By Josfyn Uba
“We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained.” – Marie Curie
Nigerian women have made history in several endeavourslike their counterparts in other parts of the world, not minding the economic setbacks and cultural inhibitions.
There have been remarkable accomplishments by trail-blazing women in Nigeria, where many of them have been pioneers and made great strides in fields like science, politics, sports, literature and art.
Here is an insight into the lives of a few of the Nigeria’s “First Females” in different spheres:
Elizabeth Ogbon-Day, Nigeria’s first female ambassador
Mrs. Elizabeth Ogbon-Day, a Nigerian diplomat, politician, fearless fighter was born on December 29, 1949, to His Royal Majesty, the Ohworode (King) of Olomu Kingdom, Ogbon Ogoni-Oghoro I, and Chief (Mrs.) Alice Ogbon, at Oteri, Agbarha-Otor, Ughelli South Local Government Area of Delta State.
Her days of political activism started as a student in Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria, where she was called the Iron Lady.
She was the first female to occupy the position of director of socials (1972 to 1973) in the Student Union Government of ABU and and later became Nigeria’s first female ambassador.
Mrs. Elizabeth Ogbon-Day was appointed ambassador by President Shehu Shagari in early 1981, first as the Nigerian Consul-General to Hamburg, West Germany, and then as Ambassador to the Philippines, from the latter part of 1981 till December 1983, when the military coup by Major-General Muhammadu Buhari overthrew the government of President Shagari.
Her most recent political appointments include the chairman, Delta Rainbow Television, and special adviser, inter-ethnic relations, under the Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan administration of Delta State. She was also appointed to the board of Benue River Basin Development Authority under the President Umar Yar’Adua/Goodluck Jonathan administration, from 2008 to 2011.
Ambassador Ogbon-Day was a grassroots political organizer. She mobilized Urhobo women to form the Urhobo Women in Politics (UWIN) with the sole aim of getting more of the womenfolk involved in the political affairs of their state. She was an indefatigable women’s leader and a committed Urhobo nationalist actively involved in the activities of the Urhobo Progress Union till the very last day of her life.
Her contemporaries at ABU included Chief Audu Ogbe, former chairman of the PDP, Chief Tom Ikimi, former minister of foreign affairs, Chief Steve Lawani, deputy governor of Benue State, Dr. Steve Oru, vice-chairman, South-South, PDP, among others.
Upon her graduation from the university in 1973, she served in the very first set of the National Youth Service Corps scheme (NYSC) in Lagos State, with her primary assignment at the National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC).
Thereafter, she secured appointment with the National Museums and Antiquities Commission and was posted as curator to the Benin Museum, under the directorship of the foremost and world-renowned anthropologist, late Dr. Ekpo Eyo.
While still at the National Museums, her insatiable quest for further education saw her gaining admission to the famous George Washington University in Washington D.C., United States of America, for her master’s degree. She completed the two-year program within record time of one year and returned to Nigeria in 1978. With the beginning of political activities in 1979, she joined the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) and worked relentlessly for the success of the party in the then Bendel State. Her efforts were rewarded with the ambassadorial appointment in 1981.
After her ambassadorial stint, she settled in Warri, Delta State, where she founded Osalees International School, Effurun. She went into self-exile to the United States in 1995 after her house was fire-bombed and destroyed during the turbulent Abacha years.
Ambassador Ogbon-Day was a very dynamic and charismatic person. She was a true princess! But above all, she was her self, very down to earth and a ‘tell-it-as-it-is’ person. She had character, panache and grace. You couldn’t help but notice and acknowledge her presence in any gathering.
Ambassador Princess (Mrs.) Elizabeth Ogbon-Day died suddenly at about 11 p.m. on Sunday, May 6, 2012, at her residence in Effurun, near Warri, Delta State. She was 62 years old.
Chinyere Kalu, Nigeria’s first female pilot
Chinyere Kalu MFR (née Onyenucheya) was the first Nigerian female commercial pilot and the first woman to fly an aircraft in Nigeria. She served as the rector and chief instructor of the Nigerian College of Aviation Technology (NCAT), Zaria, Kaduna State, between October 2011 and February 2014.
She hails from Akwete, Ukwa East LGA, Abia State. Kalu grew up under the care of her mother after the separation of her parents and a very supportive big family. She began her career in aviation because of her adventurous aunt, well known for overseas travelling. She had her primary school education at Anglican Girls Grammar School, Yaba, Lagos State, before she trained as a private and commercial pilot in 1978 at the NCAT under the SP.12 Batch. She subsequently took several aviation and transport courses in the United Kingdom and the United States, before she received her license as a commercial pilot on May 20, 1981, from the NCAT. In October 2011, President Goodluck Jonathan appointed her the rector and chief instructor of the NCAT. In February 2014, she was succeeded by Captain Samuel Caulcrick.
She was recognised both locally and internationally and won several awards.
She is a member of the Nigerian Women Achievers Hall of Fame and also a member of the Order of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, which was conferred upon her in 2006. Other awards on her include the African International Achievers Merit Award 2007; the Rare Gems Professional Achievements Award 2007; and Nigeria’s 50 Greatest Women of Democratic Administration of Ghana. She will go down in Nigerian history as one of the country’s greatest women.
Felicia Adetowun Ogunsheye, Nigeria’s first female professor
Felicia Adetowun Omolara Ogunsheye was the first female professor in Nigeria. She was a professor of library and information science at the University of Ibadan.
Ogunsheye was born on December 5, 1926, in Benin City, Nigeria, to parents from Ogun State.
Incidentally, she was the elder sister of Lieutenant Colonel Victor Banjo and Ademola Banjo. She had her secondary education at Queens College, Lagos, before becoming the only female student at Yaba College of Technology in 1946. In 1948, she received her diploma, becoming the first woman to graduate from the school. She attended University College, Ibadan, then went on to Newnham College, Cambridge University, UK, to study Geography on scholarship, earning BA and MA degrees in 1952 and 1956, respectively; she was the first Nigerian woman there. She earned another master’s degree in library science from Simmons College, Massachusetts, USA, in 1962.
Ogunsheye established the Abadina Media Resource Centre Library of the University of Ibadan. In 1973, she became a professor at the University of Ibadan. Between 1977 and 1979, she was appointed dean of Faculty of Education at the same university. She was the first woman to become a dean in any Nigerian university. She served as a consultant to various organisations including the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (lFLA); UNESCO; International Association of School Librarianship (IASL); the International Federation of Documentalists (FID); the British Council and the World Bank.
A woman of rare intelligence, she has received the Ford International Fellow, 1961; the Hon. D.L.S. of Simmons College, 1969; the Simmons College International Alumnus Award, 1979; the Fulbright Fellowship for Senior African Scholars, 1980; the Decade of Women Certificate of Merit for Outstanding Achievement, 1985; Fellow, Nigerian Library Association, 1982 and Nigerian Academy of Education, 1985; Hon. Doctor of Letters (D.Litt.) University of Maiduguri, 1990; and the International Education Hall of Fame, Nigeria, 2000. University of Ibadan Names female postgraduate hall after her name under the administration of Prof. Abel Idowu Olayinka.
Kofoworola Abeni Pratt: First Black nurse in the NHS and major founder of nursing in Nigeria
Kofoworola Abeni Pratt (1915-1992) was an outstanding nursing leader, renowned for her work in her home country, Nigeria, but scarcely known in the United Kingdom, despite her significant British connections and international reputation. She was the first Black person to train at the Nightingale School, then based at St. Thomas’ Hospital, London, starting in 1946. When the National Health Service was launched in July 1948, she was on duty, the first Black nurse in the NHS.
She was born into a privileged Lagos family, early converts to Christianity. She was given a good education in a Church Missionary Society girls’ school, after which she obtained a teaching certificate and taught history at the secondary level for five years. She wanted to become a nurse, but, like Nightingale, was prevented by her family on account of the unseemly reputation of nurses. In the case of Nigeria, the higher posts were reserved for British expatriate women, with the menial tasks accorded to Nigerians (the practice of the colonial nursing service).
In 1941, the then Miss Scott married a Nigerian pharmacist, Eugene Samuel Oluremi (Olu) Pratt, who shared her faith and strongly supported her aspiration to become a nurse. The couple were married in the Scotts’ and Pratts’ family church, the Cathedral Church of Christ, Lagos, where Mrs. Pratt was active in cathedral governance and women’s organizations.
Olu Pratt made the introduction for his wife to the matron at St. Thomas’ Hospital in 1946, he had gone to London ahead of her to apply for medical studies for himself. The matron accepted her, subject to the arrival of the required documents, which proved to be in order.
St. Thomas’ had been bombed in the war, so that, on Mrs Pratt’s arrival in 1946, its departments were in temporary quarters in other parts of London. She, as well as doing the regular training, getting excellent marks, went on to obtain extra certificates in midwifery (and worked as a midwife), tropical diseases, the ward sister’s course, and, on a return trip, hospital nursing administration, these last two at the Royal College of Nursing. Pratt later won grants to enable her to travel to see nurse training in other countries. In the United States, she was impressed by training based at universities. She would later lead in the introduction of university-based training in Nigeria, achieved in 1965.
Professional nursing in Nigeria
Encouraged by British “Nightingale nurses,” Pratt returned to Nigeria in 1955 to become the first Nigerian ward sister, then, successively, the first Nigerian assistant matron, deputy matron, and, in 1964, matron, at the top hospital in Nigeria, University College Hospital, Ibadan. This transition from expatriate nurses, doctors, other professionals and administrators to Nigerians was called “Nigerianization”. It began with the approach of independence, which was gained in 1960.
After a mere two years as matron at UCH, Ibadan, although enough to demonstrate her ability as an administrator. Pratt took on a greater challenge, as chief nursing officer for the Federation of Nigeria, the first Nigerian in the post. Her domain became the whole country, the largest in Africa, sixth largest in the world. She led in the establishment of other nursing schools and did some of the training herself.
Throughout, Pratt was, unusually for the time, both a wife and mother, with two sons, one born in Nigeria and one while she was training in London. Her husband obtained British medical qualifications, to return to practise in Nigeria.
From nursing to political leadership in health care
Pratt, like Nightingale, saw the importance of political action in the achievement of healthcare reform. Thus, in 1973, when she was offered the post of “Commissioner of Health”—in practice, the Minister for Health for Lagos State, then under military rule—she accepted. During her time in office (only two years) she saw to the expansion of healthcare services, the building of more hospitals, and the equipping of boats to take healthcare services to villages best accessible by water. She made the provision of better conditions for nurses a priority, culminating in the building of a fine nurses’ residence, long delayed by previous governments, dubbed the “Nurses’ Hilton.” Pratt was the first nurse to become Minister of Health for her country or state.
She received many honours, was named “chief,” awarded the Order of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, an honorary doctorate of laws and the Florence Nightingale Medal; she was appointed a fellow both of the Royal College of Nursing and the West African College of Nursing. She died in Lagos in 1992, predeceased by her husband, Dr Olu Pratt, in 1985.
Elizabeth Abimbola Awoliyi, Nigeria’s first female doctor
Elizabeth Abimbola Awoliyi is the first female physician in Nigeria.
She was born on the 11th of November, 1910, to Mr and Mrs. Akerele and was the fourth child in a family of seven. She started elementary school at the St. Mary’s Convent in Lagos State, went to Queen’s College, Lagos, before proceeding to Dublin, Ireland, where she studied medicine. She graduated from the University of Dublin with first class honors, including a medal in medicine, a distinction in anatomy, and then qualified as a medical doctor in 1936.
Elizabeth became the first West African female medical doctor with Licentiate of the Royal Surgeon (Dublin) with a diploma in gynaecology and obstetrics at the Trinity College, Dublin. She became a specialist in gynaecology and obstetrics with a diploma in child health. She also got a diploma in midwifery and was a member of the Royal College of Physicians (MRCP).
From being a junior medical officer at the Massey Street Hospital, Elizabeth became the Chief Consultant and Medical Director from 1960 to 1969. She was a member of the Royal College of Physicians (United Kingdom), and Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (MRCOG). She was a director of the Commercial Medical Store in Lagos and also owned a 27 acres poultry and citrus farm in Agege, Lagos State. In 1962, the Federal Ministry of Health appointed her as a Senior Specialist Gynaecologist and Obstetrician.
She was a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE), Iya Abiye of Lagos State and the Iyalaje of Oyo Empire. She was also awarded the Nigerian national honour, Officer of the Order of the Federal Republic (OFR). She was married to Dr. S. O. Awoliyi, who was also a medical doctor, and had two children. She died on the 14th of September, 1971, at age 61.