Lola Oni arrived in England during the 1960s from Nigeria and went on to become a specialist nurse consultant, midwifery sister, and university lecturer. In her interview, Lola discusses migration, her experiences with foster care, what attracted her to healthcare, the training process to become a nurse, and institutional racism within the NHS.
Early life & Childhood
I arrived in England in the late to mid ’60s. I came from Nigeria, from Lagos. And I came over - I was nine years old at the time, I came to join my mother with my siblings - two of my siblings. I came to join my mother who was doing nursing at the time. She thought it best for us to come join her, since my father had died a few years before.
When I first arrived- when I came in the old days, a bit like the Windrush Era, we came by ship. And we came by a ship called 'Orielle'. And it travelled for fourteen days by sea, we came in a third class cabin, just to show you how poor we were and I remember coming over the sea sickness, all of that was awful, and then arriving at the port in Liverpool. I remember the smells. And the environment, what I hated most was the cold, because we arrived in november, it was the 6th of November, so it was quite cold then.
A lot of African families, parents, they came over to the UK, majority of them to study, 95% of them came to the UK at that era to study, my father came in the 1940s to study, he came here as part of his accountancy studies, so by the time my mother came in the ’60s, certainly by the ’50s, ’60s, majority to study. They brought over this notion of an aunt or an uncle to look after the children was not a bad thing - they perceived foster carers as an extension of the family set up, the fact that the person was not related to them did not matter. So if i’m going to be busy studying, I want someone to be looking after the children and therefore for them to go to a foster parent, privately arranged to look after the children, whilst they were either busy studying or whatever course they were doing. It gave them the opportunity to focus on their studies or whatever they were doing. They saw them as the nanny, the fact that the nanny was not living was them was not a problem. They saw it as an extension of the family, where someone would help you look after the children whilst you were studying.
We started off- because my mother was in training at the time, in those days you couldn’t be a nurse with a family, so she couldn’t tell them at the time, that she’d brought them from Nigeria. Like a lot of parents did in the 60s, we had to go live with a foster parent that she’d paid for, for us to live with this woman in Watford. So my first experience of school was in Watford, and I remember that experience very vaguely, not very much, except that I was very miserable there. It was very cold. I was so miserable there [Watford], so this woman had to call my mother be like “this girl is so miserable, you should send her back to Africa.”
Racism in school
Before I left school, and this was an experience of many people, you know that you go for the counselling when you’re in your fifth form about what do you want to become, what do you want to do, and I said well I’d like to be a nurse. I remember the person that counselled me saying, ‘Oh no, you can’t manage nursing because I don’t think you’ll be able to cope with the studies and cope with the academic work or the discipline. And since you like meeting people and you enjoy that, what you can do is nursery nursing and become a very good nanny’. I came home and I told my mother this, that I was told I could become a very good nanny and she was horrified.
You know what African parents are like, aspirations are very high and so my mother was angry because my sister had a similar experience, she wanted to do accountancy, the school counsellor told her accountancy is for people who are really quite smart and intelligent, my father was an accountant why they thought she wasn’t intelligent enough to do accountancy I don’t know.
Those experiences of those two made my mother realise that the school was not in our best interest because they didn’t particularly support black children to do what they needed to do to get to where they want to get to. Those were really my first experience of racism in a way.
Why she became a nurse
I've always wanted to do nursing. My mother was a nurse before she died, she only did nursing for a year or two before she went into midwifery, she went into midwifery quite early, it was always her intention not nursing.
All I remember as a child was her uniform, that was the thing that made me want to do nursing, it was the dress and the broad belt, the hat and the puff sleeves, things like that, the apron, oh the apron was to die for. That was it, that was me, I was going to look like that one day.
Health Career Training
I trained in Kent, in Canterbury. I had a wonderful time there. Then when I qualified, we had all sorts of experiences in training as well, unlike some people I really didn’t experience an awful lot of negative things in training. Most of my training experience was positive, apart from one or two things like you’re always the one that does the sluice duties, cleaning up the bedpans and things instead of doing procedures where you get your book signed. I’m was a facety person anyway that I wouldn’t have none of that, I quickly let people realise that I’m not going to be pushed into not getting my experience. So unlike many of my colleagues who were not as outspoken, and therefore end up in those situations, I didn’t experience as much of that. Only a small amount of that.
I think that the problem with the NHS we’ve still got a lot isms in it, and the racism is so much. I think quite often people like myself would probably have gotten much further much quicker if they’d had the same encouragement as others and I think quite often people cannot see the potential in a lot of the Black and Minority Ethnic staff that they’ve got, within their working Trust or Hospital or community or wherever they work. Which is rather unfortunate because it means that you’re not using the best potential that people have and bringing out the potential that people have for the benefit of the organisation that they’re working for.
Hopes for the future
My dream, as Martin Luther King would say, people will be given a level playing field. A level playing field in which individuals coming to the profession, they are encouraged to reach their full potential, they are given an equal opportunity, to be able to aspire to whatever level they want to get to. This is what is best for patient care. Because if I come into an environment where I’m gonna be cared for, and I can see at all levels I have individuals working, who are caring for me, who also come from my own background and what have you, then I will know that there is some input that will help those who are looking after me to consider the things that are peculiar perhaps to my own needs.
But race should not be a hindrance or a stumbling block to reach your full potential, that’s what I’d see as the ideal. I think the rhetoric that we keep hearing in the NHS of, “oh everything is better now” is not true. A lot of the data that we have in relation to the work and race issue still demonstrates that there is a long way to go, we keep harping on about it, we keep talking about it but we’re still not seeing much-- we’ve moved a long way compared to the 50s and 60s don’t get me wrong, but I think there’s still a lot for us to do.