just help you to integrate back into normal life, the things that we take for granted. I think this is lacking in Nigeria presently.
That helped me to return to some form of normalcy. The friends and family were constantly there. There were well-wishers everywhere. When I was in hospital, my mother said that there were some people who didn’t know us but heard about the bomb blast and they would send food and drinks. I realized that Nigerians have a fantastic spirit. They were just Nigerians in the UK who wanted to help out. This was a positive side to what we generally hear about other Nigerians.
What are some of your immediate plans, what’s the dream?
For Team Member, we are working towards building a rehab centre for car accident victims, bomb blast victims and others. We want to open a YouTube channel because when you hear a person talk with passion, it resonates. This is to create awareness.
On a personal level, I would like to become a development consultant on poverty alleviation.
What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
I love travelling, going to places that I’ve never been, both within Nigerian and outside. I like to explore. I’m a pretty simple person but I would like to fly a plane. I would like to learn how to fly a plane. I just want to understand the mechanics of actually flying a plane; I’d really like to take flying lessons.
- What’s your life motto?
Live every day as if it is my last.