Seven months pregnant George was haggling with a fruit seller when she heard someone say, “Please give me money.” She turned to behold a small man standing beside her. The man’s features showed that though small in stature, he was not a kid but a full grown adult.
She recalled, “I was petrified. I just handed the money I was about to pay the fruit seller to the little man. I felt dizzy all of a sudden. The little man took the money and said, ‘thank you very much madam. Don’t be scared. I mean you no harm. Life is tough for people like us. God bless you. You’ll give birth to very tall children’. I said ‘amen’ weakly. It wasn’t a pleasant encounter. I went through the remaining weeks of the pregnancy in a daze. I had heard stories of how normal babies changed to other things in the womb. I had to tell my husband, doctor and mother. I prayed. That was 36 years ago. My son, Chibuzor, grew into a healthy man. But that pregnancy was difficult because I developed high blood pressure because of that chance encounter with a little man.”
If George felt this way just because a ‘little man’ approached her, what about the feeling of the ‘little man’?
Mr. Moses Ogbaji is 29 years old, but his three-foot height sharply belies his age. However, his face and mannerisms show the maturity that is seemingly lacking in his tiny frame.
Ogbaji is a dwarf, but this did not stop him from fantasising about being a pilot, particularly in his childhood. Even as a grown man, Ogbaji said he sometimes wishes he was taller, so he could have a shot at fulfilling his childhood fantasy.
He said. “I wish that I could be a pilot; to be up in the air and travelling everywhere. I remember dreaming about it, especially when I was younger, but a person of my stature cannot be a pilot. So I will have to miss not having the opportunity to become a pilot in my lifetime.”
According to the Little People of America, a non-profit organisation that offers support to dwarfs and their families, dwarfism is “an adult height of four feet 10 inches (147 cm) or under, as a result of medical or genetic condition.”
In general terms, dwarfism is a condition of short stature.
Indeed, job preferences for dwarfs are limited, particularly in a developing country like Nigeria. Dwarfs are also not considered to be suitable for driving, joining the security force or taking part in sporting activities, such as athletics, that tend to emphasise the use of limbs. But beyond that, dwarfs are generally considered to be at a disadvantage in a world dominated by relatively tall people. They are often bullied, cheated and jeered in educational, work and social settings.
Also, dwarfs are called by different names, mostly derogatory, in different places and languages. For instance, they are ‘Arara’ in Yoruba and ‘Gagere’ or ‘Wada’ in Hausa.
In Igbo, the name for dwarfs is ‘Akakpo’, which is sometimes used as an insult to any one considered as short. It is also said that if a woman insults an ‘Akakpo’, she will end up giving birth to one.
But universally, midget is a common term used to describe dwarfs, but it is also often regarded as offensive. In places like Canada and the US, many dwarfs now prefer to be called ‘little people’, but this has not yet caught on across the world, with some people still referring to dwarfs as ‘pygmies’.
Pygmies are an ethnic group of averagely short adult people that can be found in some African countries including Cameroon, Gabon, Angola, Botswana, Rwanda, Burundi, Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where they are said to make up two per cent of its population.
However, Ogbaji, who hails from Oju Local Government Area of Benue State, said people sometimes call him ‘Congo’ on the streets of Lagos.
“Some people call us ‘Congo’; they will say that we are from the Democratic Republic of Congo and not Nigeria,” he said.
Basically, dwarfs face stigma and discrimination because of their stature, so they consequently withdraw socially and tend to associate more with fellow dwarfs by clustering together.
In Lagos, Moyosore Abiodun Shopping Complex, Oshodi and Ebute-Ilaje in Bariga area serve as base where dwarfs of various ethnic groups from across the country are found.
Chibuna Emeka, 20, who is the only dwarf in his family, said most of them are into film making to survive the public ridicule they face, along with the limited opportunities available to them. Even with that, Emeka claimed that they are often cheated by other people in the movie industry, and therefore, resolved to the marketing of CDs themselves.
“People look at us and laugh but I know that I didn’t create myself. We gather here in the morning, and then we go out to market and converge here in the evening,” Emeka said.
He is married to a tall woman, Chinasa, and they have a daughter who is not a dwarf. Emeka said he was pleased that his daughter, Happiness, did not take after him and so, saved from the pains that characterised his childhood. Emeka, who grew up in Abia State, only had elementary education because according to him, much of his childhood was spent as a lonely boy.
He said, “I was always alone and I had no friends; it was how my mind wanted it.”
But in spite of his stature and unlike Emeka, Ogbaji considered himself a ‘yuppy dwarf’ and his dressing bore testimony to his claim. While speaking to Saturday PUNCH, Ogbaji had two earrings on his left ear, one on his right and another ring to adorned his nose. His permed hair, combed backwards, was black and shiny.
Ogbaji drinks, goes clubbing and even asks women for a dance, although he admitted that his advances are not always successful and that dancing with a tall woman could sometimes be awkward. He said little men are good in bed that women fight over them, adding that he has two tall girlfriends, one of whom might become his wife later in the year.
“I have two girlfriends and they are tall. I wooed the first one but it was the second one who wooed me and now, they are fighting over me,” Ogbaji said, attributing his love dilemma to his ‘dress sense’ and ‘sweet loving’ nature.
He said he was lucky to get his first girlfriend to agree after several failed attempts to get a woman. Ogbaji recalled an unpleasant experience he had with a lady, who declined his love advances some years back.
“I was lucky with my girlfriend. I remember one tall girl I wooed one day, who said, ‘you no dey shame? You short person coming to meet me’. She laughed and said she didn’t want a child that would look like me,” Ogbaji said, adding that the lady left him standing as she walked off.
Even though, Ogbaji has starred in several movies including Golden House and Land of the Dwarf, he said he still sometimes feels bad when people jeer at him and call him names.
He said, “I always tell them that I’m a normal human being but sometimes, I still feel annoyed with myself.”
A consultant family physician with special interest in mental health, Dr. Gbolahan Abideen, of the Nigerian Airforce Hospital, Ikeja, said dwarfism could be caused by any or more than 200 conditions, identifying the two categories of dwarfism as ‘proportionate’ and ‘disproportionate’.
According to him, people with proportionate dwarfism are unusually small, but with bodies that are normally proportioned, while those with disproportionate dwarfism have one or more body parts with apparent growth variations. Abideen, however, identified disproportionate dwarfism as the more common type and abnormal bone growth, which is genetic, as its most common cause. In addition, Abideen said dwarfism could be hereditary or come as a result of growth hormone deficiency.
He said, “’Achondroplasia’, which is an abnormality with bone development, is the most common form of dwarfism. It’s responsible for about 70 per cent of the dwarfism cases you find around. What you essentially find in them is big heads, big tummies, abnormally short limbs and protruding chests as a result of curved backbone.
“When the cause is hormonal, two dwarfs could marry each other and their children would grow tall, but when it’s hereditary or familial, it means that it runs in the family; an example of this is the pygmies.”
Abideen added that dwarfs in Nigeria are usually disadvantaged from birth as “they are a point of ridicule in childhood and an object of discrimination in adulthood.” He, however, noted that the solution lies with the society, which “should be encouraging and supporting them.”
He said, “They (dwarfs) don’t get jobs and even when they get, they are given the lowest of the low, like cleaning and so on. In school, they get so much attention and sometimes sympathy, so they sometimes end up having low self esteem and that’s why many of them don’t finish school.
“They are bullied, they are called by derogatory names. So because of the discrimination, they tend to cluster together. Some of them get depressed, particularly in their teenage years when their peers are growing, and they tend to remain the same. Most times, you also find that they are poor because they are unable to get good jobs.”
Abideen also added that dwarfs’ “intellect is intact, in spite of their small size.”
“What they need is for the society to support them so they can blossom and reach their full potential. They do not need dole-outs or people’s sympathy, what they need is empathy,” he said.
Ms. Abiodun Christiana Abon, a dwarf, said she once ran into a woman on the road, who screamed upon sighting her. Abon said she felt embarrassed and could not understand why the woman made a fuss about meeting a dwarf on the road.
She said, “Our daily life is supposed to be normal, but it’s not. When people see us on the street, they call us all sorts of names and look down on us like we are not part of the society.”
Abon said that growing up was particularly tough for her because her mother deserted the family because of her stature. Although her father is late, Abon said she would forever be grateful to him for his support to her while he was alive.
She said, “But the worst feeling is when the discrimination comes from within the family. I was still small when my mother left us because of me. At a time, while growing up, I felt dejected. But my father was always there for me until his death when I had to stop school.
“I had planned to study law before my father died and I still wish to if I can get the support; but the truth is that it’s not easy for dwarfs in this country.”
According to Abon, her wish to study law came one day when her dad took her to meet a female medical doctor, who was also a dwarf.
She said, “The woman encouraged me and told me that she did not know her biological parents because they dumped her somewhere. It was her foster parents who nurtured and gave her all the support she needed to become somebody. Right there and then, although I was still in primary school, I decided to become a lawyer, but unfortunately, my father died.
“It is very difficult to get a job. Many dwarfs no longer bother to look for jobs and the trend is also discouraging the young ones from going to school since the best chance they have is to be self-employed or be a trader.”
Abon, who has a Catering and Hotel Management certificate from a catering institute, recalled her experience when she was posted to an eatery for industrial training.
She said, “I was there with four others but I was the only dwarf. They called the four others into the office, attended to them, but I was left there and nobody told me what was going on.
“After waiting for about five hours, I spoke to an employee, who told me that the manager was busy and that I could come back the next day.”
Abon said she met the manager as he was arriving for work the following day, but that he only gave her an illustration to explain why he would reject her.
She said, “He gave me an apron to put on and took me to the kitchen. In the kitchen, he showed me their huge cooker and said he would not take me because of my height. He said I would not be able to use the cooker.
“By then, I had started crying. He counted some money and gave to me, which I rejected. Instead of giving me where I could fit in, he was comparing me with the cooker.”
Abon said it is common to find a significant number of female dwarfs who are single mothers, because most men are only interested in them for séx.
She said, “Men are only after having séx with us just to see if it is different from what they are used to. And even when we find sincere ones, they tend to face intense pressure from their families who try to dissuade them.”
At over 30 years of age, Abon is not yet married, but she said she was in a relationship with a man of average height.
“Even at that, we are facing pressure but we hope to overcome it,” she said.
Another dwarf, Mrs. Deborah Ogunka, lamented the challenges dwarfs experience in getting married to taller persons, explaining that was why she eventually decided to marry another dwarf.
Ogunka’s son has normal growth, but she admitted that she was a bit apprehensive before going into labour.
She said, “I did a scan, so I knew he was a boy, but I didn’t bother to ask if he would be short.”
Ogunka also said she has had to cope with so many derogatory comments, but according to her, the worst discriminatory statement she ever heard came from her neighbour, who said, “You people should not be living in the cities, you should be living in the forest.”
She recalled, “Tears ran down my face that day; even now, I still cry every time I remember that statement.”
Mr. Victor Udochukwu Nwaogu is a 2008 Theatre Arts graduate from the University of Ibadan, Oyo State. However, he was disappointed on two occasions when he had got to the final stage of getting employed.
He said, “One was a federal job, while the other was a private job. The moment they realise that I’m a dwarf, everything changes.”
Nwaogu said dwarfs need platforms to enable their integration into the society. According to him, such platforms could be by engaging dwarfs in the public sphere or by giving them important responsibilities.
He argued that such platforms, along with enlightenment programmes to debunk cultural myths, would gradually give dwarfs the opportunities needed for proper integration.
He said, “There are very few educated dwarfs because of issues of self consciousness. But a platform for dwarfs to play active roles in the society will encourage more dwarfs to be educated.
“People tend to look down on physically or specially-challenged people, but an able-bodied person can become physically challenged tomorrow, so it is important that issues affecting people in the society are addressed.”