Negotiating Healthcare


The elderly lady leaned on the counter and bent over to speak to the Chemist-man. “Onye Chemist…” she said in her local parlance (a popular name for patent medicine dealers). “…mixituru m ogwu…” (Loosely translated: “please mix for me some drugs…”).

The Chemist man raised his head and greeted the elderly lady. He courteously asked her what she needed the drugs for. Before he could finish, the lady took it up from him and said…

“Biko (please), start with Bufren (Ibuprofen) Ten naira, for my arthritis; then you add aspirin five naira for tooth ache; and some anti-malarial drugs for 20 naira…”

Ugo, my cousin, was visiting home for the very first time. He has lived all his life in the United States and has yearned to visit Africa. It was obvious he hasn’t seen this sort of health enterprise before – judging by the puzzled look on his face.

We watched as the lady went on and on unhindered. Ugo stood in awe, overwhelmed by the knowledge that she knew exact names and quantities of all the drugs she needed.

He wondered if she was a retired doctor, nurse or pharmacist. She interrupted his thoughts with her last demand: “Ehe, biko don’t forget B-co (Vitamin B complex tablets) 5 naira oh…”

As she reeled out her instruction, Onye Chemist danced from one edge of the counter in his shop to another, picking each needed item in obedience.

He took his time to gather all she wanted, wrapped them all in a tiny rim of transparent nylon and handed it over to her.

She smiled, reached for the loose end of her wrapper and unfolded it. She untied the knot containing some dirty polymer naira notes.

She counted about 45 or 55 naira and handed to Onye Chemist who recounted and nodded in gratitude. She picked her walking stick and bounced out in glory.

“Her story mirrors a thousand more which play out daily in many Onye Chemist’s shops that litter across all the landscapes of our environment…” I told Ugo who was visiting home for the first time.

“…The pathway to hospitals here is often dotted by many twists and turns; bends and tangential junctions….”

I could understand his confusion as we left the Chemist shop.

I placed my right hand across his right shoulder in a brotherly but reassuring manner and told him that it is not surprising seeing people presenting to hospitals when a seemingly simple situations had gone sour.

“…Funny enough, these same people expect the doctors to perform some miracles. They also vilify them when things do not match their expectations. Just the typical ozu nwa bekee (White man’s corpse)…”

“What’s that?” Ugo quipped in American accent. “Please ask your dad when you get home” I retorted.

Photograph taken by author over Vienna, Austria.

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