Iyamide Thomas is a health care professional who specialises in working with Sickle cell anemia and Breast cancer. Born in Sierra Leone, she moved to the UK in 1975 to attend boarding school, and later university, where she studied chemistry. In her interview, she discusses her childhood, migration, what drew her to work in healthcare, and her curation of the ‘The Krios of Sierra Leone’ exhibition with the Museum of London.
I was born in Freetown, Sierra Leone, West Africa. I'm sure people have heard about there. My formative years were spent there. I was age fifteen when I did my ‘O’ levels. Sierra Leone used to be a British colony and people who could afford it then would send children to boarding school in UK to maybe do Sixth Form, or some came earlier.
My childhood in Africa was very happy. I really enjoyed school, some people don’t, but I really enjoyed, especially secondary school. At the time, we're talking pre-1975 and a bit after that, the infrastructure in Sierra Leone was quite good. There were good roads, there was running water. There was electricity, that's the important one. I remember that growing up, if the lights went out, you'd squeal with delight because the lights had gone out, because that was such a rarity. Then, when you grow older, you squeal when the lights came on, because there were so many power cuts unless you had a generator. So that's what happened, the infrastructure changed.
I came [to the UK] in 1975, to stay, and that was to come to Sixth Form boarding school, but prior to that I visited the UK several times on holiday. Well, thankfully, because I'd been coming to England before, I knew where I was coming to. But, this was the first time I was going to ever live away from my parents. I was going to be three to five thousand miles away. I can’t even remember how far Sierra Leone is, but certainly at least three thousand miles away. But the good thing is that at the boarding school I was coming to, there were a few Sierra Leonean girls there and I knew one of them already. So that sort of makes things a bit easier. At least you're not coming totally into the abyss.
Transition from school to university
Great Malvern is a small town in Worcestershire in the Midlands, and I was at boarding school there. So obviously, even though it was Sixth Form, there were still restrictions. You have to sign out if you're going down to the town, you did have a lights out. I think it might've been 10 o'clock for seniors. So, obviously you're at school. I then came to university in London. So it was like leaving Malvern and then coming to university in London. I stayed in the halls of residence and of course you're your own independent person then, and you can go and come as you please. So, there's that difference. In Malvern, it was a small town and we had a theatre but then London was the big, big place to be. Although I used to come to London for half term because my brother was here, the difference was that school was still restricted to a certain degree, whereas in London you were independent, and you're doing things your own way.
I did degrees in chemistry, so it means you have that scientific background, and that has made me, even though I didn't go into medicine, it's really sort of made me understand scientific terminology and all that. For instance even within sickle cell, there's terminology like polymerization when the cells form long chains, there’s amino acid. So it just helped in that sense. If you have a scientific background, you can better understand when you're reading research papers what the terms mean.
I wouldn't say I trained as a health professional because I'm not a nurse or anything like that. I mean, the sort of training, in inverted commas, that I did was I went and did short courses in presentation skills, statistics, these are the ones I can remember. I remember I did a course at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, partly statistics. So in that sense, my training was kind of sporadic and not actually going to train in hospitals or anything like that on a regular basis.
Motivation to work in healthcare
I grew up with a dad who was a doctor, so the house was medical and at school I actually liked science. Although where the truth be said, initially at secondary school history was my favourite subject or my strongest subject, but then I sort of geared towards the sciences and did ‘A’ Level Biology, Chemistry, Physics. So when I came here, those were my three ‘A’ levels and I’ll tell you why. Initially, I thought I’d do medicine. My dad would have really loved that. He had a private practice in Sierra Leone. My brother didn't go down that road, so I think he was possibly relying on me to take over. I think you've heard me say this before that I was kind of squeamish. In secondary school, in Malvern, we had to do biology and dissect a rat, and I wasn't too keen on that. Then I started thinking, what else would I have to dissect if I ended up doing medicine? So I really didn't think I could go down that road, and I was strong in chemistry anyway, so my degrees were in chemistry. But it didn't totally take away my interest in health, so I ended up doing things that were relevant, like health-education, health research, that sort of thing.
I started working in health care with Newham Health Promotion. I don't think they exist anymore. I think it was called health education in those days. No, sorry. I actually did work before that at a charity - a sickle cell charity in the ’80s, mid to late ’80s. That was to raise awareness of breast cancer screening in Newham, they have a very high Asian population in Newham and the screening program for breast cancer was kind of just getting off the ground then. So this would have been possibly in ‘89, something like that. And so I was doing that, raising awareness amongst women from a culture where screening doesn't really exist. I mean, in a sense, you don't go and test for something if you don't have symptoms, you don't want to start tempting fate. There are all these cultural things around finding a disease that you'd rather stay ignorant about. So you had to sort of inform people that it was best to detect this sort of disease early.
One of the highlights, certainly for the sickle cell screening, is that I was able to develop really innovative ways of health promotion that the NHS hadn't used before. By that, I mean the places - the venues - because it's always good to meet people in venues that they're comfortable in. So we did, well I did, and then the team that joined later. I did innovative barbershop presentations, presentations in restaurants, in people's homes, film festivals, TV - a big range, and that I think was one of the highlights because that whole project has been put as a teaching tool for others who want to do outreach. The other thing is also combining health promotion with heritage talks, because sometimes you have to know how you can bring people in to listen to what you have to say, and it's not always that people want to go listen to a health talk. What if you combine it with some sort of heritage aspect that they might be interested in? Another thing we provided food. That was a new thing for the NHS to provide that sort of food, Jollof rice, but within limits. Men go to barber shops not just to cut their hair, they go there for camaraderie and all that. So, with the combination of history and heritage and health, you find you can get more people coming in - and I was able to do that with sickle cell.
The community groups I am involved with are to do with my African and national identity. It’s very important to celebrate and promote your history or your heritage - and with mine in particular it's linked to Britain quite a bit, and important to even promote that mainstream.
Exhibition & work with the Museum of London
I have an exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands, which is exactly doing that, called ‘The Krios of Sierra Leone’, promoting my particular heritage and linking it to British history. I did it for several reasons. Sierra Leone - your average person on the street who is British, might've heard of Sierra Leone because of the civil war, Ebola, if you're lucky and all those sort of things. Now there's a whole new aspect to Sierra Leonean history and heritage that is uniquely linked to Britain, such as the slave trade and resettling people back there. The first real British crown colony was in Freetown. So I wanted to show the unique history and heritage that developed as a result of Britain's settlement, as a result of Britain removing people from their indigenous tribes, taking them away in the slave trade and returning them back with a whole new, different identity and culture that developed from there. It was important to show that and to show the resilience that those people who are descendants of previously enslaved people, how they became pioneers in their own fields. It's good to do that and to have it done in a mainstream place such as the Museum of London.