Mrs Olufolake Ajayi, who retired as a lead nurse at University College, London Hospitals, NHS Foundation Trust, in the United Kingdom, tells ALEXANDER OKERE about her career and what young Nigerians should do before embarking on a search for greener pastures
Can you describe your childhood?
I am a Lagos girl; I was born in Lagos on December 30, 1952. My childhood was a good one. My father was polygamous but it was nothing strange in my place. We belong to the Egba community and in the Ebute Metta side, from what we call the Post Office. We attended St. Jude’s Church, now Cathedral of St. Jude’s Anglican Communion.
How many wives did your father have?
He had two wives and 12 children. My mother was the first wife and I am her last child and only daughter. My mother had four children and the second wife had eight but we all lived together amicably. I was a tomboy and usually got into trouble. I had two sides: I was quiet but could also be troublesome. I was not afraid of anybody. I did what I felt was the right thing to do. My father was in what I will call the health sector in those days because he was a senior officer in the health department of the then town council in those days. He was educated and he made sure his children were educated.
How did your father feel about you being a tomboy? Was he comfortable with it?
It is difficult to read the mind of Egba men but my father knew that I had a mind of my own and that there must have been a reason for me wanting to do something. Even when my father said no to me, I looked for a way to turn it around. When I told him I wanted to become a nurse, which was a profession I had always wanted as a child, he said no but I found a way to turn that around. I had an aunt who was my godmother and my father’s first cousin. I told her what my dad said, she talked to him and the rest is history.
Did he tell you why he did not want you to become a nurse?
People at that time used to say that nurses are promiscuous and always flirting with doctors and all whatnot but I proved him wrong. I began my training at the age of 18 at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital. There were 10 of us.
What were some of your memorable moments at LUTH?
I had many. I met my husband when I was in my first year at the school of nursing. He was in medical school at that time. The management of the school of nursing was very strict with us. Before we were allowed to leave the school, our fathers had to write a letter requesting the school to permit us to go out. But in our second year, we knew how to find our way outside for parties. Also, we received some amount of money from the school as allowance at the end of each month. Because I hardly went home at the end of my academic work, I saved that money and bought some fashionable outfits at a shop in Surulere called Small Prices. We were young and enjoyed it. The fact that we were being paid while in training was memorable. My husband caught me much early, so he put an eye on me and told everybody I was the one he would marry. He was actually like a hawk watching over me at the school of nursing and all the matrons knew him. I didn’t like it at that time. But what could I do? He is now my husband.
What do you think attracted him to you?
When I was at the preliminary training school, I wore a pink uniform. In my first year, he was posted to the ward where I was. One day, he came and told the nursing sister on duty that he would have to come back because he wanted to watch a football match. When I heard that, I became angry because I hated that insolence but I couldn’t say anything because I was a junior nurse. It was later that I realised that the lady was a first cousin to his mother. When he returned, I went to the bay where he was, greeted all the people there, and ignored him. I didn’t know that made him interested in me. I tried to avoid him but he was very persistent. He was also quiet; he could sit for half an hour and not talk to the point that I wondered what was wrong with him. But he never stopped coming to my class to see me. I said yes to him and ended up living the past 47 years of my life with him. I don’t regret it though.
Why did you decide to leave Nigeria for the UK as a young nurse?
At the school of nursing at LUTH, my classmates and I had to spend an extra six months for us to take the UK board’s nursing examination and once a candidate passed the Nigerian and UK examinations, that candidate was given a chance to go to the UK to continue their training. Also, a lot of us wanted to have our midwifery in the UK. When we concluded the exams and I wanted to go to the UK, my husband insisted that we had to get married before my departure because he was also leaving for his postgraduate study. Unfortunately, my automatic admission for midwifery was cancelled due to a misunderstanding between Nigeria and the UK. So, I stayed behind, got married, had a child and took the child to the UK when my husband went there for his master’s.
After my midwifery in the UK, I started working because my superiors did not want me to leave. I had to tell them that I needed to return to Nigeria to see my sick mum. They allowed me to go but kept my job for me for about three years and kept in touch with me through letters and phone calls because they wanted me to come back to the UK. I was in Roehampton, London, at that time. My mum recovered and even lived till the age of 90. When my husband and I returned to Nigeria in 1982, he got a job at the Ministry of Health and it came with a car, a house, and an education for our children. Nigeria was beautiful then; in fact, we didn’t like the situation in the UK because (the late) Margaret Thatcher was the Prime Minister. However, I returned to the UK in 2002.
Where did you begin your career as a nurse?
When I graduated from LUTH, I worked with a doctor in Apapa and Surulere. I started there and when I returned from the UK in 1982, I joined Abimbola Awoliyi (Memorial Hospital), a private hospital in Bamgboshe, Lagos. From there, I worked in another hospital before joining Ireti Hospital. I was a matron there. When my husband was transferred to the East, I took my children and joined him in Aba (Abia State) for seven years. I have enjoyed nursing to the fullest.
How will you compare the nursing profession then to now?
There is no basis for comparison. Nursing is nursing anywhere in the world; all one needs to do is update oneself regularly and I never stopped doing that because I love lifelong education. Yes, there are a lot of things that are not up to the standard but that does not mean we should flog the profession. In my era, we were still under the colonial masters and the quality of life was better. We were not as populous as we are now. There are many overwhelming challenges now but we need to look for positivity in that negativity. People say Nigeria is completely bad but I tell them to look for positivity.
You mentioned earlier that your dad initially rejected your decision to study nursing because he thought nurses were promiscuous. Do you think some people still have that perception?
Promiscuity exists all over the world. It is in every profession. It is wrong to associate the nursing profession with promiscuity. We are all different. I have friends who are not nurses but are promiscuous; but that is their life, not mine. Are some doctors not promiscuous? Are some accountants and lawyers not promiscuous? There are individual differences.
What are your thoughts about the cold, uncaring or arrogant attitude of nurses in public hospitals in Nigeria?
Hmmnn, to that question, I will say you are what you are. Nurses are meant to be trained in the right way. Without a good leader, the followers are completely screwed up. If the leaders in the nursing profession do not carry it to an enviable position, people should not expect anything better from those under them. Unfortunately, things are not very different all over the world.
Do you see the brain drain in the profession as a major concern?
I worked in Nigeria for 22 years and did not want to return to the UK. But when my children were turning 16 and the strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities was on, as it still is, our friends wondered why we were keeping our children in Nigeria when they were British citizens. So, we allowed our children to return to the UK. I later joined them and went back to the job I left several years back. Some of those who left Nigeria claimed it was in search of greener pastures. Is it really green over there? That is what some members of the old students’ association and I are coming back to educate the younger ones about. We advise them to plan for their trip outside Nigeria in search of greener pastures because if they don’t, they are planning to fail. I learnt that when I studied for a degree in Health Education at the University of Lagos at the age of 51. I know what many of them go through in the UK. They sell everything they have to the point that it is difficult for them to return to Nigeria. So, they enslave themselves. Before one qualifies to practise nursing in the UK, even as a graduate nurse in Nigeria, one needs to take and pass the UK exam to be registered to practise. Those who were employed by the National Health Service were given only six months of accommodation, and after that, the nurses had to fend for themselves. I don’t belong to the class of those who took the ‘japa’ option, which is not always rosy; I visited Nigeria every year when I practised in the UK. Some people think Nigerians in the UK pick money on the ground. In the UK you work your eyes out and racism is real there.
How do Nigerians face racism in the UK?
Once you are black, you are a completely different individual.
Did you face racism?
Oh, yes, but I am the type who does not give up easily. I confronted anyone who discriminated against me. When I was at the University College, London Hospitals, NHS Foundation Trust, I was a nurse, a midwife and a neonatal nurse. At that time, neonatal nurses were scarce because it is not an easy area, so I was highly sought after. I ended up training nurses for the institution. I was asked to apply for the position of nursing sister to be elevated. I did that but later found out that they were trying to move me away from the senior management role in the neonatal unit because they saw I had the potential. I retired as a lead nurse, and lead midwife at the college.
Why did you not become a matron?
They thought it would be difficult for them to pay my salary. They thought the salary I would receive as a matron could be used to pay junior nurses. That is politics. When I turned 60, I told my superiors that I wanted to retire. My chief matron in the midwifery department appealed to me to stay and execute some projects. When I finished that, I was 63 and I told her that I had had enough, so I left at 64. They were not nice to me at all but that is history. I practised nursing full-time from 1971 to 2015. I got a master’s in Midwifery Studies at Middlesex University, London. I don’t have regrets in life because they stunt progress. When I returned to Nigeria, I started my consultancy service full-time and transferred all the skills I got into community service. I helped mothers to settle neonatal babies in their homes.
Do you have any of your children toeing your career path?
No. I did not want them to because nurses are not well regarded. One of my sons is a consultant radiologist in the UK. At times, he complains to me about nurses in the theatre but when I remind him that I am a nurse, he tells me I am different. How can I be different? So, nursing can be quite restrictive but I love nursing and I don’t regret rejecting the opportunity to study medicine. Medicine would not have given me the freedom I have now. Medicine gives one a highfalutin idea of being a doctor and that nothing else matters.