By Florence Amagiya
Dennis Akagha is the first Nigerian to have opened up after surviving the dreaded Ebola virus in Nigeria. It will be recalled that Justina Ejelonu, Akagha’s late fiancee was one of the nurses at the First Consultant Hospital, Lagos who admitted and treated Patrick Sawyer, the Liberian that brought the virus to Nigeria. Though Akagha has not been able to forget the demise of his would-have-been wife, he is picking the pieces of his life back and waxing strong. In a chat from his base outside the country, he talks about one year after he lost his fiancee, his present role as a social worker, helping humanity, amongst many other issues. Excerpts:
One year after suffering from Ebola and losing your fiancee, how has life been?
Life has been good and I want to thank God for that. I won’t say there have not been challenges but being able to face the challenges is what determines how far I am willing to go. People do say I am a strong man but I want to also state here that everyone can be as strong as they choose to be, depending on how they have built themselves over time. Everyone is responsible for themselves; in other words, no one can have faith or believe in you. I would say that God has been faithful in my life and the family he has blessed me with. If I was told some years back that I would go through what I went through, I would have strongly rejected it. All I wanted was to live a simple life, get married, have a regular job or business and raise a family but however, I met a lady who was so passionate about social work and affecting the lives of people positively. All I knew then was taught to me by her and we both appreciated that part of her. Though it is not easy accepting the fact that she is no more, the time we spent together was worth it and I know wherever she is now, she will be happy I am following the path she opened my eyes to. This doesn’t mean we didn’t have our own challenges as would-be couple; in fact when I remember how we use to quarrel, I just laugh because I miss those moments. Generally, life has been good and glory to God for that, and I know that where I am now is a smaller version of where God is taking me to. At least I am not where I used to be.
Have you been able to get a job?
I will always say this: Sometimes people don’t get to know their purpose in life until tragic events like what happened to me occur in their life. At this point of my life, I don’t think getting a job is my priority but using my life experience as a channel to touch other people’s lives. This might not sound nice but I don’t believe in accident or coincidence. I believe everything happens for a reason and maybe I am yet to know that reason but at the moment, I want to use my life as a channel to inspire hope and empower people, most especially those facing one health challenge or the other, to lead a fulfilled, productive and positive life. It may not be as easy as it seems from the beginning, because it will take a lot of sacrifice, pain, criticism and perseverance to accomplish the goals I have set for myself. Therefore, getting a job is no longer a priority.
What have you achieved now that you couldn’t have achieved if not for Ebola?
Well, I think Ebola gave me an opportunity to know where my strength lies and gave me a purpose-driven life. It gave me a platform to do whatever I am doing now – saving more lives, inspiring hope and empowering people to live a more positive life despite the challenges they may be going through. Life they say is never a bed of roses but one’s care, love and support to those who need them will make life a bed of roses to lie on. The road may not be smooth but I strongly believe that with God’s help and also people who want to use their resources as a channel to create the change they want to see, things will definitely fall into place.
At the moment you are out of the country for a training; what are your plans when you come back?
Well, I will prefer not to say anything regarding whatever plans I have for now. I believe with time, every plan I have will come to limelight. All I have to say is that my passion for social work took me out of the country and you will agree with me that no man goes to the farm without a hoe and cutlass. There is need to acquire more knowledge in preparation for the task ahead which I believe is the most important thing for me now.
What good did surviving Ebola did for you?
I don’t understand what you mean by your question; however, Ebola brought pain and tears which I am still struggling to let go. Maybe I can also say Ebola showed me who my true friends are.
Would you advise anybody to go for nursing considering what happened to your late fiancee?
Honestly, if I have my way, I will go back to the university to study nursing. I love the profession and will always respect them. Funny enough, my stepmother is a retired nurse and my late fiancee was also a nurse, to tell you how much I love the profession. I will advise anyone who wants to take up such profession to go ahead as long as they are passionate about it.
What’s the relationship like today between your late fiancee’s family and you?
One word to describe it – awesome! I am now their son by adoption. (Laughs.)
You promised to do something in your late fiancee’s memory the last time we spoke; what have you been able to achieve in that regard?
That still remains my top priority but honestly, you don’t jump into water you haven’t swum before without understudying the depth of the water or else you will get drowned. As much as I am so passionate about social work and giving back to society, I need the right tools in form of knowledge gained to make it work. I need to gain that credibility and that doesn’t happen in a twinkle of an eye but built over time. To be able to see the change I envisioned, I must first be changed within and without.
How do people react to you since you survive Ebola?
The reception has been okay unlike when it was fresh. You don’t blame people, rather you blame the system for not properly disseminating the right information. I could remember vividly some days before I was taken into the Ebola isolation ward, my younger sister woke me up very early and was telling me to bath and drink salt water, that they just heard the news of fighting Ebola with salt. I could remember coming out of my compound and seeing children running away from the same uncle they always wanted to be with. I could remember travelling all the way from Lagos to Port Harcourt to visit some friends and one in particular pretended he was out of town just to avoid seeing me. I could remember coming out of my compound only to meet a crowd on my street discussing me and how I should not be allowed to continue living in my compound. It takes someone with a positive mental attitude to fight stigma even with people living with HIV/AIDS, and that is why I will always say that issues relating to stigmatization and discrimination of people living with HIV/AIDS have not been fully explored for them to be fully embraced and reintegrated into the society. Well, that is a foregone story now and the situation had changed before I left the country. However, I don’t think I care about what people say or do anymore because whatever they say doesn’t define who I am. Let me also use this medium to encourage those who are being stigmatized or thrown out of jobs because they are HIV+. Being HIV+ is never a death sentence and you can still live a normal life and even live longer than someone who is free from the virus.
Since your recovery, a lot of people must have touched your life one way or the other; who do you want to appreciate, given the opportunity?
First and foremost, I will always be grateful to God for sparing my life. My regards and appreciation go to the Lagos State Government for the love and support they gave every one of us who went through that ordeal. I am also grateful to my late fiancee’s family and her elder sister in particular; till date, she remains one of the reasons I am strong. Words will fail me to describe the love, care and support this family gave me even after the demise of their daughter. I also want to appreciate my family, my stepmother whose prayers and love saw me through that trying period – I so much appreciate them. To Nigerians who prayed for me during my trying times, I want to also appreciate them. To Nursing World, which is currently running a scholarship project with the name Justina Obioma Ejelonu. I am indeed indebted to them and finally to my colleagues here at Kanthari, an international institute for social visionaries, here in my base.