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A HIDDEN HISTORY:
African Women and the
British Health Service

1930–2000

Sylvia Owusu Nepaul

Sylvia Owusu Nepaul is a former nurse, midwife, and administrator. She was born in Nottingham to Ghanain parents in the '60s. In her interview, she discusses living in the Midlands, being fostered, and her memories of the National Front and the rise of fascism in the UK. Sylvia also reflects on the greatest challenges and highlights of her NHS career.

RACISM

"When we went to school, myself and my brother were the only black children there. Going to school, was difficult, it was difficult. I think we came from a generation where our parents were taught to do as they were told and so they were kind of trying to instil that into us. So even if we felt that we were being hard done by, by the teachers and all the children, we just ‘put up and shut up’ so to speak. There was a lot of kids running around the school, calling us the N-word, and ‘Blackistani’ – I’d never heard of that one before. But there was one kid that called us that all the time. They used to chase us around the playground. It wasn’t nice. Even when we went to secondary school, I think there was about 4 or 5 of us there, even though Nottingham was becoming a little bit more cosmopolitan. We went to a Catholic school so there wasn’t really many black people there."


"It was very difficult times looking back on it because the teachers and the other children didn’t know how to adapt to us."


MOTIVATION TO WORK IN HEALTHCARE

"Originally, I wanted to be a musician. I had to assimilate into an educational society where you must make sure that you have got a good career before you do anything that you really want to do. I think that is a general consensus of African parents because they feel that education is hard to come by in other countries where you have to pay for it. My parents encouraged me to do something academic. My mother was a nurse and a midwife so she trained here in England. She kind of encouraged me to go into the health field. I did a sports course where I wanted to be a sports teacher. I did lots of things really that were away from the health field, but still somehow ended up in the NHS."

 

CHALLENGES OF WORKING IN THE NHS

"So, I’ve been in the NHS since 1988. The hardest part has been in my midwifery career, which I started in 1991. Women in general, because they are in pain, they are in a situation they can’t control, sometimes are very volatile. I think sometimes their pain exacerbates how they really are in person. Some of the things that they might curb as an individual because it’s not politically correct, because they’re in pain, or they’re using ‘gas and air’, gives them the right to say the things that they wouldn’t normally say. I’ve had people say that they don’t want to be looked after by black midwives – “Don’t want you in here”, “Don’t like black people”, “Don’t want your hands on my wife’s whatever”. That’s hard."


FASCISM IN THE UK

"Yes, it was commonplace. It was a time of Margaret Thatcher and high unemployment and I think people were always looking for somebody to blame, pretty much like it is now. It was a very scary time because people were very impressionable. People [would go] to football matches and they’d be recruited into the National Front. I remember when I was at school, there was a young lad by the name of Vincent and he came to school dressed up in the Nazi suit. I said to him,  “Why, why are you dressed like that?” and he said, “Because hail Hitler and the Nazis are the best”. I said “But I thought you were my friend”, he says “I am your friend but Nazis are the best and we need to get rid of everybody else”. That was when I was at primary school. But again when I was a teenager, you would be walking through town and there’d be the National Front marching and you’d have the anti-fascists - it was very, it was very volatile times. It was very scary."


ADVICE

"I would say stand your ground. Know that you are as good as the next person. I actually watched on the news, I think it was just yesterday, where they were saying that black people are being encouraged by employees to change their name to get better jobs; I would say know your roots, know exactly where you’re coming from, tell them your name full, outright and if they don't give you the job, fair enough but if you've done your best, then obviously it's not the job for you."

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