Sylvia Owusu Nepaul
Sylvia Owusu Nepaul is a former nurse, midwife, and administrator who was born in Nottingham. 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.
Early life & Childhood
I was actually born into the UK, so I am second generation African. My parents are Ghanaian, West African, and they came to England, originally, they came to London, but they moved up to Nottingham in the early 60s, I think around 1961, 62.
I was born and bred in Nottingham, when we went to school, well in the area where we actually lived, we were the only black people on the whole of the street - so that was unusual. Well, it is for today’s standards.
Racism in school
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. And then 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. Funny things like looking in my hair, and ‘Ooh your hair is really whirly curly’ and ‘How’d you do it this style?’, because I used to have my hair twisted with cotton and everyone was intrigued, and I’d have about 10 of them in my hair. And then of course my brother had afro hair, so they’d all call him a sponge. So that aspect of it was different but it wasn’t unbearable like some of the comments that were made if you took sandwiches to school, which wasn’t the done thing then, it was like is it against your religion to eat english food and all that sort of stuff.
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 so to speak. And 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. So, 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 several things before I submitted myself to 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.
When I moved to Birmingham I was enlightened because there was a lot more black people. Where I went to do my training was Dudley, which is on the outskirts of the West Midlands, Birmingham really, and again when I got there I was the only black person in the class. But we were all of a young age, we were 18, 19 and everyone was adaptable, so it was absolutely fine. When I did go out on the ward to work, I did find that people were a little bit off with me because people in hospital and certainly the wards I worked on were older generation and they had a little bit of difficulty adapting to the fact that they were being looked after by black nurses. It was okay I just took it in my stride
Hardest part 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. And women in general because they are in pain, they are in a situation they can’t control, sometimes they 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 Entonox, ‘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”. Yeah, that’s hard. And to a degree, I will just say I will accept that because you are in pain. When a person is up on the ward and they’ve had their baby, and they are still saying things like that then obviously there’s an issue. But you know what I had to take in my stride and take it as a professional and write it off as that’s just the way it is. What I find really difficult is when you are working with your colleagues that probably have to same attitudes as some of those people.
As I said, I was very young at the time and as a child you just adapt to the situations and surroundings that you’re in, so I think we just got on with it really. I can’t really say too much because it is a bit of a blurred memory. [My foster family] had children as well, yeah, they were all white. So, there was my brother, myself and our distant cousin Stephen. We were the only ones there. In fact, I'm sure my parents have still got a photo of Auntie Barbara (as we had to call her) fostering us and there was me and my brother sat down cross-legged and Stephen at the corner and everybody else was white on there. Again it's very blurred. I do only remember one little girl called April. That’s all. That’s all. Little white girl with blond hair.
Fascism in the UK
Yes, it was commonplace. It was a time of Margaret Thatcher and higher employment 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 at that time. Football matches, people going to football matches and they’d be recruited into the National Front, their parents, I remember when I was at school and there was a young lad by the name of Vincent, I won’t say his last name and he came to school dressed up in the Nazi suit and I was at primary school at this time and I said to him, “Why, why are you dressed like that?” and he said, “Because hail Hitler and the Nazis are the best” and 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”. So yeah, 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 it wasn't nice and you’d come home from school very quickly you know and you’d get on the bus and you’d have the school bus but if you were late and you missed that bus and there were other people on the bus you got the next bus - it could be very intimidating actually because you don’t know who’s who, pretty much like now but it was more so - to me - it was more scary then. It was more scary. There was the anti-Nazi group but *pauses* no it was quite rife; it was quite rife and it was a lot of it was Media motivated as well you know pushed forward by the media and police. Not good times *laughs*.
Advice to young people
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 and you, you know that you've done your best then obviously it's not the job for you. And I would say to people going into the NHS give it your all. Do not - or, or any job for that matter - give it your all. Do not fall into the stereotypes that people would expect of a black woman, a black man, just be as good as your counterpart. You know you have to be 200 times better but just be as good as that person... or better *laughs*.
I’m trying to think. Like I say, I would just say to black people: be yourself. Don’t drop into the stereotypes. Stand up for yourself and I’m speaking to you all now: stand up for yourself. Stand up and don’t- you know, sometimes people will say things that are very offensive. Challenge them but challenge them in a professional manner. Look at policies and procedures and that because a lot of things that they do that are subtle are not in the policies and procedures. And you can get them *laughs*.