Interview: Nolwazi Mkhwanazi and Emmanuel Babatunde Omobowale, 30th October 2018

Emmanuel Babatunde Omobowale is Nigeria’s first Professor of Literature and Medicine, a position he has held since 2010. From 2012 to 2017 he was also head of the Department of English at the University of Ibadan. Given that Medical Humanities is a nascent field in Africa, I am interested in the Nigerian experience of  developing medical humanities and the work of one of it foremost practitioners, Professor Omobowale.

NM: Prof Omobwale, can you tell us a little about your background and specialisation.

EO: When I tell most people in Nigeria that my area of specialisation is literature and medicine, they look confused. The next question that they ask is: ‘Do you have degrees in both literature and medicine?’ The answer is: ‘not really’. I have degrees in Literature, and they have helped me to have some insight into medicine and the healthcare profession. When I look back to how I came to specialize in Literature and Medicine and now the Medical Humanities, I am still amazed.

NM: Can you tell me about your journey to Medical Humanities?

First, my journey into the world of literature and medicine started in 1995 when I joined the academic staff of the Department of English, University of Ibadan.  The first thing that the Head of Department, Professor Niyi Osundare, did was to assign a 300 level course, ENG 365, to me.  The title of the course was ‘Special Topics in Literature’. I was told that I could teach any book, theme or author. So I decided to teach the works of six Nigerian physician-writers whose novels I had read and whose  unique backgrounds in medicine were, I felt, worthy of the attention of my students. The six writers whose books I taught in 1995 were Wale Okediran, Tony Marinho, Tolu Ajayi, James Ene Henshaw, Anezi Okoro and Femi Olugbile.. Their works depict diverse themes such as corruption, tribalism, medical malpractice, inept political leadership – that are prevalent in Nigerian society.

In May 1995, after the second semester examinations, as I was about to start my PhD programme, I decided study books written by some of the medical doctors whose works I had taught for my ENG 365 course. However, I experienced some difficulties in getting secondary materials to support my ideas. I was in this dilemma for a while. Then, one fateful afternoon, a friend of mine, Isidore Diala, who is now a Professor of Literature at Abia State University, Uturu, Nigeria, stopped by, to see me in my office. He told me that he had seen a book entitled: The Body and the Text: Comparative Essays in Literature and Medicine in the university’s main library. He thought the book might be useful to me. I thanked him for giving me this piece of information, and I immediately went to the Library to search for the book. To my chagrin, I discovered that the book did not even exist in the subject and title catalogues. To make matters worse, the librarians on duty told me that the library did not have such a title on its book list. In spite of this, I went upstairs to check the shelves on the second floor of the library where Isidore had apparently seen the book. I did not find it. After an hour of searching, I went back to my office. The next morning, I returned to the library. This time I decided to go to the third floor. I moved along one of the shelves in the library’s west wing and randomly selected a book from the top of the shelf. Lo and behold, to my utmost surprise, I had picked the book: The Body and the Text: Comparative Essays in Literature and Medicine. I selected one of the contributors to the book, a Professor Anne Hudson Jones, of the University of Texas at Galveston, as the person that I would get in touch with to shed more light on what Literature and Medicine represented as a field of intellectual activity. I wrote her a letter introducing myself as a Nigerian postgraduate student and lecturer who needed some information on what Literature and Medicine entailed. Little did I know, at the time I sent the letter, that Professor Jones was, in fact, one of the first Professors of Literature and Medicine in the world.

About a month after I sent the letter, I received a parcel, containing different materials and books about Literature and Medicine. With the assistance of Professor Jones, I was able to contact another Professor of Literature and Medicine, Professor Suzanne Poirier, of the University of Illinois’ College of Medicine, Chicago, who is one of the leading scholars in the discipline. Through Professors Jones and Poirier as well as a Senate Research Grant from the University of Ibadan, I was able to get other articles, which have proved useful and invaluable in helping me to understand what Literature and Medicine, which came into existence in the 1970s, entails.

NM: Tell me about your career trajectory?

EO: I was an undergraduate student in the department of English at the University of Ibadan in 1985. I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1989. I returned to university in 1991 and read for an MA in Literature. I left the university and worked as an editor for Heinemann Educational Books

In 2001 I was a PhD in Literature and Medicine by the University of Ibadan. The title of my PhD thesis was ‘Literature and Medicine: A Study of the Creative Writing of Selec­ted Nigerian Physician-Writers’ in the Department of English, University of Ibadan, Nigeria. Following the successful completion of my PhD, I was awarded an American Fogarty Fellowship, in August 2002, to study for an MA degree in Bioethics at CASE, which was formerly known as Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) in Cleveland. I completed the program in May 2003 and I returned to Nigeria. In 2005 the Department of English at the University of Ibadan introduced a course on ‘Literature and Medicine’ into its postgraduate curriculum. My PhD thesis served as the template for it thus I have been the person tasked with teaching the course to both literature and medical students at the University of Ibadan for more than a decade now. The university of Ibadan is the only university in Nigeria that offers a course on Literature and Medicine.

NM: Tell me a little bit about the course that you teach on Literature and Medicine?

Literature and Medicine looks at the symbiotic relationship between literary and medical knowledge. It can include literature written by physician-writers, non-physicians, as well as patient-writers. It explores experiences of ill health and the process of healing.

NM: Can you describe what you hope to achieve in your teaching of the course?

EO: Apart from providing insights into the nature of the discipline, I  use the course as a platform to compare the works of Nigerian physician-writers with those written by writers from non-medical backgrounds. Under the banner of Literature and Medicine I have supervised 10 PhD students and several Masters’ projects. Many of my students have explored diverse topics such as scriptotherapy, the portrayal of HIV/AIDS in literature, literature and psychiatry as well as literature and trauma. One of PhD students, Emmanuel Sola Owonibi, completed his PhD thesis on patient-writers in February 2011 Dr. Owonibi has won a number of international grants and fellowships as a result of his enterprising and innovative work in the area of Literature and Medicine. Another student Stephen Kekeghe wrote his PhD on the portrayal of mental health in Nigerian literature. Ten other students, Joseph Maiyaki, Opeyemi Ajibola, Abosede Ajiboye, Iwabi Dahunsi, Toyin Olagbegi, Rita Okonoboh, Oluwafunmike Adewunmi, Ndubuisi Akwarandu, Abimbola Adedeji and Charles Adeniranye, are also working on their PhD theses in the area of Literature and Medicine. While some of these students are examining the interface between literature and medicine in a number of African countries, Akwarandu, Maiyaki, Adedeji and Ajibola are focusing specifically on the portrayal of trauma in literary works. I would like to stress that all my PhD students took the decision to pursue their PhD programmes within the ambits of Literature and Medicine of their own freewill.

NM: Do you get the sense that you are building a new generation of Nigerian scholars in Medical and Health Humanities?

EO: Yes. Between 2005 and 2017, more than 50 MA postgraduate students have written their projects in the area of Literature and Medicine. Two of my former students who wrote their MA projects under Literature and Medicine, Femi Eromosele and Sakiru Adebayo, are presently PhD students at the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa and they are still exploring issues within the Literature and Medicine for their PhD programmes. Eromosele’s MA project, was a great addition to the body of scholarship carried out in the University of Ibadan’s Department of English. For his MA project, Adebayo examined neurosis as not only a clinical but a metaphorical, philosophical and literary phenomenon that is not unconnected with Africa’s colonial past. In June 2016, the Ibadan Journal of Humanistic Studies published an article, jointly written by another former MA student, Hafiz Lekan Adigun and me. The article examines the linguistic ‘metaphorisation’ of infection and its sociological consequences on both the doctor-patient relationship and the social politics that exists between the government and the citizenry in Nigeria. I am currently supervising 9 PhD students in Literature and Medicine. The field of medical humanities has grown in a very remarkable way  at the University of Ibadan.

NM: Can you tell me about the evolution of the collaboration between the Department of English and the College of Medicine at the University of Ibadan??

EO: After I started teaching Literature and Medicine as a course in the Department of English, I also entered into an informal collaboration with Professor A.O. Malomo, a neurosurgeon and anatomist, to teach the ethics of medicine to medical students with the aid of poems, plays and short stories. This relationship has lasted for over 15 years and has inspired the need to set up an institute of bioethics and Medical Humanities.

NM: Who are the poets and writers that feature in your of ethics of medicine course?

EO: Some of the works I use in these informal classes are poems written by poet-physician, Latunde Odeku, who, in his lifetime, was a Professor of Neurosurgery. In particular I use Odeku’s two collections, Twilight: Out of the Night and Whispers from the Night. The gloominess which pervades the two collections of Odeku’s poetry reflects his pessimistic attitude to events occurring around him at the hospital and in his own life. Odeku died in England on August 20, 1974, ten years after he first learnt from his doctors at the University College Hospital in Ibadan that he was suffering from diabetes. His illness made him undergo some form of physical degeneration because of its debilitating effect on his body. Most of Odeku’s medically related poems illustrate his experiences not only as a physician but also as a patient of the University College Hospital. I also teach the novel, The Epidemic  written by Tony Marinho, a gynaecologist, and Pariah Earth and Other Stories, written by Anezi Okoro, a dermatologist.

Apart from teaching these poems, novels, plays and short stories to medical students, I also encourage them to write their own poems, short stories and plays. In fact, in 2009, I published an article entitled ‘Literary Physicians: Nigerian Medical Students, Medicine and the Art of Creative Writing’ in Revista Romana de Bioetica, where I reviewed some of the poems, short stories and plays published by some medical students in the student journal, Dokita.

NM: Tell me a little about your own research and publications?

EO: The articles that give some details of what has propelled my own research include  an article on Odeku’s Twilight: Out of the Night in the Romanian journal, Revista Romana de Bioetica in 2006., a critical review of Odeku’s second volume of poetry, Whispers from the Night, published in the African Journal of Neurological Sciences  in 2007. I have also published an article in 2008 specifically on Literature and Medicine in Nigeria where I argued that such a course should be institutionalised in Nigeria because exposing medical students to literature will humanise medical practice in the country.

In the last 20 years, I have conducted extensive studies of the thematic thrust of the writings of several Nigerian medical doctors, and they include Latunde Odeku, Tony Marinho, James Ene Henshaw, Wale Okediran, Anezi Okoro, Tolu Ajayi, Femi Olugbile and Femi Oyebode. I have also conducted interviews with many of these physician-writers, and I published some of this work in an article in 2011 titled ‘The Scapel and the Pen: Conversations with two pioneer Nigerian Physician-Writers.’. Through my interaction with these medical doctors and their works I have been able to write about James Ene Henshaw’s thesis about cultural hybridity in West Africa as well as correct the widespread error by critics about the year when Henshaw’s magnum opus, This is Our Chance was first staged. I have also critiqued the poetry of one of Nigeria’s most versatile and prolific diaspora poets, Femi Oyebode. I have presented Anezi Okoro’s panacea for the evolution of a credible educational system in Nigeria as well as explored the symbiotic links between literature, medicine and politics in Wale Okediran’s novels.. I think that might give you some idea of the work that I do.

NM: I believe that you are also a writer and that your own creative writing has been published and one short story, the President’s Physician was adapted into a play?

Yes. While I was a postgraduate student studying Bioethics in Cleveland I wrote a collection of short stories, on a number of medical themes. One of the stories was entitled ‘The President’s Physician’. When I returned to Nigeria, I adapted the story into a play. It was published in 2005. The title changed to The President’s Physician. On April 2005 the play was performed by medical students from the College of Medicine at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Ibadan. About a week later it was also performed at the University College Hospital in Ibadan.  Other creative work of mine includes The Eagle Must Fly and Other stories published in 1992; The Melting Pot published in 1993, Seasons of Rage published in 1997 and AN Eye for an Eye published in 2001. I also wrote a short story, ‘Canadian Blues’, which compares the healthcare system in Nigeria and Canada. The idea for the story came from hearing that in Canada, people can wait for many hours to see a doctor in the emergency ward. I found this interesting because this kind of delay hardly happens in Nigeria’s major hospitals, despite the country’s various socio-political problems.

NM: Can you tell me more about what The President’s Physician is about?

The play was really a way for me to use literature to draw attention to core issues in biomedical ethics such as autonomy, beneficence, competence and power. The central character of the play is Bituki Warunga, an African medical doctor who works as the personal physician for an African military dictator, Kalunga Ntibantunganyah of the fictitious African Republic of Wavaria, Warunga is pressured by both his employer and his family to flout the tenets of the Hipprocratic Oath. The themes I wanted to highlight were what happens in totalitarian state where the system of governance is predicated on deceit, maladministration, corruption, repression and various acts of intimidation and coercion.  Interestingly, some of the ideas that I hypothesised in my play have manifested in Uganda where President Yoweri Museveni, has been in power for 31 years. In the last few years, Museveni’s main opponent for the office of President of Uganda is Kizza Besigye, a medical doctor and who, until a few years ago, was the personal physician of Mr Museveni. Mr Besigye has been in detention several times on charges of high treason.

NM: Earlier you mentioned that there are plans to set up a centre Institute of Bioethics and Medical Humanities, where did the idea of the Institute come from and what development have been made towards establishing it?

EO: In 2005, a group of scholars, including myself, who were interested in medical ethics and who were lecturers in different departments of the University of Ibadan formed a bioethics group called the West African Bioethics Training Programme, under the leadership of Professor Clement Adebamowo, an oncologist. The group included lecturers from diverse specialisations like Philosophy, Surgery, Public Health, Sociology and Anatomy. We met regularly to discuss different topics, including Philosophy, African Literature, Law, Bioethics and Medicine. We also organised workshops for healthcare practitioners in different parts of Nigeria. Most of the members of the group had postgraduate degrees in Bioethics from an assortment of universities in Europe and North America. In 2007, the members of West African Bioethics wrote a proposal, to the Senate of the University of Ibadan for permission to start a Master of Science programme in Bioethics. The proposal was approved. Today the University of Ibadan runs an MSc programme in Bioethics, which is housed in the Department of Surgery and which has also received funding from the United States’ National Institutes of Health (NIH). It is great to see that postgraduate degrees in Bioethics, which is mostly rooted in philosophy, have been awarded by the University of Ibadan, which has one of Africa’s largest medical schools, for the past ten years. About 40 students have completed this postgraduate programme.

It was only in 2016 that the idea of turning the Bioethics programme into an Institute of Bioethics and Medical Humanities gained momentum. Again, several scholars like Clement Adebamowo, A.O. Malomo, Christopher Agulanna, Bayo Adejumo, Temidayo Ogundiran, John Oluwole Akintayo, Simisola Oluwatoyin Akintola, Samuel Ayodele Jegede and I developed a new proposal for the  Senate of the University to consider, which they are currently doing. We are hoping that the approval of establishment of an Institute of Bioethics and the Medical Humanities will occur early in 2019. Our proposal, which is a 41 page document, provides the reasons why the establishment of an Institute of Bioethics and Medical Humanities has become imperative in Nigeria. We hope that when the Institute is finally established at the University of Ibadan, other Nigerian universities would be encouraged to do the same thing in the best interests of the Nigerian nation.

As a bioethicist and medical humani­ties scholar with a literary background, my ultimate goal really is to facilitate the inte­gration of the Humanities and different aspects of the Sciences, especially Medi­cine, into a cohesive, interdependent whole in universities across Nigeria. I am also interes­ted in how the humanities as a whole can help in the humanization of medical prac­tice in Nigeria. One of the core objectives of the Institute would be to use the humanities, including literature, to produce graduates for whom integrity and honesty in all matters is a core value and who strive to be creative, innovative, creative, and intellectual curious in their scholarship relating to medical practice in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous and ethnically diverse nation.


Postscript: Readers may be interested in a recent Guardian Nigeria profile of Professor Omobowale:

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