The Journal Nigeria

Tuesday, 25th June 2024
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Out of My Cocoon!

I was the only child of my parents for a couple of years. I was born in
Lagos to Mr. Olatunji Adebowale, a pharmacist, and Mrs. Adefunke
Adebowale, a nurse. We lived initially in Ebute-Metta before moving
to Obalende, where my father had a commercial medicine store. As a
child, I was plagued by the fear of uncertainty and hardship of the
post-World War II era. People were trying to settle down into a
peaceful world that was not distorted by loss, killings and pain. Many
had memories that throbbed with pain every time they remembered
lost loved ones. I recall that in Lagos then, there was scarcity of
foodstuff as everyone was still reeling from the aftermath of the war.
My mother would go out and join a long queue to get garri and return
with a little quantity. Things were also quite expensive. Those in the
rural areas didn’t probably experience the food scarcity we had in the
city because, in the villages, they grew their own food. We were still
under the colonial rule then and the non-importation of fuel affected
the transportation of food to the cities. Nigeria had not yet discovered
its crude oil then. I also remember that at that period in Lagos, there
were always loud, frightening bing-bang sounds of canons at nights. It
was a sort of war legacy. People called it ‘Agba’.
But my childhood was also filled with fun. I played a lot with my
friends in school and around the neighbourhood and when my
younger brother came along, we instantly became playmates. In
elementary school, we were given a penny to get breakfast with and
this usually got us a sumptuous meal from the food seller. It was
mostly beans. Ours wasn’t a wealthy home, but it was an enlightened
one. My paternal grandfather was said to have been a very wealthy
man and so made sure some of his children went to school. My father,
for instance, attended St. Michael’s College, Ijebu-Ode. He was a very
industrious man who taught at the Yaba Medical Centre and then went
on a trip to England before setting up his retail pharmacy shop.
My father worked hard to see that he provided for our basic needs. He
was also particular about educating his children abroad. He did this at
a time when it was the norm to marry girls off without their going to
school. He showed a lot of concern for our future and didn’t allow any
lapses to hold sway. He exercised his leadership by setting good and
lasting examples for us to follow. At nights during the war, my father

would come around to ensure we were all in. Our parents took good
care of us. There were some scary times, though. Rumours went round
occasionally and one got scared. For instance, there was a time we
heard that a man was going around lulling school children away to be
sexually harassed. Another time, it was the mystery handkerchief that
caused disappearances if it fell anywhere near one. As children, we
were quite scared of such stories. Otherwise, we walked freely around
and chatted excitingly. The community being a rather closely-knit one
contributed to the feeling of security we had. One knew that no
matter what happened, the neighbours would be there to help.
As kids, we thought about nothing much more than going to school,
reading and returning home. Our parents gave us good food and let us
know they struggled to get the food on the table. My family wasn’t
too large, and that helped. I know of some families then that had up
to fourteen children in the house. We had school buses that dropped
us at bus-stops close to our houses after school hours. Pupils always
looked forward to being driven round in the buses. But life has never
been so good! I was rather shy as a child. I wasn’t particularly
engaged in sport, but if I had practised more, I would have been good
in gymnastics. I remember I came third in one of the sack race
competitions. I also participated actively in extra curricular activities.
I joined the Girls’ Guide and the Red Cross societies. I liked being in
their uniforms because it made one look smart.
In the Red Cross, we were taught things like bandaging, knowing how
to ‘place’ accident victims, how to make beds, and so on. As for the
Girls’ Guide, we went on camping excursions, and made large fires by
rubbing stones together. It was fun, though in those days girls weren’t
allowed to go away for so long on camps. But I overcame that when I
went into the university. In the university, I was emotionally prepared
for the challenges of the new phase of life I was getting into. I was
responsible and had academic goals I was ready to work hard for and
fulfill. The upbringing I had, and my Girls’ Guide and Red Cross
experiences, came in handy whenever I had to make public
presentations. I had finally come out of my cocoon.
Fond Memories
By the time I was at the university in Europe, I wanted to go round the
country and have a feel of the cities before I returned to Nigeria. I
went to France to learn French and made an arrangement to live in the
countryside because I wanted to practise the knowledge of French I
had. Luckily, I was part of a camping group consisting of students
from all over the world. My best friend in camp was a German named
Renalta. We hit off right away, and it was really wonderful sharing

experiences and friendship with someone from a totally different
environment. After the camp, she invited me over to Germany. She
lived in a village, and obviously no one in the village had ever seen a
black girl. As my train approached, I saw a crowd had gathered with
their camera to take pictures of me. It was transmitted on the
television in Germany, that is, ‘the Nigerian girl who was visiting’.
I’ve never forgotten that experience because my friend’s family made
me feel at home. They were very kind to me. I also remember going to
Germany on another occasion; this time as a fourth year medical
student. I was on a chemical clerkship in Keera and I was attached to
a surgery department. As my German wasn’t too fluent, they thought
it would be more gainful for me to be in the theatre and watch
surgeries than remain in general medicine. By 7am, one had to be in
the hospital to be able to study the X-ray of the patient to be operated
on. It was a regimented lifestyle and one worked round the clock. The
chief doctor of the place moved everyone along. He kept us all on our
toes. I have never seen so much professionalism at work. But one
morning, I became faintly in the theatre. I remember I had rushed out
of my room that particular morning without waiting to eat breakfast.
The clinic staff brought me out of the theatre to attend to me, but I
kept wondering if I had not made a fool of myself! I also remember
when I had to sleep at the station having missed my train on my way
to the camp where I’d met my German friend, Renalta. I had no
money to go to a hotel, so I had to be content with spending the night
at the train station. I was the only black girl in a sea of white faces.
That was in 1961.

Good Grounding in Education

I attended an Anglican primary school in Lagos. The school set high
standards for us. It also fostered keen interest in religious knowledge
in us. It was a mixed school, though the population of girls was far
lower: one girl out of eight pupils. The boys were quite rough and the
girls used to try to avoid them. If we performed better in class, they
would run after us and try to beat us up.
During my fifth year at the primary school, I sat for the common
entrance exam, passed, and got admitted to the Methodist Girls’ High
School. I had looked forward to being in Queen’s College, but it only
admitted pupils who’d gone through the sixth year. At Methodist
Girls’ High School, we were trained to be academically sound and
responsible. Most of the teachers were expatriates. Our principal then
was Miss Barney. My teachers were highly disciplined and
concentrated on giving us the best. Miss Funso was our Mathematics
teacher and she stopped at nothing to make sure we were well
grounded in Maths. She always insisted on punishing anyone who
refused to write his or her assignment. She punished by severely
caning the back of one’s hands. We all sat up, as no one wanted to go
through the shame of being beaten in class. We loved being in her
class because she was a learned person who made learning fun and
interesting. In those days we studied Arithmetic, Algebra and
Geometry and one had to be good in all. Miss Barney, our principal,
was not only hardworking but was also a disciplinarian. The teachers
made us learn by the examples they showed. They were our role
In my fourth grade, my father noticed there weren’t enough facilities
to give me a good grounding in science. So he sacrificed some
pounds and sent me abroad. Luckily for him, at that time, one paid the
same bills even as a foreign student. I repeated fourth grade in
England in a convent school called St. Francis’ College. It was shortly
after the war. Then, everything was rationed; from food to hot water.
For instance, we were not expected to have our bath everyday; we
needed hot water because of the cold. But I was rather used to having
my bath everyday so I would get people to help me with some hot
water so I could have my bath. Methodist Girls’ High School was a
day school, so St. Francis’ was my first experience of a boarding
school. Lights had to be out by 9pm. But we never put it out because
we loved reading! I have many fond memories of St. Francis’. One of
these occurred during the sixth form. There was a change of diet,
which drastically affected our weight! Much as we were enjoying the
fresh change in our meals, we were also worried about our putting on
weight. Some friends and I came together and mapped out strategies
to curb excessive weight gain. The first step we took was simple:
rejection of all food high in calories. With time, we were able to
achieve our goal.
This increased our self-confidence and the ability to take necessary
steps to actualize our dreams. I also enjoyed the classes and lessons in
Maths. My good grounding in Maths at the Methodist School back
home helped me a great deal because my mates in England then were
rather weak in Maths. I would often hear comments like, ‘No one can
compete with her in Maths’. But I wasn’t too good in European
History. Somehow, however, I coped. My love for languages
propelled me to study Greek and German. I went ahead to write
German at the ‘O’level and this earned me the admiration of many
people because at the time, only few of us had that kind of
In the second year of my sixth form, I wrote the entrance exams into
the university. I was invited for an interview at St. Andrews’ in
Scotland. St. Andrews’ is an ancient university like Cambridge or
Oxford in England. The panel of examiners was intrigued by my
interest in languages. I was among the fortunate ones admitted to the
school. But I first went home to Nigeria for holidays. While at home,
my father advised I make good and worthwhile use of my time. After
series of enquiries and efforts on my part, I got a job as a clinical clerk
at the University College Hospital. I got much insight, knowledge and
skills from the job. More importantly, my stint at UCH helped me
make up my mind to become a paediatrician. I experienced mental
agony and torture at the defenseless and pitiable sights of children
who were ill. Their illnesses could have been prevented. Some were
due to parent’s negligence, carelessness and ignorance. I thought there
were just too many problems children were having and that I would
put in my best to ease some of them. When I returned to Scotland in
1958, I spent six valuable years at St. Andrews’ and went as far as
Premium to do my house job as my father wasn’t comfortable with the
level of security in London at the time. I was the only Nigerian and
the only black woman in the school.
I remember having to work really hard as a student in Europe at that
time, not because I was coloured or as a result of my sex, but because
of the background I had in Nigeria. It was a totally different system
from what I was used to. We were being taught by rote learning back
in Nigeria (committing things to memory); while they were taught to
argue and work out answers for themselves. I grew up in an
environment where children were not supposed to ask questions, but
here I found myself in a society where children sought to satisfy their
curiosity. The change was too drastic for me at the initial stage. But I
had to learn to ask questions. That was the only way I could fit into
the society and increase my knowledge.

The First Paediatrician

I qualified in 1964 at St. Andrews’. Then I went on to Stafford. I did
some training in England at St. Mary’s Hospital, after which I did a
diploma in the same country. My house job at Headly Hospital from
1964 to 1965 was my first working experience. I was about to do my
postgraduate studies, but had to put it on hold because of
arrangements for my marriage. When I started having children, it
proved even more difficult to pursue a postgraduate course. So, I had
to put postgraduate studies on a more permanent hold. Then, there
were no crèches at all; one just had to stay with the baby in England.
So I worked at a Greek Hospital and later at Merriestmax Street
Hospital. The latter place marked the beginning of my career in

paediatrics because, from that time, I remained in that specialty. My
husband and I went to Equatorial Guinea, where we worked for a
while, before returning to Nigeria.
Luckily for me, postgraduate courses had just started in Nigeria so I
joined the first batch of students at the Lagos University Teaching
Hospital. I became the first paediatrician to be trained in Nigeria. Part
of the training though involved having to go abroad for at least a year.
I went to Stanford Medical Centre, spent a year there doing a lot of
research work, and relating with children. I later returned home to
complete my postgraduate work.

Judged by Men

In our time, there were few career choices for women. If one was not
a teacher, one was a doctor, a nurse or a lawyer. Women rarely built
bridges of support for one another. Maybe because it’s hard most
times to carve out time to come together. Or it might be out of social
conditioning. So one sees women struggling individually. For
example, in our Medical Women Organization of which I am a
member, women in the middle age are the ones who often attend
meetings because at this stage, they have grown up kids. This is a
major factor that affects women in the course of self-development:
one has no support of others like oneself. Much impact will be made
when women act in more formidable teams. The reality is that getting
married, having and raising children are beautiful barriers in a
woman’s way. The woman strives hard in order to prioritize her time
so that a balance is reached between the two.
However, people still behave and make remarks to belittle women’s
efforts and sacrifice. For instance, one hears comments like, ‘You
have done very well for a woman’. Does this mean that ordinarily,
women cannot do well? While gender discrimination is subsiding in
some aspects of the society, it is increasing in others. Generally,
however, discrimination cuts across the domestic, social, professional
and political preoccupations of women. For example, professions like
Engineering and Piloting still can’t boast of many women. My
daughter, an engineer, was one of eight girls in her class of forty
students and she distinguished herself by making a first class. The few
women who have made it have been the ones with the fighting spirit.
Unfortunately, even though they often find themselves in circles of
other enlightened women, they haven’t been able to motivate the
masses that look on them as models. Politics is another issue. When
we start having more women participating in politics, the
discriminations that have kept women immobilised would then
gradually fade. There are very few women politicians, and they are
struggling to make their voices heard. I believe it would be easier for
them if they work together as a team. Irrespective of the sex of the
individual, politicians should continue to keep their eyes on the goals
of democracy and for that to happen, the grassroots must be educated
on how they can be involved and what is expected of them. Politicians
must give democracy a chance by giving up selfish ambitions.
However, women from their experience in managing the home would
handle public issues with more sensitivity.
I cannot imagine any woman of my generation who didn’t go through
one gender prejudice or the other. We were few among men and it
took us twice as long to get to the same position they got to. When I
became the president of the International Paediatrics Organization,
there were no commendations from the Ministry of Health to at least
show the country’s appreciation of my being elected. Not even a letter
of congratulations! And I couldn’t help thinking that things would
have been different if I’d been a man and attended their club
meetings. Women have had to work harder. For instance, it took me
much longer to be a professor. We were basically being judged by
other men; there were not many women in the seat of judgment or

Do Unto Others!

I grew up with values of honesty, self-reliance, hardwork, openness
and accountability. These values shaped my philosophy of life: do
unto others what you want them to do unto you. I think that having
that at the back of my mind would make me a very reasonable person.
I have always desired to be a person one could rely on and I often put
myself in the shoes of others. So generally, I seek avenues to help
others. And it’s a two-way thing: I don’t keep silent when I also need

As an International Paediatrician

I am the first black woman president of the International Paediatrics
Organisation. I was voted into office in August 2004 in Mexico and
my tenure runs till August 2007. A couple of the past presidents
actually said to me when the post was vacant: ‘Don’t you think you
should go in for the presidency?’ And that was how the campaign
started. Everybody rallied round me, especially my African
colleagues. Some European countries also voted for me and I
eventually became the president. There had been two female
presidents before me, so the International Paediatrics Organization
didn’t consider it a big deal when I took on the mantle of leadership.
My immediate predecessor was an American woman and there had
also been a woman from the Philippines. Maybe because I was

coming from sub-Saharan Africa, they weren’t sure of how things
would go initially. But they were prepared to give me the support I
needed and they have been doing just that. We come from different
countries and no one considers him/herself superior to the other
The world is becoming a global village and the problem of Africa,
though numerous, are shared by Asia and South America. We try to
work together and see how we can make a difference. There is
strength in diversity, and unity in shared experiences. The remarkable
thing is that colleagues from developed countries show great concern
for the problem most developing countries are facing. The immediate
challenge is that I’m resident in Nigeria where unfortunately, the
infrastructure is not as one would like it to be. An instance is access
to the Internet. It is also not easy getting visa to travel in Nigeria.
Some others have no cultural or academic relationship with our
country even though their embassies are here. They are only aware of
Nigerians who are born in their countries or those who seek asylum
Sometimes, I have to obtain letters from my organization to be
permitted to travel. I remember getting a visa to travel to Japan was a
terrible experience. It wasn’t until the Embassy of Japan got a call
from Japan telling them that they invited me that I was given the visa
and it was only for a few days. One can’t blame some of these
countries for being skeptical about Nigeria. They’ve had nasty
experiences and are unwilling to trust anyone. I recall being invited to
Lebanon for a meeting and on getting to the Lebanese Embassy, I was
asked to go and get it at the border. I doubted that possibility and my
fears were confirmed because I eventually missed the meeting.
I do not see the ill treatment as prejudice per se. Some of these
countries have other priorities and don’t think that exchanges among
professional bodies as ours is a top priority. With more enlightenment,
they will get to realize the mutual benefits countries derive from such
exchanges, especially with regards to health care and education. I
don’t have a diplomatic passport, for instance. My country says my
organization is an NGO and so I have to struggle and at times take up
the issue at a high level of diplomacy to achieve my goals.
Thankfully, one coming from sub-Saharan Africa automatically
means that one can travel freely within countries in West Africa. But
this is not applicable in all West African countries. For example, the
Kenyan Embassy would request one leaves his/her passport with them
six weeks ahead of one’s travel. I cannot afford all these weeks, as I
need my passport to go to other countries.
Finance is a major challenge because the organization doesn’t really
have much, but we are very supportive of one another. I’ve only spent
six months in office and have had only one meeting. I think trying to
get the IPO to assist in implementing programmes is quite laudable.
We’ve had brainstorming sessions and we’ve been able to draw up
long-range plans which will identify and map out areas of needs in the
next three years.
I would like to see improvements in the efforts of the regional
organizations. It is not possible for us to reach every member with the
same intensity and drive, but we plan to attend their meetings if only
to have a quick congress and give them the needed support. As the
President of the IPO, we are networking with other related
organizations to address some child health problems like obesity,
malnutrition, HIV/AIDS, etc.
I have held other posts as well. I was the second female Dean of
Clinical Sciences, College of Medicine, LUTH. Prof. Yetunde
Olumide was the first female Dean. I was also appointed the
representative for an international NGO, the Global Alliance for Birth
and Immunization. It’s quite impressive for a woman from sub-
Saharan Africa to occupy this position. We help countries to carry
out more effective and sustained efforts in the delivery of
immunization services by giving them financial and technical support.
I was appointed a member of the scientific working group of the
World Health Organization. As a member, we had to be in Geneva
twice a year. I remember being the only black woman and everyone
got to know ‘Nike’. During one of our meetings, dinner was
announced by a resounding, ‘Nike and others, dinner is ready!’
Train the Child
Nine years ago, I decided to work with the World Health Organization
in Nigeria. I thought that child/infant mortality was mainly a result of
communicable diseases in the community and I was curious to know
how international agencies were addressing this issue. It gave me a
better perspective to children’s diseases and how to manage them.
Child health in this country, as in all developing countries, is a bit
tragic. One out of five children would die before the age of five due to
preventable diseases: malaria, diarrhea or infection. There is lack of
access to good health care system.
We need a bigger investment in infrastructure, which would go a long
way in saving the lives of pregnant women and children. There is the
problem of disparities in salaries of professionals and politicians.
There is a lack of equity and accountability in the management of the
country’s resources such that those who provide essential services are
not adequately motivated. Sometimes, they are even denied access to
basic needs. Consider doctors going on strike to press for their
demands, for example.
Our government needs to know that not everything can be privatized,
especially in the education and health-care sectors because it will
leave devastating effects on the common people who don’t have food
security, and children would be the worst hit. Children are a group in
the society that can easily be taken for granted. They are easily
exploited and robbed of the potential to become useful citizens.
A crucial issue related to child health is parenting. I would propose
that a course in parenting be taught in the university. Many parents
work from dawn to dusk and have little or no time to give their
children the needed moral support. The kinds of politicians we have
in developing countries are a reflection of the improper upbringing
they had as children. The government needs to look into the country’s
health policy. It is all well and good to tell a woman to breastfeed her
baby for six months, but how realistic is that for a working mother?
Because her boss will tell her that if she wants to stay at home for six
months, she can as well put in her resignation. But if the government
says, ‘this is our policy, organizations must ensure there are crèches in
the work place that could cushion the effect of the extra burden of
working in addition to nursing a child’, then one can begin to applaud
Nigeria’s health policy.
We need a change of attitude to these issues. Mothers need to put off
the prejudices they have against the girl child. For instance, the boy is
allowed to go out for as long as he likes and the girl is monitored for
fear of her getting pregnant. Both sexes are vulnerable because
indulging in sex early makes them predisposed to contracting venereal
diseases like HIV/AIDS. There must be facilities put in place to help
implement health policies. Government is mainly interested in
economic polices than social policies, forgetting that a breakdown in
social issues will affect the economy.
It is the collective responsibility of all to train the child. The
motherless babies’ homes that are springing up are a step in the right
direction, because for a hundred children that are housed, there are
another one thousand that are on the streets begging because they’ve
lost one or both parents to accidents or HIV/AIDS. A drastic action
needs to be taken by examining how much goes into social services,
considering the earnings generated from the country’s resources. If
the children aren’t properly taken care of, how will they take care of
the next generation? We need to properly train our children by giving
them adequate attention whether it concerns their basic needs such as
food, clothing, education, etc, or meting out the appropriate discipline
when they go astray. Otherwise, they grow up to become
irresponsible adults.

A Fabulous Mother

My husband and I got married in 1966 in Lagos. We had earlier met
during an interview in Lagos. He changed his name from Graine to
Grange when he went to Sierra Leone. Courtship was fun, in spite of
the ups and downs inherent in every relationship. I think in every
marriage relationship, there must be compatibility and openness to
each other. The first thing is the attraction because if the attraction is
not there, you will end up being cousins to each other! But beyond
that, they must understand each other’s background and what they can
tolerate in each other. It’s easier for the woman to exercise tolerance,
so right from the outset of the relationship, the woman should know
what she is ready or able to tolerate. Then genetic compatibility is
important. Having sickle cell children could be avoided. Before
marriage, the couple needs to see a medical doctor for counselling so
that they can be prepared for any medical issue that may arise. For
instance, knowing their HIV status. Those days, we didn’t have such
opportunities and some people were lucky to avoid having the
problems associated with those medical incompatibilities; but others
weren’t and it cost them their marriage.
Motherhood can be all consuming initially, but after a while one
begins to wonder if that was all one lives for! In our time, it was
generally assumed that once one had a family, one was fulfilled. In
any case, there wasn’t much opportunity to go back to school after
raising the kids. These days, women are asking for something more
because the society is getting more accustomed to the fact that not all
women will have their biological children and even those who can,
sometimes decide against it for reasons best known to them. Women
can excel even beyond the home. I am of the opinion that in addition
to being a mother, women need to develop themselves.
I am a traditional parent, coming from a background where children
automatically embrace their parents’ values. I learnt over the years
not to take it for granted that children would automatically understand
their parents. I probably didn’t ask for their opinion as frequently as
they would have wanted. I also realized that our actions speak louder
than our words when it comes to raising kids.

I was very lucky to have married into such an enlightened family
because they accepted me as I was. My husband and I have three
daughters and our kids are very close to us. We also confide in one
another. This is not to say they don’t have their own lives to lead.
They know that no matter what they discuss with me, they still have to
put their heads together and find solutions to the challenges they face.
I think they admire me a lot and consider me a fabulous mother!

Aging Gracefully

I cook once in a while now, especially when I’m with my daughter
who works round the clock. I have support because it can be very
hectic cooking when the weather is hot. It’s hard for me to talk of
having a favourite meal because I’ve tested so many meals all over the
world. Generally, I prefer nutritious meals that wouldn’t add more
calories to my weight. I love fish and chicken laps as well as
vegetables. I try to diet. I love travelling, meeting people and spending
time with my family. My exercise schedule hasn’t been regular but I
intend to pick it up again. I love swimming and need to shed some
weight so I can be good at it.
I would like to be remembered for showing that sub-Saharan Africa
could make a contribution to global child health. I see myself as an
elder stateswoman who is giving support to my younger colleagues so
that they would continue to give their best. I also look forward to
being a loving grandmother and age gracefully with my husband.