Prof. Olayinka Omigbodun
Olayinka Omigbodun is the immediate-past Head of Psychiatry, College of Medicine, University of Ibadan and an honorary consultant in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry to the University College Hospital, Ibadan. The pioneering director at the university’s Centre for Child and Adolescent Mental Health, which started with funding from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, tells ALEXANDER OKERE about motivation, career and family
For how long have you been a professor and how would you describe your experience as an academic?
I became a professor on October 1, 2008; that was 11 years ago. I actually qualified as a psychiatrist in 1991 but the university would not give me a job. Fortunately, my husband got a fellowship position in the United States in 1993, so I travelled to the US with the family. I did not take up an academic position with the university until I returned in 1997. It has been very eventful since I started working at the University of Ibadan. I started my career in child and adolescent psychiatry in 1986 as a resident under the tutelage of (the late) Prof Michael Oludare Olatawura and did part of my residency in Nigeria and the United Kingdom.
Were you educated in Nigeria?
I started nursery school in Lagos at the Adrao International School, Victoria Island, Lagos. I was living with my parents at that time in Lagos. My father was in the army at the time and my mother was a housewife. My mother was a Sierra Leonean and my father was a Nigerian. We left for Sierra Leone a day before the civil war broke out. In Sierra Leone, I attended the Holy Rosary Primary School, Kenema, about 300 miles from Freetown. I was there for two years before we moved to Freetown, where I attended St. Anne’s Primary School for one year. When the war ended in 1970, we returned with my mum to Nigeria and I attended the Staff School, University of Ibadan.
I spent three years at the school before I moved to St. Louis Grammar School, Mokola, Ibadan. Then I had my advanced levels for two years at the International School, University of Ibadan, and gained admission to UI through direct entry to study Medicine and Surgery in 1980. In 1990, one of my senior professors, Olabisi Odejide, asked me whether I would like to have some exposure abroad; that was when I moved to England. I lived in Lancaster and worked at the Lancaster Moor Hospital. I was also at the Queen’s Park Hospital, in Blackburn. I obtained a diploma in Psychiatry from the Victorian University of Manchester in 1992. While I was in the UK, I flew into Nigeria for my final fellowship examinations in the West African College of Physicians in the Faculty of Psychiatry and the National Postgraduate College of Medicine in Psychiatry in 1991. By 1993, I was in the US at the Department of Family Studies, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, training and working as a family and relationship therapist. I also did some research in the Bipolar Disorders Unit. I must say that having training exposure on three continents really enriched me.
Was it a personal decision to study Psychiatry?
Yes. When I got to medical school, I thought I would do paediatrics. However, on the first day of my rotation at the paediatrics ward, I decided that I could not do it anymore because seeing sick children was too traumatic for me and I didn’t think I would be able to handle them. So, I took my mind of that specialty until I got to the Psychiatry rotation; it was wonderful. I was fascinated by patients who had mental health conditions; some of them heard the voices of people they could not see while some were very depressed. I remember meeting a man who was partially paralysed because he had fallen from a three-storey building when he was depressed and had attempted suicide.
I met interesting patients with different stories. I also found that in psychiatry, we don’t just deal with a part of the body but with the whole patient, with their family and community and work; in psychiatry, we learned to carry out holistic assessments of patients and their families and I found this very interesting. It was in-depth work.
That was why I decided to do Psychiatry. I am grateful to my mother, Mrs Taiwo Joyce Banjo (nee George), who passed on over 20 years ago. I had a lot of opposition in my choice of Psychiatry. Many of my uncles told me to look for a more respectful specialty, like Obstetrics and Gynaecology or Paediatrics, but my mother told me to do what I was going to be comfortable with because I would live with myself for the rest of my life. She encouraged me to get into Psychiatry and I’ve never looked back.
Did you face any opposition when you choose your area of specialisation?
A lot of people, including medical doctors, said I might lose my mind while working with people with mental health challenges. They didn’t understand. My husband, who was my fiancé then, also expressed concern about my decision. I had a lot of people discouraging me not to do Psychiatry but I held on to my dream and I’ve had no regrets since then.
What was childhood like for you?
I was born in 1963. My parents met each other while they were studying in the UK. My father, the late Lieutenant Colonel Victor Banjo, was from Ijebu Ode, Ogun State. He joined the army in 1953 and was the 16th Nigerian to be commissioned an officer. He met my mother while he was training at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, UK. They had their first two children in the UK and returned to Nigeria. I was born at the UCH, Ibadan, even though my parents lived in Lagos. My early childhood was spent in Lagos but it was short-lived. My father was arrested on January 17, 1966, and he never came back home. Our lives were never the same again, so we left for Sierra Leone; we suffered a drop in our socioeconomic status and it was quite difficult, especially for my mother.
My father was executed sometime in September 1967 and so my mother had to care for us on her own. She gave us the very best childhood we could ever have within her means. Financially, it was a big struggle. Before my father’s arrest, she was a stay-at-home mum and had four children. I must add that my father was arrested unjustly because, up till now, nobody has accused him of anything. He was just arrested; we were told that he participated in the January 1966 coup.
But everybody knows that is not true because those who participated in the coup came out to say he was not among them. It was a lot of suffering for my mum to look after us, especially because she had never worked out of the home. But she gave us love and security and these are what children really need.
How did you hear about his death?
After my father was arrested in 1966, he was kept in Kirikiri Prison for a short while and transferred to a prison at Ikot Ekpene (Akwa Ibom State). From there, he was taken to another prison in Enugu State. I have the evidence because I have all the letters he wrote to my mum – some were censored and some were not. My mother wrote several letters to the then Head of State, Gen Yakubu Gowon (retd.), pleading with him to release my father. My father was in Enugu when the war broke out. He and (the late Chief Odumegwu) Ojukwu were friends; in many of his letters, he mentioned Ojukwu as someone he cared for. I was made to understand that my father fought in the Biafran army for one Nigeria; he felt a certain part of the country had dominated the other parts of the country and he was quite clear about it even in his letters. He wanted to put an end to the dominance of one part of Nigeria over the others.
I was made to understand that, unfortunately, he led an army that did not have many resources and he was used as a scapegoat when the Biafran army was about to collapse. His friend – the late Chief Odumegwu Ojukwu – ordered his execution. We were told that Enugu was overrun by the federal army 24 hours after my father was executed. Up till now, we don’t have any specific communication from his employer about where he is and whether he was killed or not. The people who executed him appeared to have been made heroes; (Nigeria is) a very interesting country.
Do you think career women find it difficult combining their jobs with homemaking?
I actually disagree with that. I think an intelligent woman will be able to balance her life. Studies have shown that the intelligence of children is closely linked to that of their mothers. More importantly, an intelligent woman is better able to create a positive environment for her family. She will know when to slow down and when to pick up.
My husband finished his training as an obstetrician and gynaecologist in 1987 and I qualified as a psychiatrist four years later. He became a professor in 1997 and I became a professor 11 years after. It was not because I was less brilliant but because I had to make decisions for the family. There is time for everything.
What are the administrative positions you have held as a psychiatrist?
Between 2010 and 2014, I was President, International Association for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Allied Professions; I am the first and only African to hold that position in the 82-year history of the global body with member organisations from over 65 countries. I was the pioneer president of the African Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health between 2007 and 2014. I was a chief examiner for the Faculty of Psychiatry in the West African College of Physicians from 2012 to 2016. I was also the pioneering Head, Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, UCH, Ibadan, from 2009 to 2017.
What motivates you to work hard?
What motivates me is the belief that I am not working for man but for God and that God wants me to be excellent in all I do; He rewards excellence, so I am striving to be a better person each day. In the areas that God has given me, I make sure that I do the very best. The other motivation is my belief in Nigeria. Despite the way past governments have treated my family – I don’t think they have treated us well, especially the way my dad was cast aside – I still believe in this country and invest my time doing things that will make it better.
What was your most challenging moment?
My most challenging moment was when my mother died in 1997. I was, somehow, shattered because my mother had been a widow for many years and suffered a lot. Just as we were beginning to be able to make her comfortable, she died.
What is your sweetest experience so far?
Having two wonderful children is my sweetest experience. They are high-fliers and both have a strong faith in Jesus Christ. Our children have made us proud. I also have a son-in-law, also a high-flier with a strong faith in Christ.
How easy or difficult was it for you to be convinced that your husband was suitable for you?
I had liked my husband even before he noticed me. I was a medical student and he was a resident doctor; I always admired him from a distance. He was a decent guy and very handsome. I had a distant crush on him and we have similar names – his name is Akinyinka and I am Olayinka. I felt very privileged when he asked me to be his wife.
How did your mum react to his proposal?
My mother liked him. I wouldn’t marry a man my mother didn’t like. I was very close to my mother; so, if she didn’t like a man, that man was out.
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