The two Lambos, and herbs and incantations in traditional mental healthcare in Lagos, Nigeria
– By Femi Olugbile
One of my most unforgettable experiences as a young psychiatrist was sitting in a room at Ebute Metta to talk to a very unusual man. He was a lean, fragile looking man with a tiny voice, but his whole mien conveyed power, influence, and a penetrative intelligence that did not suffer fools gladly. His skin had the pallor of someone born with the condition known as albinism, but none of the burns and scars often seen in people with the condition. He was Chief Joseph Olusola Lambo, and he was at the time the President of the Nigerian Association of Medical Herbalists. He was also, he said, the eldest brother of a more internationally famous figure, Thomas Adeoye Lambo, a psychiatrist, who was, at the time, the Deputy Director General of the World Health Organisation. ‘Brother’, of course, in Yoruba parlance, could mean anything from full sibling, or half sibling, to cousin.
‘Both of us have always been aware that there is a Science at the heart of Traditional Medicine which nobody should ignore,’ Chief Lambo said, referring to the Professor.
He told the story of how he first became aware of traditional medicine. As a fifteen-year-old boy in Igbore, a suburb of Abeokuta, he developed a severe headache. No remedy anyone offered him could seem to make the headache go away. Finally, one of the elders took him to an old man in a nearby village. The old man led him to a body of water, brought out some local soap, and washed his head with the water. Immediately, the headache began to abate. Within a short while, it was gone.
He had made the practice and research into Traditional Medicine his life’s work, and he was helping to spread the message across the nation. His speech was curt and sparse, and his diction, both in English and Yoruba, excellent.
Along the way he had become the first Chairman of the Lagos State Board of Traditional Medicine. He was working to bring Traditional Medicine out of the closet and into the light of modern day.
Did he agree, I asked him, that people often made wild, unproven claims about the efficacy of their remedies, and that these might cause people to die from illnesses easily treatable by ‘Western’ Medicine?
Of course, there were charlatans all about, he admitted. It was necessary to standardize treatment and dosage so that what you got from Healer A was the same as what you got from Healer B. He looked forward to building schools for training newcomers. He wanted to set up research projects with Universities. Already one of his members was a Consultant on a drug project at the University of Ife. He looked forward to greater strides in unearthing the potentials of native herbs and remedies and using them to complement Western medicine.
At length, I rose to leave. I promised to come back some day.
He looked at me skeptically. He offered me a limp handshake. He was already looking past me to the next person who was waiting to see him.
Sadly, I did not get the chance to pay another visit to the bungalow in Ebute Metta. Chief Lambo died in 1999.
Many years after that event, another Chairman of the Lagos State Traditional Medicine Board facilitated an interesting engagement for me with a cross section of the Traditional Medicine practitioners at the State headquarters located in a bungalow at Onikan. Dr Bunmi Omoseindemi is a LUTH-trained medical doctor and something of a politician. From early, he had taken an interest in traditional Medicine and advancing its possibilities. As Chairman of the Board, he was pushing for the establishment of training facilities to standardize what the traditionalists were doing, as well as the training traditional birth attendants in modern methods, as a realistic acknowledgement of the large role they play in maternal and infant mortality in the land. His cause is not popular among other doctors, many of whom believe traditional healers and traditional birth attendants should be banished from the face of the earth.
I was curious about how the Traditional Healers approached the diagnosis of mental illness, and the logic behind the ‘treatments’ they offered.
As I sat with them in a long conference room at Onikan, I could see many of them were eager to get their points across.
What were the causes of mental illness, I asked them?
Their responses tallied with what you would generally see in depictions of mental illness in Yoruba films, and clearly reflected the world view of the people. Curses, spiritual attacks (‘Epe’, ‘Asasi’). Taking drugs, such as Cannabis. Diseases of the body, such as smallpox. Excessive thinking, ‘excessive studying’. Stress, such as the loss of a child. Heredity.
What were the manifestations of these illnesses, I asked?
Some people were withdrawn and silent (‘alamodi’). Some talked excessively or laughed without reason (‘asinwin’). Some were sluggish and showed a lack of intelligence (‘arindin’). Some were out of touch with reality (‘were’). Some showed evidence of ‘ode ori’, a concept which could not be effectively translated.
And treatment, I asked?
Herbs. Incantations. Animal sacrifices. Body incisions. Special diet.
I raised an eyebrow at some of the answers, but they continued.
Treatment generally lasted between two to six months, they averred. And they expected a complete cure in more than 80%.
Their claims reminded me of Hlabangana, the ‘witch doctor’ I had interviewed in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe several years ago. Just as with the Zimbabwean man, certain parts of their diagnostic nosology could be related to the ‘Western’ diagnostic categories listed in DSM and ICD. Some could not. Incantations? Sacrifices? What was evidence-based Science to make of these?
I came off from the engagement with the traditional healers with a sigh, thinking how they could not be ignored or wished away, but also how they could not be mainstreamed wholesale. The Science of the herbs harped on by Chief Lambo, brother of the doyen of Nigerian Psychiatry, certainly needed to be pursued. World-beating breakthroughs could well be in the pipeline from there. But the ‘spiritualizing’ of their understanding of the nature, causation and treatment of illness flew in the face of modern Science, and would need to be weaned off, or substantially curtailed.
How, I worried, could this journey be commenced?