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A HIDDEN HISTORY:
African Women and the
British Health Service

1930–2000

Dr Lola Oni

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. I was nine years old at the time. I came to join my mother with two of my siblings. My mother 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."


MIGRATION

"When I first arrived, a bit like the Windrush Era, we came by ship. We came by a ship called 'Orielle'. 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, so it was quite cold then."


FOSTER CARE

"A lot of African families, parents, they came over to the UK, majority of them to study. My father came in the 1940s to study, as part of his accountancy studies. My mother came by the ’50s, ’60s. 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. Therefore [they would] go to a foster parent, privately arranged to look after the children, whilst they were either busy studying or [on] whatever course. It gave them the opportunity to focus."


MOTIVATION TO WORK IN HEALTHCARE

"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. 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." 


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 feisty person anyway, 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."


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."

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