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African Women and the
British Health Service


Dzagbele Matilda Asante

Dzagbele Matilda Asante was born in Ghana in 1927. Asante is the daughter of an affluent family who had the ability to support her through secondary education, which in 1927 was an immense privilege. On completion, Asante worked as a teacher at Accra High School. Her father, who worked at the Treasury Department, was eager for her to continue her education in the UK, and secured arrangements for her to travel to the UK. Unlike her brothers, one of whom studied Medicine at Leeds University and another studying Law at Oxford University, Asante migrated to begin her career as a Nurse.

Asante arrived in Dover in August of 1947, having travelled from Ghana, through Gambia and onwards to the UK. When she arrived, as was the experience of many African migrants, Asante was shocked by the cold British Summer – which could not compare to the Ghanaian sunshine. In London, she was escorted by a British Council officer to the Colonial Hostel in Collingham Gardens, close to Earl’s Court.

Two weeks later, she began nursing training at Barnet Hospital. However, finding the facilities lacking and steadfast in her commitment to a quality education, Asante requested transfer to the Central Middlesex Hospital in Harlesden. There, she trained for 3 years throughout the launch of the NHS from 1948 onwards. After qualifying, she studied Health Visiting at Battersea Polytechnic. Despite her clear proficiency, Asante experienced racism in the NHS. Many patients refused the help of African nurses, and Asante recalls one vivid memory in which a patient denied her services in preparing him for theatre. So bigoted was this man, that the surgeon attending was called from elsewhere in the hospital to prepare the patient himself.

As well as fulfilling her career aspirations, Asante made lasting connections in the UK – like Adeline Lee from Sierra Leone – who became a lifelong friend. In one anecdote, Asante said that one day she and her group of West African and Caribbean friends took photos in a studio on Oxford Street. The following week she found her photograph displayed fashionably in the shop window. Pleasantly surprised, Asante now treasures this captivating photo as a remnant of her mixed, but memorable, experiences in the UK.

Whilst Asante appreciates the opportunities the British Council provided her, such as attending Royal events in London and meeting the Royal Family in Scotland, she was nevertheless mindful of the propaganda perpetuated about Africa. Her connection to Africa remained strong, as in one case after a British Council presentation gave a very negative image of the Kenyan’s ability - she rallied her Ghanaian and West African comrades in support of Kenyan students in London during the 1950s ‘crisis in Kenya’. Although recent mainstream narratives are often keen to lump African migrants into the Windrush generation, who were instead of Caribbean origin, Asante stated “We never really heard anything…none of us knew about it.” Of course, Caribbean migrants came just as she had, but Asante maintained that there was no noticeable influx, and many who did come left soon after. Asante herself would return to Ghana after marrying in 1958, having two sons and two daughters afterwards. Widowed in 2018, Dzagbele Matilda Asante continues her commitment to nursing by allowing the grounds of her home in Accra to be used as a health centre for local mothers with young children.


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