By Mirjam Rülke
Dear Dr. Iroegbu,
Posting articles in the websites since the discovery and launching of the internet, electronic writings and publications have come a long way. This is more so at helping researchers and social networking for critical research, education and policy directions. I have truly benefitted from reading insightful articles from various experts. Particularly, I have had the pleasure to follow closely essays written by Dr. Patrick Iroegbu about issues on indigenous knowledge systems, medicine, gender and cultures. I want to highlight the fact that while it is important to appreciate articles posted by seasoned scholars and professionals, it makes sense at the same time to help researchers gain more values by considering their writings at all times as useful academic reference materials in which their followers are looking out for. As such, it stands to benefit readers to have posted pieces of work to include, where possible, critical comments, citations and approaches that will surely elevate presentation skills and scholarship in the field of knowledge sharing, writing and publishing.
Since a long time I have had it in my mind to contact you, to say thank you for your wonderful studies, essays and books about Igbo medicine, herbalists in Nigeria, migration, insanity and many publications more. Your papers influenced me and my research deeply. I studied social anthropology and history of religion in Freiburg/Germany and I am married to an Igbo man from Anambra state. After the birth of our second child I planned to write my PhD thesis about Igbo medicine, migration and the German healthcare system. I realised early that there seems to be much confusion in the Igbo studies and high quality studies about Igbo medicine are rare. My confusion ended when I found your “Introduction to Igbo Medicine.” Nothing opened the research field better for me than your writings. Thank you very much for that! I hope you will continue to research, write and publish in this field.
I am very happy about your use of case studies. When I read your writings it’s like you send me on a journey and you allow me to participate because of all the details and your insider view knowledge. The information you give allows me to speak with my informants on a deep level, to get their trust and respect. The son of a Dibïa owu mmiri even told me that I know more about Igbo medicine than he does. Before I found your essays I often heard that we, “the white” people, will never understand the Igbo and especially not the Igbo medicine.
Later I had to change the topic of my PhD thesis, after my old supervisor retired and no other Professor in South Germany seemed to be able to support a PhD thesis in Medical Anthropology. To be accepted in a Medical Anthropology Research Group in Swiss I had to change the topic to: “Ageing, Gender and Migration”. It’s still about Igbo in Germany, about the impact of their migration on the situation of their parents back home and about how the immigrants in Germany plan for their own old age and death/burial.
The same story started again. I read a lot. Engaged in many studies, as well as did summaries, hundreds of interviews, comparing or just mix findings from interviews with Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo informants without giving useful background information about the culture, the situation of the interview and so on. It is very hard not to become confused by reading that and at the same time to be(come) “naïve for ethnographic interviews”. I think you also read the essay from Aboderin (2004) about the weak theoretical framework that builds the basics of the most studies about ageing in African societies. These theories of cause influenced me too, even when I had the strong feeling that they are not so much as useful as being a basic to start to collect data. I realised, that they made me blind instead of giving me a guideline for my research.
And then your writings “The Rite of Ori na Ndu OLD-AGE TRADITION AND REPRESENTATION IN IGBO LIFE” and “The audacity of Ibi Ebibi rite of passage and cremation burial rite” stood out for me and both had the same effect on me like before your essays about Igbo medicine. They gave me a look at special cases and encouraged me again to start to speak with key informants even about difficult things like human rights and Igbo widows.
Your essays helped me even to change the way of how I speak with my two supervisors. Of course, I must know the existing theories, but in the area of my research we need basic information, as well as deep empirical data. We don’t know enough to start to create theories at all and the most important thing I have to do with the existing theories (especially with the modernisation and ageing theory) seem to be the reflection of their influence on me, to free me from it before I go to the field.
In December 2011, we had a writing workshop and every PhD student had to present a text with an extraordinary good writing style, which influenced his/her writing skills the most. I did not reach the level of writing down the findings of being extraordinarily good. I am still opening the field and collecting data, because of that I decided to present a paper you wrote (The Rite of Ori na Ndu…), because your writings influenced my access to the field mostly. Well even when I didn’t get the point of the homework, the PhD students and Professors have been very impressed, especially one from Tanzania. He was very happy about the way you addressed your own people – the Igbo of Nigeria. And all have been happy to get this professional looking insight from an insider.
I think that your texts are very important; also because they are free in the internet and even poor students who cannot afford to pay for articles and books from anywhere in the world can read them. And it seems that on www.kwenu.com like in other homepages from Igbo and Nigerians, the selecting pressure is less tedious and critically demanding than in guidelines for the scientific journals, so in the internet it seems to be more possible to help research students and scholars with your publications as you have been doing. During the writing workshop we became very sad, that we have to throw away so many important data when we want to write our PhD thesis and so on with regard to peferred published academic sources of material and all that. And I always had in mind to appreciate the useful possibility that the internet offers, which you have helped to stress to scholarship when somebody wants to publish his/her research without the limitation of journals, editors, professors, reviewers and so on. The problem as it should be noted is that not all internet published articles care to include list of references used for the article or essay.
I think in the end we all just want to create useful writings and most of your writings have been very useful for me and others. But even when the limitations for internet publications might be less strict than in journals, we are responsible for them and we shouldn’t make the mistake to become careless in terms of overlooking critical aspects about our writings, even when we only sign them with our first name.
I write to you this, because a few days ago I was looking for your essay “The audacity of Ibi Ebibi rite…” in the internet again. I wanted to mention it as an example in one of my questions in the interviews about ideas about burial ceremonies and their hypothetical influence on the life after death. During my research in the internet I found another piece of work, which happened to be your reply to Amara in Linda Ikeji’s blog, published in both www.chatafrik.com and www.amoizemagazine.com. Your lectures at www.udemy.com and article postings in www.nigeriavillagesqure.com and www.igbomedicine.webs.com among others are also noted. At first, I thought that somebody used your name to publish that reply to Amara's opinionated and counselling essay but it was indeed you who wrote that piece with the obvious perspective it offered without citation on any study related to women and hygiene acts. I can understand that it was a reply which was not intended to be uniquely academic so to say. Yet its effect on readers like me turned out to be obvious too.
I am sorry to say that, but as a post graduate woman with interest in medicine, and one who grew up in a country with a very good medical (both, herbal traditional and biomedical!) and hygiene system I must ask you why you didn’t even try to mention any academic study in your comment about female hygiene in this reply article? I enjoyed so many of your writings but this one really shocked me a bit given this omission or overlook of which researchers like me would like to gain from the posting of the article. It is surely not because of the topic per se but because of the way you dealt with it as a mere reply without grounding it with your usual in-depth focus and citations. As a scholar that is being read widely, readers take everything you write or comment on seriously. My concern is that I had expected some deep insight on how African women, particularly Nigerian and Igbo women clean their private parts as a cultural issue of concern. This did not come out except with reference to using water and soap. I want to criticize or rather explain this by commenting from my German societal background and also as a healthcare worker - immersed in intercultural and inter-generational space and reality.
The right technique to clean the female private part is very important, for example, to prevent bladder infection. There are surely many studies about it, in Germany it is trivial or rather a minor issue to know that, doctors, midwives, everybody knows and can teach it that to be clean as a female is a duty; girls know it from very young age onwards that cleaning the female private is a responsibility and therefore culturally endorsed. It is also trivial to know that applying too much soap and hygiene is dangerous especially in the vagina! It therefore takes caution to do it rightly and it must be taught and supervised until it is properly mastered. Growing up to be a lady involves mastering the feminine and hygiene chores.
You know what the problem is with antibiotics and so-called antiseptic or medicated soaps common to African people? They kill bacteria no matter if these bacteria are useful and important for the body or if they are dangerous. Soap does the same and it changes/destroys the natural protection system of the skin. In the female vagina there lives important bacteria that truly and functionally protects the uterus and the vagina against parasites – and, moreover, dangerous bacteria like candida albicans. When candida albicans grow in the vagina, it is often a sign for too much hygiene instead of being a sign for not enough hygiene. Candida albicans smell, and like other illnesses it can cause an extraordinary smelling vagina. A physician should be consulted in those cases! During my first pregnancy, my biomedical doctor told me, that the vagina produces more of this normal liquid thing for protection. She said that many women try to wash that inside away; as such she warns them not to do that, not even with pure water (in the inside!), because that will kill the important and useful bacteria or simply wash them away. When that occurs, the situation can allow the dangerous bacteria to grow. Also it can cause a bakterielle Vaginose (German medical word for infection of the vagina). This infection can also have effect on a baby when the baby comes out naturally. Then white things grow on the baby’s tongue. The baby will have pain when the baby drinks and it can even infect the mother’s breast. This can be the end of breastfeeding. I spoke about that with a woman from Akan speaking group from Ghana, and she said that when babies in Ghana have that condition, the mothers use tomato juice against it… in Germany we have other drugs against it.
By the way when a pregnant woman in Germany is ill (of anything) and must take antibiotics the doctor will prescribe her also a drug to put into the vagina or so. In that drug are living useful bacteria. The antibiotics might kill the natural living, useful, bacteria in the vagina and the other drug replaces the new one. So we really should not wash them away, they are expensive! It is here anthropology is important to teach the rudiments of natural care as viewed and practiced by societies such as the Igbo and mine (German).
It seems to be just a small or private thing, but it is not. Apparently, it must be noted that during many centuries men from so many societies, continents, including their religions did not become tired of trying to improve that women are inferior to men. Very often you can find the argument that the female body is impure (e. g. because of menstrual blood) and this argument was used to keep women away from high positions (religious and political), to give them less rights, even to treat them like slaves...and indeed as supports to men rather than their equals as human beings.
I made several interviews with Igbo men in Germany. Some of them are very sure that women are inferior to men and that men always have the right to beat women and children. It is much so that women and children will have respect for their men (what type of respect should that be? Or do we talk about fear?). In the German law we have equal rights for men, women, and children, handicapped and nearly also for homosexuals… (but I am very sorry the human rights for asylum seekers especially for Nigerians are limited (I fight to change that). In the “real” society we nearly reached that goal of gender equality. The Gender inequality index in Nigeria tells another story about men and women in Nigeria. Some of the Igbo men who mentioned that they ran away from Nigeria because, as it were, the human rights situation could not be guaranteed for them in Nigeria, seem to be sure that in their opinion – that they can beat women – and in the very logic they hold, they conclude that it is better than the German law, better than the human rights for women. In a fight they can use all…even a transformational essays such as your essays can be arrogated by Igbo men to achieve their ends such as accepting it could be cultural for the male practices to hit a woman’s soul to become disciplined; and by extension in printed version also her body such as keeping the regime of personal hygiene as the men would want them to be. By the way: how do you want us to pamper those types of men? In Germany, the police will bring them to court. They will go to jail or they will be deported.
Sorry, I always interpreted your writings in that way that we have to look carefully and without prejudice on the tradition but also should try to use the best achievements of the modern technique, science and ethics to create the best possible future for all humans, animals and for the nature.
Your published article and comments on homosexuality had been well focused on. Indeed, you have been so careful when you talked about human rights and homosexuality, why can’t you be careful in the same way when you write about women and their rights and hygiene? This is where I have failed to understand why your reply to Amara in the said blog got me thinking - hence my writing to point out how I strongly feel we can work out a clearer focus on vaginal hygiene from the perspective of medical anthropology.
I think it is simply a question of the missing reflection of a cultural determinate idea about the body. I mean it seems that you did not even try to write like a Professional Medical Anthropologist by treating the issue as a social network reply. You just wrote about it to relate how some (Igbo) men want their women to be. In so doing, the reply to Amara on the question of “why you are not married” missed out offering that deeper anthropological analysis needed for research and policy on women hygiene and comfortable sexual relationships.
When I started my research about Igbo culture, I came across an old book (sorry I forgot the name and the author) that described a ceremony where Igbo boys shouted to Igbo girls ritually that the girls have dirty and smelling vagina. I discussed that with my husband and he told me that, where he comes from in Africa, many women have extra long fingernails and they use it to scratch and clean the inside of their vagina as may be needed. He also told me that they wash their body and their private part many times every day. I think we don’t need to speak here about the higher risk to get HIV when the fingernails get to launch a wound on the skin in the vagina or am I wrong on this? Again, is it very important to speak even with young kids in Nigeria about that? HIV! You should understand why I am sad!
There is much to say about sexuality and hygiene; I do suggest that we can approach this more from an academic, self reflected level when critical writers like you want us to take it seriously. We can have different opinions about findings, we can discuss about theories, we can focus on different studies and interpret them differently, but I think it is not fair, despite posting replies like the one I am stressing here, not to help your readers by carefully avoiding mentioning absolutely no academic medical study that would have been useful when you speak about women, culture, sex and female hygiene. You have influence with your unique writings to direct research interests in this field.
For me, I need to say it, your reply to Amara in Linda Ikeji’s blog – when I try to see it with my “anthropological eyes” and not just with the eyes of a woman – is very interesting, it is a part of a gender puzzle in that way. That means that for me as a German anthropologist it seems to be that some Igbo men and boys like to tell their women and girls in a very open and public way that their vagina smells – this suggests a perspective of how the male gender perceive and ascribe purity, pollution and danger to their females. (I never had the possibility to taste the vagina of an Igbo woman and I never saw medical reports about it. However, the immense attention and worry for female hygiene also suggests that there should be something special about the biology of Igbo women like other women across cultures. So I just have to take it as the idea or experience of several Igbo men/boys have of their gender opposites). What does that say about the hygiene and gender ideas in the society, about the relationship between men and women, does it have effect on the situation of Igbo widows (sarcasm!) on its own?
If deeper cultural studies would let us have a look on hygiene at all, I think it will be good anthropological approach to share the intercultural focus. In Germany, medical doctors, nurses and midwives will tell one to use only water and organic plant oil to clean and care for new born babies. They will tell you to throw away aggressive chemicals used to clean the flat/house, because it can cause allergy to the baby and a little bit of the chemicals in the stomach of a baby/child is enough to kill the baby/child. Better to use organic soap less is sometimes more. I am sure that most Igbo are very clean people. But I am also sure that many cleaning substances are dangerous for the health. There are many substances in soaps that can cause cancer like PEGs. Perfumes have much alcohol and when you use it for your baby you risk the baby’s life because the alcohol can enter the body through the young and vulnerable skin. There is much need to teach the people about those things and I am sure that you can do that very well, by approaching this dimension on an academic level. We are responsible for our writings given the influence, unique and exploratory researchers like you weigh on readers, human rights, gender issues and policy dynamics.
By the way I am just expanding my education in the field to become a geriatric nursing professional as well as I hope to gain and apply deep cultural issues and sensitivities related to helping the elderly. We wash the private part of those people who cannot do that alone everyday. Sometimes we clean them many times a day, but only with warm water or in some cases with special medical cleaning lotion that contains no soap. Contrary to the notion that washing the private part with soap and water before serving it to men by women should be understood more from what common scientific practices also prescribe. Somebody who would try to clean inside the vagina of a woman without the authorised order and assistance of a medical doctor would lose his/her job. There is more to it than replying Amara in the website post and it is important to use this essay to draw close attention of African women, and indeed Igbo women on the practice of hygiene related to private parts.
It is very important for me to write you about that reply to the question and comment on Amara's submission, because your other writings have been so important for me, for my research and also for other researchers and for policy on gender and human rights regarding sex and use of chemicals, namely soap on keeping the female private parts neat for men. Thank you for all your great writings.
Many greetings from Germany,