The life of Dr. (Mrs.) Abimbola Marianne Silva revolves around medicine. As the oldest female medical doctor in Nigeria, she has a strong attachment for the profession, which brought her so much esteem accolades. Abimbola, the mother of star actress, Joke Silva Jacob shares the story of her love for medicine with KEMI AKINYEMI.
You are the third Nigerian woman to qualify as a medical doctor. What were the factors that shaped your decision to study medicine?
When I was 13, I saw the picture of Mrs. Abimbola Awoliyi in the newspaper. I was taken up by her for two major reasons. First, she had my name and she was also a woman. So, I decided I was going to be a doctor. The second woman was Mrs. Nwakpa. These two women were very much interested in obstetrics. But when I did my own obstetrics as a medical student, I didn’t like it at all, because it interfered with your sleep and then you had to go to lectures the next day. It was nerve-racking for me. You are dealing with a baby and a mother at the same time. So, I wasn’t interested in obstetrics and gynecology. Rather, I got interested in pediatrics. I was more interested in children because I believed they needed more care.
What were the reasons that formed the basis of your assumption?
When I came back, I worked at the General Hospital. During the nights, they used to bring a lot of children emergencies to us. The cases were always nearing death. And these were diseases, such as diarrhea, malaria and measles that were preventable. If the children had been brought in on time, we would have resuscitated them. So, I was very much interested in preventing some of these diseases. That was why I went to do public health, instead of doing curative job. I went to the ministry and I was very much emphatic about providing safe drinking water for everybody, because a lot of diseases are traceable to the water we drink. Also, some of these children used to die as a result of tetanus infection. So, I was very emphatic on children being immunized. Also, we tried to promote maternal and child health because we had several cases of women and babies who died during child birth. And then of course, we promoted child health. We advised the mothers on what to give the children to eat and what to do when they had diarrhea. Then, in the area of health education, we taught the mothers, children and adults how to prevent illness.
Given the fact that medicine was a male-dominated profession in those years, you must have felt a huge responsibility was being thrust on you. How were you able to cope?
I was able to cope very well. I was lucky my parents allowed me to study medicine and they supported me all the way. I knew I had a big responsibility of making my parents proud. I didn’t want to fail them. When I came back, I was the only female doctor in the General Hospital for a long time. I got used to it because I just enjoyed what I was doing. And my male colleagues accepted me. Although, when I came back, I was asked to go and do some work with Dr. Abimbola Awoliyi. But Dr. Mabayoje, who was a physician offered to accept me. And I enjoyed working with him as a house physician.
Did you also get to work at the World Health Organization?
No, but I was in charge of WHO matters in the ministry. WHO advised us on what to do and we had to attend international conferences, which helped to guide us on what to do in order to prevent illness. The training I got at these conferences helped me in knowing what to do to save people from getting malaria. It also helped in the area of immunization. And then, WHO helped us to train doctors, especially, post graduate doctors and nurses. I got scholarship to do Health Education. It is not that WHO trained staff, but they would re-train them, so that they would acquire some knowledge that would make their work more effective.
Having worked in public health, your path must have crossed with that of late Professor Olikoye Ransome-Kuti at some point.
Yes, we did work together at some point. He came to the ministry as a member of some of the committees that we set up. I remember one of the things he told me was that there were very few facilities in the country. So, we had to look into improving facilities for women. The other area in which we worked together was in health clinics. He was very good at setting up health units all over the country, particularly in the rural areas.
There is this general notion that there is a sharp decline in the standard of medical practice. Do you also share in this sentiment?
I don’t share that sentiment. But I will like to see better facilities in the health sector. There has not been much improvement in the last few years. The problem has nothing to do with professionalism. We should look into what the doctors are being to work with. There are too many poor health facilities in the health sector. It is very distressing and frustrating. If you are a professional and you have nothing to work with, what is professional about you? Some doctors may not be professional in their ways but most of them do try their best if they are given the right equipment. For instance, I doubt if there is any radiotherapy machine in Nigeria to treat women with cancer. And when they go to the doctor, he doesn’t know what to do with their cases.
It may be the reason, because you have got to have some equipment to be able to diagnose. For instance, only very few hospitals have the mammogram that is used for breast cancer. It is not so much professionalism as to having a facility to diagnose what is wrong with the patient. Also, when you diagnose, you have to have what to treat the patient with. How does one cope with a situation where there is nothing in the laboratories to diagnose or treat the patients? These are the problems that doctors have to contend with. That is why they leave government establishment to set up their hospitals.
Can you draw a comparison between the time you practiced medicine and what is obtainable now in the profession?
In my own time, the doctors were very good and they were well trained. But many of them complained of what they had to use in the hospital. However, things have improved and they are improving. But I think they could improve more. If you go to the teaching hospital now, there is no light and there is no water. And you are expected to work under that those conditions. I think the government should pump more money into the health sector than they are doing at the moment. It is not as if things have improved since I left. During my practicing years, we used to complain about not having enough money. And this seems to be the same story that many doctors are still contending with now. I remember when Professor Ransome Kuti became a minister, he tried to get government to pump more money into the health sector. He knew the challenges that doctors were facing when he was practicing as a pediatrician.
You have been in retirement for 34 years now. How do you engage your time?
I do a lot of voluntary works. I had served as the health adviser of the National Council of Women Society. I was also the chairman of the International Year of the Child, IYC in 1979. Also, I am interested in handicapped and blind children. I am a Soroptimist and I am a member of a lot of voluntary organizations. Through their activities, you can help the less privileged. The other day, I was involved in helping women living with HIV, who are located in Obalende. We helped them to set up tie and dye business so that they can have something to do.
Before your husband died, you were married to him for 43 years. What was the experience like for you?
My husband was a very kind man. I was married to him for 43 years. But he also roved like most other men. And when they rove, you are a bit disturbed, to start with. Then, after a while, you have to take it or leave it. And I wasn’t prepared to leave my home because of another woman. That is the mistakes some women make. Once you have built a home, you don’t want to leave it for another woman to come and live there. You have to run your home the way you want, not hurting anybody. But you have to be in control of the happenings in your home. And it is also important that women engage themselves in careers or business. You don’t have to be miserable all the time, especially whenever the man goes around with other women. You have to look after the children fathered by your husband from other women. In my own case, my husband had children from two other women. But I consider those children as mine and they see me as their mother too. I have been looking after them for quite a long time. And I enjoy it because I love children. We should understand that children belong to the world, not to the mothers.
Most professional women hardly fare well in the marriage department. How can they enjoy a good marriage?
The problem is not peculiar to professional women alone. It is a general problem among women. Marriage is a good thing, but it is not as easy as most people think. One needs a lot of patience and understanding to enjoy a good marriage. The fundamental factor is that couples should respect each other. In my own case, I expect people to respect me, not only as a doctor but as a human being as well. Most men don’t respect their wives. And that is why they habour other women and make their wives miserable in their matrimonial homes. Men should not only respect their wives, they should be able to respect whatever might hurt them. And in bringing up children, women should be strict and loving at the same time. Of course, it is important that every mother should pray a lot for their husbands and children. I know it is not easy to build a successful home. Many people go into marriage with the mentality that it is a bed of roses. But couples should realize that marriage is a different ball game from courtship. There are going to be changes once they get married.
You are a typical Lagos girl.
Very much so, I am! (Chuckles)
Can you reminisce on the Lagos of your youth?
The Lagos of those years was very comfortable. I was born in Olowogbowo area in Lagos. My father was a clergy in the cathedral. I was brought up by strict parents. We had a lot of children in our home. We were 15 children. My parents had four children and the other children were from other families of priests who were transferred from Lagos. So, their children lived with us and went to school. There were not so many people living here. Lagos ended at Mushin. There was no Apapa and there was no Surulere. There was Victoria Island, and this was where we passed to get to the beach. Of course, the beach has now eaten up a lot of the lands. And then, we rarely had cases of armed robbery attacks like we have now. You could sleep in your patio all night and nothing would happen to you. Many people slept on the Marina during the hot season. You could walk around any where you like. The population was very small. We never had one night without electricity. And there were taps running on the street. We never had shortage of water. On the whole, Lagos was a very comfortable place to live in, more comfortable than now. I think it is over-populated right now. But I am glad that they got rid of that Oshodi rowdy environ. I think the government should do something about the over-population and provide people with where to live. The government should decentralize the population. You know many people moved to Abuja when it was newly created. But when they got there, they were disillusioned because they didn’t get as much business contracts as they expected. So, they came back to Lagos because it is the centre for business. What I like about Lagos is the lagoon. When I go to Ibadan, I become miserable because I like to see the water. I am used to seeing water and boats all the time. In my days, we had only Carter Bridge. And we used it for everything. It was later that they built Eko Bridge and other bridges. There was so much food in my days. We were never short of food. And the railways were there at that time and they were very useful for everything. People used to go to Ibadan by train. Now, when you go to Ibadan by road, you spend ten hours before you get there. Those were some of the things we enjoyed when we were growing up in Lagos.
What is your impression of the modern Nigerian women?
I am happy with what Nigerian women are doing. They have done very well. You know many of our fathers never used to train girls. They used to concentrate on the boys in the family. But now, the women are doing so well, that their parents are now sending them to train as professionals. Also, women are now making their presence felt in politics, banking, law and several other professions. I feel proud whenever I see them in television and newspapers. Nigerian women have come a long way and they can now hold their heads high in any society. I am amazed with how well Nigerian women are doing in their various callings.
Your daughter, Joke Silva has made an indelible mark on the acting profession. You must be very proud of her, don’t you?
I am. I am very proud of her. She gives us joy. I am glad that she has been able to make a mark in this profession. When she informed us that she was going into the theatre profession, the father and I were very much opposed to her decision. But somehow, we were able to see the acting talent in her. That is why it is important for parents to see the gifts in their children and hey should help in nurturing this gift. They should also leave their children to do whatever they want to do. However, I am happy with how Joke has been able to make a success of her career. She is interested in passing on her knowledge to other people. Now, she wants to start a school for drama and culture. And we are going to help her as much as possible with the project.
What do you enjoy doing when you want to relax?
I love music. I play the piano. And I love gardening. When my husband died, some people advised me to get a flat, that this house was too big for me. Now, it is not too big, because my children and grandchildren come around a lot. And then, I love to sew, when I can see very well to put the thread in the needles. I love people all together. You cannot be a doctor without loving people. When they come to see you about their illness, they talk to you about their families as well. And you have to relate with them. That is why I am involved in projects that seek to promote people’s welfare, especially the underprivileged. I love to go to plays and recitals.
For an 84 year old lady, you look quite amazing. Your well manicured nails and glowing skin is a clearly indicates that you are very fashionable.
Am I? (Chuckles) As a professional, I have to present myself in a nice way at all times. I love to design my clothes myself. I tell the designer what I want and she makes it that way. When we were young, we used to make our own clothes. There were not many seamstresses around. We were taught to sew in school so that we could make our own clothes. We had a lot of expatriates who taught us how to sew.
The story has it that you used to socialise a lot when you were much younger. Do you miss socializing?
Of course, I do. My husband was the legal director at UAC. So, we used to attend a lot of events in those days. And then, we used to host a lot of social events in our home too. Earlier on, I mentioned that I loved people a lot. So, I am a social person. But I hardly socialize nowadays. During the last Christmas festival, I received quite a number of invitation cards. I had to go to a quite place to have a rest. I miss traveling a lot. But now, I cannot travel. Even the way they treat you at the airport can discourage one from traveling. And to get visas is another problem. The embassy will tell you to come for interview at 6.00am, and I don’t get up till about 8.00am. These are some of the reasons I don’t travel anymore. To tell you the truth, the country on the whole, is not helping anybody, especially the older people. We are not in a very comfortable atmosphere at the moment. But I admire you young people. You really are facing the problem squarely because you have to move on.
Are you happy with how life has turned out for you?
Well, I thank God. When you see other people’s lives, you thank God for what you have. I have children and grandchildren who look after me very well. That is something to be happy about. Although, I feel pain in my legs, I can still move around. If I get up now, I will feel a lot of pain in my legs. I was advised to do operation, but I don’t want any operation, because I have arthritis in both legs. As a medical student, I used to stand on my feet all day. And when you are a doctor too, you are standing and moving around. But I thank God for how life has turned out for me.
Among your contemporaries in the medical profession are still around?
Some of my contemporaries are still around. Some of them are Mrs. Elebute and Mrs. Majekodunmi, who is an entomologist. Actually, Mrs. Majekodunmi happens to be my mentor. She has her own private clinic in Surulere. Then, there is Mrs. Wura Ogunyemi. Some of my contemporaries who have passed away are Dr. Irene Thomas, Mrs. Olumide(nee Okupe).
PS: This Interview was first published in TheNEWS Magazine, in 2010.