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.
Early Life and Childhood
I was born in Lagos, Nigeria which is in West Africa. Which is… Nearly 61 years ago.
I migrated to the UK in September 1967 and I came with my brother and we came on the plane to join our parents who were already here.
The first place I lived in was [inaudible] where we went to stay with our parents. In one room. In the same bed. And that’s how life started in Britain…
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? Would they make fun of you because they didn’t know… You know? 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’re so… You don’t actually understand.
Health Career, Racism and Sexism
Well, that’s… Going into nursing, that’s a very different experience. I went and 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. So I guess partly I went to be near them, to be honest, because we didn’t grow up together… So we didn’t know each other very well. And I’m the first of the family so I try to get to know them and you know… And partly because it was something I wanted to do.
So 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. I guess in those days, the way you’re treated is more, it’s kind of… It was okay to some extent. But there was always that underlying racism that was always there at that time. I had one particular person who would call me derogatory names. I was on the same ward as him and he was already qualified but I wasn’t qualified. And he would call me all these derogatory names that I’m not going to repeat. You probably haven’t even heard them before, that’s fine. And I knew where he was coming from, you know, so he was quite intimidating. But I guess, as far as in those days, our focus was on what we’re trying to achieve and, apart from that, there was no one to take it to anyway. Nobody listened to black people in those days about racism and all this 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.
There was one man who would be sexually inappropriate and touch your legs. People would try it on, a lot of them would not say anything to you. Yeah… People look at you. It’s funny, interestingly enough, I was saying to somebody the other day that, looking back to my nursing days, I don’t remember anybody ever calling me by my name. Especially nurses on the ward who were mostly 99% white. Even between nurses of different backgrounds there was a lot of racism. It’s not what they say, but how they act. You wouldn’t say you’ve made friendships with these people because you just didn’t… There was nothing between you. You just came to work, work and that’s it, you go your separate ways. Even though we all lived in nurses homes in those days. Yes, it weren’t easy times. Very hard times so you had to be really, really focused to achieve what you wanted to achieve. That was Kent but I don’t think London was any better. I think that there was more of us in London but… Life was hard in those days. Very hard. Very, very hard. But if you’re focused and you know what you want to achieve, you just have to keep trying. That’s it really.
I mean, 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 elderly men who had lived in Africa and they did all this “oh, I’ve been to your country.” And I’m 20 years old, at your age now. Imagine, you know, you’re nursing somebody, and you try to give them a bed bath or something and all these bad things about how they think about you and so on and so forth. “Ha-ha, we were in your country” and this, that. And I think to some extent, being young as well, you just… You didn’t really get into it. You know, you hear what they’re saying but you just get on with it. But some of them were quite rude to you – “don’t touch me”, “you’re black, I don’t want that blackness next to me.” So 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 it never really got challenged in those days. Yeah…
Migration and racism
I don’t know if you know the history of Enoch Powell after the war, the Second World War. The country needed a lot of workers, trained workers, bus drivers, underground workers, and basically to be honest 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, nurses, men so on and so forth and they came and did the jobs that the British people did not want to do at that time. Driving the buses, trains, the underground and many many many many women were nurses who went into hospital work. Most of them,if they are still alive 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 off their own free will. So we came here, our parents came here to educate themselves. Whereas the Caribbean people were brought here to, they were asked to come here. They’ve got a different mentality about where they think they fit into the country. How important they are. Whereas our parents’ time, they came here to educate themselves and better themselves. 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. You know we have low status. We have very little opportunities to move upwards so to speak in the hierarchy of the jobs. You’ll find that if you go to a ward most of the managers are white and the workers are black, black women whatever, whatever. That’s how it is in most jobs.
So you are only hearing about the people from the Windrush era who came off you know the ship from the Caribbean. So that’s very interesting in itself. So where’s everybody else who came at the same time. What’s happening to them? How many of them have been deported that nobody is talking about? Especially from African countries. But I think our experiences are more or less the same. It’s just who is more vocal or talks about it more. There’s been a lot more written about the Caribbean communities. But I don’t think any writes about the African communities and their struggles and what’s happened to them since they’ve been here.
Medical and institutional racism
Well I was just talking about project 2000, which Margaret 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 the don’t wanna do that now. I work with people in a building, we are called a community mental health team. So basically we are made up of social workers, psychiatric nurses, psychiatrists, psychologists and my nursing colleagues will have students, student nurses and they will often say that half of them can’t give an injection. I can still give an injection if I have to. But this your basics that you learn as a nurse, but there is so much theory now that a lot of people don’t want to be. They want the qualification, but they don’t want to do the practical side of things. So if you listen to what’s going on now elderly people die of starvation because nobody feeds them. An elderly person hasn’t had a wash because the person just puts the bowl there. They expect you to do it yourself. So it’s all been washed down, it’s not what it used to be, it’s not what it used to be.
So we had a very hard time, black people had a very very, especially black males. The system just hates black males, I’m not gonna hide it, a lot of people don’t want to talk about it because they don’t want to talk about the past, but the past is very very relevant. A lot of it still goes on now, it’s just that you don’t hear or it’s not widely reported. You understand me so.
But it has changed to a lot of extent, but a lot of racism is more covert now than Enoch, I mean loads of people could spit in your face, you couldn’t do anything about it. It wasn’t against the law, racism wasn’t against the law, until we had a 1970 Race Relations Act, which I remember the year very clearly. You know people started fighting for their rights and we couldn’t get into certain jobs. We couldn’t get into social work, you know. Things have changed a lot, but racism is still there, don’t let anybody fool you, that its not in place today, it just works in different ways.
Well I always used to talk to my children about being black. What it’s about. The society you live in because I think they need to understand the society they live in, yeah, because I think a lot of people believe because they’re born here they’re British, but you’re still black yeah.
I have a sense of identity, I know who I am, so it’s important for my children to know who they are. That yeah you may have been born here, you’re also an African. Whether you like it or not, you’re an African and isn’t that the same thing what Margaret Thatcher did, when she changed the immigration law in 1983. What did she say? Any child born in this country after the law comes into effect, of colour, that is not white British, would not be British. So what she saying? So if your father is from Jamaica, you will be a Jamaican, even though you’re born here, yeah. So that’s what she’s saying, she’s saying the same thing. So that’s when she started deroding people’s, you know sense of who they are and where they’re born and that tells you something anyway and that was in 1983. She wanted things to be different.