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A HIDDEN HISTORY:
African Women and the
British Health Service

1930–2000

Iyamide Thomas

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.

EARLY LIFE

"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."


CHILDHOOD

"My childhood in Africa was very happy. I really enjoyed school, 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."


MIGRATION

"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. 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. 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."


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."


IDENTITY

"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."


CAREER

"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. Actually, I did work before that at a charity – a sickle cell charity in the ’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. I was 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."


CAREER HIGHLIGHTS

"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 places [and]  venues. It's always good to meet people in venues that they're comfortable in. So I did. I did innovative barbershop presentations, presentations in restaurants, in people's homes, film festivals, TV – a big range. 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. 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 [is] 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."

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