By Abdelghaffar Amoka, PhD.
Have you ever wondered why I blink rapidly while talking to you sometimes? Welcome to my world, the world of stammerers. I realised I was a stammerer while growing up, and I tried to devise ways to handle it. It is there, but I think mine is not very chronic. I tried to adopt some steps to cope with it. For example, while in primary and secondary schools, I avoided asking questions in class. Though, considered a good student, I avoided getting involved in school debate competitions, etc. Until recently, I do not ask questions in large meetings and gatherings; I instead keep quiet. Sometimes, I wondered how my voice sounds to the hearing of the people. I was afraid of listening to my voice for fear of losing my words while talking, I tried to talk fast, and I got used to it.
I was in a lecture theatre teaching Physics sometime in 2007 or so and trying to explain a concept. Then I observed something strange after talking for a while, and I stopped. Everyone was looking at me. I was like, what is the problem? Then, one of the students said, “Sir! You can rap.” And, the students and I started laughing. I honestly didn’t realise I was talking that fast, and I was glad the student was bold enough to point that out.
I didn’t realise the challenges of stammering till sometime in 1986 (I was in Primary 6) when I had an issue with my classmate, who was also a family friend. We were called to narrate what happened, and I was so angry that I lost my words. The words got stuck and refused to come, so I could not tell my own side of the story. I opened my mouth several times, and the words refused to come. I find myself smiling each time I thought of that incident. I still find it unbelievable.
Stammerers in childhood are very concerned with other people’s opinions about them. In some cases, they fight to free themselves from bullying. They have difficulty in letting go of their speech. That introduces emotion into their character. Emotional responses to situations and events exist in most humans, but they are triggered more easily in stammerers. They have a great deal of misinformation about what constitutes acceptable speaking behaviour. It is seen as okay for someone else to speak forcefully and dynamically. Still, when the stammerer speaks with any aliveness in their voice, they are perceived as coming off too strong and too overpowering.
I have this colleague who always judges me before listening to me. He is always like: “Abdel, your problem is that you are too emotional”. To him, it is always my fault even though he was not there and emotions were not involved. Even at this, the passionate ones fight the frustrations and still want to be heard at all costs.
Stammerers see life as a performance. This is related to their need to please others. They are afraid to make mistakes because of how they might be judged. That made it difficult for them to take up responsibility. Just like me, they run away from it. Even with all the emotions surrounding stammering, I hate to pick up a fight. Not for fear of getting beaten but as a child, I don’t want to get into a fight because I do not want to get into my dad’s trouble. As an adult, I don’t want to get into a row being a bodybuilder. I am not sure of what the built arm could do! So I express the way I feel, air my opinion, and it ends there.
Academia is a place that brings about all classes of people, and among them are stammerers. It is one unique society that brings together great minds. The beauty of academia is that there is always an idea to discuss with the great minds around you. While I was at NTNU, Trondheim as a research fellow, the research group members (Elkraft) come out to eat together during (lunch) break. The Professors, Research Fellows, and the PhD students of the research group eat together at the same table.
I initially don’t join them because I was not used to having lunch by 11 am, their lunch break. They expressed their displeasure not seeing me at the table, and I had to join their 11 am lunch. I use to make pancakes that I take out for lunch. I found eating together fun. That is the only time they discuss topics outside academic and research. And there is always something new to take away after lunch. That is the power of associating with great minds.
This quote is commonly attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt: “Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, and small minds discuss people. While the academia in Nigeria is blessed with some great minds, small minds also found their way to that society meant for great minds. Rather than discussing ideas, they make their colleagues their subjects of discussion.
For example, I know I am a stammerer, and I know I am naturally emotional. I know I talk forcefully with an accompanied facial expression. It is OK if you don’t like it. As a matter of fact, you don’t have to like it. But we should talk about it as colleagues if you don’t like it rather than making it a subject of discussion elsewhere. We also have cases of lecturers blackmailing their colleagues to younger colleagues and students. They find reasons to demonise them. Why getting involved in character assassination when you can easily reach out to the colleague to engage him. Your perception and what you heard about him maybe a misconception.
Dear colleagues in academia, you are working with people of various backgrounds and characteristics to pursue truth. We don’t have to like each other. We don’t have to be friends. But we must respect each other and work together to achieve the mission and vision of the university. That is the ultimate goal. Let’s engage ourselves with an open mind; society looks up to us to shape the world. Try to know a bit about your colleagues. Stammerers have difficulty in letting go, not just in their words but across the board. They have difficulty in letting go of what they feel and in what they are willing to risk. There are other people around you with other specific characteristics. You need to understand them.
To colleagues and friends with unique characteristics like stammerers, don’t give in to bullying and blackmailing at the workplace and everywhere. Believe in yourself and your capabilities. Side talks in a place like academia are disappointing, but never let it bother you. Please take it as a part of life. Don’t join words with small minds. Be the great mind that you are supposed to be.
Dr Abdelghaffar Amoka is a lecturer from the Department of Physics, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Nigeria.