By Celine Klosterman
MOUNT PLEASANT – Bitrus Gwamna’s fellow Catholics at St. Alphonsus Parish have made Iowa feel like home and strengthened his faith in God, the native of Nigeria said.
They supported him and his wife, Olabisi, when the spouses were sworn in as U.S. citizens May 24, more than 26 years after the couple came to the United States to pursue advanced degrees.
“A strong reason for wanting to be a citizen was the kindness of friends embracing me for who I am, and making me feel this place was just as good a home as Nigeria was,” Bitrus said.
He was born in that west African nation in 1955 in a village with no running water, wells or electricity. In the following months, he opened his eyes less often than his mother expected, he said. Despite her herbal remedies, he began gradually losing his sight, and by age 10 had gone blind.
But his mother, now deceased, didn’t think he needed special privileges, Bitrus said. “I fetched water like anyone did. I wrestled with other kids. I didn’t feel I lacked anything.”
In 1965 he traveled 800 miles from home to enroll in a school for the blind, where children learned to read and write Braille and type. Years later, at the University of Lagos, Nigeria, he’d sometimes tape record lectures. Classmates read textbook chapters to him, and in exchange, he’d tutor some of those same students in his strong subjects of history and literature.
Bitrus and Bisi met at the university, and after graduating, both worked at the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria. They married in 1985.
The following year, Bitrus received an Ambassadorial Scholarship from Rotary International, and the couple moved to Illinois so he could pursue a master’s degree in journalism from Northern Illinois University. In the 1990s, at Ohio University, he earned a doctorate in communications and Bisi earned a Ph.D. in English.
In 2001, the Gwamnas and their four sons moved to Mount Pleasant, where Bitrus had been offered a tenured teaching position at Iowa Wesleyan College. There, students email him completed assignments that computer software reads to him.
Bisi taught at Iowa Wesleyan, too, until 2008. Now she teaches at Southeastern Community College in Burlington and instructs online classes for Keiser University in Florida.
In Mount Pleasant, she attends St. Michael’s Episcopal Church. Bitrus said he sometimes worships on Sundays with her and on Saturdays at St. Alphonsus, where he lectors, serves as a cantor and belongs to the parish council, choir and Knights of Columbus Council 7294.
“He’s not hesitant to take on anything,” said fellow choir member Larry Maher, who drives Bitrus to practice.
“He has a razor sharp ear. He hears a tune once and he’s got it,” said Carmen Heaton, parish music coordinator. She emails him song lyrics that he prints in Braille at home. “He loves music and the community, and this is a way for him to be part of it.”
Bitrus said he especially appreciated parishioners’ prayers and emotional support when he had a kidney transplant in August 2011. But he said that “for the parish to feel welcoming, I had to put something into it.”
“I believe Bitrus’ faith is expressed in the way he’s willing to share his gifts with the parish and serve others despite his visual handicap,” said Father Joseph Phung, pastor of St. Alphonsus. “He is a strong, positive and joyful man. I recall in several occasions Bitrus joyfully attended liturgical seminars organized by the Archdiocese of Dubuque. He attended as many meetings as possible, walked up and down the stairs, of course with the help of our people, taking part and enjoying all our gatherings at the day’s end. He never complains about anything or his visual handicap, but always laughs and has fun.
“We have been blessed to have Bitrus and his family as members of our faith community.”