With a string of degrees, Ray Oduntan-Kwadje proudly wants to be addressed as a traditional herbal practitioner. She tells ADEOLA BALOGUN why she abandoned all other things to follow her passion
You are being called a doctor, are you a medical doctor or an honorary doctor?
When you’re in Nigeria and you start delivering health care solutions, many people would start calling you a doctor. Even if you’re herbalist, people would call you a doctor. But I am a traditional medicine practitioner, what people like me do is to prevent illnesses. I prefer to be called a traditional medicine practitioner.
Why did you start this?
It started in my family. My great grandmother (I never met her) and grandfather always knew one or two leaves to mix together to treat illnesses. Since I was a child, I never liked taking orthodox drugs. I preferred the traditional herbs because they healed me better. All my siblings are orthodox doctors, though.
But did you go to school?
Oh yes. I studied Biochemistry at The University of Lagos. I have a Masters in Network Engineering. I also studied Aromatherapy (the study of aroma in plants) at the Masters level in England and I did a few more courses that enabled me to be what I am today.
You did work after you studied?
Yes. After my first degree here, I went to England. There I worked at the Transplant Clinic in a hospital in Paddington. That’s where I decided I was not going to be the guinea pig because I was always in an underground lab and it’s so cold. Because of my biochemistry background, I was thinking there should be something my children could take if they had chicken pox. I knew what to mix for them to get healed.
I also ventured into network engineering – I have Masters there. I remember working at a company that makes software for lawyers and everybody used to complain of having backache or fatigue and I was the only black female in that company.
They would ask me, ‘You’re from Africa, do you have something to cure this?’ And I would give them vinegar and they would feel fine. I worked for six months there and I constantly had headache and backache. But when I took some days off, I realised I would be fine.
I thought, ‘Could these be related to stress?’ So I started reading and I realised I had to change my lifestyle. I had fantastic money because I was a Cisco engineer but I wasn’t well, so I resigned and went into aromatherapy and that’s where I found my forte – that herbs and simple things we always take for granted – like taking avocado, ‘ewedu,’ garden egg, vegetables, spinach – really help. They have anti-oxidants in them. I started researching and learning more.
Did you study biochemistry perhaps because you couldn’t gain admission to study medicine?
Not at all! I was a brilliant student. My parents actually wanted all of us to study medicine, but I didn’t want that. I was even admitted to study medicine at the University of Ibadan, but I didn’t want to spend seven years of my life studying a course. I wanted chemistry, but a friend of my dad advised me to go for petro-chemistry, which was five years, but I actually didn’t want to spend more than three or four years in school so as to start having children. But all my siblings are orthodox medical practitioners.
Did you have to work in the formal sector before you studied aromatherapy?
Before you could study aromatherapy, you have to do a particular course for about a year, like anatomy. Aromatherapy is regarded as a Masters in the line of healing. I worked for almost a year before I started my own company.
Aromatherapy is using plant oil to cure diseases, but it’s how to extract it that is a challenge. I’ve not started practising aromatherapy yet in Nigeria because the awareness is not yet there, but gradually things would pick up.
I have been here now for four years and I’ve started telling people about it. Our bodies cannot cope with processed foods that we eat every time because that’s why we have diabetes. We shouldn’t be eating wheat because our digestive systems cannot process that. We should eat what our forefathers ate to survive. I’m trying to go back to the root for us to get rid of these diseases that we have today.
Did you have a thriving career practising herbal medicine in England?
Oh yes. If you walked into my clinic there and I spent a session of 45 minutes with you, it cost £50. The awareness is there – that if you work, you have to take care of your body. Imagine someone walking in the sun here and taking carbonated drink and they’ve not eaten before, that would result to dehydration.
When I see people dipping bread into carbonated drinks, I cry because these are the people that would end up in the hospital in the next few years and they don’t even have the money to take care of themselves.
Why don’t you take ‘amala’ and ‘ewedu’ or ‘gbegiri’ with a glass of water? Make porridge of beans. You don’t need to have plenty money to eat well. Go to Ibadan where they eat local foods very well. Look at the children there, they glow. It’s their diet. Come to Lagos, you see children blowing up. We are negligent here and it kills us. You are stuck in traffic, get home late and you still eat solid food, how would it digest?
Who were your clients in England?
96 per cent of them were whites, 85 per cent of them male, five per cent black.
What kind of ailments did people there come to treat?
It could be pain. When people can’t sleep well, they also came. And all I would tell them was to have a lifestyle change because that’s what could get us out of some of the problems of health we have. What are you doing by 1am on your computer? Relax. Listen to soft music. Get a book. Wind down.
Where did you use to source for herbs?
From everywhere. It’s wide world. I could order anything from Australia, Peru, Kathmandu, etc. and they would be delivered to my doorstep by the post office.
You had a successful career there, so why did you come to Nigeria?
I just believe I need to do something here. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life there.
Does what you’re doing have to do with your belief system?
The essence of religion is to make us happy, but in Nigeria, it’s the opposite. We should not worship religion, it should worship us. I have used this philosophy and it works for me.
Some people believe here that anyone who practises traditional medicine could be diabolic…
Many people ask me that question, but I respond by asking, ‘The person you buy your meat or ‘ewedu’ from, do you ask them whether they are diabolic?’ And they smile. I don’t prepare any concoction. A herbal tradition practitioner makes herbs. We need a sort of reorientation about these things.
You see young Nigerians being diabetic, obese, with high blood, hypertension. Any hope for them?
Yes. Our lifestyle causes that. The body cannot metabolise or control sugar. It’s the orientation we have. Reduce carbohydrate intake. We should change our lifestyle. Don’t be on the phone all the time. Walk very well. Sleep enough. We should build houses that are not too choked. Good ventilation is important. Don’t go to bed late. We can adjust our lifestyle. I sleep one hour in the afternoon no matter where I am.
You’re not ashamed to be called a traditional doctor?
In England, they used to call me ‘Dr. Juju.’ And I don’t have to be ashamed. It’s what I have passion for. People love to be called ‘event planner,’ ‘lawyer,’ ‘personal assistant to so-so,’ etc. I love my job. I’ve been called many names like witch, ‘ogbanje,’ mammy water. People have wrong perceptions. But one thing I do – I pray before I make any herb.
Growing up in Nigeria, were you called names because of your green eyes?
People called me a stupid witch, a cat, a lioness, a jaguar, all sorts of names. I was traumatised. Nobody liked to play with me. I looked at people playing, but I couldn’t join them. So I read books. I had succour in my father’s belief in me and a teacher, Mr. Akindusoye, who also believed in me. I was around seven years old then. Those were the two men that believed me. They would tell me, ‘You’re different and you have to accept it. Go and play.’ But when I got to England, my life was easier. It was not easy growing up.
Did any man show interest in you at that time?
They were afraid of me. I was greatly admired, though. I too used to ask questions like why did God make me like this? I would ask my father, ‘Dad, why didn’t you kill me when you saw me like this?’ He would calm me down and tell me I was different.
As young as I was, that’s what made me start reading about why things happened like that. I eventually found solace because I accepted the fact that I was different. I am around 50 years old and I am good. I had close friends who took me for me. I accepted myself and I don’t worry about myself. In fact, my husband then used to beat people for me when they called me a cat. Now, I am okay. Do you know people now buy green eyes?