It is an art that is more or less obsolete in many parts of the globe today. In the very few nations that still give room for practitioners of the ancient occupation, it is regulated by the relevant government authority. But in Nigeria, especially in the hinterlands and in hundreds of hamlets, practitioners and end users alike, still thrive with little or no overt governmental control. Even in the vast Nigerian cities, the trade blossoms at a particular level, no matter how minute. While some have vouched for its efficacy in restoring their health, a few others have sad tales to tell after their medical encounter with the practitioners.
Bonesetting is a form of joint and bone manipulation that has become more and more uncommon in advanced communities . The practice is employed by practitioners to relieve discomfort experienced by patients suffering fractures. It is done by adjusting bones and placing them in their proper places prior to the accident leading to the injuries. Bonesetters reset such bone fractures and readjust dislocated joints and limbs to near perfection. Due to advancements in the area of osteopathic treatments and major medical breakthroughs, the prominence of the form of herbal treatment has greatly reduced in stature as more patients tend to seek modern medical treatment. Patients who want manipulative therapy now seek chiropractors, massage therapists, or an osteopathic doctor. Fractures and dislocations are now treated exclusively by an orthopedic surgeon or general practitioner. These practices are equally regulated with intense trainings undergone to reduce the risk of complications for the patient. For instance, fractures must be carefully managed to reduce the risk of infection and nerve damage.
But not a few still go for the services of traditional bone setters many of which abound in many parts of the country. Due to the affordability of their services in relation to the exorbitant nature of the conventional treatments, many still prefer to approach these bonesetters for attention.
Opinions however differ when considering the experiences of patients at the hands of these traditional medical practitioners. Taiye Afonja (real name withheld) is a female resident of the capital city, who recently lost a limb as a result of medical complications after a ghastly auto accident. In tears she however insists that the eventual amputation of her limb was as a result of the activities of a quack bonesetter who treated her immediately after she was discharged from the hospital. According to her after she was discharged from the hospital the pains in her leg refused to subside even after taking medication. On the advice of a friend she decided to use the services of a traditional bonesetter who worked on the limbs for about two weeks. When relief failed to come her way she once again found herself at the hospital, where she was told that infection had set into the wounds and with a debilitating diabetic profile, the only solution to avoid gangrene was to cut off the limb. Today a survivor with only one limb she is an ardent opponent of traditional bone setting.
But the case is bright for Oju Effiom, a public servant who says she owes her survival from a similar accident to the deft attention of a bonesetter. ‘Immediately I had the accident I was referred to a bone specialist (traditional) somewhere in Aleita, but after a few days stay there we discovered that he was all talk and no action. Thereafter, I went to another one who lived in Lugbe. It was there I spent many months, but it was worth it, because at the end I was able to regain the use of my legs. The funny thing about this person is that he was educated and I found it hard to believe that he was a herbalist. Today, I can walk without any limp. But my experience taught me the fact just like in every field of human endeavour, there are the fake ones and the ‘original’ ones. it is true for the bonesetters too. There are those that are very effective in what they do, and there are others who do not know what the job is all about and only deceive people...’
In Nigeria, the lack of a solid framework to monitor the activities of traditional practitioners, is a source of concern for many. In the Middle Ages for instance, the practitioners could be found within a body well regulated by the bonesetters’ guild, which served as a means of ‘training, disciplining, adjudicating, and mastering its craft.’ Records show that the bonesetters’ guild activities were held periodically in Austria and surrounding towns, and could be found opposite the physicians’ guild, due to their closeness in operations. The craft of bonesetting online records show has been in existence for centuries and is said to have roots among the Greeks and Egyptians. Islamic medicine has also greatly influenced formal attention to bonesetting, anticipating its place in institutional medicine much later in time.
A bonesetter in the FCT whose identity is protected here gives an insight into the practice. “It is passed down from generation to generation. A practitioner before he dies trains his son in the art, and he too passes it down the line. For some it is just a means of income. For others it is a way of life. There are those too that use fetish means. For instance, when a victim is brought in who has fracture, a bone setter picks up a chicken and breaks its legs. He then makes some incantations and starts putting together the fractured bits of the bird’s legs. As he does this the limbs of the human victims starts to heal by itself, and in a matter of time the leg is back to full state. There are others who do not use this supernatural means, but simply depend on the efficacy of certain healing herbs which not many people know about. For this, simply knowing how to manipulate the joints and broken tissues, applying the herbal ointments and solutions and affixing a bamboo sticks to hold it in place, while the healing process takes place is all some bone setters do, before the patient gets his or her healing. But whichever form one takes, the fact remains that the occupation is not for the fainthearted or the ignorant but those who are versatile in what it entails.”
M.A. Kwaja of Westafricainsight says while their activities may be injurious, with adequate training and supervision they could equally become life savers: ‘traditional bonesetters will still remain critical providers of health care. The challenge lies in the provision of adequate and effective training in basic and modern orthopaedic care as a way of reversing the deficits that characterise their activities. In the final analysis, while it is difficult to stop traditional bone-setting in West Africa due to the complications associated with their activities, it is easier to contain the complications associated with the activities of their practitioners.
But for four scholars of the College of Medicine, University of Ibadan, TO Alonge, AE Dongo, AB Omololu, SO Ogunlade who have done extensive study in the area of traditional bonesetters in South Western Nigeria, their activities portend danger for the profession. They say inter alia in a joint paper, “traditional bonesetting is an ancient trade practiced in Nigeria and most developing countries without government regulations and they lack guidance. The complications that accompany these practices are unacceptable and it is imperative that there should be a legislation to curb their activities and save the unsuspecting public from further harm or even death.” But can their activities really be controlled is perhaps the question on the lips of many.