In a world dominated by multiple manifestations of human weakness, it is truly inspiring to see an individual rise above tragic circumstances that would have crushed many others.
That individual is Kechi Okwuchi, one of just two survivors in the 2005 Sosoliso Airlines plane crash which claimed 107 lives in Port Harcourt, Rivers State.
Ms. Okwuchi is a contestant on America’s Got Talent, a popular reality show, where she thrilled the judges and the audience with her rendition of Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud”.
Singing with a face and arms still heavily-scarred from horrific burns, plagued by natural anxieties like any other contestant, and performing live in front of thousands in the audience and millions across the United States, she gave a magnificent performance that resulted in a standing ovation.
Ms. Okwuchi witnessed the death of her best friend in the Sosoliso crash. She has undergone more than 100 surgical procedures, including several delicate skin-grafting operations.
She has had to endure a heart-breaking alteration in her physical appearance, as well as the psychological trauma inherent in a near-death experience.
Yet she has not allowed her very real problems and challenges to weigh her down to the extent of being unable to live life to the fullest. She went back to school, got a First Class degree from an American university and is preparing for graduate school.
This is an exemplification of the indomitable nature of the human spirit. It is what powered path-breaking discoveries in different areas of human endeavour, and has animated the world’s freedom fighters, from Gandhi through Martin Luther King to Nelson Mandela.
In Nigeria, it is what has made average citizens perpetually optimistic and eternally hopeful, in spite of the harsh living conditions in which they live.
Ms. Okwuchi has not let the circumstances of her life overcome her. She has not let her situation define her. She has refused to become a recluse and hide away from the world, wrapped up in comfortable self-pity.
Instead, she is stepping out and confronting life on her own terms. As her performance at America’s Got Talent has shown, her courage, perseverance and ability have met with the approval and applause they so richly deserve.
There are lessons for Nigeria in all this. Perhaps the most obvious is that of never looking down upon or dismissing those who suffer from life’s tragedies. This country is full of physically-handicapped citizens who have no option other than to take up begging to survive.
The highways and roads are replete with individuals whose physical impairments have come to define them and, by so doing, reduced their innate humanity.
Cultural concerns also conspire to negatively affect the way Nigerians regard people who suffer from the vicissitudes of life. Self-conscious families would have ensured that such individuals are hidden away from society; their sense of shame is somehow more important than the proper socialisation of handicapped family members.
Then there is the absence of infrastructural backup designed to make life easier for citizens who are handicapped or are suffering from chronic or long-term health conditions.
Few public buildings or schools have disabled-access facilities; visually-handicapped students find it extremely difficult to study alongside their able-bodied colleagues; physically-handicapped citizens are rarely employed, regardless of how well-qualified they may be.
The fact that Ms. Okwuchi had to relocate to the United States in order to live a full life does not speak well of Nigeria. In spite of all its pretensions to religious belief, this is simply not the kind of country that can succour the most vulnerable of its citizens.
If this harsh reality is to change for the better, Nigeria must first undergo attitudinal change of the most profound kind.
Rather than celebrate compatriots who achieve greatness in other lands, more effort must be devoted towards ensuring that the conditions needed to excel are provided at home.