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MISSION OF MERCY
A trip to Nigeria with the African Women’s Health Project International gives participants hands-on experience with health problems of poverty-stricken regions

BY HELAINE R. WILLIAMS ARKANSAS DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE
Publication: Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Date: Mar 18, 2006, Section:Religion; Page Number: 43


It was a 1997 medical-mission trip to Montego Bay, Jamaica, that first brought “foreign missions” from a much-heard-but-vague term into something I would actually experience. That was one of the hardest jobs I ever loved, and as the years passed, a new desire began to take hold: To do mission work in Africa.

The desire became a prayer that was answered in February. My husband, Dre, and I were part of a five-member delegation to Lagos, Nigeria, our first trans-Atlantic trip, and a journey to what many of us black Americans refer to as the Motherland.

This was a combination mission and fact-finding trip on behalf of African Women’s Health Project International (AWHPI), a 2-year-old, nonprofit organization based in Little Rock whose goal is to meet the healthcare needs of poor women and children in Africa. The purpose of this trip was to set up two-day health fair, tour hospitals and speak with local health officials about health-related needs.


Deun (pronounced Dee-ohn) Ogunlana of Little Rock, AWHPI founder and chief executive officer, is a native of Lagos who has lived in the United States for more than 20 years. She is also a Yoruba princess, the granddaughter of the late Oba (King) Ajasa Ogunlana, ruler of Lagos.

It was during a 1997 trip back to Lagos for her grandmother’s burial, Ogunlana says, that God opened her eyes to the lack of adequate medical care, especially when it came to poor women and children.

“When you have healthy mothers [and] women, you will have healthy families,” says Ogunlana, a devout Christian, publisher of Virtuous Woman magazine and a bridal-shop owner.

 “My goal is to get the women and children all over Africa the ... medical care that they need, as the Lord would permit us.”

Our delegation to Africa also included Minister Brenda Jackson of Little Rock, a Calvary Bread of Life church member; and Ogunlana’s brother, Dr. Babajide Ogunlana, a podiatric surgeon in Houston. We were hosted by Nigerian Sen. Musiliu O. Obanikoro, whose namesake foundation is a collaborative partner of AWHPI.

We knew AWHPI’s work would be cut out for us. U.N. estimates predict that metropolitan Lagos (part of Lagos State), with a current population of 11 million, will be the world’s third largest city by 2015, with a population of 23 million. Unfortunately, its “size and population far outstrips the physical planning efforts of government and the private sector, as well as the development of infrastructure facilities,” according to information on the Mega-Cities Project’s Web site, megacitiesproject.org.

Writer Paul Okunlolo agrees. In his online article “The power and the heartbeat of west Africa’s biggest urban jungle,” he also cites Lagos’ “widespread urban poverty, massive unemployment ... emerging slums and overwhelming environmental decay,” along with health problems that include malaria, diarrhea, a 6.6 percent HIV/AIDS rate (higher than the national average of 5.4 percent) and maternal/infant mortality rates higher than that of any other region in the world.

But, as we found, Lagos’ positive aspects are numerous, too: The food, the friendliness of its people, their strong sense of family and their creative and entrepreneurial spirit.

What follows is a diary of our mission activities.

Saturday, Feb. 11:

    It is our second full day in Nigeria. While we are riding in the Isolo area, Ogunlana spots a hospital — General Hospital in Isolo, Lagos state — and insists we stop. There is no waiting room; people are congregated outside the emergency-room area. When we go in to see the matron, we draw a crowd.

    Ogunlana introduces herself and us to the matron on duty and explains our purpose. The matron and her staff welcome us warmly and take us on a tour.

    Accommodations at this hospital are primitive, especially for an urban area. State-of-the-art equipment, intravenous drips, aspirin and adhesive bandages — things we take for granted — are all but nonexistent here.

    The hospital’s medical director and chief consulting surgeon, Dr. A. Kunle Ogunlana (no relation to Deun), is not there. But if we return on Wednesday, the matron tells us, Dr. Ogunlana would be better able to outline the hospital’s needs for us. We promise to return on Wednesday and speak to him.

    Today, there is only one doctor on duty, Dr. Adetunji G. Odubela, to treat myriad patients. We speak briefly with him. He’s friendly but far too busy to spend much time with us.

    At the hospitals here, Deun Ogunlana says, people are expected to pay cash before treatment; there are no “mercy” or “charity” hospitals, and health insurance is unheard of. Just before we leave, Ogunlana gives money to one man who has appealed to her for help to pay the hospital’s “admission fee” for his brother, who was in an automobile accident. She then hustles us away before we are bombarded with more requests.

Tuesday, Feb. 14:

    After spending Sunday and Monday changing hotels, sightseeing, shopping, spending time with Deun’s family members and finalizing plans for the week, we get up early to take a 90-minute drive to Ogun state, which lies north of Lagos, and meet with Dr. Iyabo Obasanjo-Bello, Ogun State Commissioner of Health and daughter of Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo. Her office is in the city of Abeokuta, population about 500,000. It’s less crowded than Lagos city; conditions are better.

    At our request for information on Nigeria’s health needs, Obasanjo-Bello confirms that the country suffers from one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. Nigeria also has the highest number of polio cases in the world — a health problem it shares with India. Traffic accidents are an additional health problem.

    Infectious diseases are a bigger problem than chronic ones, but instances of chronic diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, cancers, kidney and liver ailments, “are quite high,” Obasanjo-Bello says. Abuse of drugs and the use/misuse of traditional medicine (defined in an Afrol News article as “treatments often based on herbs and/or spiritual services”) is widespread.

    The state of the hospitals in Ogun? “Not good, but improving,” she says. We ask what hospital equipment is most needed in the area of women’s health. She replies that delivery beds, baby incubators, obstetric-gynecological equipment and mammography equipment would be welcome. Ogunlana promises to steer AWHPI efforts toward these needs, as well as get in touch with Obasanjo-Bello later to see about getting Nigerian health officials to attend the second annual AWHPI conference to take place May 30-June 3 in Little Rock.

    Afterward, we tour the female surgical ward, the maternity ward and the neonatal unit of Abeokuta’s General Hospital. This hospital is in much better shape than the one in Isolo, but its many needs — from padding for examination beds to modern surgical equipment — are obvious.

Wednesday, Feb. 15:

    We pay a return visit to General Hospital in Isolo and meet Dr. Kunle Ogunlana; the hospital administrator, Olayumoke Akinlawon; and the head nurse, Florence Olufunke Taiwo. The hospital is badly in need of incubators, Dr. Ogunlana tells us. It also needs a cardiac monitor, an anesthesia machine, a sterilizer and “consumables” — disposable medical supplies. Long-term needs include a surgery ward.

    To the delight of the officials, Deun Ogunlana declares AWHPI’s intention to “adopt” the hospital and expresses her wish to do a free health screening there during the next mission trip. Ogunlana feels that God has led us there.

Thursday, Feb. 16:

    Today is the first day of the two-day free health fair sponsored by AWHPI and the Senator Obanikoro Foundation. We set up under a couple of rented tents in a crowded marketplace area in Isale-Eko, Lagos Island.

    We work with a team of local volunteers, including Dr. Bade Adewale (personal physician to legendary Nigerian recording artist King Sunny Ade) who shows up to help out, as well as Dr. Lanre Ajiyan and a number of nurses. Adewale and Ajiyan, along with Dr. Babajide Ogunlana, see patients. Brenda Jackson helps with the free blood-pressure and diabetes screenings. Dre and I work in the “pharmacy,” repackaging and labeling doses of over-the-counter medicines and giving them to patients who have just been screened. Deun Ogunlana does some of everything.

    Things go smoothly at first, but as more people show up, things gradually get more hectic. The “pharmacy” begins to run low on medicine. Even if they have no health problems, the people want to leave with something.

    Finally, all the medicines for that day are gone, save for a few packets of Alka-Seltzer cold tablets. We give those out and close up shop. We’d worked for about five hours and seen more than 1,200 people.

Friday, Feb. 17:

    It’s the second day of the health fair. This time we’re on the grounds of Jalupon Estate, Surulere, in mainland Lagos. We’re in a green, open field; there is much more room. In addition to yesterday’s activities, Ogunlana lectures the women on breast cancer and does a breast self-exam demonstration. The people are more orderly today, but they are still eager to be seen. We’ve all become physicians this day. “Doctor! Doctor!” various people sing out when trying to do get our attention.

    This day’s fair lasts roughly four hours, with about 500 people served.

    Personal mission accomplished: I have now done mission work in Africa. But this trip merely whetted my appetite. I hope this is a calling that will continue.

Special to the Democrat-Gazette Dr. Babajide Ogunlana, a podiatric surgeon from Houston who traveled with the Arkansas delegation to Nigeria, consults with a woman who attended the two-day health fair in a crowded marketplace in Lagos Island.

Special to the Democrat-Gazette Improving the state of health care facilities and supplies in Nigeria is the goal of Little Rock-based African Women’s Health Project International.








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