Tears still for Gezawa, BUK’s “Brain on a Wheelchair,” One year after


By Ikechukwu Amaechi

When he died on August 6, 2020 at the age of 21, not many people outside his neck of the woods took notice. He was just two months short of 22 years, having been born on October 8, 1998.

For someone who was not a “royalty” and died so young, his death would have been unsung. But to so expect is to betray ignorance of the personage – Usman Shehu Gezawa. His death devastated everyone who had the privilege of knowing him or even just heard about him.

He was royalty in his own right, a crown place on his head by his prodigious intellect. Therefore, at death, Gezawa was mourned by all. And one year after, most people are still grieving. And those who know or heard about his academic exploits rue that in his death, Nigeria lost a gem. The sense of loss is acute. 

Gezawa suffered Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA), a genetic neuromuscular disease that causes muscles to become weak and waste away. People afflicted with SMA often lose a specific type of nerve cell in the spinal cord called motor neurons, which control muscle movement. He walked for some months after birth before the degenerative disease set in and he could no longer walk with ease. In primary four, he was already on a wheelchair.

But he was a prodigy on a wheelchair. What he lost through his physical disability, he gained through an extraordinary brainpower.

He was the overall best graduating pupil from the Kano Capital Primary School in 2010, a feat he repeated in 2016 at the Crescent International School, Kano, where he acquired his secondary education, making straight “As” in all the subjects and carting home all the academic prizes awarded by the school at the graduation ceremony.

But it was at the Bayero University Kano (BUK), where he gained admission to read Computer Science in 2018 that the science world took notice. He shone like a million academic stars.

Gezawa set the Computer Science Department on fire, literally, with his awesome brainpower and became the toast of the university. He could do with only his hands, of course aided by his phenomenal brain, what many people who are not physically challenged can hardly do with their whole bodies.

In the three years he spent at Bayero University, he was on Chevron Nigeria Limited scholarship.

Trust him. He did not disappoint. Had death not brought his fairytale academic trajectory to an abrupt halt, Gezawa was on his way to doing an encore the feat he achieved both in primary and secondary schools, having ran a perfect 5.0 Cumulative Grade Point Average (CGPA) on a 5.0 Scale in all the semesters in his three years at the university. He was First Class-bound. And not just First Class, his was building up to be the best result ever in any discipline in the school’s history.

He not only loved but also excelled in those subjects – Mathematics, Algebra, Calculus, Programming, etc., – which the average student dreaded. 

So brilliant was he that his fellow students nicknamed him “Brain on a Wheelchair.” For some others, he was “Kano’s Stephen Hawkins,” named after the legendary Stephen William Hawkins, an English theoretical physicist, cosmologist, and author who was director of research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology at the University of Cambridge, who died of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) disease in 2018.

In 2019, Gezawa was one of the most impactful speakers at the TEDx AminuKano Way where he talked about his condition in the presentation titled “Ability in Disability.” After his poignant, personal and evocative presentation which attracted a standing ovation and brought tears to the eyes of many, a philanthropist instantly offered him another scholarship.

Yet, the young man bore his disability with uncommon equanimity and never complained.

In a tribute after Gezawa’s death, his best friend, Nour Bashir Galadanci, a medical student at the BUK, wrote: “He was never embarrassed of who he was. Always grateful to Almighty.”

Those were the qualities that endeared him to all. Even in his disability, he was a role model to many. Younger ones looked up to him as a mentor. He inspired his mates and made them look up to tomorrow with expectations. He dreamt dreams and had lofty ambition. He was hopeful and only saw the sunny side of life.

Gezawa believed in the wise saying of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the English Baptist preacher, that “hope is like a star – not to be seen in the sunshine of prosperity, and only to be discovered in the night of adversity,” a sentiment which was amplified years later by Martin Luther King Jr., the American Baptist minister and civil rights icon, who said “we must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”

Rather than become a hindrance, his disability became the catalyst that he needed to reach for the moon. And he was almost there.

The Northern elite took notice. Former Governor of Kano State, Senator Ibrahim Shekarau, honoured him. Former Emir of Kano, His Highness Muhammad Sanusi 11, also did when he broke protocol, rose from his seat and walked up to Gezawa on his wheelchair to present a certificate of graduation (in a slate form) as it is done by Islamic schools. The honour was unprecedented. Traditionally, the graduating student walks up to where the Emir is seated, kneels down to receive the slate. The hall erupted in thunderous applause at Sanusi’s gesture.

Gezawa’s fame spread like wildfire. At his death, Minisiter of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Pantami, tweeted: “May the soul of Usman Shehu Gezawa rest in comfortable peace. Our condolence to this role model.”

His friend, Galadanci, summed up Gezawa’s essence in his elegy, thus: “Usman was a genius; always ready to explain to anyone who didn’t understand something in class. His character was outstanding. He was amazing, friendly, nice, patient and strong.”

It will be no exaggeration to say that no natural death of a student has impacted the Bayero University as much as Gezawa’s.

He has been mourned for one year not only by fellow students, but also the teachers and entire school administration. One year after, the wound which his death inflicted on the academic community seems not to have healed.

But there seems to be closure, at the same time, in the fact that his memory remains a blessing to all who had the good fortune of making his acquaintance.
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