Ibanga: The Physician as a Missionary


Founded in 1991 by four medical professionals led by Iko Ibanga, Pro-Health International (PHI) will on Friday 9th December celebrate the 25th anniversary of taking free and quality healthcare to rural communities within Nigeria and on the continent with the public presentation of its book, ‘A Channel of Blessings’. Olusegun Adeniyi, who has spent time with Dr. Ibanga, the main inspiration behind the idea, writes on an incredible story of selflessness, compassion, love, healing and humanity

Iko Ibanga was in his final year at the Medical School when he came across a story about an American doctor who was serving the people in a village called Eku, in the then Bendel State (now Delta State). Fascinated by the account of how a man would leave his home in the United States to spend 33 years in Nigeria to help people with whom he had no relationship, Dr. Iko (as he is most often addressed, perhaps because of his distinctive first name) decided to know more about what inspired the medical personnel. It was in the course of this quest that he met the American surgeon, Dr. Bob Schofstall, who had also been in Nigeria from 1960 to 1966, working at the Hospital in Egbe, Kogi State as a missionary.

The meeting and the interactions that followed between the rookie medical doctor and the experienced American surgeon who had spent several years in Nigeria and was about to relocate back home as well as the encounters that followed would ultimately help clarify for Ibanga what would become his own mission in life. “I met him eight months before he retired and returned to the United States. We became close. He did a number of things before he left Eku; he got me to go to the SIM Eye Hospital in Kano where I spent the time between my housemanship and the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) primary assignment. He also got me to work under another missionary surgeon named Dr. Lewis Carter in Jos. That was how I ended up in Jos doing my NYSC,” Ibanga explained.

While his colleagues were seeking and getting well-paying appointments in hospitals across the country, Ibanga had caught a bug to work on the mission field. “Within two years of finishing medical school, I had worked in three mission hospitals and I realized that the seeds for mission work were either planted or fertilized there. That was when I started thinking it would be good to do mission work. To be fair, in every hospital I had worked in – Eku Baptist Hospital, Evangel Hospital in Jos, and the SIM Eye Hospital in Kano – the heads of the hospital were missionaries, but there were also Nigerian doctors working or training there.”

Even while he volunteered for the missions, the turning point came for Ibanga when, realizing that he was always the only black man among the medical practitioners, he sought from the American who had become his mentor whether he could replicate such an idea. “What was interesting was that Dr. Schofstall started bringing teams of doctors and nurses to do short-term medical missions in West Africa – Liberia, Ghana and Nigeria – and because we were still in touch, he invited me to become part of the team. I would volunteer, we would go to Ghana, and then come back to Nigeria, and what was very sobering for me was the realisation that I was always the only black member of the team.”

This, quite naturally, made no sense to Ibanga. “Here were missionaries, volunteers from the United States coming to help us in Africa and there were no Africans as part of the team. That set me thinking that it would be nice to have an organization that would encourage African health care professionals to also volunteer their time and expertise to help our people.”

However, as much as he felt inspired to start a similar humanitarian medical organization like the American was doing, he also realised he needed advice. “One day I broached a conversation with Dr. Schofstall –I used to call him ‘Pa’ – I said, ‘Pa, you know, it will really be nice to form an NGO to encourage Africans to volunteer’. He looked at me and said, ‘You are wasting your time, Iko. Blacks don’t volunteer– whether they are black Africans or black Americans.’ He said further, ‘Look at me, since all the time I have been coming from the United States, how many black medical practitioners have I ever come with?’ It disturbed me. He said, ‘Listen, Iko, I’ve been in your country since you were born, I came in 1960 as a missionary, blacks don’t volunteer’”.

That was a challenge to Iko Ibanga. Aside the fact that he felt inspired to go to the mission field to continue to render help to the poor, he also wanted to disprove the notion that black people are not as compassionate as white people because deep down, he knew it was not true. “The more Dr. Schofstall spoke, the more I felt challenged to prove him wrong. Perhaps it is important to also state that during the war, my father had already left for the United States and we were left with my mother and my siblings before we were later evacuated from the war area to join him in America. I was young then but I remember vividly that we lived in a very rural part of America where I was the only black student in my class for two years. So when Dr. Schofstall made that statement, I said, ‘You remind me of my childhood in America where people used to say, ‘because you are black, you cannot do A, B, C or D’, which was the mindset at the time.”

With his mind made up, Iko Ibanga did not look back, even when things were really rough and tough. Together with three other medical doctor friends, he started Pro Health International (PHI) in Jos. At that period, not a few of his colleagues thought he was crazy and fewer still expected his medical expeditions to survive beyond a few months. But not only has PHI survive a quarter of a century, it has thrived.
Now that PHI has grown into an international family of over 3000 volunteer healthcare professionals with a spirit of volunteerism that sets it apart from all others NGO’s in the country today, the success of the model is a testament to the fact doing good on to others has its own reward.

As a trailblazer in reaffirming the spirit of humanity in the black race, Ibanga’s achievement through PHI has helped to change the stereotype of insensivity even when such a daring commitment takes courage and true belief. In the PHI story titled “Channels of Blessings” that will be publicly presented in Abuja on Friday, readers will see how Ibanga and his team of volunteers carry out their noble duties at great risk to their personal safety. They travel through treacherous conditions to remote and dangerous parts of Nigeria and Africa to offer medical services to those who ordinarily have been left to whatever ails them.

From the professional point of view, PHI has contributed to the advancement of medical practice in Nigeria by facilitating international and local partnerships and knowledge exchange across borders. The experiences of medical professionals, especially those brought from the United States and Europe, who have had to practice in remote villages in Nigeria are interesting. Adapting to the less than ideal conditions in an African environment has led to surprising insights and a learning curve for both sides which they actively ensure is shared through medical conferences. But it was tough at the beginning, especially at the homefront.

For a newly married man, Ibanga took risks that could have cost him his home but he was lucky for the wife he had even when her patience was tried. As an assistant manager at the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Mrs Esther Ibanga was earning enough to keep the family together while her husband, a qualified medical practitioner was going from one community to another on medical missions. And that was a strain not only on her emotions but also on her resources.

According to Mrs Ibanga, PHI started just about the time they were getting ready to marry after which “our living room was the reception and our bedroom was the office. Prior to that time, I was a private person. I really like my space, I like my privacy but my husband loves people; he’s very open and he wants everybody to come and live in his house. It was difficult for me to see absolute strangers walking into my house, walking into my bedroom, into my kitchen and he expected me to feed them all without complaining, even when he didn’t give me money for the feeding”. With no vehicle of his own, Ibanga would use his wife’s car to go for for medical projects “and I would have to take a bike and go to work as an assistant manager at CBN.”

However, because he persisted and was faithful to his calling, Ibanga was able to lead PHI to local and international recognition such that within its first decades, development partners, donor agencies as well as private and public institutions in the area of health delivery were falling over themselves to seek him out. Today, PHI has become a very big institution for which respected medical personnel in Nigeria and across the world register to volunteer for its medical outreaches.

Former Cross River State Governor, Mr. Donald Duke, recalled that in 1992, while he was Commissioner for Finance, he was introduced to Ibanga, “a young medical doctor who aspired to save the world. My aspirations were hardly different, so as kindred spirits, we sought an opportunity for collaboration between the state government and his young organization, Pro-Health International. The idea was to offer free health services to the needy, working alongside doctors, local and international. The experience also afforded Nigerian doctors in the Diaspora, the United States in particular, an opportunity to contribute pro bono towards Nigerian national health care development.”

Seven years later, Duke became the civilian governor of his state and the collaboration between Cross River and PHI was taken to a higher level. “The impact of these medical missions is simply wonderful. Thousands would gather from the wee hours of the day till dawn with various health issues, most having had these ailments for years on end, and in a few hours, they would be resolved. The relief and accompanying joy is hardly describable,” said Duke.

Senator Daisy Danjuma, whose husband, General T.Y. Danjuma, remains one of the main pillars of PHI, attests to that. “One experience I will never forget is the case of an old woman who was blind for 14 years as a result of cataracts. She had never seen her grandchildren before. But on one of the medical missions carried out by PHI in Edo state, an eye surgery was done on her. The first words uttered by the old woman after her eyes were opened were, ‘Bring them, bring them.’ It didn’t take long to understand that the ‘them’ the woman was referring to were her grandchildren. And for the first time she was able to see THEM. That was an amazing experience. It was a miracle. Once she was blind, but at that period, she could see.”

Mr. Timi Alaibe, former Managing Director of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) that has for 15 years partnered with PHI echoes a similar sentiment. “When we saw what PHI was doing, we decided to seek out the organization, because without the kind of intervention they provided in such communities, the people would continue to die from ailments that were treatable. From being an interim action plan, it became a medium-term action plan because the state governments were not doing so much when it came to health care delivery. The NDDC-PHI partnership therefore helped to address a critical aspect of the poverty challenge in the Niger Delta”, said Alaibe.

Pastor Tunde Bakare of The Latter Rain Assembly is also another prominent Nigerian who has partnered with PHI with positive stories to tell. He got to know Ibanga through his wife, who happens to be his (Bakare’s) spiritual daughter. “In the course of time, I found what he was engaged in and involved with very exciting; because they were going to areas where angels fear to tread: rural areas where people are more or less neglected and where healthcare delivery is either low or non-existent. And Iko took it upon himself to start inviting doctors both within and outside Nigeria to reach out to such people.”

Bakare said he could remember talking with Ibanga on whether all the investment in Pro-Health International would not have built a teaching hospital but I also realised that the beneficiaries of their efforts in the rural areas would not be able to access such facilities. “So, what Iko has done is to take teaching hospital standards to those who could never pay for it by collaborating from time to time with sponsors. I had the privilege of doing one or two missions, especially the one in Abeokuta my hometown, and for three solid days, you needed to see the turnout of people who were instantly taken care of because Iko brought a Mobile Surgical Unit.

Many people thought I was coming to do politics but I had nothing to do with politics. I was just excited by the selfless service being rendered. I remember the then chairman of my local government asking me to bring them again and again. So I told him to partner with us so we could share the cost 50-50 and he backed off. He thought it was cheap, but good things don’t come cheap.”

Bakare said what had thrilled him over the years, “is the passion of Iko and his team. His passion for the people you call ordinary Nigerians who would not be able to afford the surgery and have it done for them free and in their terrain. Sometimes they do follow up and it is incredible. If there is anything that stirs up the motivation behind public-private partnership in me, it is things like this because if the government can collaborate with organizations like PHI, many of the preventable deaths we witness all around us would reduce. That’s my experience with PHI.”
If there is someone who is not surprised about how Ibanga has turned out, it is his mother, Mrs Akunyu Ibanga, who remembers how, as a young boy during the civil war in the sixties, Iko would bring home children of refugees and would share with them his food. “When he started PHI, he had no money and he would come home to ask me to give him money so he could use for his medical mission projects. After teaching for some time at the University of Jos, he started the NGO. He was still coming home to ask for money but his father and I encouraged him and gave him God’s blessings because we believe he was doing God’s work”, said Mrs Ibanga who explained that right from childhood, Iko’s compassion had been evident.

In reflecting on the story of PHI, Mrs Akunyu Ibanga whose major concern for what her son does initially centred around what the reaction of other doctors would be to see their colleague treating patients for free, said she was later apprehensive of what could happen should anything go wrong on the surgical table.

“Such incidence would be an opportunity for some people to criticize and attack what he is doing”, said Mrs Ibanga who now feels very proud, as any mother would be, about her son’s chosen career. “Having seen him face challenges and maybe make mistakes, what I believe has kept him going is the love he has for the people and the joy he derives in serving them”, she added.

Lady Eme Ufot Ekatte, respected pharmacist and former Senator who had partnered with Ibanga in the early years of PHI, also recounts how tough things were at the beginning. “On one occasion, we had to go and see one top government official so we could do a medical mission in his senatorial zone. When we got to his house, they told us to sit and wait for him that he was in a meeting. We waited for six hours. After he was done, he left through the back door without seeing us. That was one of the many humiliating situations that PHI had to face. But look at where we are today”, she said.

At 25, Ibanga can also look back to what has been an incredible experience, especially when the outreaches have also produced incredible stories of love across borders that have led to several marriages, including that between Ashley Cunnigham and Christian Unaegbu who are now based in the United States.

On arrival in Gembu, Taraba State for a medical outreach in May 2008, Ashley and her team from the United Sates were introduced to the Nigerian medical professionals, including Christian Unaegbu, who was serving as the Evaluations and Monitoring Officer for the project. The friendship between Christian and Ashley gradually developed over the next two weeks that the project lasted.

When the duo eventually bid each other farewell in Abuja, there was a resignation that they might never see each other again. Nevertheless, they continued their transatlantic friendship over the next several months through emails and occasional phone conversations and slowly they learned about one another’s lives. It did not take long before Christian and Ashley realised they were in love.

The process of relocating to the United States was tedious but Chriistian eventually succeeded to go and meet Ashley with whom he got married in October 2009. Today, they are both doing well and living in Texas, USA with their two daughters, Michaela Ozioma and Liliana Oluchi, who are now five and two years old, all thanks to the chance encounter at the PHI medical mission field.