Nollywood is a sobriquet which has now become the official name for Nigeria’s feature film industry. The term is a derivative of Hollywood, the American movie industry. There is no doubt that Nollywood tries to mirror the Nigerian society and that the movies it churns out have garnered a wide reach. There are reports of Nigerian movies enjoying heavy viewership in other parts of Africa, Asia, and Europe. The proliferation of cable TV channels (like Africa Magic channels on Multichoice DSTV) further broadens the reach and acceptance of Nollywood movies. For anyone living outside Nigeria, one way of knowing what Nigeria looks like is to see a couple of Nollywood movies.
Movies entertain and propagate ideas to the viewers. A medical professional for instance knows the power of audiovisuals in registering information in the human brain. So what about Nollywood and our health? The answer is simple. There is a relationship between what people see in movies and their ideas of health. There is a relationship between the information passed across in movies and public health. And Nigeria is not different. In fact, the effect of what shows on the TV screens on people’s perspective of medical services is more accentuated in Nigeria. And that is the heart of this article.
Nollywood is reinforcing the myriad of harmful customary beliefs and practices that are against safe modern day health principles in Nigeria. And with the lack of access to sources of quality information by many Nigerians (despite the explosion in information communication technology (ICT), access to the Nollywood movies is like a snap of the finger. How I wish such an influential sector could augment the efforts of the various health care providers in the country! How I wish such a very effective medium of mass communication could act as a town crier for safe health practices in Nigeria! How I wish those movies could portray healthcare and indeed the Nigerian health professional in a more positive light! But the reverse is the case. Following is a perfunctory catalogue of how Nollywood has been enfeebling the convalescent health sector in Nigeria. They are grouped into two — portrayals of the health professional and the health sector as incapable and portrayals that exalt traditions that are harmful to human health.
“Mere looking at hospital scenes in Nigerian movies can discourage you from going to the hospital…”
In a Nigerian movie, anybody can be a doctor. One rough-looking guy with some guttersnipe language can actually be a doctor. He can be dressed in any manner and since most movies place doctors side by side with sorcerers, there are times you might actually not be able to distinguish between the two. Any non-Nigerian watching Nollywood movies would think Nigerian doctors do not know the basic rudiments of examining a patient. I have seen a doctor listening to heart sounds with his stethoscope’s bell on his patient’s wrist. In another movie scene, a doctor estimates gestational age after auscultating (examining with a stethoscope) his patient’s pregnant abdomen.
The lingo is nothing to write home about too. Imagine a doctor in a movie saying, ‘Madam, you’ve contracted staphylococcus disease. If you don’t treat it on time, it can transform to a very chronic virus’! Or ‘Hello everybody! Your relative is in a critical condition in our ICU now and he has just 3 hours more to live. If you don’t get the money for the operation on time, he may die.’ Wow! I can only roll my eyes at these gaffes! Mere looking at hospital scenes in Nigerian movies can discourage you from going to the hospital: what is being used to depict the ward may be an empty room containing a pitiable bed with some empty fluid bag hanging over it.
What about clinical investigations in Nigerian movies? It is rife to see doctors confused in our movies. They never get to successfully investigate any condition. They end up referring the patient to spiritualists and sorcerers for intervention as their tests cannot reveal anything. The same goes for the doctors’ interventions. At a time, I had to conclude that a doctor in a Nollywood movie is only there to either declare the patient dead or refer them to a sorcerer. He never gets to successfully treat any patient. He never gets to successfully treat any patient. No wonder our major roads are occupied by different camps and auditoriums where clerics boast of healing powers.
Perhaps what seems like the most worrisome Nollywood goof is the portrayal of the ‘first on call’ folks as being superior to and more competent than the doctor. We call them ‘first on call’ in my hospital as a large number of our patients always visit them before coming to us. I mean the four ‘specializations’ — healing prophets and pastorpreneurs, marabouts, herbal healers, and sorcerers. They are always smarter than the doctor in a Nollywood movie. Once the doctor gets confused and refers the patient away, the smart omnipotent guy comes in and in minutes, he ‘diagnoses’ the patient’s problem. The sorcerer discovers in his own ‘scan’ what the doctor cannot discover with all his sophisticated investigative protocols. The omniscient ‘scan’ most times is a piece of white cloth hanging on the wall in his shrine.
There are scenes when the sorcerer warns that the condition should not be taken for medical attention or else it will get worse. The doctor first tries to treat the patient but somewhere along the line, he discovers the situation and he immediately refers the patient away. Then you would wonder if he is truly a doctor or a doctor-cum-sorcerer. Doctors permit and encourage the use of the herbalist’s concoctions in the hospital. I even saw a scene where a doctor co-manages a patient in his own hospital with a sorcerer. Scratch that. He more like runs errands for the ‘consultant’ sorcerer when the latter shows up in the hospital to rescue the patient he has been ‘mismanaging’ all the while.
“…a doctor in a Nollywood movie is only there to either declare the patient dead or refer them to a sorcerer. He never gets to successfully treat any patient.”
In Nollywood movies, many things are obvious. Doctors are never administering basic life support in any emergency situation. Doctors declare someone dead without any attempts at resuscitation. Doctors give wrong counsel concerning fertility issues. Doctors never write prescriptions. No public hospitals ever feature in any movie: it is always a private hospital. No specialists: it is always a general practitioner.
As for the unhealthy customs, there are so many still encouraged in Nollywood movies like talismanic incisions when the world is fighting against HIV, hepatitis B and other blood-borne infections. I am not sure if there is a Nigerian movie that really encourages child immunization, safe sex practice, regular medical check-up or HIV Counseling and Testing.
This write-up may appear like a subjective, sentimental and unnecessarily judgmental account of our ‘beloved’ Nollywood. Ironically, I am one of its millions of ardent ‘proudly Nigeria’ fans. I am just bothered about Nollywood having not been very fantastic in portraying, in positive light, the profession I have committed so many years of my life to. The medical practice in Nigeria might not be as advanced as it should be, but it is obviously not as bad as Nollywood portrays it. What I have seen in those movies is far from the reality of our health sector.
So, what is the way out of this wood (no pun intended)? Doctors should get involved in the making of these movies. We should not just sit down in our comfort zones and keep on reviling while ignorance is being draped in royal apparel to our chagrin. We all revel in Hollywood that has produced great health-benefiting series like Gray’s Anatomy and House. But are we ready to pay the necessary sacrifice? It may be true that those Hollywood folks recruit the services of experts while writing their scripts but we should not forget the maxim that expects the prophet to go to the mountain if the mountain decides not to come to him. That may solve our own peculiar problem here.
Nollywood still boasts of some works that are positive but things can and should get far better than this. The doctors’ body, the Nigerian Medical Association, (and of course the other professional associations in the health sector) can get involved in areas of legislation, financing and on-the-job assistance for Nollywood. We can be represented on the film censors board. I’m sure that it will not be a waste of time. It will be a very handy way of educating the populace about what we know can help improve their health. Movies are surely a veritable means of public health education. Nollywood sure can help us help Nigerians to stay healthy as much as health experts too can help you help them.
I wrote this article sometime ago and it was published in an online medical journal in 2011 here. In this blog, I have changed the title from the one the publishers used. Sadly, it is important to note that five years later, not much has changed about the relationship between Nollywood and the health of Nigerians.