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A Chat with Dr. Godwin Eni of British Columbia

6 November 2009 at 04:52 | 922 views

Dr. Godwin Eni, originally from Nigeria, is a leading figure in the African-Canadian community in British Columbia, Canada. Afri-Can magazine (a sister publication to PV) editor and publisher Gibril Koroma recently had a chat with him. Here is how it went:

Afri-Can Magazine: The name Godwin Eni is well known in the African-Canadian community in BC and beyond. Could you please briefly introduce yourself to some of our readers who may not know you?

Godwin Eni: Perhaps my name seems to be “well-known” because of the longevity of my Canadian experience, which makes it difficult to provide a brief introduction. During the approximately 40 years of my Canadian residency, I studied, worked and lived in three Provinces. I was also very active professionally as I was among the first set of graduate students in Canada to specialize in a Medical Rehabilitation Treatment Technique known as “Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation [PNF]” at the University Hospital, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in 1971. I was the only black student in the cohort and I believe there were only two blacks at the time in the City of Saskatoon, a Ghanaian internship physician and myself. Both of us were quite an attraction as well as objects of inquisitiveness. A third African from Kenya was so severely frostbitten when he arrived during the winter of 1971 that he flew home. So it is easy to remember me if one lived in Saskatoon in those days.

There were a good number of African students in Toronto where I worked as a Physiotherapist and at the University of Western Ontario when I arrived there as a clinical instructor and later as a head of a department at the Children’s Psychiatric Research Institute. I was the first Nigeria-trained Physiotherapist when I arrived in Canada. At the time, I found myself in a rather unique company, as I became one of six physiotherapists in Canada in 1970 with University degrees. Diploma certification was the norm in those days and I was part of the transition. There was memorable collegiality and bonding among the Africans in London, Ontario. They met occasionally at my residence to celebrate festive occasions or other joyful events. Many of them are very successful either in Canada or in their home countries as academics or professionals in responsible positions. Some of us still keep in touch and aging gracefully. I formed the Nigeria Association of London Ontario to provide a cultural platform for us to be ourselves especially to “invent” African-style food when none was available in the City. In addition, I did my best to assist many African students with academic, immigration, visa and other challenges. Some lived with me until they settled down. Their country of origin was never a concern to me. I did not want them to experience the loneliness and isolation I experienced earlier in Saskatoon. Then again, those who lived through that period would tend to remember each other.

Dr. Godwin Eni receiving a farewell gift from students at University of Nigeria in 2008. Top photo: Dr. Godwin Eni moderating a Federal Election Candidates’ Debate in Canada.

When I arrived in Vancouver in 1979, there were a handful of blacks. More importantly, there were virtually no Africans except a few students at the University of British Columbia and one or two other Africans. A couple of Africans I came across were gainfully employed somewhere but largely invisible. However, the majority of Africans were students – Kenyans, Ghanaians, South Africans, Nigerians, Ugandans, Zimbabweans, and other countries - many of whom returned home upon the completion of studies. We were a family! We all met at my residence to celebrate Christmas, birthdays and other occasions. There was unity. As the number of Africans in Greater Vancouver grew, it became necessary to form national groups while maintaining close associations. I formed the Nigeria Association of BC and took part with Dr. Agabeyewa in forming the Black Educators Association of BC to help our youth. The various national groups supported each other. At the time, the President of Ghana Association, Mr. Ben Afful and I worked very hard to maintain the glue that kept the African associations together.

My primary interest was focused towards assisting African students, immigrants, and refugees through several challenges, from housing to immigration and employment. They included people from Uganda, Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, and many other African states. Very often, I appeared as their advocate at immigration hearings and assisted in securing them with better professional advice. It was a strange country to many of them because of accent and cultural issues. Sometimes my wife and I functioned as the “father” or “mother of the groom or bride at weddings because their old folks could not be there. We even paid some school fees for indigent students unable to do so during their final academic years. Many African “new arrivals” stayed temporarily at my home until they settled down. On one occasion, I rushed to Surrey Memorial Hospital to prevent the adoption of an African baby away from his African father who objected to the process, by serving as a surrogate father. My wife and I supported the African father and his baby until they were able to establish independent living. When I got involved as a volunteer in non-profit organizations, I expanded assistance to “new comers” from other countries in Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe. As a department head at the University Hospital, I saw how many new comers, especially Africans, were unable to navigate the healthcare system. There were issues with accent, perception, culture and difference. I also saw many Eastern Europeans in the same category. As Director of Graduate Studies in Health Services Planning and Administration at UBC, I experienced the same issues with “new comers” in the educational setting. Many African students came to me for advice when they perceive unfair treatment or lack of understanding. Some of them provided me with copies of their masters or doctoral thesis upon graduation, regardless of discipline because of the assistance they received.

My work in the community helped me to contribute my effort in other meaningful ways. I participated in the governance of many non-profit organizations as well as in national deliberations on issues affecting Canadians. As Chair of the Westside Community Health Committee of the former Vancouver/Richmond Health Board, I led the effort that implemented the first Community Health Center in Vancouver – The Pacific Spirit Health Center located in Kerrisdale. It was a move away from the health units concept and which provided a more comprehensive medical and social assistance to the community. Over the years, I have been invited by several groups and agencies to speak to new immigrants, employees, students, and union groups on topics such as acculturation, diversity, and multiculturalism. Perhaps some of these notations may have led to my name being somewhat “well-known” as you put it. Overall, I take great pride and joy in noting the progress made professionally or personally by those individuals I may have mentored or with whom I interacted over the last 40 years.

AM:The Canadian Immigrant magazine recently honored you with an award for your exemplary service to the community and to the rest of Canada. Could you tell us a bit about that service?

GE:I was a runner-up to the top 25 Canadian immigrants of 2009. Both the nomination and the ward are surprises to me especially when they pertain to a national voting process. I feel humbled by the recognition especially as they came on the heels of my 70th birthday last year and health concerns. However, the response to your question is in part, included in my earlier response to the question of “being well-known”. I cannot tell you the reasons for such an accolade because I do not know the details. The Canadian Immigrant Magazine has filled a gap in Canadian Society by providing a knowledge-base for immigrants. It is wonderful that we have such a medium and I would suggest that every Canadian, not just recent immigrants, should read the magazine on a regular basis. There was nothing like the magazine 40 years ago when I came to Canada after the Nigeria-Biafra civil war. Perhaps part of the recognition may be due to some other activities.

For example, I consulted in Ukraine at the request of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs when the Soviet Union broke up. I also sat in several Federal committees for Health and education that awarded scholarships to foreign and Canadian graduate students. I consulted in many African Countries on behalf of Canada’s International Immunization Program about programs and issues associated with primary health care planning, child immunization, poverty alleviation, women’s health, and non-governmental organizations. The recognition may be for anything other than these activities. However, I am most appreciative of my effort in communities regardless of racial considerations. Perhaps my commitment to social equality, equity and justice was noticeable. I was appointed a public member of the Council on Chiropractic Education of Canada. I chaired the Commission on Accreditation for Chiropractic Education for four years which took me to different parts of the country. Following the conclusion of my term of office, I was awarded honorary membership of the profession in recognition of my service. All of these activities may have put me in some spotlight in some areas of the country.

AM:You have been to Africa, India and other places helping humanity. Tell us about that, please.

GE: I will not characterize my activities in African countries in terms of “helping humanity”. Rather, I was doing my job as a consultant although with great empathy, understanding and humanism. I evaluated health and social service programs in Africa [Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Malawi, Botswana, and South Africa] in the context of Government/NGO collaboration as they relate to Canada-Sponsored programs. I did the same thing in Asia on behalf of the Commonwealth Secretariat in the United Kingdom [Malaysia, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka]. I came away from the experience with a very different perspective about international development. I taught International health and Comparative Health Systems at UBC and the University of Colorado in Denver, USA where I encouraged students to undertake graduate research in the area believing that the prevailing perspective was adequate. My work in developing countries changed my perspective towards discouraging dependency. A tribal chief said to me in Korogo, Cote d’Ivoire, “Why is it that nobody takes time to ask us how we have been doing things to keep healthy before the white man came? If all they say about disease and our way of life is right, then we would all have been dead before this time! We need to improve how we do things to be healthy and not throw away our culture”. My work in Ukraine is quite different. Professor Nestman of Dalhousie University and I were sent by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to advise the Ukrainian Ministry of Health about the merits of the Canadian Health Care System especially regarding a change in policy and health manpower development. I am happy to say that the result of our work has been very useful. In 2007/2008, I spent a year in Nigeria at the invitation of the National Universities Commission. I consulted on accreditation standards and curriculum development as well as taught some courses at the University of Nigeria. I had undertaken similar role for the University of Newcastle in Australia, Xian University in China and the Ministry of Health, Trinidad for Pan American Health Organization.

AM: There are many internal and external problems affecting the African-Canadian community in BC and other provinces. As an African-Canadian who has lived for a long time in this community and know about some of these problems, what do you think should be done to resolve them?

GE:Over the years, the major internal problem affecting the African-Canadian community is disunity, supported by lack of trust among members from different national origins, quest for individual visibility, emphasis on national differences occasioned by pride, and a certain degree of self-importance which fails to acknowledge the contribution of others in furthering the interest of the community. Perhaps because of colonial heritage, many Africans place high premium on the acquisition of titles such as “President”, “Director” and so forth regardless of the individual’s ability to produce reasonable outcomes for the benefit of the community. Therefore, we have a myriad of national associations or societies without the critical population to support them. There are several half-baked attempts at “programming” without adequate know-how, inconsistencies in policy direction, failure to seek and adhere to appropriate advice, failure to understand how the Canadian system and infrastructure actually function, manifestation of behaviors that mirror those existing in countries of origin, and emphasis on one activity – organizing and holding food and dance parties based only on national origin. Where there are ten Africans from different African States, there will be ten solutions to a single issue.

The external problems are quite specific. The African-Canadian Community is clearly a minority entity among minority groups. The community is often overshadowed by the Caribbean community, which is better organized and involved in many aspects of minority opportunities long before the advent of the African community organizations in Canada. They represent and occupy every role designated for the black community if any. This is understandable given their historical origin in North America. At issue is the lack of cooperation between the two black groups especially in advocating and representing black interests. In the early 80’s, Professor Doyley, Dr. Agbeyewa, Mr. Charles Arthur, Ms. Barbara Binns, and a few others did our best to unite the two “black groups”. On the one hand, the African organizations are disorganized and frequently marginalized as irrelevant because they do not have the critical population to influence political vote. On the other hand, the African community lacks sufficient expertise and commitment for participation in meaningful dialogue concerning what is going on in Canada. Many of them are in perpetual struggles for existence and subsistence given the influx of African refugees in recent years. Many Africans are simply passengers in the Canadian system and rarely take part in any provincial or national dialogue that affects their interest.

The good news is that some individuals within the African community are emerging across the country with a view to making a difference. In British Columbia, an African Center for Integration has been established and it has yet to gain full support and utilization from the community. Other ventures include the “Afro News” and the “Afri-Can” Magazine which should have wide readership among African Canadians. Unfortunately, many in the African community do not entertain a vision that supports these activities. Rather most are critical and very differential to anything that does not begin and end with them. In some cases, they commence similar activities for imagery without undertaking a market survey. Therefore, we have an organized confusion that perpetuates itself in the community. Perhaps these behaviors are mirror images of the way things are currently happening on the African continent. It is quite difficult for most Africans to acknowledge the success or contribution of fellow Africans. I admire the fortitude of those of them that have begun to do something meaningful regardless of the challenges. I take enormous pride in the achievement of fellow Africans. I also take comfort that many of the so-called immigrants or refugee Africans I assisted in one form or another are succeeding in many ways across Canada. However, we still have the “get rich quick” category that undermines the image of the community. They have yet to develop the necessary work ethic.

I do not have a magic solution regarding how to meet these challenges. The challenges are enormous especially as one experiences division among people from the same African country. In my view, unity must begin at that level where shared nationality is united. This would be difficult given the tribal divisions and wars in home countries that led people to flee as refugees. It is difficult for oppressors and the oppressed to unite even in Canada. Regardless of this challenge, it would be important for well-informed, selfless individuals from different African countries to come together and map a strategy for uniting various groups. This suggestion sounds utopian but it can happen where there is good will.

AM:What advice do you have for young African-Canadians and new immigrants?

GE: I have always advised all new immigrants to Canada, regardless of country of origin, to believe in themselves and the ability to achieve better things in life personally, professionally and economically. An impediment to sustaining this belief is the obtrusive presence of racism, discriminatory practices and inequality of consideration in some sectors of our society. It takes an intelligent individual to rise above these practices and look forward to a goal -oriented future. This does not mean that one should not call attention to differential treatment directed at race, religion, gender or other human traits such as accent and mannerism. One should do so in ways that educate the perpetrator and the society. In recent years, I find discriminatory practices quite prevalent among the so-called minority groups among which the African is at the bottom ladder in North America. In addition, new African immigrants should find ways to understand the structure, values and governance practices of the Canadian society rather than isolate themselves within their ethnic groups. This is best achieved by becoming involved in activities outside their groups that involve other Canadians. Some good examples include the Mayor of Mission, Daniel Igali and a few others. They should ask questions or seek explanations when in doubt. They should be open minded and accommodating of other people from different racial or ethnic groups. One cannot navigate the society appropriately without sound knowledge of the system, its processes and expectations. Canada is one of the best countries in the world. It provides opportunities for individuals to pursue their goals. Canada is a humanistic society with equity as its ideology. It is not helpful to always play the role of victim.

AM: You played a major role as one of the founders of an umbrella organization to bring together all the African-Canadian communities in BC. Could you give us an update on this organization?

GE: I am not in a position to provide knowledgeable information on the new umbrella organization. I was simply a change agent or a catalyst in getting people together. At 71 years of age, I believe I should begin to smell the roses having assisted in planting the seed for the organization. The interim leaders of the organization are in a better position to discuss progress at this time. It would be nice if all African organizations belong to the umbrella group, participate, and assist in its development. Caribbean organizations have a consortium in B.C. They have been very successful in catering to the interest and well-being of caribbeans regardless of island of origin. The African is a different kettle of fish! Perhaps the leaders should work very hard to develop and sustain an umbrella organization. If requested, I will be willing to provide some advice. But then again, that is a role we traditionally assign to African elders.

AM: Any other message for all our readers including non-African-Canadians?

GE: The most effective way to understand a community and or gain insight into their culture, and activities of daily living is to read about them. An effective way for a community to learn about developments within its ranks and in countries of origin is to read about them in a forum that is dedicated to their interests. That would require rising above the differences that tend to divide and isolate the community. Similarly, a magazine should be in a position to reflect all interests of the community so that each sector can see itself in portrayal and develop ongoing interest in the publication. I hope that the African communities in BC would become more energized and supportive of each other under a unitary symbol. This would enable the community to speak with one strong voice in matters that affect them and the Canadian Society in general. In doing so, the community must be equally accommodating of other interests which is reflective of true Canadian values.

Source: Afri-Can magazine. www.africanmag.ca

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