Our doctors and pharmacists have a lot to learn from our traditional healing system because it is an accumulation of thousands of years of knowledge and skills, largely uninvestigated and unused by the hegemonic allopathic medical system established by colonisers who diminished or destroyed our knowledge systems, regarding them as not valid. It is time to reclaim this healing heritage which would not only benefit Nigerians, but people all over the world.
From childhood till my early teenage years, I suffered terribly from belubelu, the local diagnosis for the recurring and excruciatingly painful sore throat that prevented me from swallowing any food or drink. Nothing, even rice, that much-awaited weekly Sunday special, could do the job. This was back in the day before the oil boom when imported rice from the United States and Thailand flooded Nigeria and effectively destroyed the local production and economy. Okada, Alabere, and other local varieties were what we ate, and children couldn’t get enough. Almost every month, I suffered this affliction. My parents took me to our town’s local clinic, owned and managed by the highly-respected male nurse in the town. He, along, with the free dispensary, where you could get medication and treatments without charge, established by the Western Region government, provided the health care for our small town. Of course, we also had local traditional healers and the occasional roving medicine man from the North advertising his agunmu dada ni. None of the medication obtained from these sources cured my affliction. This went on until the age of fifteen when my father sought advice about alternative cures. Doctors said I had tonsillitis and it needed to be removed surgically to solve this problem. My tonsil was badly infected. My father learnt that it was the same thing as belubelu and that not only was it common in Northern Nigeria, local Hausa surgeons cured this illness routinely. Neither my parents nor I were eager to perform any kind of surgery or ‘operation’ as it was called back then, because of the general fear and superstition about the outcomes.
My suffering became more intense, so my father finally decided to take me to the hospital for the doctors to perform surgery. Before this decision could be actualised, a female teacher in the high school where he taught learnt of the problem and told my father it would be better to take me to the local Hausa healer. She herself had suffered this disease, but once the Hausa surgeon carried out the operation on her, she was completely healed. She said people bled a lot when this kind of surgery was done by Western-trained doctors. My father trusted and respected her enough to take her advice. She told him of a Hausa man in the market at Ado-Ekiti. On the day of our visit, my father and I found the man sitting under a tree at the entrance of the market. Ado-Ekiti was ten miles from our town. He had a small box full of implements of different shapes and sizes, and he also had a small fire going in a little hearth (aaro), in front of him.
My father did not speak Hausa and the surgeon did not speak English, Yoruba, or our Ekiti dialect, but he understood exactly what we had come for. He asked me to open my mouth, looked at it, and started talking. Then he invited my father to take a look. He pointed to my tonsil and said something to my father. Neither he nor I understood what he said but I got the impression that my tonsil was in a very bad shape, deeply infected, possibly dangerously. He heated some water in a kettle and poured some powder into it, and then asked me to gaggle with it. He showed me exactly how I should do this by demonstrations. I did. Then he heated some water in a tin can and put various implements in the hot water while it boiled. He brought them out to cool down and asked me to open my mouth. Then he depressed my tongue with a flat tool and proceeded to scrape my tonsil with a long curved metal instrument. I could see pieces of whitish flesh he brought out of my throat. He was so gentle I was relaxed, and I didn’t feel any pain. After he finished, he asked me to gaggle again, and gave my father some powder to take home. He asked me to gaggle with this when I got home. This instruction was accompanied with much gesticulation. We went back home, and after a few days of gaggling with the dissolved powder, the soreness was gone. To this day, four decades later, I have never experienced any sore throat caused by tonsillitis. It healed completely. I am a witness to, and beneficiary of the efficacy of traditional medicine.
Integrating local medical knowledge and techniques is not a new idea. Other non-Western societies are doing this, particularly in Asia. It is a thing of shame and lack of confidence in the health care system for our leaders to go abroad at every opportunity to receive medical care when Nigeria should be developing its own health care system. It is, however, encouraging that the Medical and Dental Council of Nigeria wants to integrate homeopathic medicine into the education of allopathic doctors.
Stories abound of the wonders of traditional medicine. While living in Germany three years ago, I met an elder Yoruba man, a retired engineer, trained in Germany, who migrated there in 1959. He told me that when he was a student in Berlin, he broke his leg, and German doctors did all they could to heal it, but they could not. His leg was badly shattered and the only thing they could do was to amputate it. Agitated and in desperation, he called his mother who asked him to come home immediately. On getting home, she took him to a local bone-setter in Ago-Iwoye in Ijebu, a famous man who had clients from all over. This man got to work and set his bones. After only seven weeks, he was able to go back to Germany to resume his studies. One day, he ran across one of the German doctors, a professor of medicine, on the street. The doctor was so shocked and surprised to see him walking with what was certainly a condemned leg. He told the doctor he went home to get his leg healed. The German doctor, knowing the extreme value of this skill, then made arrangements to take his medical students to Ago-Iwoye to learn these techniques from the Baba who did the work. Also, a fellow immigrant in the United States, a former academic, told me the story of how her late grandmother healed women with fibroids without surgery when she was growing up in Ekiti. I grew up with agbo, an infusion of herbs, mixed together in pots, sitting in the corners of our grandmothers’ kitchens or rooms, which was dispensed to us to cure maladies ranging from malaria, stomach ache, and jedijedi. Millions of Nigerians receive their health care from traditional healers exclusively or along with allopathic medicine, which is why it is imperative that traditional medicine be integrated to enrich allopathic medicine in Nigeria.
Integrating local medical knowledge and techniques is not a new idea. Other non-Western societies are doing this, particularly in Asia. It is a thing of shame and lack of confidence in the health care system for our leaders to go abroad at every opportunity to receive medical care when Nigeria should be developing its own health care system. It is, however, encouraging that the Medical and Dental Council of Nigeria wants to integrate homeopathic medicine into the education of allopathic doctors. This cannot come soon enough. It should be given the greatest priority. This, of course, has to follow the work of the Traditional Medicine Council, designated to standardise and regulate the practice of traditional medicine in Nigeria. Our doctors and pharmacists have a lot to learn from our traditional healing system because it is an accumulation of thousands of years of knowledge and skills, largely uninvestigated and unused by the hegemonic allopathic medical system established by colonisers who diminished or destroyed our knowledge systems, regarding them as not valid. It is time to reclaim this healing heritage which would not only benefit Nigerians, but people all over the world. Who knows, we might be able to find the cure for cancer. Or we may even have it already. We won’t know until we investigate.
Bunmi Fatoye-Matory was educated at the Universities of Ife and Ibadan, and Harvard University. She lives with her family in Durham, North Carolina. She is a Writer and Culture Advocate.