Two recent conversations reminded me of the extent to which the lives of “ordinary” Nigerians – that is to say, most Nigerians – have been gravely debased.
Let’s start with the more recent. Last Saturday, I made a routine phone call to a relative, who lives in Anambra State, Nigeria. As the conversation drew to a close, I asked after her mother.
“Well, her condition is getting slightly better,” came the response.
I was taken aback, for I wasn’t aware at all that her mother was sick. I immediately confessed my ignorance by asking: “Has she been sick?”
“Oh, I thought you knew she was hit by a car,” the relative said. Then she told the story.
On Monday, February 8, her mother had gone to the local government headquarters to pick up a bag of rice that the state governor had offered to all pensioners. Her mother met an old friend, also a pensioner. The two women stood by the roadside, discussing. Quite suddenly, a driver who was trying to pass another car lost his grip, and his car nearly plowed into the women. The two friends were extremely fortunate that the car merely brushed them as it careened into an open roadside gutter. Even so, my relative’s mother fell from the car’s glancing impact.
A day later, the elderly woman’s arms began to swell, indicating a fracture. She was taken to the state-run teaching hospital in Awka, the state capital. There, the woman – who was in fairly serious pain from her injury – was told that she must return in a week (today, in fact). The reason: The hospital’s orthopedic surgeon sees patients at the teaching hospital only on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
For me, the story was hard to fathom. In a country where orthopedic cases are rather rife – what with automobile and other kinds of accidents – it simply defies logic that any health facility, much less a state-owned hospital, would not have several doctors with expertise in treating bone fractures.
Bones broken in an accident bring excruciating pain. Believe me, I know. In 1992, a friend was driving me to Murtala Muhammed International Airport when – with the airport in sight – we had an accident. His car somersaulted three times, and then came to rest upside down. Luckily, none of the three of us died. The friend driving me was a banker, and we were all taken to a clinic in Surulere, Lagos that was retained by his employer. Despite my complaints of monstrous pain on my left arm, the doctor on duty did not bother to send me for any x-ray. He just looked at my arm, and assured me I was fine, just a bit bruised.
Two days later, I returned to the US, my arm terribly swollen, and the pain at a hideous level. I called my doctor, who asked me to come in immediately. She (sensibly) ordered an x-ray, which revealed I had sustained one fracture at the elbow and had broken my left thumb in two places. That experience gave me a deep first-hand experience of how hapless Nigerians suffer at the hands of doctors, who practise what I call juju medicine, or mis-medicine.
Knowing how painful it can be to break any bones, I think it’s inexcusable – to say the least – to ask an elderly woman, a grandmother, to go a week before she would be seen by a doctor.
A few months ago, I had an even more disheartening conversation with a US-based Nigerian friend. His uncle’s wife was standing at a country road, waiting for a bus when she crumpled to the ground. Passersby gathered, loaded her in a vehicle, and raced to a local hospital.
The patient was still alive when they arrived at the hospital. There was a doctor on duty, which should have been good news. But this doctor had less faith in medicine than in spiritual intervention. The doctor did not check the patient’s pulse. He did not gauge her blood pressure. He didn’t bother to listen to her heart. Instead, he asked his nurses and the Good Samaritans, who brought in the woman to form a circle around the patient. Then, extending a hand over the woman’s supine body (and inviting his nurses and others to do the same) the doctor began to utter a torrent of prayers. He reminded the devil (ever-present in Nigeria) that the devil was a liar. He ordered the affliction that had felled the woman to release the woman and “return to sender.” He importuned God to demonstrate His majesty and power by raising the woman back to her feet.
The doctor kept up the racket for about an hour, as sweat poured from his body. Then he calmed down, his energy spent. It dawned on him that the woman had passed away while he, the supposed man of medicine, played a televangelist, the good doctor solemnly announced that God had decided not to heal the patient.
Of course, Nigeria has many fine, dedicated doctors. Chances are, however, that the “prayer-warrior” doctor had received wretched medical training, if any. In many other jurisdictions in the world, the so-called doctor would have been stripped of his licence, assessed a steep fine, and likely sent to jail.
But in Nigeria? Perish the thought! The physician’s criminal dereliction invited no consequences. Another poor person had died; that was all. I won’t be surprised if the doctor’s prestige soared in the estimation of those who saw him resort to spiritual theatrics rather than the practice of basic medicine. Nigeria has evolved into a space where many people routinely demand that God do for them what they can and ought to do for themselves.
The two poor women here – the one with a broken arm and the other who breathed her last while a negligent doctor wasted time flinging a storm of alleluias at her – are among millions of victims of a brand of inhumanity and irresponsibility that have marked the behaviour of Nigerian public officials. I’m confident there are many orthopedic doctors willing to take up employment in a major hospital in Anambra State. Why must patients with fractures wait for several days to receive treatment?
Closing in on fifty-six years of its existence as an “Independent” country, Nigeria has no healthcare policy to speak of. Nigerians ravaged by diabetes, cancer, heart diseases and a slew of other grave ailments are left at the mercy of ill-equipped hospitals or, worse, in the hands of unscrupulous, money-obsessed pastors, imams and dibias whose stock, magic and make-belief, are dressed up as sure-fire miracles.
Nigeria’s political and business elite – in other words, those who have shaped their country into the near hell-on-earth it is – feel no compunction hurrying off to the UK, the US, Asia, Europe or even other African countries to receive medical treatment.
In the end, it’s up to Nigerians to demand that their public officials participate fully in Nigerian life. Officials’ school-age children should attend the same schools as other Nigerians. And when these public officials fall sick, they should submit themselves for treatment at the same hospitals that other Nigerians go to. I mean, why not?
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