Septuagenarian Bernadette Opane Akwe is ever grateful to her uncle that gave her a life time opportunity to go to school. She ended up a nurse and got to the highest level of her nursing career. She shares her life story with JULIET KUYET BULUS in this chat
When and where were you born?
I was born in Doma, Nasarawa State on the 11th February, 1949.
How were you able to know the exact year?
My mother’s brother who was a teacher trained me. He was always with my mother and when I was five years old I went with him to Kafanchan where I was enrolled in school. It is the date, month, and year I have been using right from my youth.
Which schools did you attend?
My Primary education was at several places because my uncle was a teacher and we kept on moving from one place to the next due to transfer. For class one, I attended College of Mary Immaculate in Kafanchan. For class two, it was in Kaduna/Vom in Plateau State and classes three and four were at Kwallla, Quan pan Plateau State. From there I went to Girls Convent, Shendam for a year and my uncle was transferred back to Kwande and I went back to Kwande for Primary seven.
I later went to St. Louis College, Jos from 1963 to 1966. During the civil war, most of the students in the school left to their various states and only about 25 students were left in the school, I was the only Alago girl from Nasarawa State.
We had people from Shendam and of Berom ethnic origin. The school principal had to close down the school because they could not run it with only 25 students. The school was closed down, and I went back to Akwanga to meet my uncle and his family. On reaching there instead of staying at home and being idle waiting for the war to end, I told my uncle I was interested in nursing and when he saw an advert, he called my attention to it.
I sat for the examinations for the Nursing Preliminary Training School in Kaduna and the Makurdi School of Midwifery. I passed both examinations and he advised I go for nursing and after that, the Midwifery. So I went to Kaduna to the Preliminary Training school from 1966 to 1967. After that I headed to Jos for the nursing training and I completed the course in 1970.
At that time, because the nation was running regional government system, anyone could be posted anywhere within the region. So being in the Northern region, I was posted to Sokoto. When I got to Sokoto, I was again posted to Birnin-Kebbi where I worked for two years before moving over to Gusau on another posting. But because I was planning for my wedding, I had to leave Gusau to the former Benue/Plateau State to meet my husband for the wedding which took place in 1973. After the wedding I worked with the General Hospital, Lafia, now Specialist Hospital, Lafia till 1980 when my husband became Deputy Speaker in the former Benue/Plateau State House of Assembly. I was then transferred to Plateau Hospital in Jos. It was from their I went to further my education at the University of Benin. I got a Diploma in Nursing Administration and then went back to Jos to continue with work at Plateau Hospital until the creation of states and we went back to Nasarawa State where I was made the Matron in charge of General Hospital, Doma. I worked there for two years and was later transferred to the Hospital Management Board Lafia. I also worked in the General Hospital, Lafia as Acting Director of Nursing until my retirement on the 11th February, 2009.
At what age did you start working?
I was interested in it. I did not complete my secondary education at St. Louis as I was about starting class four when the war broke out and the school authorities had to close down the school. So, when I was home, one day my uncle suggested I go to Teacher’s Training College Akwanga, but I told him I did not like teaching but that I would prefer nursing. He didn’t object to it and that was how I picked up the profession. I took the decision without pressure. I knew what I wanted.
What were your experiences working as a nurse?
The work was enjoyable, we worked wholeheartedly and that was essentially because we joined the nursing profession out of our own free volition.
I did my work according to my ability. Of course sometimes there were ups and downs, but I see that as part of life. I took charge of making sure younger colleagues did what was required of them even when they took offence.
I was promoted to the position of nursing officer 1, which was a senior officer position and I could run the duty of the hospital alone under supervision by senior colleagues while I also supervised junior colleagues. It was good because we learnt to work together for the growth and smooth running of the hospital.
Then I was principal nursing officer and when running shifts, I was the most senior on duty with people working under me. I was also chief nursing officer, then I rose to the rank of chief matron in charge of the whole hospital with all the nurses working directly under me. I supervised the nurses, attendants, compound cleaners and every other person working in the hospital with exception of the doctors. I was to ensure they carried out their duties in the best way and I corrected them when necessary.
Seeing the joy of patients on recovery, makes my heart glow and gives me the feeling that I am fulfilling my part in the society.
I was later posted to the Hospital Management Board in charge of all the nurses in the State, I took care of transferring nurses to various locations and to ensure things went well as the Acting Director, Nursing which was the last position I held before retirement.
The profession was a blessing as it helped me to look after my family and render proper first aid if any member of the family took ill especially at night.
What was it like growing up?
It was fine because I had a loving uncle who brought me up and things went smoothly until he died. He got me married to my husband. My father was late and my mother was still alive when he took full responsibility of me. Like I said earlier, we moved from one place to the next because he was a teacher and transfer came every year. I had to cope with changing schools, environment as everything was tough and new with different demands. The movement gave me the opportunity to meet people of different tribes and I was privileged to learn so many languages, some of whom are Shendam and Quan’pan. Mingling with the girls helped me understand the dialects. If I had stayed with my mother, I would not have been able to go far in school and become a career woman. Having an educated uncle made everything easier and I felt opportune because during my time, the girl child was hardly allowed to go to school because they believed the girl child would always end up in another man’s house with no need for the certificate.
My uncle also had other children staying with him, and at some point he also said educating the girl child was a waste of time and he concentrated more on the male children, but at the end, he discovered he could not see the boys he had spent his time and resources training.
He had to call me and apologised, and he thanked me for taking care of him. Back then, they believed the girl after marriage will forget about her family but I proved them wrong.
What challenges did you face while growing up, in life, at work and on retirement?
There were so many of us with my beloved uncle whom I grew up in his house, with his meagre salary, being able to cater for all of us was a major challenge. I went through hardship in school because my pocket money was N25 and it was barely sufficient. In school, I attached myself to students that were financially okay. I would wash their clothes in exchange for money. The likes of the Late Catherine Hoomwap, Hauwa Abubakar and the daughter of Tafawa Balewa, just to mention a few. I washed and ironed their clothes to get some money. There were also times, when I did not have transport to go home for the holidays, I would cry and go to the school principal who was a Reverend Sister or go to the Reverend Fathers at St. Theresa Catholic Church to borrow money for transportation. It was so bad that the school principal had to call my uncle on one occasion and laid a complaint, after which he sent another N25 to me at school.
I sold whatever it was that my uncle’s wife was selling just to have money to pay back for the loan I collected. It was quite difficult but I am thankful for the way my life turned out to be despite all the difficulties I encountered earlier in life.
After marriage, I was working in Lafia while my husband was based in Doma and I had to get up in the morning, prepare breakfast early before going to the office. Sometimes, I went to work late and I was not happy about it. When I started having children, as a nurse when on night duty, I would leave my baby at home and go to work, leaving the baby with a nanny always got me worried.
The knowledge that the baby will cry all through my eight hours at work and depend only on ordinary milk, got me even more worked up.
Combining domestic chores with office work was so demanding and I at times ended up going late to work and got threats of queries for being late.
As acting Director of Nursing, after effecting a posting, nurses who do not like their new place of posting kept coming back to nag and complain about their new stations and I would be faced with the challenge of replacing them or explaining why I could not help. Another challenge was when work demands I travel to visit other stations outside for inspection. That means I had to leave the home for a while.
At retirement, I have been diagnosed with diabetes and have been on and off hospitals in Jos, Abuja and Lafia. The stress of journey at old age and dealing with ill health beats me.
I retired since 2009 and up till date my gratuity has not been paid up. The state government’s salary percentage has affected my pension even though I was not supposed to be affected. Upon laying a complaint to the office responsible, I was told it was too late and I cannot get a refund.
Due to my ill health, there are so many foods I have been barred from eating by the Doctors. I am only allowed to eat selected protein-rich food like Beans, Acha (hungry rice) and at times just a little carbohydrate. The frequent travels to see my Doctors is taking a lot of money but I am grateful that my children have jobs and each month they assist me financially to offset the medical bills and drugs.
Why do you think parents should train both male and female children?
Lack of proper and equal training for both male and female child is the reason our youths have strayed. It is not just about training the female child to avoid unwanted pregnancies, which would result to shame on a family, the male child should not be left out because they are the ones who go out and get these girls pregnant and in the end bring the children home to be raised by their mothers. Sometimes, they go as far as being irresponsible by denying the pregnancy. Parents should advise, train and discipline their children equally irrespective of their sex. Proper monitoring is also necessary.
How would you compare life during your time as a youth with what we have today?
Life then was better in contrast to now, then there was peace and you could travel freely without being attacked. Our money had more value then, with very little sum then, you could do so much. But now, it is totally different.
Life was sweet as there was no threat to life as against what you have now with the Boko Haram, Herdsmen, socio-ethnic crisis and so on. Freedom of speech was one of the top things we enjoyed then, life had more meaning, now you barely can speak even though you are capable.
Nurses during my time knew what to do and they did it diligently. We followed our curriculum. But today the practice is different, what we have are people who are not passionate about what they do because if they are, we would not have issues of them shouting on patients, favouring some patients over the other, neglecting their roles to patients.
After retirement, a brother of mine was sick and was admitted, he was supposed to start a particular drug at 6pm and subsequently every six hours but he was not given. When the nurse was called upon, she came in saying all sorts of things that were unprofessional. I was shocked, because of the way she spoke and acted. When nursing was nursing, there was no room for laziness as nurses were always on their toes, monitoring or attending to their patients from bed to bed, see what the patient is supposed to take at a particular time, be it drugs or injections and ensure they do.
Patients in my days were treated like kings, we lay their beds, changed their bed-sheets to make them comfortable. We went as far as asking if they have had their bath, and if they had not, we get them water to do so. We made sure they take their food, we usually sat by their bed side to converse with them, making them feel less of the pain they are going through, but today, most of these things that make up a good nurse is gone. It was the nurse’s job to give a patient a bed bath, clean him, cut the finger nails, and change the clothes and so on. But these acts have gone almost extinct.
What do you think we need to do to return the nursing profession to its enviable position?
They need to go back to their books and ensure they put into practice what they have been taught. We were not paid much in my time but we still did the right thing. But now that nurses are paid well when compared to what we used to earn, they still fall short of the profession’s expectations. There was a time, it was said that government will re-employ retired nurses to help teach nurses on how the job should be handled but it was never done. I believe this is a way to get them doing things as they should.
Our young nurses should know that nursing is a humanitarian profession. If you are not a compassionate person, you cannot be a nurse.
How can government assist the aged in the society?
Government should find something to keep the aged busy and it could be a job of some sort based on experience gathered over the years. Retirees have so much to pass on to the younger persons in various organisations and parastatals but they are not given the opportunity to do so.
When it comes to getting their benefits after retirement, it is hard. I am diabetic but to get money for drugs is difficult. I retired from service in 2009 and I have not received my gratuity. The pension I have been getting, is meagre especially for one who has health challenges. The aged can be trained on crafts work or supported to farm. Farming has kept my family going, we farm to get food.
Do you have any regrets in life?
I do not have any. I am grateful to God for the life he has given me, husband, children and so many things I cannot begin to say. All these and more make it difficult to have regrets because I know where I am coming from.
How did you unwind during your younger days?
It was just about school, cooking, going to neighbouring villages to fetch firewood, the stream to fetch water to fill our drums in the house and every other chore I could lay my hands on. I was not interested in going to parties and listening to music. I only did it at St. Louis College where we were taken to places like Liberty Dam with the Reverend Sister, we would usually take our food along, eat, stay there to play and were later taken back to school. Besides these, I never socialized while I was young.
What makes you happy or fulfilled whenever you look back?
Some nurses I impacted positively on still find time to visit me, and appreciate all I did and this gives me joy. If given the opportunity I would touch more lives than I did in service.
Where were you during the country’s independence in 1960?
I was in Kwala but went for sports in Shendam where I got some gifts which included cash. I knew it was all about being liberated from colonial rule. We were so happy then.
Have your hopes during independence been met?
The country is somehow upside down. It is not as it used to be when the Europeans ruled. It was orderly when they ruled because there were no killings, it was quiet and safe for all. The Europeans did a good job keeping the country peaceful though we were still not allowed to take full charge of our country. The unrest we are presently experiencing as a country is worrisome and sometimes one would have no choice but to imagine what the country would have been if it was during the colonial rule. The killings are on the rise and there is no permanent solution to put an end to it for now.
What year did you get married?
In 1973 and I met him in Doma, Nasarawa State. When we were in Akwanga, his parents were living in Gudi and he used to visit us in my uncle’s house. Whenever I went back to school he wrote letters to me and I did same. We continued with friendship, and sometimes I paid him a visit at Gudi and it continued. One day he made known his intention, I accepted and my dowry was paid by his late Uncle, Ahmadu Angara and it was sent to my uncle. When I got back home, we got married in Doma.
What endeared you to him?
When I was in school, about seven boys from my town were interested in me and they were Muslims but my husband was the only Christian among them and since I was brought up as a Christian, I opted for him. He was a quiet young man and fine looking.
How many children has this union produced?
We had six biological children but lost one to the cold hands of death. Asides that, I have so many children because some grew up in my house and they are treated equally with the children I bore.
What presently occupies your day?
I take care of the house, cook and accompany my husband to the farm. He has a huge farm of oil palm trees. I make oil either locally at home or prepared from the engine on the farm and it is brought home for me to boil, purify and put in containers. Sometimes, I follow them to the farm to harvest and I also involve myself with other petty things within the home. Every morning I go to Church and I engage in attending other activities in the Church, sometimes I visit my children in Jos, Abuja or Makurdi.
Advice for the younger generation?
Anything gotten through cutting corners will not stand the test of time but hard work, diligence and prayers is all that is required to reach the top. We also need creative/innovative minds who are willing to start up a venture no matter how small it maybe to make ends meet instead of waiting on the federal government to employ them. Gone are the days, when undergraduates were assured of two or three jobs even before graduation.
It is quite alarming knowing that marriages these days do not last for one reason or the other, so I would say to the singles, marriage is not something one should go into with the intention of coming out. It is sweet, sour and bitter but with patience from both partners, all these can be conquered but without patience one may not stay to the end. There is no such thing as when one leaves his/her marriage and have another, things will be better. That is not true, one may even find out that the current marriage is worse than the previous. A proverb in my place says whenever one person drinks wine, the other should take kunu so that when one is hot the other is cold. They also need to understand each other and know how to apologise when wrong. Marriage involves two people coming from two different families to meet. No matter the years of dating, sometimes they would find it difficult to move smoothly and this could result to misunderstanding and exchange of words but with patience, understanding and apology they will get along well. I will also advise those ready for marriage, to study and try as much as possible to understand their to-be spouse before taking this journey called marriage.
Your take on domestic violence?
When it gets worse, the parties involved should seek advice from their religious leaders and if there is no improvement, they can go their separate ways to avoid murder as a result of battery. I am yet to understand it, when I hear stories about wife battery, how is someone able to inflict harm on his or her spouse, he or she profess to love and have children with just because of a disagreement?
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