I aim to be first visually-impaired Miss Nigeria – Rivers beauty queen
Despite being visually-impaired, 21-year-old Favour Rufus won Port Harcourt City Beauty Pageant in 2022, beating 17 other girls to the crown. She speaks to GODFREY GEORGE about her motivation and struggles
You recently won the Port Harcourt City Beauty Pageantry. How does that feel for you as a visually-impaired person?
Sincerely, I must say, first, that I am absolutely grateful that I was able to contest and win the crown. The reason I contested was not just to win the crown but to bring hope and light to every Nigerian out there living with visual impairment. Nigerians are living in very difficult times. It is double for persons who are blind. We have been condemned, especially when it has to do with beauty pageantry and the like.There are no privileges for persons like me who are facing one form of disability or the other. It is like we are second-class citizens and are not cared about by society. Even after I won the crown, I must say life has not been easy. I cannot point to anything that has put a massive smile on my face other than the fact that I was able to inspire people. The only thing that gives me hope for living and strength for every day is when I go on social media and see prayers from people who draw hope from my experiences.
I see people say things like, “I lost hope in God but because of what God did for you, I now have faith.” Every morning, my mum tells me it is going to be a better day. Those are the only things giving me the strength to survive. The government and society are not doing anything for people like me. To date, even as a beauty queen, I still face difficulties in society.
What motivated you to participate in the beauty pageantry or was it always your dream to be a beauty queen?
Nobody told me about the pageantry. It was just something I thought about as a girl. From childhood, I have always wanted to be a superstar, but when this issue happened, it slowed my pace down. I got to understand that blind people are not being treated nicely by society. I just want to be an advocate for people like me. I want to voice out my passion so people who are blind like me can believe more in themselves. I did a lot of research and I just told myself that I think I needed to go for the beauty pageantry. I wanted to tell the story of my life on stage. I also found out that it is not recorded anywhere that a blind girl contested and won a beauty contest as big as the one I won. I just knew that I wanted to break a record for myself, my country and for people like me. My aim is to take it beyond Port Harcourt. I aim to be the first blind girl to be Miss Nigeria in the future. I want to stand for people like me, telling them that there is ability in disability. Everybody has a disability, be it financial, emotional or physical. Because someone cannot see, walk, hear or talk doesn’t mean they are not human or part of society. We just need a helping hand to be better people in society.
How were you able to perfect your catwalk and other routines while in the boot camp?
It was difficult for me to navigate the boot camp, honestly. Learning the catwalk was a bit challenging for me. It was also financially draining. For instance, my mum had to run around to get more money to get my dresses and make-up ready. She had to make sure everything was in place. My mum is an amazing person. She will stay without clothes to see me shine, if she has to. She feels good when people compliment my beauty. During the grand finale of the show, she didn’t even wear a fancy dress. She told me that the greatest gift I could give her was to win, and I did, and it was such a proud moment for her.
When I got to camp alongside other girls, it was interesting. At first, I felt the coldness towards me, like I was not supposed to be there. But later on, a few of them came around. I got to learn a lot of things and I made a lot of friends there. I made sisters. I had an amazing roommate, who became my sister. I had a lot of trust issues at that time but she made me trust her so much. Being visually-impaired in the midst of those girls was very depressing sometimes because they said things not minding if it was hurting or killing my inspiration. I would be right there with them and they’d say very hurtful things as if I was not there but I didn’t let it get to me. I just kept pushing. All I could hear then in my head was, “You are doing this for yourself and all persons who are like you.” That was what pushed me to win.
When I think of my mum and all she had to go through, I tell myself that I wouldn’t give up. Waking up early to learn catwalk was not easy at all.
Had you been modelling before going for the beauty pageantry?
No, I hadn’t. The contest was my first attempt at modelling and beauty pageantry. It was all new to me but I knew I had to make it. In fact, after the beauty pageantry, I had so many blisters and couldn’t feel my feet for some days but I knew it was worth it.
Were you born blind?
I wasn’t born blind. It just happened unfortunately when I was six years old. I just realised one day that I couldn’t see clearly. It was like there was a cloud over my eyes. I couldn’t see far objects, and the situation kept getting worse. One day, one of my classmates, during extramural classes, asked for a ruler and I gave it to him. He then told me to turn around and take the ruler from him not knowing that it was pointed directly to my eyes. It apparently cut my right eye and I started bleeding. One thing about the human eye is that anything that happens to one affects the other. That injury to one eye affected the other eye. At first, we didn’t really think it was such a serious issue. Besides, we didn’t even have enough money. My mum is a single mother, hustling for survival and paying the bills. Dad has not really been there and doesn’t even want to be there.
By the time we went to the hospital, the left eye, which had glaucoma, had ‘gone off’ – I had lost it. Then the doctor told me that the right one that bled after the ruler incident was also going to ‘go off’ any moment because it had less than two per cent functionality left. He (the doctor) likened it to a candle that could go off anytime. It had also been affected by glaucoma.
What was the experience like for you transitioning from being a fully-sighted young girl to a visually-impaired one?
It was a terrible experience for me. I was only six. I felt bad. There were times I felt like I was a different child in the midst of other normal children. There were times that I’d go behind the class and sob. They didn’t understand why I was always singing and crying in class. It was a way of consoling myself. Whilst other pupils could sit wherever they liked and they’d see the board, I might have to go up to one inch close to the board before I could see a letter or two, and even so, everything would be blurry. At a point, it became frustrating. I became a subject of mockery and I was bullied by other kids. Most times, they’d make fun of me, asking me if I could see something from afar, knowing full well that I couldn’t see it.
Teachers were also not as understanding as they should’ve been. They would beat me for the slightest reason, thinking I just didn’t want to be active in class. I was always the best in my class before the incident, so it was shocking to me that people who once celebrated me were the ones who caused me pain just because I couldn’t see. There were times I felt very depressed but I drew strength from my mum and my music.
Was it difficult for you to make friends as a child?
I was a jovial child. I was very active and energetic. It has somehow followed me into adult life. I always want to know people. Even when I don’t know someone, I am really friendly around them like we have known one another for a long time.
Did you go to a regular school or a school for the blind?
First, I did go to the school for the blind in Abia State, which was not healthy, and it didn’t help me mentally at all.
How do you mean?
The school was like a dumping ground, where parents bring their blind kids and just dump them there and move on. Most parents have forgotten their kids there and that is like their home. They don’t go home. They stay there. So many bad things going on there. They gave us rotten food. The teachers maltreated us. The place was dirty. You cannot imagine the amount of dirt we had to consume in the name of being served food on a daily basis. I got badly infected that I was rushed to a clinic. My mother had to rush down from Port Harcourt to withdraw me from the school. I then got admitted into a rehabilitation centre, The Lens Eye Clinic, Port Harcourt, Rivers State.
How was your experience at TLEC?
It was beautiful. It was not a rehab for me; it was a home. From the owner of the rehab to the students, everything was amazing. It didn’t take me long to begin to read and write with Braille. They also taught us how to socialise and adapt to social issues; how to defend ourselves and discover the real us. It was there that I knew that I loved journalism and want to share my story and use it to inspire a greater generation.
After I left TLEC, I went to a regular secondary school in Port Harcourt, and I was the oldest in the class. I was the first ever blind girl in the school and I was the oldest in my class. I was 16 years old then. I didn’t want to go but my mum insisted, pointing to the fact that I would still meet sighted people in the real world. I managed to go but it was embarrassing. The kids there made fun of me, and taunted me. My proprietor was on my neck, making me feel so bad. My mum kept pushing and I graduated just recently. All this has made me believe that every one of us has our own personal races to run. Funnily enough, I was the best in my class and got one of the best results in my West African Senior School Certificate Examination.
Did you go on to a tertiary institution?
I didn’t. I told my mum that I didn’t want to go to a formal university. I want to attend a journalism or broadcast academy, where I can be taught journalism and media studies, but I don’t have the funds to pursue it for now. Blind education can be very expensive. If you see a blind person in in school just know their pockets and bank accounts are bleeding for them to be there.
Apart from what the doctors said when you were eight, have there been other medical and non-medical interventions?
My mother and I never wanted to do surgery, not because we didn’t want me to see again but as of that time, many doctors told us not to do the surgery in Nigeria. This is because if we had done it then, it was and still is a 50-50 chance, and we didn’t have the money to go abroad. She explained this to me and I understood. Then, the wait began. We started to wait and hoping. Now, we just use eye drops, which are expensive but what do we do? We are managing and coping. It has been financially draining. My mum is a single mum. I am a girl child. I have other needs. There is no job my mother has not done to make sure I lack nothing. From being a cook to a cleaner to a nanny; what has she not done to take care of my needs? Going for this beauty pageantry hurt her life savings but she wanted to put a smile on my face, and I am eternally grateful to God.
As for non-medical intervention, I can tell you for a fact that there is no church that we know that we have not both gone to in search of healing and miracle. I remember one time, one friend of my mum’s came and said there was a church where the pastor could see into the future and could heal people. We went there but nothing happened. I don’t want to begin to mention names of places we went in search of a miracle. We have been almost everywhere. One day, my mum sat down and told me that she heard a voice that told her to stop taking me about for healing and rather concentrate on how to make my life better with the disability. That was when we stopped, and that was also when my joy began to come back. God has been faithful and He will heal me whenever and wherever He wishes.
When you won the beauty pageantry, apart from the prize money and the crown; did you get any government recognition?
None that I know of. In fact, when I tried to see the Governor of Rivers State, Chief Nyesom Wike, the people who work for him refused to let me through. I have even tried to see his wife and the deputy governor but their staff keeps tossing me about, thinking I am going there to beg. It is sad. They ask me who I know.
It is annoying that people see the impairment first before seeing the potential of the person. It can only get worse for people who do not have the platform that I have and who may not get to talk to the press. It is a crazy world out there.
Do you still hope that you will see one day?
I still pray and hope that I’d just sleep and wake up, finding that all this is a dream. I want to see my face again. I want to see my mother. I don’t know what she looks like and it breaks me every day.