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Reminiscences with Theresa Ibrahim

Theresa Ibrahim, 71, is a German nurse who married a Nigerian. She has been living in Nigeria since 1970. She has worked as a nurse…

Theresa Ibrahim, 71, is a German nurse who married a Nigerian. She has been living in Nigeria since 1970. She has worked as a nurse and matron in various health institutions in Kaduna, including the Nursing Home and General Hospital in Kaduna. She is currently the administrative manager at Garkuwa Hospital. Theresa narrated how she came to Nigeria and her life as a nurse.

You are the pioneer matron at the Barau Dikko Hospital, Kaduna, how would you describe your experience there?

In those days, the School of Health Technology was inside Asibitin Yara in Tudun Wada. It was mainly the hospital for pregnant women, vaccination, deliveries and such things. It was very nice and local. I remember that the first time I came, it was a mud hut; all the hospitals were mud huts. It was beautiful and they taught me a lot.

The Nigerian nurses who were there helped me a lot. I spent eight years at Asibitin Yara, then I went to Gwamna Awan Hospital. I was made the matron in charge of Kakuri Hospital, but it was challenging to be in charge of the hospital and live quite far from my house. So I would go to work in the morning and go back in the evening. If anything arose, I had a lot of nice colleagues who helped me to fit in. They taught me what I didn’t know. So from Kakuri, I was posted to the Old Nursing Home in 1984. I was there for one year; and one morning in January 1985, (I will never forget that day), they told me that the next week I would be moving to Barau Dikko. In those days, it was called New General Hospital. The hospital had actually been empty for four years. It was fully equipped but had been left idle for four years. So they asked us to move in a week. It was not easy, especially coming from the Old Nursing Home partially belonging to the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU). We took all sorts of deliveries there – teaching, taking care of patients. And you know, the high in the society used to go only to the Old Nursing Home because there were not many private hospitals in those days. Most patients went to the Old Nursing Home because it was very famous. When we moved to Barau Dikko it was quite challenging because since the place was left for four years, many of the things there had spoilt. By May of that year, they said General Buhari, who was the military head of state, was officially coming to commission the hospital. It was quite a challenge because the place had been left for four years, and unfortunately, many of the things there had spoilt. It was fully equipped, there was nothing the hospital didn’t have, including hundreds of bed-sheets, instruments, incubators anything you can think of. Due to wrong storage, many things had spoilt, but we got it in order.

The commissioner for health then was Musa Yerima, if I remember well. We would go to work by 8:00am and come back around 5:00pm, then go back to the hospital between 8 to 9 o’clock to see that everything was moving well. We enjoyed a very good cooperation from the Ministry of Health. The official opening went beautifully well. The only problem was that a long line of people waited to meet the head of state. They did not ask me to join the line, but they asked me to hold the cushion to present the scissors to the head of state. But I said if I could not stay in the line with everybody else in the Ministry of Health, I would not carry the scissors because even people who never contributed anything in the hospital were being introduced to the head of state.

We first operated only one or two wards, but with time, we fully utilised the whole hospital. I was there for 25 years. I retired from Barau Dikko in 2005. It was renamed from New General Hospital to the first medical director of the hospital, Barau Dikko, the father to a former deputy governor of Kaduna State, Aisha Sadauki. Her father was the first medical doctor in the North.

Why didn’t they allow you to receive the head of state?

I wonder.

Did you feel bad?    

Yes, of course everybody wants to meet the head of state.

At the end of the day, did they allow you to do that?

No, not at all.

Did you take the scissors to the head of state?

Definitely not; I gave it to a junior nurse to do. I just followed them to everywhere they were going. I wasn’t introduced and I felt very bad.

Were you fluent in English when you came to Nigeria?

Yes, I had English in school for some years, but here, I learnt by force, including Hausa, because when I was in Asibitin Yara, the people only spoke Hausa. I could speak but not perfectly. Hausa is an easy language. You can communicate, you can tell what you want and what you don’t want.

How did the workers and patients understand you?

Most of the patients spoke English, and for those who spoke Hausa, I spoke enough to be understood – Yaya jikin? Yaya yara, da sauki? etc. There is enough for you to speak to find out if anything was wrong.

How did you come to Nigeria?

My husband was studying in Germany when we met. I wouldn’t want to tell you where we met, but we married in Germany and came back to Nigeria in 1970 even though Germany is a beautiful country.

How old were you then?

I was 22

Did you have fears about coming to Africa?

No. I was ready to follow him and make my life here. There was no fear at all. I was ready to learn and adapt. I had no problem at all. And I love the food.

What kind of food do you like?

I like all the foods – tuwon shinkafa da aleho, sakwara, garri etc. We eat only Nigerian food in my house.

Can you make the foods?

Of course.

Did you learn how to make some of them before coming to Nigeria?

I learnt it here. Actually, my husband loved cooking. We used to cook together. In Germany, he used to cook and ask me to come and eat his food. And it was lovely. Now I have two children. My daughter is now 46, I think. I have eight grandchildren. It was a nice time.

How did your family react to your decision to move to Nigeria?

My sisters were not very happy. They kept saying, ‘You are going to marry a Muslim, he is entitled to marry more than one wife.’ But I wasn’t bothered. I knew he couldn’t manage more than one wife. I wasn’t actually bothered about coming, and while I was here, I had my first child and they visited. They used to come every year. And they saw how nice it was here.

What did you find different in the hospital environment in Nigeria and that of Germany?

Things are quite different in Germany. First of all, everything is open and extremely clean. You can even eat in the toilet if you want, but you can’t do it here because of the environment. The weather and manpower are also different. Here, you can come now and want to see the doctor immediately, but in Europe you have to take an appointment. You can have a three-month appointment to see a doctor or specialist. Here, it is easier; the doctor is more like a family member you can bring your problems to him. In Germany, you have your general practitioner who lives in town and has a small clinic. It is your general practitioner that refers you to the big hospital in town. And the big hospitals are quite organised.

But things are getting better here; we are on the way. I haven’t been to Lagos or Abuja; I only know Kaduna, but I’m sure there are some big improvements in hospital services, almost like Europe. There are lots of private hospitals which have excellent standards. It’s just that they are very expensive and many can’t afford it. But the National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS) is there to address that.

Was it stressful at the beginning?

Not at all; I was young when I came, so I grew up here with what I knew from Germany. And I was taught here because I didn’t know much. I had just finished my exams in Germany and qualified as a general nurse. I worked in the theatre for many years. What I know today is because I was taught in Nigeria, not Germany. Here, a nurse does more than they do in Europe. In Nigeria, nurses do suturing for patients; they give blood and IV drugs. In Germany, it is not like that, the doctors do that. Here you learn. I sutured my first patient here in Nigeria. I never did that in Germany. You have more practical experience in Nigeria than you have in Europe. I like it; this is my home now – my family is here: my children, my grandchildren. However, I live with all the wahala you have in Nigeria – no light, no water etc. You get used to it. Once you have made up your mind that you want to live here, you are alright, but if you keep thinking, ‘why can’t I be in Germany? ‘I want to go back,’ it doesn’t work. I am settled, I am happy here. I wear mostly Nigerian clothes, as you can see. They look lovely and beautiful. And I have a lot of Nigerian friends who are very nice and helpful. I can go to anybody’s house while they are eating and they will give me food, or when somebody dies you will see how everybody comes together to help. It is not like that in Europe, everybody is on his own. It is quite different. It is nice to stay here.

Have you noticed any difference in the manner patients or your co-workers relate with you?

It’s the same because I too can be very local; it depends on your approach.  You get a reply according to your approach. So far, I never had any problem. Nobody has complained to me so far. I am sure I have stepped on many people’s toes, which is normal, but there’s no problem. Of course, if any Nigerian sees any Bature, they want to be friendlier. It is quite natural.

What was the reaction when you first met your in-laws?

Well, they were all aware that I was coming.

Tell us about your life before you came to Nigeria?

I had my primary school, secondary school and high school in Germany. Then I went for nursing training. I was young. By the time I came to Nigeria I was 21. I just finished my nursing exams. My husband insisted, and I was ready to follow him anytime, anywhere.

Was there any pressure from his family to come back?

Not at all; he wanted to come back. He had spent almost six years in Germany already and was eager to come back to Nigeria. Actually, I had a different idea when I came. What I saw was not like in Europe where you can rent a room with furniture. We stayed with my husband’s uncle, Alhaji Hassan Jafar. He was the chief accountant in New Nigerian. We stayed there for a year before we got our own house to move in. And it was fine. I never had any problem. I can adapt to anything.

Expectedly, one of the first ailments you were confronted with when you came to Nigeria was malaria. Does it bother you that up till now we have not been able to eradicate it?

I have been here for 50 years, but I have only had malaria three times and they were not very serious. Malaria is a big problem, and they haven’t quite sorted out how it could be treated properly. They haven’t researched enough. And it is coming up in Europe as well. There are many mosquitoes in Europe coming up. But I’ve been lucky. Obviously, it is my German blood.

You are now working in a private hospital, is there any difference between that place and government-owned hospitals?

I retired from a government-owned hospital in 2005 after 35 years of service. I left Barau Dikko and went to Multi Clinic for one year. I worked with Dr Abubakar, our present medical director, a long time in Barau Dikko before he was appointed permanent secretary, Ministry of Health. He asked me to come and be the admin manager of this hospital he is running so as to see that things are in place.

Between private and government hospital, which one do you find more comfortable to work in?

You have more gratitude in a government hospital. You have a lot of poor people coming in, who are extremely grateful that you can do a lot for them. But in the private hospital, the people who come have money. It is quite a different setup.

Have you ever experienced any act of gratitude from poor patients?

They used to come with pepper and other things, but I didn’t like it. And when you don’t take it they feel you are ungrateful. On the other end, you feel they need it more than you do. So it was very difficult. I take, but I give it to my staff. Curiously, the little they have, they bring it to your place to say ‘thank you.’ And they will come and kneel down for long and I would say “tashi, tashi.”

What would you want to change in the public health system in Nigeria?

I would want free treatment for everybody.

Is it feasible?

No. But I can remember that when I first came and was in Asibitin Yara for eight years, drugs were free and mothers got milk. Any visitor that came got three big spoons of milk, all freely provided by the government. When I went to Kakuri General Hospital too, in the beginning everything was free – drugs, cards. It was when I went to Barau Dikko that they started charging for cards because government couldn’t sustain it because it was too much. People are too many, the hospitals are too many, but my wish is that everything should be free. Nigeria has resources, they have the money. At least, in the general hospitals where the poor masses go, there should be free treatment. I know it is not feasible as you said, but that is how I wish it could be. You can imagine if you had a family with eight or 10 children, and two wives, and you are a labourer who earns N18,000 a month. When you go to the hospital for surgery, it is N80,000. Where is the money? You don’t have the money and nobody is ready to lend it to you. From the N18,000 you have to feed your family, buy clothes, pay water bills, electricity bills and transport. And the drugs are very expensive. If they put you on injection which goes for N4,000, what are you going to do? Where are you going to take that money from? It’s not very good. Although the NHIS is very good, you also pay contributions to your employer, who pays for you. Surgeries in the hospitals are costly. You have a CT scan or MRI where they charge between N30,000 and N60,000. Where will the local man get this from? They can’t afford it, so they take their patients home or clinic and give a few injections to them and act like they have been cured. It is unfortunate.

Has any of your relatives joined you in Nigeria?

No. They don’t want to stay here. In those days my sisters used to come, but now, one is 80 while the other is over 80. In the early 1970s we used to go to Bagauda, where there was a swimming pool. For them it was new and exciting. They came to see me, the kids and my husband. They are now too old to come. They said they could not live here like me.

Do you now speak Hausa language?

Kadan, kadan.

Can you read in Hausa? 

Kadan. I always say that Germans have difficulty in learning languages. My grandchildren are all Muslims and Hausa. They are real Nigerians, they have really settled down.

Has any of them followed your line of profession?

Not at all. And they think that I am too old, so I should be relaxing. But there is nothing doing at home. You sit at home all day watching television, curled up with your husband. It’s nice to have some hours being occupied. And you are still respected at work and you can still contribute. I am 71 now.

What would you say was your most rewarding experience in your profession, as well as other aspects of life?

Having my children and grandchildren here is rewarding. They give me a lot of pleasure. I am always happy with the way people have treated me. I have no complaint.

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