I am contented with life – Dr Halima Adamu

Halima Yelwa Adamu, who became a medical doctor 47 years ago, is a pioneer in the profession in this part of the country, especially for the women folk. She worked in many small and big hospitals in Kaduna, Katsina and Abuja. She has also been very active in public enlightenment on health. She was an […]

I am contented with life – Dr Halima Adamu

Dr Halima Yelwa Adamu

Halima Yelwa Adamu, who became a medical doctor 47 years ago, is a pioneer in the profession in this part of the country, especially for the women folk. She worked in many small and big hospitals in Kaduna, Katsina and Abuja. She has also been very active in public enlightenment on health. She was an administrator, permanent secretary in many ministries, as well as commissioner in Kaduna and Katsina States. At the federal level, she served in the Federal Character Commission. She is usually the lone female member in committees or boards, especially in Katsina. In this interview, Dr Halima shared her experiences.

Let’s start by asking about your early education as a girl-child in the 1950s, when it was even difficult to get a chance to go to school? 

I think I am very lucky because my late father really wanted his children, both girls and boys to go to school. His interest in me actually surfaced after I was taken into the care of one of my aunts. After giving me to her, he requested for three things – I should be put into school, I should not get married at a very early age and I should not be given tribal marks.

But unfortunately, because it was a village and every little girl was given tribal marks, I was also given tribal marks. He got annoyed and took me away from her and sent me to school.

Sometimes when I look at my face and I am the only female child with tribal marks in my family and I want to get annoyed, he would tell me not to worry because without those marks I may never have gone to school.

Was that in Katsina or Malumfashi?

We started in Katsina, then I went to Malumfashi, Funtua and back to Katsina. So, I went to four towns for my primary, senior and junior primary education. But that was possible because of one’s parents nature of job. Nobody was allowed to leave his family outside his workplace. But today, you find people who don’t take their work seriously. Some don’t even report to work regularly because their families are not there.

Were there other girls with you in school?

We were fortunate because the late Emir of Katsina, Alhaji Usman Nagwaggo, was interested in the education of the girl-child. His children and sisters went to school. The children of titleholders in the emirate also went to school. So it was not very difficult. And the then Katsina Native Authority was very supportive.

All you needed was to allow your child to go to school and everything you needed, from uniform to provisions, even transportation, would be given for you, including transportation, especially if you were going to a boarding school. At that time, the four-year primary education, which was mainly elementary, was called junior primary school. After that, you would go to senior primary school. And there was only one girls’ senior primary school in the whole of Katsina Province, which is now Katsina State.

You had to sit for exam and interview from each of the districts of the emirate – the two emirates of Katsina and Daura – and they would choose those who would go to senior primary school. Once you were in that senior primary school, your parents had nothing to worry about in terms of paying for anything.

They would come to your village head’s house and take you to school, as well as bring you back. So it was actually not difficult. We were not many and we were taught well. I remember that some of the things I now teach children were what I was taught in primary school, including how to hold needles, scissors and any sharp object. I was taught those things in primary school. I was also taught the concept of cleanliness.

You attended Government Girls’ College, Dala, was that because there was no equivalent in Katsina for girls?

Up to the time of the military coup of 1966, northern Nigeria had only two government girls’ secondary schools – Queen Elizabeth School, Ilorin and Government Girls’ College, Dala. Others were female teachers’ colleges; all the other secondary schools were of the missionaries.

So, it was either you attended the one in Ilorin or you would go to Kano. I went to Kano.

Was it a strange experience for you coming from Katsina to Kano city?

It wasn’t because my senior primary school was boarding in Katsina. And because my father was a civil servant, he was posted to other parts of the country, but I didn’t go with him.

He was posted to Jos, Maiduguri, Sokoto and even Kano. So I didn’t find it strange to be in Kano because at that time, my father was there when I was in secondary school. It was a boarding school and I was not staying with them at home, but at least they were available.

When did you start thinking of becoming a doctor?

Actually, my family background is that of health. My late cousin, Dr Tukur Abdullahi, was the first medical doctor in the family. His father, Galadima Abdullahi, as well as my father himself, Aliyu Malumfashi, was also in the health sector. We have so many health workers in the family.

My preferred subject was Mathematics and actually, I applied to read it as a course in the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU). I was given admission, but somehow, my family had a small meeting in the house of my late cousin, Justice Mamman Nasir, and they decided that I should read Medicine.

At that time there were no female medical doctors, so all I needed was to apply to read Medicine. They gave me the offer and that was how I ended up in the profession.

But at the back of my mind I had some things that were sort of pushing me to like the health sector. When I was in senior primary school, I had an ailment and was admitted at the General Hospital, Katsina and I could see the smartness and care given by female nurses. At that time, we felt that only males were doctors and women must become nurses. I was interested in the smartness and the considerations given to patients by nurses. I really had some interest.

Also, when I was in primary school I was taken to a village for holidays, and on my way back we stopped at Ankajuma because at that time you did half trekking and half cycling, and if you wanted to join transport, it was lorry. And you had to go to a village where was market. I was at Ankajuma on a Thursday waiting for the end of the market so that we could join a lorry with other passengers to Malumfashi when a woman was rushed out, bleeding. I remember how I felt and wished I could be of assistance to her. That was one of the interesting things I could remember as a child that pushed me into the medical profession. Actually, my interest was to be a mathematician.

There is the impression that Medicine is difficult because it involves the human body and all that, so many people avoid it; was it difficult for you to become a doctor?

Actually, it was not difficult because during our time, we were not many. I think we were about 30 in our class, so five or six students could cut a dead body or cadaver, unlike now where you may have up to 100 or more students in a class. It was straightforward.

And the scholarship we had in the university was very good; it covered everything we did, so you didn’t bother your parents.

What was your experience with the first cadaver?

I know that some people felt bad, but somehow, it wasn’t shocking. I know people who ran away from reading Medicine when they saw the cadaver. The only thing I know is that the boys used to tease us.

At first, when we went in they said I didn’t look like a medical student, so they thought I was being pushed or favoured because I am from a Hausa-Fulani area. They started following me up until they started seeing our results and they gave up.

Some of them actually told me that during our orientation, they thought I was supposed to go to Abdullahi Bayero College and read Arabic Studies or Hausa.

But when class tests started coming out and they saw me doing very well, they told me that they had been following me to find out whether I was being favoured to read Medicine because I was from Katsina.

What happened when you became a brand new doctor from Katsina, one of the first in the region? Were you confronted with the challenge of where to work or what to do?

At that time, before your result was out you would have been given an offer. When we were in the final year, a team came to interview us from the North Central State. Interestingly, failure rate was not very high. We didn’t have problem with jobs.

The only problem was that I came from an area where there was early marriage. Immediately after secondary school you were supposed to marry. You can imagine that I did not marry till I was almost in my last year in the university. So I was considered a “Choose”. Some people even felt I was up to 40 years, but I was just 24. So they had kind of given up on me.

A “Choose” was what they called a young woman who decided to delay marriage for whatever reason. It was considered an abomination if my younger sister married at 17 or 18 and I delayed marriage till I was 24.

Were you under pressure to get married while you were a medical student?

No. At that time, it was not very difficult to get married; everybody could get a husband, unlike now that people are struggling to get married.

Getting a husband was not a problem because immediately the young men graduated, they got jobs, unlike what is happening nowadays when people can stay up to six years after graduation without getting a job. These days, people who are 24 are considered very young, but during my time, it was a different situation.

At what point did you take the decision to get married? Was it a family arrangement?

It was not family; I just got married to my cousin. I am from a background where we call inter-relationship marriage was by arrangement. In my family, we are seven and five of us married cousins. The first and the last didn’t marry their cousins. So, I don’t know whether you would call it an arranged marriage.

How did you combine marriage with your growing career in medicine?

At that time, one had an excellent income, so one could afford to eat well.

What was your husband doing?

He was working at a sugar company but later moved to transport. I have even forgotten the transport company he started.

I really sympathise with newlyweds these days. I usually wonder what they would cook for their husbands when what they mostly know are noodles.

At that time, it was very easy as working conditions were excellent and everybody appreciated everybody, unlike now when the issue of appreciation is tied around economic or political strength. Once you don’t have economic and political strength you are considered nobody. People appreciated what we did. I enjoyed my work.

Were you living in Kaduna?

We lived in Kaduna, Zaria and Bachita and had support from relatives. There were people hanging around your children, unlike now when you only stay with paid staff and there is no relationship or traditional link to your children.

I remember that when I was going to do my postgraduate studies in Liverpool, my stepmother followed me and we didn’t have any problem. And there was no problem of visa; you could take anybody anywhere you wanted. So it was really nice. I didn’t have much, but I enjoyed my studies and work.

My limitation is that I am considered a conservative in terms of dressing or taking part in some social things.

Even in England?

Well, I will even say in England, but not like now. This is my limitation, even right now. When people don’t see things that are considered modern around you, sometimes they assume that you don’t even know how to write. I remember that many times I went to fill the pilgrims form and some people would fill it for me and ask me to sign because they assumed I didn’t even know how to write.

Is it because of the way you look?

I don’t look like somebody who should be able to read and write; I still have that problem. I remember that as a medical student, when we were going through some corridors, some gatemen would stop me and let others go. When the daughter of the late President Umaru Yar’adua was getting married, we were going together for reception with a colleague of mine, they let her in and told me to go and sit where the domestic staff were sitting because I didn’t dress like somebody who should be significant for such occasion. And they gave her a big seat. Sometimes I get that embarrassment.

As a very prominent medical doctor and former commissioner, why do you dress like that?

It depends on what you like.

Is it deliberate?

I dress the way I think I should dress and I am alright, but I still get embarrassed. Since this is how they saw me and said I should stay with domestic staff, I sat there throughout the occasion.

I begged them to let me talk to Farida Waziri, former chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) because her late husband was my colleague at the Federal Character Commission but they refused. I begged them to go and tell her about me, but they refused.

Were you offended?

I just didn’t look like somebody who should be of significance. But such things don’t offend me because I let everybody do what they want.

In Kaduna, you quickly left medical practice and became an administrator, permanent secretary, and later, commissioner; what happened?

I don’t think I left medical practice because even as a permanent secretary I had a clinical consultation room in my office. At the Federal Character Commission I was still consulting. My advantage is that being a pediatrician in Nigeria, which is a third-world country with a large population of children, anywhere you go you will see children. So I don’t think I left my practice. Up till now I have not left the profession.

The only thing is that maybe clinically, I may not to go and stay at the hospital, but whether one likes it or not, one must see issues concerning health, growth, welfare and development of a child in Nigeria.

How did you cope as an administrator and permanent secretary in many ministries in Katsina and Kaduna, as well as commissioner?

I will say we were lucky in this permanent secretary thing. During the constitutional rearrangement of 1979, the power to appoint permanent secretaries was given to governors. Earlier, it was the Civil Service Commission that promoted. That is why you find people who are not considered fit to be permanent secretary, even in this administration.

I was not considered fit to be a permanent secretary because I was too young and didn’t have administrative experience. The only files I ever held were those of my patients. But I was fortunate. And the people I took over from were very nice to me, particularly the late Alhaji Balarabe Mahmoud. I went to his house in the evening to greet him and he gave me everything, including general orders – everything that had to do with administration. And he lectured me on how to be careful, by reading the A to Z of everything. The advantage I had was that I used to learn, even from a clerk. I was close to everybody, so I was able to learn and take things easy.

And that time, being a permanent secretary was not considered a position you should boast of because nobody had any excess money outside his salary. So you were just an ordinary person, and they would judge you by your ability.

I didn’t have a problem. I was able to listen, read and give due respect to my seniors. I never pushed myself anywhere that would cause problems. Honestly, it was very nice.

Commissionership is a political appointment; how were you picked in both Kaduna and Katsina?

I remember that when I came back from my postgraduate course at the end of my tenure as permanent secretary, there was a new government of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN), where my father actually belonged as a member of the Kaduna State Assembly. I was serving under Balarabe Musa of the Peoples Redemption Party (PRP), so I was considered.

I remember that when I was going to escort my father for a medical treatment abroad, I went to Dangiwa Umar and told him that I was going out but I learnt there would be cabinet reshuffle. I asked if I would be affected and he said no. On my return I was posted to the Ministry of Planning.

When I went to him and complained, he explained that it was due to pressure from people who wanted my seat. They gave it to the late Professor Musa Shok, my very close friend.

So you moved from health to planning?

Ministry of Planning gave me the advantage to know everything about government because that time you could not do anything without getting clearance from the Ministry of Budget and Planning, unlike what happens nowadays.

When Katsina State was created and you moved over, was it challenging to be a commissioner in your home state?

When we moved to Katsina from Kaduna as appointees of Dangiwa Umar, ours was considered as an inherited cabinet. We were brought to serve under Sarki Muktar. I think we were five, including the late Alhaji Sule Abubakar, the district head of Ingawa, then Musa Sodangi, who was in a bank.

Bank of the North?

Yes, Bank of the North. The late Abubakar Usman, an engineer, who headed the railways before he died, and Lawal Yusuf Saulawa were members of the cabinet. We were sworn in, but up till the time we left, they always asked the governor what he was going to do with his inherited cabinet. And they did not stop until we were kicked out.

I remember that Sarki Muktar used to call me “lady and gentleman,” and when I asked why, he said that when he came to the state he asked if there was any woman but they said there was none. I asked if I could be of help and he said yes. He then told me to give him a list. I gave him a list of women and he put it in his drawer.

Women to be appointed into his government?

When he started appointing, we started fighting with the people; and I told him that he didn’t have to know all the women in Katsina. I said he should have asked me, being a woman from a university setting.

Tell us about your career at the Federal Character Commission. As a medical doctor, how come you were given that rather odd appointment?

A commissioner there, Adamu, was a very tough guy. His stand was straightforward. We were actually just trying to establish the structure of the commission, so we were able to embark on tours and report. We were able to serve at both the federal and state levels.

In the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and others, you would find that national commissioners are different from those of the states, but for the Federal Character Commission, national commissioners are also the commissioners of their states. So I was able to have an office in Katsina State and Abuja.

And fortunately for me, I was also given the opportunity to oversee Kebbi, Zamfara and Sokoto because my Kebbi counterpart, General Malami, died and Senator Ilagada left to join politics. I was able to cover those areas. And being a pediatrician, you would want to go, as well as see. It was not easy. But I had the advantage of touring all these states. Sometimes I even took interest in things that did not directly do with federal character. For example, in Kebbi, we were fighting about six preventable killer diseases. The experience was quite nice.

Federal character is seen as having a kind of preference for the North, which is said not to be fair to the rest of the country; do you see it as something controversial?

Federal character has preference for everybody. As it stands, if you go to certain states and ask people to be employed there, they will not go. But you will find them in some of the states considered to be in favour of federal character. In our teaching hospital, for instance, there is everybody from everywhere, but if you go to some federal medical centres in the southern part of the country, particularly the South East part, you won’t find anybody from Katsina. So I think federal character actually favours everybody.

Was the Federal Character Commission job the end of your public career because after that, you sort of came back and settled in Katsina?

Before I went to the commission, I left the service of the ABU Teaching Hospital; then by the time I finished serving at the commission, I came back to Katsina, and since then, I have been here.

What have you been doing?

I have been taking it easy. I have been doing odd things on the health sector, like serving in some clinics, acting, working. I worked at the Umaru Musa Yar’adua University Clinic as acting Chief Medical Director for about four years. And I was able to do some community issues.

Also, being an author, I concentrate on writing. And I am doing radio talks. The only thing I didn’t take part in seriously is partisan politics.

I don’t consider joining a group of people simply because you want to be given a job or contract as politics. I am not ready for partisan politics. But I support issues and people. I am one of those who believe in God. I also believe in principles. I cannot do partisan politics the way it is practised here.

What about your association with the PRP; do you still have sympathy for that party?

In life, whether you like it or not you are concerned and want to be fair to everybody, but sometimes it is very difficult to practise.

For partisan politics, I was quite close to Abdulkadir Musa, up to the time of his death, but we sometimes shared things I did not consider practicable under some circumstances. We just felt that what we needed was justice.

Were you in the Board of Trustees of the PRP?

I was not. Unfortunately for me, when we served under the PRP, it was not a precondition to carry a party’s card. This is what is making things difficult for people to work now. In those days, if you were considered good enough to add value to their programmes, you were invited.

I remember that when Dr Bala Usman invited some of us from the ABU, including Professor Ikara, Abdurrahaman Abdallah, and Dr Sa’ad, to serve as permanent secretaries, I don’t think any of us was a card-carrying party member. But now, once they give you a job you must carry their party’s card. This is why we have problems. And you would find that civil servants don’t feel comfortable because once they don’t show trend towards a party, you know that if that party did not come back, you are going to suffer. But at that time, you were considered on your worth.

You are very experienced in administration, so even if you are not involved in partisan politics, how do you think we can deal with the problem of this country?

There should be justice. Let the people who have so much consider others in handling issues.

You are in many committees and boards in Katsina; have you gotten a chance to advise the government, even at the federal level? Also, President Muhammadu Buhari is from your state, have you gotten the opportunity to make input on what is going on in the country?

Sometimes you see opportunities to meet people, usually at gatherings, but for people like me who hardly appear in those places, the opportunities are not there. And by the time they see that somebody in government is interested in you and they think he is likely going to do something that may not be to their advantage, there is usually a blockade. And I hardly push when people are blocking me. That is one of my major weaknesses. I just sit quietly and go into other things I am interested in.

So you have not been specifically invited to make an input, either at the federal or state level?

I don’t think so.

How many of your writings are published and widely available for people to read?

Unfortunately, two of my main works, which are medical, are in Hausa. And you know the Hausa language is suffering because people don’t even know how to read and write in Hausa. The orthography of Hausa is gone.

I have written four books and two are in English.

What are the titles of the two in Hausa?

The first one is to do with the value of breast milk, as well as some songs, while the other one is on hearing loss in children and a little chapter on adults. I have written about HIV/AIDS in English.

For the ones in English, I have written on HIV/AIDS and a chapter on non-communicable diseases.

I have also reviewed some books and papers. Again, I have written for primary health care workers on how to make diagnosis easy and look at common problems like the skin because it is an area people tend to forget.

I noticed something about a chapter on Balarabe Musa, what is it?

I worked closely with him to be able to write about him. I told them the experience I had.

I am still interested in writing and listening; I am not very good at watching. Listening allows you to imagine, but if you are physically seeing somebody, you cannot. So I like listening to programmes and discussions.

You have won so many awards and honours, such as Officer of the Federal Republic (OFR). Also, I didn’t know that Katsina had a merit award it gives to its people, and you are one of the winners. How did that come about?

It is nice to have honours.

You also won two honours from Canada and one is on Mathematics?

That was my best subject.

How did you get it?

When I was in school, our transport officer who was teaching us Mathematics was a Canadian and I was her secretary. We did everything together and made list.

Was that in Kano?

Government Girls’ College, Dala in Kano. She was the one who recommended me for that. It is nice to understand mathematics; it is straightforward. It is the only subject you can get 100 per cent.

You keep saying that if you don’t have economic and political weight, people don’t seem to remember or consider you, what do you mean?

If I had become a minister or ambassador after I left the Federal Character Commission, I would have had political weight. However, what is significant in Nigeria is current political weight.

You had a long and distinguished career, how does political weight affect someone like you? Is it that at the end of one’s career, one doesn’t seem well recognised or rewarded by the society?

They only know the people they are working with, so there is the need for current political or economic value.

I feel that as somebody who has done so much, you are living modestly, why?

You are just trying to tease me.

Do you feel fulfilled?

Yes. That is why I don’t go further looking for any particular advantage, economically or politically. I am living comfortably. All my six children have gone to school, and they have jobs. And the two people I look after are graduates and are working. I feel comfortable.

I don’t have anything against anybody.