In the busy suburb of Berger in Lagos, a middle-aged woman heals broken bones with herbs, nimble hands and no western medicine. Her people call her "Mama Dey Go".
Ijeoma was heading for youth camp when it happened.
Resumption was barely four weeks away. She and her colleagues at the Yaba College of Technology would continue work on their sketches and the finer aspects of fashion design as soon as they returned for the holiday.
Ijeoma had packed her bags early, this time, to spend a few days with her friends from the youth body at church, away from the stress that comes with being home for a little too long.
The bus was cramped when everyone finally grabbed a seat. Air was barely finding its way around but in one of fate’s masterstrokes, Ijeoma got a window seat.
“So before the bus started moving, it was actually parked in a very narrow place”, she says, “I brought my hand outside the window because the bus was so tight”.
On any other day, Ijeoma would be more careful about such things; but the heat and discomfort had caused her to make an immediate decision.
“I didn’t even know when the bus started moving”, she recalls, “I was hearing my bone as it was breaking”
The bus, in trying to squeeze through this narrow place, had crushed Ijeoma’s hands against the wall.
She dragged her arm from the crevice. Then, she went into shock.
For the majority of Nigeria’s estimated 180 million people, adequate health-care is an inaccessible myth.
While the resurgence of health centres and private clinics has done much to serve a glaring need, the void becomes more obvious when the more complex issues arise, like terminal illnesses, podiatry or orthopaedics.
According to estimates from the Nigerian Medical Association, there are only about 350 specialized orthopaedic surgeons in the whole country, a rate of one surgeon to 500,000 people.
Confused and scared, Ijeoma’s church members scurried to find a hospital that could tend to her.
When accidents like this occur, there is one place that comes to the Lagosian mind. From the church compound, they headed for the National Orthopaedic Hospital, Igbobi.
Founded in 1943, as a treatment centre for soldiers from World War 2, the term “Igbobi” has become a popular slang for the gory fractures and indescribable injuries that the doctors and surgeons attend to every day.
That night, there was no place, no bed for Ijeoma.
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With their backs against the wall, one of her friends had a light bulb moment. She knew of a woman in Ojodu, Berger who had treated an acquaintance’s fracture to near-perfection.
They took Ijeoma to her makeshift clinic.
In the absence of orthopaedic surgeons, most Nigerians turn to traditional means of healing fractures and bone injuries. With little more than years of apprenticeship and the benefit of experience, these bone-setters tend to anything from small sprains to major fractures, to varying degrees of success.
While their methods have been called into question, these bone-setters render services that access and finances would otherwise deprive their patrons of.
In the communities where they practice their “art”, they are small-time heroes.
"Mama Dey Go", the woman who has tended to Ijeoma’s fractures for well over a month now, is one of those heroes.
An Isan indigene of Edo State, “Mama Dey Go” says she has treated broken bones from her youth, for over 30 years.
Soft-spoken and introverted, she would rather treat a severe case than have a conversation; so when I ask her where she acquired her skill, she says, succinctly, “Na God teach me”.
After a little prodding, she continues, “When I first started, I treated just one person. After a while, I moved on to multiple patients and then God just helped me”
The town in Edo where Mama Dey Go spent her formative years is known for its traditional bone-healing practices, albeit with a dash of fetish rites and charms. While she watched her older family members treat bones from a very young age, she chose what she learned.
“It is in our family…”, she tells me of that variant of bone setting, “… but I didn’t keep my eyes on that. It’s God that taught me”.
“Whenever I pray, God answers my prayers”, she adds.
Her belief and faith in the Christian God is a big part of Mama’s practice. She says a prayer before every treatment. In her main room, where she attends to patients, a large banner with an image of Jesus hangs close to the ceiling.
At the entrance to her clinic, a rosary hangs on the door.
In a society where religion and faith is a currency more than anything else, Mama’s faith and Christian paraphernalia would probably count for little to the sceptical eye.
But beyond healing broken bones, perhaps the greatest proof of who she stands beside her at all times; a team of five or so men that holds many duties from assistant to the manager of the clinic, a man in his early 40s who handles financial duties and logistics.
Most of them have been with Mama Dey Go for between 10 to 15 years. They call her “Mama” or Mother. The most popular of them is Sunny, Mama’s most trusted assistant who holds patients and tries to whisper some of the pain away, while she works her magic.
Mama does not use anaesthetics.
Even though the process of setting bones through traditional means is incredibly painful, Mama does not give her patients any painkillers.
In fact, the only orthodox medical items you will find in her clinic are wire gauze, cotton wool and bandage.
When a patient is first brought to her clinic, she washes the wound with methylated spirit to rid it of infectious bacteria.
Her assistants put her tools within a grab’s distance; a herbal powder made from the bark of trees that she says helps the bones and muscles heal, medicated powder to act as a breaker between the wound and cotton wool, shea butter to ease the bone massage and her gloves.
She puts the gloves on, prays and her nimble hands get to work.
Loud screams follow but within weeks, they often give way to smiles and praise-singing.
Among Mama’s patients, she is a hero. But the medical community thinks otherwise; in those circles, people like Mama Dey Go are seen as unskilled purveyors of a haphazard practice that is as harmful as it is dated.
Mr Mike Ogirima, the President of the Nigerian Orthopaedic Association, describes the practice as “obsolete and an abuse of patients’ desire to seek orthodox means for their problem”.
He also added that patients are often abused by the obsolete traditional practitioners.
Given the choice between western medicine and a stint in Mama’s make-shift clinic, a few conversations with patients in Mama’s clinic make it clear why they have made this choice.
“I’ve heard so many stories from people here about people that lost their limbs in Igbobi”, Ijeoma says.
“I was even asking if they’re collecting arms and legs there….”, she continues, “They don’t even make any effort to treat anything… If at all they are treating, they only use POP (Plaster of Paris), and that’s just it”.
In Ojodu/Berger, where she is a neighbourhood legend, Mama Dey Go is an alternative to an industry that is untrusted, understaffed and underqualified.
Still, there is very little to reflect the value of the services that she renders.
Her patients say Mama is usually reluctant to talk about money. She charges tens of thousands for her services, always ready to make concessions when the patient cannot afford the fees.
These conversations usually come after she has begun treatment. As one of her patients says, when a victim is brought to her clinic, the first thing is to get the person treated and rested, money comes later.
Even at that, many patients take advantage of her levity and enjoy treatment, only to default in paying the cost.
In their defence, some of them bare their hearts before her, telling her they cannot gather their money.
When this happens, Mama tells her patients “dey go”.
It is where she gets the moniker that has spread far beyond the community where she lives.
Her team does not like this; “she is too caring…”, her manager says, “… but Mama needs money. We need to leave this place.”
Her clinic is a trio of rooms built on a parcel of land she leased from its owners.
Her manager says she would like to erect more suitable and befitting structures, but her finances are a hindrance, and even at that, the owners have refused to let her build anything more.
Still, with very limited resources and her team on standby, Mama continues to offer healing, one patient at a time.
“What I will do is that by the time I am fully recovered, I will bring my people here”, one of her patients says. “To come and give glory to God”
“When I was in Igbobi, I spent three hundred and sixty thousand”, he continues, “Here, I haven’t spent a dime and I’m walking now”
To the patients who go under her hand every other day, her skill comes with a package of motherly endearment that they would not find in an orthodox Nigerian hospital.
“She is only wicked when she’s treating”, Ijeoma laughs. “… but after treatment, she is just like our mother. She will call you ‘my baby”.
Fractures and accidents may have brought her to this yard on a street split down the middle by erosion, but when she leaves, it will be with her arm in good condition and her hands strong enough to sketch her designs as she did before.
Mama may not have the training of medical doctors and her clinic could use a major uplift but no money can buy the smiles she has put on these faces.
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