Sarah Amani arrived in the UK to study in 1996 from Malawi. She came and stayed with her sister who was living in London at the time. In her interview, Sarah describes her upbringing in Malawi, institutional racism in health care, being African in Britain, and motherhood.
Early life and Childhood
So I'd actually been here before on a holiday. And my parents had always spoken very highly of the UK. So in a way, I was kind of just looking forward to it. The context of me coming here was I had previously been at a boarding school in South Africa. And I don't like boarding school. So I kind of I was given a choice, and I opted to come here. And I came and stayed with my sister who was living in London at the time.
My memories of where I grew up – so Malawi is a very small country, the same population as London so what I remember is that everyone is like your parent because it’s such a small community and everybody knows about each other so it can be quite – it’s good on one hand because you always have somebody to depend on. On the other hand, everybody is in everybody’s business so it’s like a crazy beehive of gossip so privacy can be an issue so that’s what I remember about growing up in Malawi. I went to boarding school in South Africa at the age of 10. That was scary, I just remember thinking “where are my parents going?” “Why aren’t they coming to pick me up?”. They had explained to me what was happening but at that age I think I was too young to appreciate that suddenly I was going to live and study in this new environment. I do remember it being a very prestigious school and I would say a lot of what I have achieved today is probably due to the education I received in South Africa so as hard as it was to adjust I’m pretty lucky that I had that opportunity.
Yes, I remember my first job was in the wards so one of the challenges there would be being nurses and also being a black female nurse sometimes people assume that your capacity to undertake tasks are very limited so they’ll task you with menial things and wont necessarily ask your opinion about whats going on with your patients and they might ask you to make teas and coffees but limit you to that as your role in the meeting. So I had to kinda change that by showing I was capable of more maybe sophisticated tasks like helping to devise a care plan, taking to parents and families who are worried etc but I have to say I didn’t experience huge discrimination so I’m probably lucky in that regard. I actually whistleblew in the first year of my career.
Whistleblowing is when you notice unsafe practice and you basically alert senior management and at the time I was on a work visa and what people used to ask me “wasn’t I scared that maybe my employer might revoke my work visa” because in someways whistleblowers can be seen as troubler makers and at the time I just thought that there was something wrong and it was my duty to call it out, I didn’t really worry about the repercussion so I feel pretty lucky that the colour of skin hasn’t limited my career.
I don’t think I have but my area of work is pretty narrow so psychosis only occurs in 1 to 3% in the population, so are services are pretty specialist. What I do notice is that the majority of the work force is typically white and usually from middle sort of class backgrounds and in areas where the population is different for example when I worked in North East Hampshire, in a town called Aldershot. We had a high population of people from Nepal and sometimes what happened , isn’t intentional discrimination but we as a service and as an organisation don’t consider the cultural norms of certain minority groups and by not considering their norms we make ourselves harder to access for certain groups. So unless we have someone on the team who kind of says , I wonder why we are not seeing these group come through our doors, I wonder what we are doing that maybe is discouraging or putting them off, then you can discriminate unintentionally by making your services less accessible to a minority group.
She plays it down but there were elements of very obvious discrimination, where she would go looking for accommodation and there would be sign on the door saying no Africans or Caribbean don’t bother asking sort of thing. But she really played that element down to be honest almost like she would laugh and just keep walking, so when she relayed her time to us as her kids she would talk about the great experience of traveling all those miles embedding herself in the new culture making new friends, getting a qualification, she was big into fashion so buying all these clothes and then bringing them back to Malawi to start her new life there when she got married. So that was her experience.
I would correct the teacher jokingly to say I am not a Professor of African History and I come from one tiny part which is Malawi, I know a bit of South Africa but that is about it .He would then try to provoke me by saying things like one way of getting rid of poverty in Africa would be to let the poor people die and that would solve the problem of too many people and not enough food.
It was actually one night when I had taken my gap year after college and I was working in a hospital department where they prepared the trays they used in operation. So my job by the time was just assemble surgical tools and there was a young man who used to work with me. We used to do shifts from like 5pm to whatever hours. And we were waiting for a bus and I remember him saying he hadn’t been feeling well and I said I’m really sorry and I said what is wrong with you and have you sought treatment and he said oh I have been having depression and he explained to me what it was and in my mother tongue there is no word depression so I was just totally blown away that there was this illness or disease that we didn’t have a word for in Malawi and I suppose we were working in a hospital anyway I could have just noticed how proud the nurses and doctors were, how fulfilled they seemed by their career and the difference they made so that kind of helped me decided and a couple of months later I signed up to become a nurse.
The first year as I said is generic nursing training after which you specialise so I decided to specialise in mental health and the hard part of mental health nursing training is there is like a blood test to guide you to say this is what the condition is so there is a lot of conversation and dialogue to piece together almost like a detective so you’re trying to find out not only what someone is going through but trying to dig into what led to them feeling the way they are or behaving the way they are which isn’t always easy because at first encounter people may not trust you or they may not know why you’re asking those questions because they may be confused and disorientated so one of the key things for mental health nurses is to have a lot of patience and a lot of compassion as well.
Not so much now but at the time I was doing direct clinical work so seeing patients. Seeing people have that difficult time but come through at the other end and get better I would say is the best feeling in the world. To share that success with them. The work I used to do and the specialism I ended up in is psychosis and that’s a disorder that typically happens when people are young so the average age is about 22 and at that time of life most young people are looking forward to starting their higher education or careers so this disease can really rock the foundation from right under them but to see them come through that and families can have hope again is yeah – it’s really rewarding.
Identity & African community in Britain
So, it’s been a theme of my time in the UK that I am the only black person, so here at the University of Oxford I am the only black person in this department .When I moved to London its very diverse as you know but I went to Greenford High school which is very south Asian so I was the only black kid in my classes .But it was fun to be quite honest because I hadn’t been exposed to that group before and they embraced me with both arms , and there was a bit of a perk in that I ate a lot of Indian and Bangladeshi food as a result. It was difficult sometimes; I’ll give you example of when we were doing history and the history teacher was touching on African history he would look at me like I am an expert on oh African history which is ridiculous given how many countries are in Africa. So things like that were a bit embarrassing more than anything. But nothing too difficult to handle.
So, my friends came from, some of my friends were from Malawi actually. They just so happed to come to university to do their Masters or other Degrees in the UK. When I was working in Surrey I was living in Woking, which is quite diverse, there was pretty active Malawian community, in fact we used to joke that Woking had become Malawi because you could never take two steps without meeting a Malawian.
Its I would say I see myself as both Malawian and British, it depends on the context actually sometimes if I go to certain Malawian gathering, I feel more Malawian then British, because I am surrounded by all things Malawian. Whether that’s food, the clothes we are wearing, the language we are speaking certain things that are acceptable or not, that sort of thing. And If I am surrounded by all British people, I may feel more British as I have to assimilate to their norm, it’s almost like having a duel identity.
My mother was here in the UK for ten years she did her nursing her nursing degree and then left. When she was offered a British citizenship, she felt insulted and she left, so that tells you something. She’s always made it very clear she didn’t come here to stay; she came here to get skills that would then help her develop her part of her world a bit. You know in terms of doing businesses that she has done, being someone that people can turn to if there is no doctor or nurse, she has always been clear she is Malawian and will always be that way.
Motherhood and Family
My mother has inspired me because she’s a very strong character, in that she has overcome a lot of challenges in her life. She was very young when she arrived in the UK [it was] at a time when there were hardly any Africans here. She made a success of that and then after 10 years she went back to Malawi at a time when it was very ‘male driven’. She [then] did nursing until she discovered that the doctors, who were mostly male in Malawi, were being abusive to pregnant women, like slapping them whilst they were in labour for screaming too loud. So, she resigned. And for most people I think they looked at her... they almost wrote her off. [They would] say she was ‘just a housewife’ as it were. But she had bigger dreams, and she wasn’t going to condone that kind of bad practice anyway. So she started a day-minder for mums who were working, to kind of support other mums. And it was so good that the mums would come and [ask] “Could you open a nursery school? Because our kid is ready for that stage now”. And then they came and [asked] “Can you open a primary school? Because our kids are that age now”. And before I knew it, she had a whole stream of schools. She made a real big success of that, it was one of the best schools in Malawi at the time. I remember watching her in action. Attracting the best teachers from, not just Malawi, but from South Africa and the UK. And these kids now are all grown up, and they are in really good jobs in Malawi and they are raising their own kids, and they really value education. So she instilled those sorts of values in a whole generation. So that was inspiring to watch. And she didn’t labour the point, but she kind of made it obvious that, just because you’re female, just because you’re black, whatever your background, it doesn’t mean that you have to settle for anything other than what you want out of life. So that has always been the driving principle for me.