March 5 was the day the world stopped short in its hasty track at the news of the passing of the strongman of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez. While the majority of his compatriots mourned the dimming of what they deemed their bright star and the activist world paid defiant tributes, a large part of the Western world whose imperialist jugulars he held in a tight grip, sighed in relief. The same day, at the National Hospital, Abuja, a great Nigerian passed, relatively quietly. But unlike the fire-spitting Chavez, all who knew the latter were united in their impression of this great soul: a gentleman-philanthropist and a doctor who had the magic touch. He was Dr. Edwin Idoko Obe.
I have heard the maxim that ‘doctors are our next link to God’. Doubtless, millions of patients across Benue State and from neighbouring states and Otukpo Town in particular, where he plied his unique medical calling for over four decades, saw Dr. Obe, the first indigenous doctor from the state and eminent son of the soil, in that light. To some, he was even a mini-god.
Salem Hospital, Otukpo, founded in March 1968 by Dr. Obe, a 1963 graduate of the University of Ibadan’s medical school and product of British medical institutions, was the centre of qualitative healthcare in the 1970’s and 80’s. It was the alternative to the shoddily run General Hospitals where the doctors (who run their private hospitals by the sides) talked down on patients and the nurses ‘famously’ taunted women in the labour rooms—public health institutions typically run as ‘government-business-is-no-man’s-business’. Salem Hospital smelt of antiseptic and drugs characteristic of health centres, but also of aromatic care. It lays claim to delivering thousands of the 1970’s and 80’s ‘boys and girls’ of Otukpo and environs. I and almost all my siblings are ‘Salem Babies’. Salem saved many a child from untimely death in the hands of mosquitoes-induced malaria, men from bad-water-facilitated typhoid and diarrhea, and women from preventable maternal mortality. Salem was the place where I, and many other kids first sighted ‘white people’ (bekes) for expatriate doctors and nurses were in abundance delivering excellent heath care then. The most famous, I guess, was Dr. Matthew, an Indian.
Yet the highest selling point for Salem Hospital was its owner, Dr. Obe, a handsome, tall and gangling man who walked with an elegant stoop, and whose gentle smiles and touches famously drove away infirmities. Born in Otukpo on April 3, 1934, he was the quintessential doctor noted for his famous expression ‘Ikp’ere ne’, meaning, in Idoma, ‘It’s just a minor ailment’. It was the expression with which he always tenderly reassured his patients, no matter the gravity of the illnesses. And that often worked wonders!
Dr. Obe’s benevolence knew no bounds. On the day he died, I spoke with his niece and my secondary school classmate, Mary Steno, a New York resident and she spoke of growing up and seeing multitudes of people in ‘Ada (Father)’s house’. Those constituted relatives, non-relatives, in- laws and distant in-laws, foster children, throngs from his Owukpa community among others. But, what she did not know was that there were many more multitudes whom the doctor with the large heart helped and whom she may never even meet. Among them were my two senior cousins whom he had helped through university. He was dedicated to the education of the girl child and extended a helping hand towards ensuring that those from indigent homes realised their dreams. Today, my two cousins, beneficiaries of that legendary generosity are both successful women resident in Canada and the United Kingdom respectively.
Besides, there are countless others whom the late doctor rescued from the jaws of poverty-induced deaths. He gave out his treatments free of charge in cases where the patients could not pay, which was why perhaps, though hugely successful in his days, he might not lay claim to being a billionaire. But then, of what use are riches that can not impact positively on your next door neighbour? Of what use is a talent when the memory of its owner does not invoke a simple smile? Dr. Obe’s commitment to the Hippocratic Oath was well-known and so was his Christianly devotion, a sharp contrast to what obtains today where a diabolic mix of ethics’ dearth and materialism has seeped deeply into the medical profession. For him, it was the person that counted before the pocket. Infact, though his name ‘Obe’ translates to mean ‘enterprise’, his was a life dedicated to humanity’s well-being and not necessarily to gold. Gladly too, the Federal Government recognised his contributions and awarded him the national award of the Order of the Niger (OON) during his eventful lifetime.
The trail-blazing professional also notably trained a generation of younger doctors to carry on his humanity-flavoured work while economically empowering thousands of both skilled and unskilled hospital workers in a state where industries exist like grasses on the moon, and whose sole claim to oil wealth are pipelines hurriedly buried and leaking their way from the Niger Delta all the way up to the Kaduna refinery.
Dr. Obe, who was given the title of ‘Ohonyeta’ (‘The Deliverer’) of Idomaland by the late Ochi’Idoma, HRH Abraham Ajene Okpabi, also extended his humanitarian streak beyond the realms of the stethoscope and the surgical blades. In finding ways of providing social services and a sense of governance to his people, he ventured into politics and was the deputy-gubernatorial candidate of the National People’s Party (NPP) in the boisterous 1983 general elections in Benue State. That dream was however truncated by the unsmiling duo of Major-General Muhammadu Buhari and Lt-Colonel Tunde Idiagbon in the now famous coup, but not without enlightening and entertaining us kids around the Ojira, Otukpo area on electioneering razzmatazz! But in all, Dr. Obe remains an icon who walked in the highest political circles of his days but Mahatma Ghandi-like, never shy away from stooping down to curing and uplifting the lowliest of the land.
And now, exits a beloved, iconic philanthropist and a doctor whose words healed the sick!
Certainly, the ache arising from the passage of this great physician, though at the ripe age of 79, cannot be said to be ‘Ikp’ere’. No, not until we are reassured we can get, in Nigeria and beyond, his exact replicas in millions, amidst a most materialistic and progressively detached world.
Betty Abah is a Lagos-based journalist, poet and environmental advocate.