Despite a tough childhood marked by the stigma of illegitimacy and racism, Elizabeth Anionwu went on to become one of the country’s top nurses. Recently, she was made a dame. Here, she tells Nadine White about her incredible achievements
NOW LAUDED as one of the most respected nurses in the country, Elizabeth Anionwu’s journey couldn’t have started more differently.
As the child of a 20-year-old English/Irish Catholic student who studied classics at Cambridge and a second-year Nigerian law student in 1950s Britain, Anionwu grew-up during a time when interracial relationships were largely frowned upon. As such, her early life was marked by racism and the stigma of illegitimacy.
In her recent, self-published memoirs Mixed Blessings from a Cambridge Union, Anionwu reveals how she overcame personal trials and trauma to triumph in the fields of nursing, education, activism and ultimately, life.
The Birmingham-born nurse is a PhD holder and Emeritus Professor of nursing at the University of West London. She was awarded the CBE in 2001 and, in the recent New Year’s Honours list, she was given a DBE. That means we can now refer to her as ‘Dame’.
Anionwu decided to pen her book because “we read so much about the negative impact of children who were in care, and mixed-race, the whole caboodle”.
The intention, she says, is not for Mixed Blessings from a Cambridge Union to be a ‘misery memoir’, but one filled with hope, inspiration and reflection.
Over the three-year production process, Anionwu conducted some 30 interviews in piecing together her autobiography. Many would probably consider this to be an unusual and altogether quite rigorous process for a book that is largely centred around the experiences of one individual.
However the retired nurse says:
“I’m very nosy and love reading about other people’s lives – celebrity or not. I wanted to make sure that this book wasn’t an ‘I, I, I’ memoir just from my perception.
“I wanted to find out what my relatives from both sides, friends and colleagues who have known me over the years, have as a perception of me and my identity is.”
Some of the feedback that Anionwu has received about Mixed Blessings – especially from black men – is that it offers a positive portrayal of black father figures. Anionwu reflects:
“In view of the fact that my father didn’t bring me up as a child, I had a very good relationship with him during the eight years that I knew him. He welcomed me with open arms. I went from being quite shy – because I didn’t have a father figure before – to really becoming close to him.”
She was a health visitor when the pair met and happily so until her father pushed her to new heights.
“I thought I’d done alright,” she admits.
“What my father did was sit me down and give me guidance about the way my career should progress from there. Nobody had ever done that before.”
Off the back of this conversation, Anionwu began to consider wider career prospects and subsequently entered the field of education. Though initially nervous about pushing her boundaries, her father patiently put to her:
“If you don’t apply, how do you know what the outcome will be?”
“Many people underestimate role models,” she muses.
“I think they are quite important. For instance, I’ve seen the impact that the Mary Seacole statue has had upon my granddaughter.”
Anionwu is a life patron of the Mary Seacole Trust and was at the fore of the successful campaign to have a memorial statue of the iconic Jamaican nurse erected. It was unveiled on June 30 last year at St. Thomas’ Hospital and is the first of a named black woman in the UK.
“My daughter and nine-year-old granddaughter were present at the unveiling,” she smiles.
“In my family, the three generations below my mother are women of colour. My granddaughter came to stay with me, one holiday, several months after the unveiling.
“We went into London to do some sightseeing. She said she wanted to go to the statue…again! Honestly, I felt like crying with joy. We all want to see role models for our younger relatives because, I don’t know about you, but I’ve lived through very few.”
Not many people know that Anionwu’s only daughter is Azuka Oforka – an actress in the BBC TV series Casualty. The irony that the character that Oforka plays is a nurse is not lost on Anionwu.
“It’s wonderful,” she says.
“We’ve got a joke in the family; that it’s the nearest I’ve got her to the NHS! Acting is not easy and she’s a woman of colour as well. She’s now in her fifth year in the Casualty series and is very well thought of as an actress.”
Among Anionwu’s numerous achievements is being the first nurse to lead a groundbreaking sickle cell service in London that has led to national birth screening. Furthermore, the lecturer is the first sickle cell nurse specialist in terms of information, screening and genetic counselling – something she views as the most remarkable point in her career.
The Voice attended an event she had staged alongside Sickle Cell Society UK at Parliament, where Anionwu warmly and passionately spoke of her commitment to this cause.
“When I first got involved, there was just no written or video information for families – nothing,” she recalls.
“I was always interested in health education or promotion, as it was called in the old days. You can’t cope with the condition if you don’t know what it’s about. I realised I was really ignorant about sickle cell. I hadn’t been taught about it at my hospital in Paddington in the late 1960s, despite there being a significant Caribbean population there. That was scandalous.”
Anionwu made the decision to venture to the United States in pursuit of yet more knowledge about the condition.
“There was much more activity going on in the 1970s out there, in relation to campaigning for sickle cell and developing services,” she explains.
“What I would like people to realise is that sickle cell is not the end of your life. I am very much a glass-half-full person and it’s important, as a community, that we are not in deficit mode. Sickle cell is an issue, an illness.”
Though retired and proud of her lengthy contribution to healthcare, Anionwu says she still enjoys teaching and passing on knowledge and speaking about the response so far to Mixed Blessings from a Cambridge Union
“I’m pleased that the book is inspiring people.”
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Written by Nadine White, voice-online.co.uk
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