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African Women and the
British Health Service





Olive Vivat Kulu Johnson S.R.N., S.C.M was reportedly the first African lady to be appointed a nursing matron of a government hospital in an African country. She trained as a nurse during  the 1930s and the 1940s, and resided at Africa House: the first hostel of the West African Student Union (WASU). Olive reportedly assisted the matron Opeolu Obisanya with the maintenance of the hostel during World War Two, and became godmother to her daughter. 

Obisanya was the wife of the political activist - Ladipo Solanke - who founded WASU in 1925. Olive may have lived alongside fellow nurses Adenrele Ademola, Dorothea McEwen, Dolly Morgan and Barbara Nicols. Her notable work earned her the position of acting-matron at a hospital in London - an unusual achievement for Black women during this period. This encouraged her to apply for the position of matron at Korle Bu Teaching Hospital in Accra, Ghana. Despite her qualifications, she was refused the position, and WASU took the issue to parliament to argue that a discriminatory policy was still being pursued by the colonial authorities. The authorities reportedly claimed that Olive was refused the position because she was not Ghanaian and suggested that she should apply for a job in Sierra Leone. Eventually, Olive became the nursing matron of Connaught Hospital in Freetown, which may have been the largest hospital in Sierra Leone at the time. Later on she became the Principal Matron for the Ministry of Health in Sierra Leone and was awarded an MBE in 1966.


“The first African woman matron was a Sierra Leonean but she suffered racism. She acted as chief matron in a hospital in London. She saw an advert for a hospital matron in Kolebu in Ghana, she was qualified, but was not given the job in Ghana because she was black. WASU took the case up to the parliament. It took a long while but we won. Eventually, they said since she wasn’t from Ghana, she should go and get the job in her own country. She was the first African to be given the post of a matron and she trained people too. They didn’t give her the job in Ghana but in her own country. Her name was Olive Johnson. We also had women who helped during the war but at a point they left me alone there. But the ladies did come around to help serve, cook, clean and make the place habitable.”  – Opeolu Obisanya

“I must make mention of some of our people who passed through the hostel, some of whom helped to organize a committee in the House of Commons to address the political matters in West Africa, and have subsequently played important roles in the history of Nigeria and West Africa. Mrs. Funlayo Ransome-Kuti (Bere), Miss Olive Johnson (both of whom were my daughter’s god-mothers)” – Opeolu Obisanya


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