Updated: Jan 16, 2021
The Windrush narrative may make it look as if there was no nurses of African descent or coming from Africa in the UK before the NHS inception and during its early years. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Today, we commemorate Dzagbele Matilda Asante, the African nurse who was working in the UK before the Windrush era.
Mrs Asante was born in 1927 in Ghana (then known as the Gold Coast). She was born into an affluent family and as a result was privileged enough to have access to secondary education which was quite unusual at the time. Once she completed her secondary education which earned her a School Certificate (GCSE equivalent), she became a teacher for some time while her father made arrangements for her to go to the UK to study nursing.
Mrs Asante with a portrait of her younger self - Source : Black History Month website
Mrs Asante first point of call was Dover in August 1947 where she was put in charge of the Ghanaian barrister and then the first Speaker of the Gold Coast Legislative Assembly Sir Emmanuel Quist and his wife Lady Quist. She eventually made it to London where she was first taken by a British Council officer near Earl’s Court but she soon moved to Barnet Hospital in North London to begin her nurse training.
The hospital was too small to have training facilities so she and a fellow training nurse from Sierra Leone ended up making private arrangements to carry on their training in bigger hospitals. She was taken in at Central Central Middlesex Hospital in Harlesden in North West London where she took the State Registered Nurse training and completed it after 3 years of studying.
Some patients didn’t want to be cared by African nurses and there was an incident where a patient refused to let her prepare them for theatre.
Her State Registered Nurse qualification would have allowed her to stay in that hospital (and in the UK) for as long as she wanted but she was planning on returning home eventually and wanted to do more within nursing. In order to achieve this, she moved to South London Hospital For Women And Children where she studied midwifery theory before heading to Kingsbury Hospital in North London to study midwifery practice where she qualified as a State Certified Midwife.
Mrs Asante does not recall much of the Empire Windrush’s arrival in 1948 neither does she remember Carribean nurses mentioning it back then. She only found out about it decades later when she recalls being surprised to hear about it. She also doesn’t recall an influx of African Caribbean people coming to the UK train to become nurses as such although she does remember some girls coming to study nursing. However, most of them either didn’t enjoy the training so much or left after their three-month probation period.
From a young age, Mrs Asante was an activist who would challenge the negative stereotypes depicted by talks and films by the Colonial Office and the British Council about African people. For instance, she and some of her friends showed solidarity to Kenyan students during the crisis in Kenya at the time.
As expected, she faced racism working in the NHS. Some patients didn’t want to be cared by African nurses and there was an incident where a patient refused to let her prepare them for theatre. The surgeon himself had to do the preparation in the end.
Now in her early 90s, Mrs Asante is still involved in the health service. She facilitates weekly health meetings for mothers with young children in her own compound.
The story of Mrs Asante reminds us that the contributions of African nurses to the NHS go beyond what official records show. It is important now more than ever to honour their legacies so they can continue to inspire future generations of Black nurses.