A HIDDEN HISTORY:
African Women and the
British Health Service
Helen Anin Boateng
Helen Anin Boateng is from Ghana, and came to England in 1971, at the age of 21. She had migrated to study nursing after applying for a position advertised in a nursing journal. She found the experience of migrating from her home country to England both exciting and nerve-wracking. Helen studied nursing at a hospital in Bury, near Manchester. Although Helen wasn’t initially set on remaining in England after qualifying, she still resides here today.
"When I decided I want to train to become a nurse and I want to come to England to do that, I asked my cousin to send me all of the journals, because in the journals there would be a lot of schools, and the school they are putting applications in for people to apply, the adverts in there for people to apply. I had no idea the geography of the UK or where they were situated. So I just selected the first one that I saw. And I saw that the starting date was in September. That was good for me, because at that time I think it was in June or July. So if everything goes through quickly, September I could start. That was the reason why I selected Bury, because it seems as if the advert was the closest time."
"Then [I had] to get a passport ready. I know it's a bit easier now online. But in those days you physically have to go to the ministries, you physically have to fill the forms, and a lot of queues of people. I was 21, so all this is new, very new to me. So you have to go through all that, the interview. I found it a bit of a chore, also not knowing what to do. You just plough your way through these things. Eventually I got a passport, which was a big bonus, and then buy the tickets and everything. Get ready to come. That was a big thing in the ‘70s. It's not like today that so many people have travelled. In those days it was a big thing to do as a 21 year old. It was quite a big thing at the time."
"I arrived in the UK on the 26th of August in 1971. I came straight from Accra Airport to Heathrow Airport. I was met by my cousin who travelled all the way from Nottingham to meet me. I remember when I got down. I didn't know what to expect. It was August, so the weather was still very bright and hot. I was wearing a green frock. I said "Oh it's not too bad". It wasn't the winter. It's okay. Anyway, my cousin met me. Happily, we travelled to Nottingham the same day. So that was nice. And of course, my sister in-law was there. So she met me. I had the same food, jollof, and we had orange juice. Her children were very happy to see me. I was very happy to be there. So curious, because I kept looking through the window to see the buildings were all different from Ghana. The streets were quieter from Ghana. I was expecting huge mansions and a lot more. But nevertheless it was the first day. I just looked around, but I was happy to be home."
"My main concern is to do well, because I came to train as a nurse. Having been educated in Ghana. I know the Ghanaian education environment – what it is like going to school, but I have no idea what to expect [in the UK]. So I was a bit anxious, [about] the students that I'll be studying with and what will they know, [will] they know more than me? Will I know more than them? What am I expected to do? And what books, and all that kind of thing that was really at the back of my mind always. I was anxious about it."
"Because I've never worked in Ghana, as such, in a hospital situation, I wasn't quite sure [how to find friends]. I was hoping that I'll meet other nurses and other nurses from abroad like myself. So we can meet up together we can share experiences, may even study together. My school was in the north, [in] Bury, so after Manchester. I wouldn't have my family around me. I'm going to be there alone. So that was another worry, but I had promises from my cousin who will come and visit me with his wife and the children. So that was good. Mr. Corbett was the head of nursing at the time. He made sure that he let you know that there were other Ghanians there. So about six Ghanaians where there so he put me in touch with them. That really put me at ease."