It Was a Grand Moment Seeing UNIJOS Classmates 20 Years After – Rivers Man Battling Mental Illness

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JANET OGUNDEPO writes about how alumni of the University of Jos reunited with a classmate who has been mentally unstable for over 20 years

The song, “Friends are friends forever…,” by an American singer, Michael Smith, captures the love and joy of friendship some alumni of the University of Jos, Plateau State, showed to a former classmate, Mr Minabelem Hilary, after over 20 years of separation.

Their kind gesture drew emotions from the eyes of many in Bakana, Rivers State, and online communities who saw the viral video of how Hilary reunited with his friends and classmates who left their homes in Abuja and Rivers State to celebrate Valentine’s Day with him. They took turns to hug him despite his current state.

Hilary was said to have exbited signs of mental illness on the day of his master’s project defence.

The alumni, specifically the master’s class of 2001, traced him across the river to Bakana, where he hails from. And after spending some time with him and obtaining permission from his relative, they took him to a psychiatry hospital in Rumuigbo, Port Harcourt, and paid for his treatment and admission to a private ward.

One of them, Mr Suleiman Ibrahim, told Saturday PUNCH that reuniting with his long-time friend and classmate, after about 21 years of separation drew tears from his eyes.

“After that embrace, I was just crying,” was all he could mutter while speaking on the euphoria of reuniting with him.

Recalling what happened a few days to the defence day, Ibrahim said, “When we were in school, he was brilliant. He made second class (upper division) during our first degree. Our course (Architecture) then required that one followed up with a master’s degree immediately. A few days to the eve of our defence of our master’s degree, I didn’t know what happened, but he came to school one day and was speaking incoherently.  One of my friends, who is now late, Samson, discovered that Hilary, who was always serious with his academics, was not concentrating on finishing his drawing for his final defence. We also noticed he was doing unusual things, so Samson and myself completed the drawing for him. During those times, we still had normal conversations but whenever we asked why he didn’t want to complete his work, he would say ‘leave that one’ but we were not too sure what was wrong then. When we finished the drawing for him, we followed him for his defence. He presented the drawing normally and after that started questioning the competence of the professor who was to examine him. The professor then ordered him out and called on the next student. It was then I finally knew something was wrong.”

Ibrahim said that immediately he sourced funds for Hilary to travel to Lagos where his parents stayed at the time, stating that he couldn’t accompany him because the fare was not enough for both of them.

He added that some weeks later, he was told by one of their juniors in the department, who lived in the same area with Hilary in Lagos then, that he arrived home safely.

The reunion

Ibrahim further said the reunion started when they met Hillary on Valentine’s Day.

He stated, “When we got there, he was tattered and the people in the village said he would not agree to change his clothes. I told them that he would change it since I am his friend. I told him to go and have his bath and change into new clothes. He agreed, the people there were surprised. We went to a boutique to buy clothes and Sandra Braide was able to locate a neuropsychiatric hospital where we took him to. The doctor said his condition was not too bad but only that he was left for too long and the medication would be a lifetime thing. Once he gets out of this stage and continues to use his drug, with proper orientation, he would be better.

“After we left the hospital, we lodged in a hotel, slept on the same bed and held a conversation coherently for a long time. I noticed if he was speaking with me, his memories seem to be okay. Even the doctor said his memory was tied to our good times together. We slept, though he slept fitfully. I persuaded him to go to the saloon to have a haircut and to shave his beards and he agreed. I suggested he cut his hair the way he usually styled it and he was surprised I remember and agreed to do so.’’

Happy moment

Following the visit to Hilary, Ibrahim said that other alumni began to be involved and offered to help Hilary.

Ibrahim added, “He put me in tears for years. I have always wept for him. My greatest prayer is that something comes out of this and that God replaces all he has lost. He is intelligent and a nice person.”

He said he and Hilary had planned to establish an architecture firm while in school, disclosing that Hilary remembered the name when they met.

Ibrahim also said he was the one who introduced Sandra to Hilary in school one day, when he knew they were from the same hometown (Bakana).

In her comment, the Entrepreneurship Chairperson, University of Jos Alumni, Mrs Sandra Braide, who initiated the reunion, said the moment was an endearing one and a fulfilment of the promise she made to Hilary that Ibrahim would visit him.

Sandra said, “Hilary is from my hometown and whenever I go to the village, I see him often. Whenever we see, he would ask, have you heard from Suleiman (Ibrahim)? He would also ask me about other persons. We have a normal conversation and people begin to wonder why I was speaking with him. He came to the house once he saw me. I would serve him food and drinks and we held conversations. If not that his clothes were dirty, one would not know whether he was mentally disturbed or not.

“Whenever we talked, I always called Suleiman to give feedback that I had met Hilary. He would request that I send him a picture of Hilary and promised to come around to see him. We went to school in Jos which is outside our environment and when one meets someone that comes from one’s village, such a person is like one’s family member. Everyone in his class knew me as Hilary’s sister.

“About three weeks before Valentine’s Day, Suleiman called to say he would visit Hilary that day. I laughed and asked if they wouldn’t be spending the day with their wives. He responded that the class had nominated two of them, Arthur Ogbuegbulu, to go to Port Harcourt to see him.

They flew in around 1pm because their flight was delayed and so we went together to the area where I usually see him. He wasn’t there so we went around asking for him and we eventually met him. They could not believe that he still knew everyone as he called everyone by their names. Arthur wore a fez cap and he said he couldn’t recognise him while he had his cap on so he asked that he removed it. Immediately he did, he shouted his name, ‘Arthur.’

“We then told him that we came because of him and he should take us to his family’s house.  We didn’t meet anyone there but a lady who asked that we should wait for her father to return so we could get permission from him.’’

Sandra added that after waiting for some time, a man said to be Hilary’s uncle came and granted them permission to take him for treatment.

She stated that their first stop after leaving the riverine area of Bakana late in the evening, was to a psychiatry hospital in Port Harcourt. She added that Hilary answered the doctor’s questions correctly and only missed out on his year of birth.

Sandra noted, “The doctor said it is an inherited lifetime illness. But that if he continued with his medications with constant care, he would live normally and be able to work. He was asked whether he had used drugs such as Tramadol but he disclosed that he had only used paracetamol. We notice that it’s only when he is hungry that he gets angry and talks on and on.”

Bakana resident’s speak about Hilary

A chef and resident of Bakana identified only as Eldaah, said he knew Hilary by his nickname, 50cent, and that he helped him with his drawing assignments.

Eldaah said, “The first time I got convinced that he was intelligent despite his state was during a voter’s card registration a few years ago. The man in charge of  registering us talked about wanting to build a house and 50cent who was close by said, “I sabi draw oo.” The man gave him a pen and paper and he neatly sketched a three-bedroom floor plan. He only made a mistake on his placement of the window of the visitors’ toilet and I corrected it.

50cent then asked me if I do plans too. Since then, I have given him assignments to help me sketch before I transfer them to my main pad. He does them well. All I have to do is buy him whatever food he wants and he plays basketball too.”

Besides, an engineer and wife to an indigene of Bakana, identified only as Star, also said Hilary was known as 50cent in the area.

Star said, “I usually see him whenever I visit Bakana. What caught my attention was how he speaks fluently despite his looks. I asked my husband what happened to him and he said the guy was on his master’s and suddenly went out and he has been mentally unstable since then.’’

Speaking about the issue, the South-South Zonal Coordinator of the UNIJOS Alumni, Mr Tonye Dagogo, commended the gesture, adding that plans were underway to ensure Hilary got a job once he was stable.

Dagogo said, “Hilary’s state is not drug-related. He is someone I knew while I was in university. I graduated in 2000 while Hilary, who studied Architecture, was supposed to graduate in 2001. Unfortunately at the point where he was to defend his masters’ thesis, he became mentally ill. He is a jovial, humorous and kind person.”

He explained that of the three alumni who visited Hilary, two of them, Arthur and Suleiman, were Hilary’s classmates who flew in from Abuja. He added that Sandra was the one who told him of the visit.

Dagogo added, “Apart from his rehabilitation, we are also thinking of his future. This gesture was initiated by his former classmates but the visit involved other alumni members outside his group. Sandra is not an Architecture graduate. She represented UNIJOS Rivers chapter and the South-South so it is also an alumni visit.”

He further stated that contributions for Hilary had been expanded, urging that contributions should be directed to the Rivers Alumni chapter’s account since Bakana is in Rivers State.

Dagogo noted that the alumni association had welfare packages for members having any form of celebrations or battling challenges. He stated, “We also try as much as possible to encourage vibrancy and inclusion of all members in all zones. During the lockdown, we had some palliative packages for JOSITEs in my zone. Also, we’ve had entrepreneurship and start-ups schemes for some members who were unemployed through the gracious contributions of buoyant members.’’

Hilary’s response

Speaking with our correspondent on the telephone on Thursday from the Nze Special Care Limited where he was receiving extensive care, Hilary said he was doing fine.

Hilary, who would clock 50 in April, said, “I am doing fine. It was a grand moment seeing people that I saw a long time ago. I saw them last over 20 years ago. In all honesty, I feel elated. I wasn’t expecting them to reach where I was but they came.’’

Sandra also told Saturday PUNCH that they asked Hilary why he was called 50cent in Bakana and he stated, “I like a lot of rap.”

She added, “He is doing better today (Thursday) than yesterday (Wednesday) when he looked weak. He is now getting used to the environment since he has stayed here for two days.”

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