In one of our most inspiring interviews yet, Folake Soetan, on behalf of Ventures Woman, sat down with Councillor Kate Anolue, Mayor of Enfield in the United Kingdom. Anolue is an ideal example of the African Diaspora that move beyond participating in their new societies to transforming them. Here is her story:
VW: Please tell us a bit about yourself
KA: My name is Kate Anolue. I’m Igbo, from Anambra state but I came to this country over 40 years ago to join my husband. Within this period I had 4 children, the last one was born in 1984. Unfortunately I was widowed in 1985; the youngest was only 18 months old, the others were 5 years, 9 and 13-years old. I was left with 4 children to bring up and for someone who had not really spent long in the country, it was a shock. While I was having my children I had done my general nursing and midwifery qualifications. But when my husband died it was a matter of ‘what do I do next’, stay at home and take care of the children? Or carry on and see how I can manage. There is a saying that God will not give you a load you cannot carry so I took it as my cross to carry and continued doing things as I had. For me it was a job that I needed to do. There wasn’t a single day that I said I’m tired of this. These were my children, left for me so I had to look after them. And I did not believe that I should sit down and receive state hand-outs because I had good qualifications as a trained midwife. I was able to carry on working full-time as a community midwife and I had a lot of support from my colleagues and managers at work so I was able to look after my children as well.
VW: Wow! So when you went through your period of personal difficulty, losing your husband and raising your children did you have any mentors, personal beliefs or support systems that helped you?
KA: Well I think it was my personal belief because I didn’t have any mentors and all my friends still had their husbands; I didn’t have anybody that was widowed with children, especially four children. I think my personality helped. As the eldest of seven I was always the ‘mummy’. But being mummy in this country and looking after the four children alone while working was not something I asked for; I had to move on anyway. I didn’t have a mentor so now I like to share what I went through, not so people can say I’ve done well but to encourage other women that if something like this happens to you, you can make it. Don’t go back into your shell because once you do, you become vulnerable and not only vulnerable within society but to men. You start to feel like you need a man to help you look after your children. My whole idea is that no matter what situation you find yourself, sit up and conquer difficulty. If help comes yes, accept it but don’t sit to wait for it. You don’t want anyone coming in to say after you’ve done your work, ‘because of me this woman has done this’. No, I did it myself and I’m proud to say that without fear that someone will come and say otherwise. When you do that you will be even more proud of yourself.
VW: So how did you transition from midwifery into politics?
KA: I always wanted to be a lawyer. But you know back home you believe that you must always do what you parents want you to do. My dad wanted me to be a nurse and when I became a nurse I felt I’d fulfilled my father’s wish so I thought ‘now I’m going to study law’. I got admission to University of North London in 1992 to study part time, two evenings a week and on Fridays, which was meant to be my day off. There was nothing like a day off for me. I studied with young people so I have a soft spot for them; I became their sort of mother. It was good for them to ask, I have my certificates, why am I still doing this? They don’t have any certificates, they should be working hard. It was a good model for them.
I plodded on part-time for 5 years all the while maintaining my full time job. I also ran a nursing agency from my house from 1989 up until my third year in university when I decided I wanted to concentrate and focus on getting my degree. In the end, I made a 2:2 so I was happy. The children were always there; when mummy had her books out, they got out their books too. And if you ask my children it’s not like they were neglected, they will tell you about all the places that mummy would take them. People ask how I managed to take them out, keep a full time job, study, run an agency and be in politics for the past ten years. I’ve been lucky to be quite healthy, I believe in healthy living, I go to the gym, learned to swim and I think that has really helped a lot. But I think it’s all about determination; you have to believe in yourself, there’s nothing like I can’t.
When I finished I wondered what to do with my law degree. I became the Royal College of Midwives Steward. When midwives had problems, I went to the union and management and spoke on their behalf. I was also able to review patient complaints with management using both legal and midwifery eyes to see where we were going wrong and how to rectify it. However I wanted to do more politically. I began attending local government and national conferences and when I came back I would write down what was discussed and what I’d learned. I think joining politics or anything doesn’t mean that’s the only thing you do. It is good to take any part that you can. I became not only more active in politics but I realised I really wanted to be in it, to be part of the decision making. I decided to nominate myself instead of just waiting to be nominated and see whether I would be selected. You have to be selected within the party first before you are elected so once you are selected you go out to the people to be elected.
VW: And indeed you were elected! So where exactly is Enfield located and what is your role as mayor?
KA: Enfield is in the outskirts of North London. It is a very green borough but it’s almost split into two. We have a very poor area in the east while the other parts are well off. There’s definitely inequality in Enfield and it is related to the past. The eastern parts were industrial and very built up with houses very close together and crowded while the other side had more space and greenery. We have a population of over 300,000 now, with over 51 percent of them being ethnic minorities including Africans, Chinese, Turkish etc. This is very different from before when I was the only black student in my general nursing classes. These days if you go to a hospital to meet the nurses in training you hardly find a white nurse.
As mayor of Enfield I am the first citizen. This means I represent the whole of Enfield. Whenever there is any dignitary or royalty coming into the borough, I meet and greet them. I also attend many functions within and outside the borough, giving out certificates, launching of new organisations and chairing council meetings. The main goal is using the weight that comes with the position to positively influence the society.
VW: What would you consider your biggest personal achievement since coming into the role as mayor?
KA: I think for me it’s showing that anyone, whether you are black or a woman, can get to any place you want. This is not our country but you can see that if you want to be part of it and merit it, you’ll be recognised. So for me it is a big achievement personally, for women and for those who have come to settle in the country. By settle I don’t mean you forget where you come from. I go home often and when I got this position I had a lot of Nigerians especially from my town that attended the inauguration. I made them wear traditional attire because for me, promoting our tradition is another achievement. I made sure I wore my traditional attire with the head tie and everything for my inauguration ceremony. (She’s wearing it today!)
VW: Did you ever envision yourself where you are today?
KA: Never in my wildest dreams! Even when my husband was alive, all we were thinking about was that we wanted to go home and send our children to secondary school at home. I actually maintained that and when my son was at secondary school age he did one year here, went home and spent five years in Federal Enugu and came back. My daughter finished secondary school here and went back to do law school in Nigeria. But she spent only 18 months because there was always one strike after another and all her school mates here were moving on. She has no regrets about those 18 months because she learned a lot and now travels to Nigeria on her own. I’m glad we laid that foundation but as for myself I never envisioned all this, it just happened.
VW: So what was your core motivation for joining politics?
KA: I think my core motivation was the job I was doing. I was a community midwife and I looked after mothers and delivered babies in their homes. When I went to see them they always had housing problems, would ask questions about their environment, schools and health but I was never able to give them full answers to their questions. I would always say ‘I’ll find out for you’. So I thought to myself ‘the people I am asking, how did they get there?’ It was only when I finished studying law that I had the courage, wisdom and insight to be an advocate for these people. I now knew exactly where to go for answers and could add my voice to it to change the way things were done.
So I became a councillor and because health is my background I became Chair of the health scrutiny where we scrutinised things that were happening in the hospitals and local health centres to improve services. For example, we changed the system so that families did not have to spend hours waiting in hospital for a simple blood test. That was an important achievement and there have been many others. My experience in the community contributed significantly to the role.
VW: Is there one thing you would like to do before your term is up?
KA: By the time I finish my term, I want Enfield to have a dedicated Youth Day. I’ve worked a lot with the youths and many activities I do help the youths. I am a school governor in two primary schools, I work with Enfield women’s centre and Enfield Women’s Aid which deals with domestic violence, Henlon youth centre which deals with youths with mental issues and helps them. I was also thinking about what charities to support and I came across Sickle Cell and Thalassemia issues which affect afro-Caribbeans and people from the Mediterranean who make up the province. I realised that there was actually an Enfield Sickle Cell support group which I’d never heard of. Being an ethnically-linked issue, if there was no strong support, very little would happen for the group. I’ve known a lot of Nigerians with sickle cell and if it’s not well-managed, youths die early. I was talking to my relative she said she had lost 3 children to sickle cell, two boys and one girl who was 21 years old! She was glad I picked up the cause and so was the group. Before my tenure is up I want to work with the group to raise awareness about it so that people think about their blood type before getting into serious relationships because it does cause a lot of heartache for the parents and pain for the child, they miss out on a lot of things normal youths do. I hope to extend this work back home and host a conference on Sickle Cell issues. There are people that want to do something but need someone in the public eye to take the first step. I want to be that person.
VW: As an African woman in the diaspora everyone asks the question, are you going home? Will you go back to Nigeria or have you been involved in any work that contributes to development back home?
KA: Because I’ve been so busy working full time and in politics here, I haven’t actually been very involved back home but I believe there is a time for everything and that time has come. I see myself back home. I’ve got a wealth of knowledge in health and women’s issues and even if it is just talking about empowerment, I want to contribute and get women to believe that if I can do it they can too. My next focus is definitely home.
VW: In terms of politics in Africa, corruption always comes up. Would you encourage women to go into politics in Nigeria? What would you say to them?
KA: My encouragement would be ‘go in!’ Women are the wealth of the economy and if we sit back and say because of that corruption we’re not going to go, then that means we are letting the corruption continue! We can’t always look for money. I believe here people move on because they do a lot of voluntary work for society that does not involve money. For example, in the Olympics, those people that worked on the roads, in stations etc. all did it voluntarily. Such things give experience and even for fresh graduates it can make all the difference in getting a job. Be willing to do that kind of work and don’t always focus on money.
VW: So would you consider going into politics in Nigeria?
KA: I would certainly like to lend my knowledge and experience. However, before you do something like that you need to be well known in the country so I wouldn’t jump straight into politics. There are other things that could lead to politics but if I find that I am doing better and getting out my message and empowering women without going into politics then I will carry on with that. And maybe through what I’m saying one woman might say ‘I want to go into politics, maybe because Kate was a politician she is able to do and achieve all this’. So perhaps because of my political experience others would want to go into politics.
VW: Do you have any inspirations?
KA: I haven’t got many but I am an avid follower of Tina Turner. She is a woman that inspires me so much with her energy. She’s been through a lot and she survived; she’s a survivor. Only yesterday, my daughter sent me a clip of her at 72 and she looked so wonderful that I sent a message back that this is how I want to look when the time comes! (laughs) She’s one person that inspires me. There are many others that have achieved so much. I’d like to have the heart that Nelson Mandela had, to go through so much and still forgive. I also admire women like Mother Theresa who gave herself to help the poor. The most important thing for me is to help and continue to inspire people. As women, we need to be part of the system at all levels and not allow ourselves to be beaten. Believe in yourself. When you need to do something, don’t doubt and you will be strong enough to make a change.
What a story! A mother, midwife, entrepreneur and lawyer! Thank you Councillor Anolue for sharing your life and work with our readers. You have indeed inspired us, keep representing Africa well.