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African Women and the
British Health Service


Esther Adi

Esther Adi is a former nurse who currently works as a social worker. She originally came to the UK from Nigeria in 1967. In her interview, Esther speaks about her training in Kent, how the nursing profession has changed, and the differences between the experiences of African and Caribbean women during the early days of the National Health Service. 


"Going to junior school was quite good. I remember having a good time there. Teachers were nice. It was very good education; I remember that up to now. Secondary school was a bit different. For us as Africans, we had a lot of difficulties with the West Indian children. There was a lot of hatred between West Indians and Africans. They didn’t get on very well, so that was quite significant. We had our hair done traditionally – they would make fun of you. You noticed there were differences, even though you were both black. I used to think a lot about that, 'Why is it?' I suppose now they call it bullying, but in those days, we didn’t use the word bullying. And I think for a young person who tries to figure out what’s going on… You don’t actually understand."


"I trained as a nurse outside of London. I actually trained in Kent. Partly because I had a brother and sister in Kent who were fostered out to white people. This was quite common amongst African communities in those days because for Africans education is everything and…. They’re trying to do the best for their children. Our parents would often believe that, you know, Europeans – or the British – knew best and were better educators than them. That’s the kind of mentality they had in those days. So I had a brother and sister who were fostered out to a white couple. I guess partly I went to be near them, to be honest, because we didn’t grow up together. We didn’t know each other very well. I [was] the first of the family so I try to get to know them."


"Nursing was a different thing altogether. I mean, in my class I was the only black person. Britain was still very different in those days. This was not very long ago – 1975. But it’s still a long time ago. And this country was a very different country then. There was always underlying racism there at that time."

"As far as in those days, our focus was on what we’re trying to achieve. Apart from that, there was no one to take it to anyway! Nobody listened to black people in those days about racism and being discriminated against. It’s very much now like women will find it difficult to report rape because they believe the police won’t believe them, so they don’t bother. It’s that similar kind of thing. So there was one particular guy who was very racist and well, what could I do? You just kind of let it wash off your shoulder."

"Patients were very rude. And a lot of black nurses, we couldn’t do anything about it. The unions wouldn’t support you. But you met a lot of patients who were sick people. A lot of them would be quite rude to you and “Don’t touch me, you’re black!” Some of them were quite vocal, but the NHS would just say “Well, you know… They’re old. They don’t know what they’re saying. They’re confused.” So [racism] never really got challenged in those days."


"I don’t know if you know the history of Enoch Powell, [of] after the Second World War. The country needed a lot of workers – trained workers, bus drivers, underground workers. A lot of British people felt that they didn’t want to do those jobs. So Enoch Powell went to the Caribbean and he recruited lots and lots of people from the Caribbean, and they came and did the jobs that the British people did not want to do at that time. Most of them would be doing the night shift, which you would never know about – it’s like an unseen army. So they came to this country under a different status. We weren’t recruited like that. Africans came of their own free will. We came here and our parents came here to educate themselves. Whereas the Caribbean people were brought here, they were asked to come here. But deep down our experiences are all the same when it really comes to it. We are all treated the same by the system. We are all treated the same by the government."


"Well I was just talking about project 2000, which Margaret [Thatcher] brought in. I don’t think it is a good thing. Because now people go to university and get a degree and a lot of nurses don’t do nursing anymore. Nursing doesn’t really exist as it should do. If you’re a nurse, you should be at the bedside feeding people, washing people, and a lot of them don’t wanna do that now."


"I have a sense of identity, I know who I am. It’s important for my children to know who they are. That  you may have been born here, [but] you’re also an African. Whether you like it or not, you’re an African."

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