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Do traditional healers really know what they treat?


Some years ago, a young girl developed epilepsy and the family was thrown into confusion about what to do, considering people’s reaction.  Everyone in the village advised the mother to take the girl to a herbalist. Some counselled on the need to avoid taking her to the hospital as she could be given a potent injection that would terminate her life.

The distraught mother went from village to village seeking a cure for epilepsy. A very powerful herbalist, after due consultation with the oracle told her a neighbour was responsible for the girl’s predicament. According to him, the neighbour had promised a revenge during an altercation with the mother  by ensuring that her beloved daughter  would not get a husband to marry her so, she inflicted the girl with epilepsy. The mother remembered the quarrel quite alright and would have done anything to appease the old neighbour as advised. Problem was, the neighbour had died a few years back. Not to worry, the herbalist, assured, the neighbour’s spirit would be appeased. The only problem was that the sacrifice was quite expensive. To cut the story short, the woman sold all her clothes and a few other possessions. The ritual was performed but two days after, the child was down again in a fit.

The story continued. The woman even took the girl to the city, where some “powerful” herbalists who, she was told had cured several cases of epilepsy before, also attended to her daughter.  But no luck. The child’s epilepsy even seemed to be getting worse. The poor woman lost everything and was now surviving through the goodwill of her relatives in the city.

Then one day, the little girl took ill and went into an uncontrollable fit. Everyone thought the end had come as she went into a coma. That was when a kind neighbour decided to take her to LASUTH, then Ikeja General Hospital. On examination, the doctor told the neighbour the girl had malaria and commenced treatment. The girl regained consciousness within 24 hours. Then the seizure began again and the doctors, when told about her history of epilepsy referred her to LUTH.

At LUTH she was first managed at the emergency unit and was admitted. Just one week or so, she was discharged and given an appointment to attend the outpatient clinic under the care of renowned neurologist, Dr. Mustapha Danesi. Today, the girl’s epilepsy is well controlled – no single seizure in the last 25 years or so. She is married with three children.

I still remember watching an herbalist on NTA news some years back sucking “cancer” out of some women’s breast somewhere in Ikorodu.  Many of the women eventually found their way to the hospital when it was clearly too late for any meaningful treatment to be administered. Yet, the herbalists have remedies for all the ailments in the world even when most of them don’t know and can’t even explain how and why such ailments afflict man in the first place.  Or do they?

There’s the case of Grace, another cousin of mine whose body suddenly became swollen without any identifiable cause. Well, only the gods could tell the cause of such a strange illness so Grace was taken from one herbal home to the other. An herbalist in Delta didn’t even need to consult the oracle before giving his diagnosis. The girl had had sex in the bush, a taboo, and had incurred the wrath of the gods.

After the sacrifices and treatments during which Grace had to drink all sorts of concoctions, she was told to go home and wait until the gods would release her. But her body became more bloated.

Back in Lagos, more herbalists came up with different diagnosis. One said she stepped on a poison planted by a jealous rival. Another traced the cause to her father’s second wife who never liked her flamboyant lifestyle.   For another herbalist in a village near Badagry, it is the handiwork of her marine husband who wanted her back.

Tired of all the stories, sacrifices and endless concoctions she was made to drink in the name of treatment, Grace attempted suicide but was rescued and taken to the teaching hospital. The diagnosis? She had a an ailment  called nephrotic syndrome, a kidney disease that causes fluid retention in the body causing swellings. She survived.

My elder sister, Janet was not so lucky. Barely a year after our father’s death she developed a serious pain in her chest. Neighbours and relatives cried foul.  The enemies who killed our father must be after her. She was kept in an herbalist home for over a week “receiving treatment” until the herbalist got tired. But he saw our late father trying hard to stop the evil doers from harming Janet. He even predicted that one woman would be forced by the spirit to confess very soon and would die in place of my sister.

Suddenly, the herbalist could no longer stand the “fierce battle” to get my sister back on her feet. He told my mother to take her out immediately as her attackers were on the prowl and might harm his other patients if she was allowed to stay on. The image of my mother backing my almost 18 year-old sister, weeping and pleading for help on the street of  Mende, Maryland in Lagos,  has remained permanently etched  in my memory till date. Janet died on arrival at the hospital.

My mother learnt the greatest lesson of her life. Until her death last year, her advice to anyone with an ailment was: “Go to the hospital. At least, they will be able to tell what you are suffering from.”

It’s one advice I find myself repeating when I hear people talking about traditional medicine in Nigeria. For sure, our hospitals have their inadequacies. Sometimes their diagnosis could be faulty too. And sometimes they just lack the facilities to provide the needed care. But no matter how bad or poor the services at the hospital may be, I will still not entrust my health in the hands of people who know little or  nothing about how my body functions not to talk of offering  a positive remedy.  But I speak for myself.

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