Philomena Orji is Helen Keller Intl’s Country Director in Nigeria, where she oversees our initiatives to eliminate malnutrition and diseases of poverty. Her 15-year career in global health has prioritized empowering vulnerable communities with access to sustainable, quality health solutions that improve lives and deliver lasting change.
We spoke to Philomena recently about the challenges Helen Keller Intl faces in her home country of Nigeria, including the COVID-19 crisis, and the power of hope.
Q: What is Nigeria like? What challenges does Helen Keller Intl face in Nigeria?
A: My home, Nigeria, is the most populous country in Africa. There is a saying that if Nigeria sneezes, the rest of Africa catches a cold. If you’ve ever visited, you know what we’re like. Nigerians are known for being really energetic, really vibrant, and very connected to each other. We are a “we” culture.
We’re the kind of people who drop in to say hello without calling first. Nigerians like to stop and chat with our neighbors. The strict “stay at home” measures the government put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have been hard for us.
We’re also a country with tremendous poverty and very limited access to health care in many areas. Giving birth in my country carries enormous risk. Many women die during childbirth. Being a parent takes bravery. Many parents see their children die before their fifth birthday.
Many Nigerians also suffer from neglected tropical diseases that are pretty rare in other countries, like blinding trachoma, which causes great suffering and robs people of their ability to earn income and fulfill their potential. Although trachoma is preventable, it is far too common here. In its final stage, it causes a painful condition called trichiasis, which causes the eyelid to turn inward and the lashes to scrape and scar the cornea. If untreated, it leads to blindness.
Q: How is Helen Keller overcoming these challenges? Is your work delivering results?
A: I want to share a story that demonstrates why Helen Keller’s work in Nigeria matters.
Nasiru is a 40-year-old father of six in Katsina state, who developed trachoma when he was just a teenager. We met him through our neglected tropical disease program and the efforts of our community volunteers–called case finders.
When we met Nasiru, we learned that he had lived for 25 years, the majority of his life, with the constant fear of going blind. He told us he had constant eye pain. His impaired vision and the pain forced him to stop working as a subsistence farmer. His six children and extended family suffered, too, and slipped deeper into poverty. Every day was a struggle to meet their basic needs: How would the family eat? How would they survive?
Then, something happened that changed everything for Nasiru and his children.
Last July, through our program, Nasiru underwent a simple surgery to correct his trichiasis. Our amazing team told him that the surgery had very high rates of success.
Often, the people with trachoma whom our programs benefit are scared by the idea of undergoing surgery. But their lives have been so marred by the disease, they are willing to do almost anything that might bring them relief.
When Nasiru learned he had an opportunity to save his sight through the surgery, he said yes. He was willing to try.
His surgery was successful. Today, his eyesight is much better. And he is no longer in tremendous pain.
He is working again. He told our team that he feels like a new person: lively, believing in the goodness in our world, feeding his family. His children are thriving. With a single surgery, we changed the lives of seven people. I got into public health in the first place because of people like Nasiru.
I feel lucky that my job enables me to witness firsthand the power of humanity to remove barriers to potential.Philomena Orji
I’m proud of what we’ve been able to do so far. In Nigeria alone, my staff has provided treatment to tens of millions of people suffering from disabling diseases. We have performed thousands of trachoma surgeries. Our work has also reached millions of children with lifesaving vitamin A supplements that strengthen their immune systems and prevent blindness.
But there’s so much more that we can and must do. We’ve set a goal to eliminate trachoma and other neglected tropical diseases in Nigeria. That means finding a way to reach every corner of the country.
Q: As you said, Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa. Where does Helen Keller have programs, and are there places where the needs for your life-changing health solutions are particularly great?
A: The communities in which we deliver programs are diverse. They range from Adamawa and Borno States in the northeast, to Katsina in the northwest, Nasarawa in the center, Lagos in the southwest, and Akwa Ibom in the far south.
By far the most challenging is our work in the northeast. Northeast Nigeria is experiencing an extended civil conflict that has displaced millions of people from their homes, destroyed health centers, disrupted farms and markets, and triggered a near-famine in 2018. In Adamawa and Borno states, we deliver programs to improve the health and nutrition of internally displaced people living in temporary camps. We also work with people living in host communities. Scarce resources have been strained to the breaking point by the influx of families seeking refuge from violence.
In some of our program areas, the threat of attacks limits our team’s ability to safely deliver assistance to communities in need. To get access to people in insecure areas, we must often obtain permission from the Nigerian army or travel under the protection of military escorts. The only way to reach some areas is by helicopter because it is too dangerous to travel by road.
We follow the security situation very, very closely and comply with humanitarian principles. And we improvise our approach. We engage local community members so that they, who already live in the area and are trusted by their own neighbors, can distribute medications to treat diseases like blinding trachoma.
Bulama Modu is one of our community volunteers. He worked as a teacher before violence forced him to flee his home. Now he lives in a displaced persons’ camp where it’s safer. He helps organize our mass drug administrations, where we can reach thousands in a period of days with lifesaving medications and immune-building vitamins.
He became a champion of our work after our team provided medication to his eight-year-old son and helped him recover from frequent bouts of illness. Today, Bulama helps thousands of kids like his own to get better and look toward the possibility of a long, healthy life ahead.
Q: Why did Helen Keller Intl choose to work in such difficult conditions in northeast Nigeria?
A: Yes, some people may indeed wonder why we go to such lengths.
It’s because that’s where the need is. Before the emergence of COVID-19, over 35 percent of health facilities in the affected states of Borno, Adamawa and Yobe were damaged as a result of conflict.
The pandemic has also significantly disrupted vaccination campaigns and other essential health services for children and other vulnerable groups in inaccessible areas. We are committed to finding ways to deliver assistance and life-changing health solutions even in these challenging circumstances.
Across Nigeria, an estimated 2 million children under the age of five are currently suffering from severe acute malnutrition, a life-threatening condition requiring urgent therapeutic treatment.
Q: What inspires you to face these challenges and believe you can overcome them?
A: If Helen Keller were alive today, she wouldn’t let these families be forgotten, and neither should we.
I first learned about Helen when I was a student. I picked up a biography of her in my school library in southeastern Nigeria, and I was amazed to learn how brave she was. Her story struck a chord with me.
And today, I’m committed to continuing her work to achieve a world without barriers to sight, health, and human potential.
Through the commitment of my team, and the generosity of our supporters, vulnerable families in Nigeria have a crucial safety net. They have the tools and resources they need not only to survive hardship, but also to rebuild their lives, fuel their hope, and move toward a more secure future.
Together, we can ensure that the families we serve here and around the world know that even in the midst of the current crisis – and especially in the midst of the current crisis – they will not be neglected or forgotten. Together, we will all stay strong. Hope and hardship exist side by side. But hope and community can transform the world.