Thursday, 14 August 2014

360 Woman: Project Fame Producer, Nkiru Njoku Talks About Family, Work And Didi, Her Blind Daughter

This week on 360 Woman, I catch up with Nkiru Njoku, Writer, producer and Content Director of the popular Project Fame West Africa. She talks to us about work, her family and raising her blind daughter, Didi. Nkiru made me cry with her candid portrayal of the cord that binds us as people, as families. And then she made me laugh so hard I wondered if I was talking to the same person. When I asked if she always saw herself doing TV, she said, "I never saw myself doing anything in particular. I didn't have dreams when I was growing up". 

This is one story you should read; it is one that will stay with you for a long time...

NL: Hi Nkiru
NN: Hi
NL: Thank God we finally got round to doing this.
NN: Lol, indeed.
NL: How did your day go?
NN: My day is fine so far, thanks. Yours?
NL: It's almost over.
NN: Lucky you!
NL: LOL. Why?
NN: My day doesn't end till the wee hours.
NL: Are you one of those people who prefer to work at night?
NN: I no longer know if it's a matter of preference or if it's simply my default. I work very well at night, yes, but I also go to work in the daytime. I guess I just do what I have to.
NL: Hmm. So when do you get your beauty sleep?
NN: Lol @ Beauty sleep. What does that mean? Heh heh.
NL: Em. The sleep you sleep so you can be beautiful, LOL
NN: I manage well on three to four hours sleep at a stretch. Then I find time to nap within the course of the day. I don't need to sleep to be beautiful, Naomi. I'm a vampire. (lame joke)
NL Hahaha. Duly noted.
NN: Is this the point where you bind and cast me into the abyss? LOL
NL: Na. I'll be praying from a distance :) I was going to ask what a typical day is like for you but you've kind of spelt some of that out... I'm still asking though.
NN: My days usually depend on what kind of work I'm doing at the time. I work two jobs you see, and one of them gets really demanding for five months every year.
NL: Okay... Tell me about it, even though I think I already know.
NN: Hahaha. Do you want me to pull out a typical day from within that period?
NL: Please spill. We need inspiration *pouting*
NN: Okay so I wake up early, call the studio to find out if the day's programming is ready to be sent out. I rush down, watch the day's edits, sign off, then focus on producing the next day's programming...
NL: So you are a producer! What do you produce? (FYI, this is the part where you should say all the awesome stuff you do, so we can all turn green and wonder when our turn will be, LOL)
NN: LOL. I write and produce content for Ultima Limited - producers of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire and Project Fame West Africa. We have a new TV channel called Get TV and I serve as one of the content producers on there. However, five months a year, I'm focused on our seasonal 'music reality TV' show - Project Fame West Africa, where I'm what they call the 'Head of Content' in other words, I am the team leader of the Content Directors.
Shall I go on describing my day?
NL: No. I can't take it!
NN: Hahaha.
NL: Please go on...
NN: Okay, so when I have a clear idea of what the Content Directors and the Editors will churn out the following day, I decide what part of it is good enough for our daily Project Fame shows and then leave them to do their jobs. If there are any meetings I need to do, I do them and then hightail it back home. I often go home once or twice a day before my day at the studio is over. When I'm home, I focus on my other job - TV writing.
NL: Wow! That's awesome. Did you always see yourself doing this?
NN: No I didn't. I never saw myself doing anything in particular. I didn't have dreams when I was growing up.
NL: Ha! Are you serious?
NN: Yes Naomi. I knew what I liked to do, but I didn't know what I COULD be. I didn't even know if I'd live long enough to be anything so I didn't bother projecting.
NL: Wow!
NN: And no, I was not terminally ill. I just wasn't 'interested'.
NL: That says something about your person.
NN: Ehen? Please what does it say?
NL: Spontaneous?
NN: Hmm, I don't know about spontaneous o. I am actually NOT spontaneous. I am a planner. I love being in control. And I don't like too much adventure. So spontaneous cannot describe me. Sorry to bust your bubble.
NL: Okay, sorry. Misdiagnosis.
NL: I wonder what I was thinking anyway, LOL.
NN: Indeed o, Dr. Naomi.

NL: Hahaha. Okay away from all the work. I know about Didi, I've read about her…
NN: Yes, you do. Are you not my Facebook friend? *rolling eyes*
NL: Hahaha. Seriously, I'm not sure how to describe how I feel, but please, for those who don't know that story, tell us about Didi.
NN: Aw... Didi. My little madam. She was born with tiny eyes. She's blind in both eyes. Microphthalmia is what the condition is called, and it just means that her eyes are small. Micro. Geddit?
NL: LOL. You still manage to be funny.
NN: Her eyes did not develop properly in utero - a random genetic fluke. Lol @ managing to be funny. My sister, nothing dey happen, It's not a biggie. It's just what it is.
NL: Hmm. That's the spirit.
NN: She didn't open her eyes at birth, and the thing tore my heart to pieces. Her father was so torn that one day he wore two different shoes to work. When he sent me the shot, we laughed like mad people.
NL: Hahahaha. Oh my God!
NN: Yeah, so that's what the condition is. But there's too much about her to say that I cannot cram it all into one response. So ask any specifics and I'll answer.

NL: Okay. When your doctor told you what lay ahead of you, what was your reaction?
NN: Well there were two stages. One was here in Lagos, and then the other was in England.
NL: Okay...
NN: When the doctors here told us what they suspected, and we read up, we kind of knew what to expect. But I had a bit of a 'surprise'...
NL: I'm listening...
NN: Because of how impossible it was for the doctors here to pry her lids open even with local anaesthesia, and then the scan that came back, we presumed Didi had no eyes at all - full on Anophthalmia.
NL: Hmmm
NN: But when we went to England and they scanned her head again, the doctor said to us 'Oh I'm sorry to announce that your daughter's got tiny eyes'. It was my birthday so I was overjoyed. It was like a gift. Even if the eyes were tiny and not working, I was just happy that she had them anyway.
NL: Aw...
NN: Because here's the thing – No one knows what technology will be available in say twenty years from now to treat such cases, so having the globes present no matter how small, is like having something to work with IF such technologies ever become available. You get?
NL: True.
NN: Fortunately, by the time we took Didi to England, we were on the last leg of the grieving process so the confidence we got from the hospital where she receives treatment, did a lot to help us 'solidify', so to speak.

NL: Hmmm. I think it was a good think you grieved. Now it's easier to deal with... How did you manage the first few months?
NN: First month - we grieved for about three weeks. I cried constantly. Her father was a rock mehn! And my kid brother - God bless him. Emeka Njoku, I will always be grateful for what you were to me. If you're reading this, know that you are loved deeply, always.
NL: Aw... That brought tears to my eyes.
NN: The boy was like a solid tree standing beside me. In the absence of Didi's daddy for the first few days after Didi's birth, my brother was like my husband.
NL: Wow! Thank you Emeka!
NN: My sisters were there for me as well, in no small way. My mum prayed her eyes out, my older brother called to cry his eyes out. LOL. We can all laugh now but it was a tough few weeks. After the first month of anxiety... when Didi got her first 'treatment' and we relaxed to just parent her as best we could, her dad and I were in the kitchen one day cooking and cracking jokes when suddenly he stopped. I was talking to him and didn't hear a response. I turned around and saw the man wiping a tear. Chai…
NN: He said in that moment, it just hit him that we had been through stuff that people tend not to recover from and it only took us some weeks. We were laughing and cooking, Didi was in the living room asleep, and everything was OKAY. It was a lot to be grateful for, hence the teary-eyed moment.
NL: Aw... You're tearing me up.
NN: My friend, grab a tissue!
NL: Hahaha. Now I'm crying and laughing at the same time... I can't imagine what you went through. But I thank God for you. For how strong you are now.
NN: Yes, yes, Naomi. There are days (and they are many) where I still feel a little light-headed with gratitude to God for how well things are.
I remember a friend asking me one day "so how is Didi?"
"She's fine", I responded. 
My friend was ecstatic, thinking I meant that Didi could now see. She asked how well Didi was seeing now and I said "Er, she's blind. But she's fine. We are fine".
That friend still cannot compute the whole thing and has not found the 'liver' to visit us yet. LOL.
 NL: Wow!
NN: There were many people who thought we were playing at being fine. Hmmm. We used to dodge them. Because how would we explain that we were dashing down to see a movie, attend a concert, etc., when our daughter was blind? *shock horror* Na wa o.
NL: Hahaha. Oh dear.
NN: I'm serious, Naomi.
NL: It was 'dodge' that made me laugh. I can just picture that...
NN: The attitude to special-needs amongst us Nigerians is 'wonderful'.
NL: You can say that again!
NN: True o. If they called, we would say “we no dey house”. The ones who could deal with us being 'normal' were the ones we let into our space. LOL

NL: Lol. Fair enough… Have you had challenges caring for Didi? Like special requirements or anything like that?
NN: Because Didi did not suddenly lose her sight, and because she is my first child, my experience with her is the only experience I have of mothering. So I only realise that some things are more 'hectic' than with other mothers when other people make mention of these things. We are constantly talking to Didi, singing to her…Then the transition from only milk to a combination of formula and semi-solids was tough sha. It took about three weeks. Blind kids don't understand certain textures. Imagine your eyes shut, you don't know what's coming at you then instead of the bottle or your mum's nipple which you're used to, someone shoves a spoon of some gooey stuff in your mouth... She used to spit the thing into my face o!
NL: Hahahaha. Oh Nkiru...
NN: That's it really. No big 'challenges'. She's not walking yet so I don't have to lead her around, etc. It's still basic mothering 101 with emphasis on talking all the time, singing made-up songs, and letting Didi touch everything she comes across.

NL: Sounds like fun.
NN: Naomi, I will confess. I am having fun. Some people get uncomfortable when I say this but I've stopped caring. I am having a great time. Didi is fun to mother, I'm telling you... My mum was devastated for me you know. She thought it was the end of my life, thought I would never be happy. She cried all the time. And our conversations became tense because she wanted me to go seeking miracles and all of that. She's my mum who loves me, and all of that came from a good place but I couldn't handle it at a point. Every conversation became a potential minefield... I couldn't be myself around her because I was worried that she would think I was stupid to be happy.
NL: Who can blame her?
NN: I know!
NN: But we've come a long way from then.

NL: Family...
NN: One day after Didi and I returned form our last trip, mum was chatting with us on FaceTime and watching Didi do all her fun stuff, watching me play with her and having a good time. She went silent for a while and I thought the connection was broken. I turned back to my computer and there she was. Looking like she had just had an epiphany. "Nk'iru., you ARE happy". I laughed and said, "Mum, welcome to the truth". Or something Nk'iru-esque like that.
NN: And that was it o. Since then she has gone with the flow, has stopped worrying about Didi and is simply grateful for such a special grand-daughter. The other day she said to me, "I really envy you. I wish I was the one taking care of Didi".
NL: Hahaha. From time to time, you should ‘borrow’ Didi to her.
NN: Oh well, when Didi is a little older, they will have their time together.

NL: Great. You know I won't end this conversation without talking about Didi's father... Please tell me about this man that shed a tear. Like, an actual tear...
NN: Hahahaha. Yes o. An actual tear. I have not let him rest since then.
NN: Didi's dad is a gem, really. He's like one of the calmest people I know. He's so calm that when he isn't, I start panicking, thinking the world is about to end. The man was like my panadol, and I mean this o.
NL: LOL. How romantic.
NN: I had a headache from the moment Didi's pediatrician in Lagos told us there might be a problem with Didi's eyes. The headache was persistent until a few days after when 'Papa-Didi' arrived Lagos. Every time he was not physically in my presence, the headache returned.
NL: Aw...
NN: I had to be following the man around o. To avoid migraine.
NL: Wow! Hahahaha. My stomach hurts from 'too much laughing'
NN: But I'm serious o. His presence kept me sane.
NL: That's reassuring.
NN: One day after one of our hospital trips he said we had to make a promise to normalise our lives the following week. And that was what we did. He made sure I dressed up everyday, put on some make-up and wore my heels. Even if we were going to the local store.
NL: Oh wow!
NN: He took me to my favourite salad shop and we sat there acting like new lovers, chewing overpriced lettuces.
NL: Hahahaha.
NN: And we went hunting for household items that we still hadn't gotten. My mother in law, sister in law, my aunty, my friend - he would just say "Oya take care of Didi, we will be back soon", and we would just run off and drive around, laughing and playing. At the back of my mind, of course my baby's blindness still messed with my head… But Papa-Didi cautioned all the time that we must not let Didi's eye condition "take the juice out of us".
NL: And it easily could have.
NN: That clinched it for me. I didn't want to be dried out, neither did he. So we agreed that blindness was not enough to rob us of the joy that we had always had. Didi was an additional reason to be happy, blindness wouldn't change that. Naomi, that was it o. That was how I got my groove back, heh heh.
NL: My goodness. Thanks for sharing that. It was good to read.
NN: Thanks for 'listening', Naomi.

NL: Now imagine that you are standing in front of 200 women, mothers of special needs kids. What's that one thing you will tell them?
NN: Hmmm. I would simply say that a special-needs child is not a fake designer item that should affect your vanity. Your child is your child - given to the world through you. Don't let anybody make you feel dirty because you have a child that is not 'regular'. Please let me also add this - I was upset the day a well-meaning aunty told me to hurry up and have another child since "this one is like this". A special needs child IS a child. Not a 'near-child', not a 'thing' - a defective creation that should be 'replaced' by having another. Love your child.
NL: Thanks for your time Nkiru.
NN: Thanks Didi
Naomi, hahaha
NL: Hahaha. Bye.
NN: Bye.

When Nkiru talked about Didi's treatment here's what she meant: ...The expansion program that Didi is on. Because her eyes are tiny, her sockets are also small. To prevent her upper face from sinking in as her face grows, and to prepare her sockets for false eyes, the doctors have been fitting her sockets with something called 'expanders' - just some hard jelly like things which sit in her sockets for weeks, expanding them as her face expands. The expanders are taken out every eight weeks and replaced with a larger pair.
Didi has finished that stage and is now at he point when a pair of hard shells designed like the white of the normal human eye, is put into the sockets to 'finish' the expansion process. After these white shells are taken out, she will get her first pair of prosthetic eyeballs, Whoop whoop! The prostheses are merely cosmetic - meant to keep her face looking 'regular', so that her lids don't always droop and make her look asleep. 

Nk'iru. Njoku is a thirty-four year-old writer-director and producer. She works in television and lives in Lagos.


Francesca said...

This is the second time I'm reading about Nkiru and her amazing little girl. I think that she is very brave and totally awesome to share her story and all she has learnt from her experience.

Kash Badaru said...

Nkiru is lucky her daughter was born in this times when medicine and technology is advanced. My blind cousin in his 40s didn't have that luxury. He has such an amazing personality and spirit,half the time I forget he's blind. He sometimes makes me feel am the one with special needs. He tutors visually challenged people to use computers in London and owns an online radio station Please enjoy your truly amazing daughter Nkiru, believe me this learning/difficult phase would pass sooner than you think.

Shakara baby said...

I cried reading this interview. I just became a mum recently and I can't even describe how much I love my baby. Nkiru you are a special woman and your husband is a true man of God. I pray that God will continue to strengthen you and teach you to be the best parents to Didi. But you know what, I believe God and pray for a creative miracle for Didi today and I will put her in my prayers. God bless you Naomi for sharing.

Titilope Fashola said...

Nkiru, you are such an inspiration! Happiness is indeed a choice and Didi is as blessed to have you (both her parents) as you both are to have her. Cheers to a beautiful family!

Naomi Lucas said...

@Francesca, Oh yes she is. Thanks for reading!

Naomi Lucas said...

@Kash. I checked out Salt FM. Now I understand what you mean when you say he makes you feel like you are the one with special needs. I have been around Cobhams and felt the same way... All the best to your cousin!

Naomi Lucas said...

@Shakara baby, (LOL, what a name) I can relate somewhat. I don't have kids of my own but I do love kids and could just imagine Nkiru's initial heartbreak. But never under-estimate the human spirit; she bounced right back, and with a grin too :)

Naomi Lucas said...

@Titilope, thank you *On Nkiru's behalf* :D

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Bola Ogunmade said...

Just reading this after a year it was published. Fantastic. So natural, so true, so encouraging. I really appreciate Nkiru for being so true to herself, her family and the world at large. Keep on being a blessing to your generation and to Didi. The best is yet to come, cos she is created by God. Keep looking up to God. He wii perfect all that concerns her and us all as we keep trusting Him and keep forging ahead. Cheers.

Anonymous said...

Interesting that she didn't mention how she met 'Papa-Didi'. He is a married man.
This is so appalling, I sympathize with her about her daughters condition but one cannot help but wonder if this is retribution.