A HIDDEN HISTORY:
African Women and the
British Health Service
Esther Bentil is a nurse who arrived in the UK in 1959 from Ghana. Although her reason for coming to England was to train as a nurse to then go back to Ghana to open a maternity home, Esther settled down, married, had three children, and embarked on an impressive 30-year career within the NHS. In her interview, she discusses Ghanaian culture and identity, the highlights of her midwifery career, and her own experience with motherhood.
I didn't know very much about this, this place at all. When I came here, when I got here, then I found people walking about, smoke coming from their mouths. That's when I begin to realise that it wasn't going to be as warm as it was at home. It was all right. But I had seasickness from the minute I entered the ship until I arrived at Liverpool. So I was very ill on the way. [The name of the ship was] MV Apapa. There were quite a lot of people, mainly Ghanians and Nigerians.
Difficulties in training and career progression
I never really had the opportunity to go with doctors and sisters. Most of the time I was in the sluice cleaning bed pans. Those days we didn't have disposable containers, bed pans that facilities were all stainless steel. So, you have to wash them, sterilise them before you start giving them to the patient. And that was my job every time. When the other girls were going around with sisters and doctors and getting the information about what was wrong with the patient, I was in the sluice, cleaning bed pans.
Another thing is it was very difficult getting posts those days, you never saw many black sisters. Black nurses were always kept behind. You never got any promotions. It’s only nowadays you see so many Black sisters and even matrons in hospitals.
When I first came, you couldn't really get somewhere to stay anywhere you went, they tell you that no blacks or no Africans. Nobody really wanted to rent rooms to black people. So that was hard. Sometimes, when you go to make beds someone would say “Take your black hands off me.”
Looking after the children when they were younger was very difficult then, because I couldn't go to sleep and leave them. I had to stay awake. I did night duty most of the time, so I couldn't leave them and go to sleep. So sometimes I won't sleep until about 5pm when my husband came home from work. I slept until about 07:30, 08:00 o'clock, I had to get up and go to work. That was tough.
Culture & Identity
I joined the Ghanaian Nurses Association [in] 1990 until I retired. From time to time they organised Ghanaian dances, which I took my husband to. And they cooked, we ate, danced and sometimes we went on excursions and meetings, took me away from home.