At 90, this Ijaw/Bayelsa-born winner of Sir Kofo Abayomi Best All Round Nursing Student prize, still remembers clearly what it took way back in the 1940s to be admitted into the nursing profession by the colonial masters.
“They didn’t know you and they didn’t care about who you are, and there was no case of which godfather brought you in. Even the government did not interfere in the administration of the hospital, which was totally manned by the English people,” she said.
Aside having a passion and interest for the job, the nursing profession then was not your career prospect if you were given to painting your nails and putting on earrings and trinkets. According to her, “You had to look elsewhere for a job!”
Because she showed traits of caring for people early in life, her principal at Elele Secondary School, Elele, guided her through her profession: “I love to treat people when they are sick. I don’t like seeing people sick. Right from infancy, I love being near to people who are sick so that I can help them, I do care for people. When my principal at the college was choosing careers for us, she knew I would do very well in nursing. So she helped me to choose, and since then, I have not regretted it.”
Even when civilisation was still incubating in Nigeria, she mustered the courage to marry outside her Ijaw tribe. “Actually, I was not a tribalist, I had several people around me who were from other tribes. I loved to mix; I didn’t care where he came from. We just met and loved each other and that was it. I wasn’t particularly looking out for somebody from my place. I was only prepared to get married; that was all.
“My father was a minister and my husband’s people too were prominent in the society, they were the Johnsons family here in Lagos. So there was that agreement.”
On the humanitarian and tender heartedness of nurses, which she said is no longer there, she has this to say: “I think it is a societal thing which presently permeates all the sectors of our national life. People are not interested in what they do but are only interested in the money. That is why I said that in those days, the English man had a way of assessing your approach to patients and the type of relationship you keep with them. They gathered all those data together within six months without you knowing, if you didn’t meet their criteria, they wouldn’t tell you, but after the six months they would send you away and nobody dared to interfere.
“The level of interest of nurses these days, is extremely low and bad. There are many quacks too. Nursing is not just something you walk into and qualify; you actually work hard for it because apart from studying the human anatomy, there are a whole lot of other things that make the patients to recover quickly.
“No English doctor or nurse would allow you to paint any part of your body or wear earrings or chains. The authorities were very strict. The English man did not know you but was only interested in how you carry out your duties and the level of interest you exhibited in the course of the job, nothing more. It was not a question of you going to a godfather to forcefully impose you on the system even when you were not doing well. It didn’t matter whose sister or niece you were, if you didn’t do well, they would tell you that you were not cut out to either be a nurse or a midwife. This is because they were very enthusiastic and did not know anybody in Nigeria. For them, here was a patient who they wanted to get well. That’s all.
“These days, you go to the hospital and see some patients crying with nobody attending to them and if you look around, you see the nurses sitting idle and doing nothing. In those days, there were a lot of very ill people with nobody to help them. So they picked them from the streets and bring them to the hospital gate. The English doctors would treat and discharge them without a fee.
On the incessant strike actions by the medical personnel these days, she said: “We never experienced it. During Yakubu Gowon’s administration, there was this problem of segregation between our pay package and that of the English nurses. The nurses union then agreed that we go on strike. But Gowon’s wife, Victoria, who was in the nursing school at the University of Ibadan that time, got wind of the strike plan and sent a message to the husband to act promptly. He ordered that our demands be met and that was all. There was never occasion for strike again until I left the profession. Besides, we knew it was dangerous to embark on such actions, as there were a lot of patients in the hospitals with very limited private hospitals around in those days. A lot of people would die, so he called off the strike nationally and paid us immediately.
If as a nursing student you are to be interviewed by Agbebi, here are the basic requirements: “I will first and foremost look out for the person’s spiritual state. This is because, if you fear and love God, you will not be comfortable seeing somebody else suffering. With the fear of God, you have those qualities that the nursing career needs such as patients, tolerance, love and many more. Above all, cleanliness is another thing; you must have to be clean to practise nursing. A lot of our girls are dirty.”
Agbebi admits that nursing isn’t an easy career. “You know our salaries were poor, but if you were interested in the job, you wouldn’t mind. And the hours of work then were really long. It took a whole lot of patience. In all sincerity, I must confess, it was not an easy job.”
She speaks about life at 90. According to her, “At 90, you get tired easily, you don’t get the company you previously had. You can’t visit your friends and life becomes a bit meaningless. Honestly, it is lonely and frustrating. But I read the Bible a lot; it is my daily companion. As you read, the Bible says, there is spirit in the Word. When you read, you try to internalise those things you read. I don’t harbour hatred in my mind, and I try to do good at all times. I sing a lot too. All these sort of uplifts my spirit.”
And as a retiree, she remarks, “It is tough in Nigeria. This is because the government does not care about how the retirees feel. Sometimes, they don’t even pay our pension for months. But if you believe in God, you will be content with whatever he provides you and you will not be in so much need.”
Should she reincarnate, would she still be a nurse, she said: “I would, if things improve, because I love the job. You need a lot of dedication. It makes you to be patient and have love for others. It makes you a better person. As old as some of the patients are, when they get to the bed they behave like babies.”
When asked if she is afraid of the bell tolling on her, she said: “No, not at all because I know that all human beings are sent into this world for a purpose. There is a time for us to come and a time for us to go. Whenever it is God’s time, I’ll go, I don’t sit down to groan and mourn over it, not at all. Though old age is not an easy thing, it is a bit frustrating. I get frustrated when I am lonely, but that is just old age for you. Otherwise, anytime God calls me, I am ready. I think I have done my bit as both a child, grown up, mother and grandmother. So, I feel satisfied and wait for the time.