“No man’s knowledge here can go beyond his experience.”John Lock
Sitting at a UW Physicians reception in Seattle Washington, I was relaxed and really did not anticipate much as all I was at the clinic for was to get my name on their register ‘just in case.’ The fact that a country and employer cared enough about me and encouraged I did this was enough of excitement. At 28 years old I have never visited a doctor and the only time I was near to a health professional was 15 years prior at a Health Centre at Obafemi Awolowo University for a throat infection, which didn’t take long as the examination by the nurse only took a few seconds and she didn’t really need much from me in terms of any history of allergic reactions or family health history, I was given a course of antibiotics and left the clinic, luckily the medicine worked.
UW Physicians experience took an unexpected turn when the doctor noticed half of the questions on my form was left blank, she called me in and wanted to discuss why that was. She wanted to know my family health history, the ones that I was unable provide. She wanted me to tell her about my siblings health, to see if there were anything she could put in the form in order to help me faster and better in case of an emergency. I was dumfounded and just starred at Dr Grace (not her real name). My whole life flashed right in front of me, not because I didn’t know what to say but because I was juggling between two versions of my family health history – the made up version and the real one. I was not sure which story I should tell.
Here was my dilemma, I did not know any of my grandparents. They were all dead before reaching 60 years old. None of them was killed by thunder, auto accident, not even endless ethnic crisis or any other physical attacks that I could point to. They all died after some sort of illness. It was only my maternal grandmother that made it to the hospital, she died anyways as her illness was at a critical stage before taking to the hospital. The cause of her death was nothing the family wanted to talk about.
Dr Grace asked about my siblings and their health history, I told her that my two brothers were deceased, she sympathised but her curiosity grew stronger, she wanted to know how they died as this might provide crucial health information for my records. This should be a simple question to answer for anyone, but it wasn’t for me. The version of the cause of my brothers’ death that I grew up with was completely different from the version that I have come to terms with.
My oldest brother, Tope was killed by my mother’s sister in-law because she didn’t have a boy of her own, at the time she had five girls and was very jealous of my mother’s good fortune of 2 male children. And on top of this Tope was doing really well academically, he was 19 years old and at his final year at a Catholic Grammar School Ipetumodu – a very good local school at the time. On the weekend he stays with my uncle to help with business. Because of all these ambitions he had, my mothers’ sister in-law could no longer take it, so she killed Tope. How? That would be great if someone could give insights.
Three years down the line, my family again ran out of luck as Mayo, the only other male child in the family died. Only that this time there were slightly more people involved in the killing, depending on who you listened to. If you hear my paternal side of the family, the killer was my mother because she had enlisted her son for a sacrifice, otherwise how come the only boy left in the family died. Mayo was 14 and an articulate school boy. He went to Seventh Day Adventist Grammar School Lagere, Ife – one of the few good schools to attend in the early 80s. These were the explanations that floated around me growing up. These was supposed to be enough explanation for my brothers’ death. I had so many unanswered questions. I was lost because I felt I needed better and believable explanation.
Then it dawned on me that no one could help. I have to find reasons among all these confusion on my own. My family were blessed, we all sleep in one big room so it was easy to carry out a few of my missions. Tope’s killer lived about a mile away so I did not bother about her however, my focus was on my mother, how dared she ‘ate’ Mayo? The only person in the whole wide world that understood me, the only person that supported my mischievousness towards my overbearing older sister.
My mother cried for years and lost all will to do anything. While I sympathised with her, I was adamant I was going to break her wings. I have heard that witches go to meetings in the middle of the night, so I set to wake up and watched her with hope that she would get up, she never did. I heard that the physical bodies was usually left in bed but their ‘spirit’ would have left the vicinity so if you hit a witch hard in the middle of the night, that may knock them unconscious as they would have to rush rush back to life from their meetings. I tried this, but each time I really didn’t have to ‘hit’ my mother, she was already awake with teary eyes sobbing, whispering to herself that she was supposed to die and not her children, she really wanted to die, I knew this.
Throughout this time there were lots of other measures that my extended families were taking to determine who the male-children eater was, none of which involves getting detailed medical records of my brothers’ illness. It was all spiritual, I was told.
It was impossible to make sense of any of the stories that I was told as I knew that none of the explanation coincide with what I saw. I was only a child, I wasn’t supposed to know any better so I mourned on my own and started on a journey to discover the truth, the way that I could be set free of heavy burden of unknown.
In my late teens, things were a bit calm in my family, I started nursing the idea of reincarnation. I have heard stories about dead people at Igbeti Market in Oyo State. I heard that most of the produce sellers turned their backs to their customers so as not to be recognised, this like many other myths did not pass me by, I held on to it. I started imagining Mayo walking down the road with me, especially when I were alone, I dreamt of him, recited all the good times we had had together. I would wake up in the middle of the night sweating heavily, I could only tell my mother half of the story, as any parents would testify, children are much more observant than we give them credit for, so I never mentioned I dreamt of Mayo to my parents, I knew enough that any mentioning of his name would open a whole lot of cans of worms that would lead to more confusion and possible distraction to my goal. Reincarnation thoughts had to be laid to rest as it was just causing too much headache.
Now that the reincarnation beliefs proved to be too difficult for my young mind to bear. I continued my journey of finding inner peace, as time went by I no longer mourn for my deceased brothers, I had accepted they were gone to the place beyond, they remain only in memories, however, I was burdened not by absence but the unknown reasons behind their untimely deaths. I could no longer feel at ease alienating everyone around me as their killer, I needed solid facts.
Here is how it all happened. I was about 8 years old, aware enough to absorb all the information leading to Tope’s death. Tope was at a grammar school. He lived in the town and only came home on weekends, stayed longer during exams, and when he did, he stayed with my uncle so I barely knew he existed.
On this fateful evening, he was brought home by his friends – Brother Femi, to my parents’ house. Tope was weak and had to be carried inside. He hasn’t been in town for three weeks as it was exam period. According to Femi, Tope and his friends went to play football two weeks prior, and on their way back to the hostel Tope was jogging and accidentally tripped and fell forward, flat on his face.
His left knee cap was dislocated to the side and injured the tissues around, also he felt really sick inside and he could barely keep anything down afterwards. Tope did not go to any clinic, he was determined to stay at school to ‘tough’ it out so he could finish his exams. After about a week, the bruises on his left knee area got badly infected, he was physically weak not only from the knee infections but also from his aching stomach, he had hurt one or two of his vital organs perhaps his kidney during the heavy fall.
After he was carried in, he had wee in a potty and all I could see was blood, a sign of a damaged kidney. And for his oozing infected knee, I made my peace in coming to terms with the fact that the sore were infected with some sorts of dangerous bacteria. He was admitted at the local teaching hospital the same evening but lost his fight for life after a couple of weeks. He died because one or two of his vital organs were badly infected and perhaps the medical practitioners weren’t able to get to the heart of the matter on time, either way, it was bad news for the family.
I was right there again the evening that Mayo went for a hair cut, he came back and we all teased him about the number of ‘contours’ he had on his head. In the middle of the night he complained of headache, mother gave him a dose of Phensic. Mayo as we all knew in the family had a history of nose bleeding, for this he would usually sit still when it occured with efinrin leaves held close to his nostrils.
But this night he was restless and complained of sharp pains as if something was eating away his brain cells. My parents took him to the nearby clinic. Early next morning, news came that Mayo had been transferred to the teaching hospital, the same one that his brother died at 3 years prior, needless to say, I was horrified. I remember my mother coming home to get more money, buying more drugs, most of which would be rejected shortly after the purchase by yet another new doctor, basically Mayo became a guinea pig.
He received different diagnosis by several different doctors that my parents were confused whom to listen to. All along, his symptoms remained the same – massive pains inside his head and his deterioration was apparent. Mayo’s cause of death remained heavy load in my mind wherever I went, until I found a plausible explanation in 2005 – 22 years after his death.
Glued to BBC page following every news from Ivan Noble – a BBC Online Science and Technology writer at the time who was diagnosed with brain tumour in 2002 and went through series of treatments. I read all his entries with outmost interest. I wanted to learn more about this horrible cancer that causes so much pain in the brain.
Reading Ivan’s column provided me with so much knowledge that I have craved for so long. It was emotional in different ways for me, on one side I was happy for Ivan that he had a good fighting chance, he was able to communicate how he felt with his loved ones and carried lots of people along by sharing his experience living with brain tumour, lots of people felt him and prayed for him.
Another part of me was filled with resentment towards the doctors who attended to Mayo during the few weeks he was at the hospital. Mayo wasn’t given a slightest fighting chance. He probably died that quickly due to the mis-diagnosis in the first place. Ivan’s generosity of sharing his story helped me enormously to finding a plausible explanation to the cause of my brother’s death. Now I have laid it all to rest, no more burden or confusion.
Nigerians have found more ways of concealing the truth about the nature of our illnesses, if you were poor and could not afford travelling abroad, the common assumption for ill health was witches’ spell and the nature of illness is never known or only known to a few people within the family. If you were rich and could afford to travel abroad for treatment, then you would come back telling fibs, that it was God who healed rather than disclose the nature of the illness so we could all learn.
Such is the case with Prof Dora Akinluyi when she was recently confronted about her health, Nigerians adored Prof for her work with NAFDAC, I was expecting someone like her to be more open about the nature of her illness in order to raise awareness. The truth is, underneath all of our outward acts were ingrained myths that has proved hard to shift with many, famous or otherwise.
Health tourism has increased in Nigeria significantly in the last few years, everyone who is someone gets their health problems sorted in Europe, North America, Middle East, Asia- particularly India – everywhere and anywhere as long as it’s not Nigeria. Do we really know the true cost of health tourism? I think the cost of HT is far greater than what we thought it was if we factored in the fact that these foreign nations are more aware of the type of illness that we are prone to.
How will the nation’s medical professionals improve if we all die of the same illness that could have been easily prevented simply because we were too ‘tight’ to share. I would think bringing awareness to cervical cancer is a great gift Prof Akinluyi could have given to the country, this would have been much more appreciated than sitting at the National Conference.