Dr. (Mrs.) Rafiat Olufunmilayo Olatunji, former permanent secretary, Health Service Commission, Lagos State has a pedigree that could make her peers green with envy. She grew up in opulence and affluence. And rather than live an over-indulgent life, Olatunji made up her mind early about the future. Having come out with Grade One in her school certificate examinations, she wanted to pursue a career in Chemical Engineering, which wasn’t common in those days. She was later persuaded to embrace medicine, that decision changed her life and destiny for good. After her medical training in Russia, and housemanship at Ogbomoso Baptist Hospital in Oyo State, she joined the service of Lagos State as Medical Officer 11 in 1984. She rose through the rank and was appointed permanent secretary in 2005. After 30 years of meritorious service, she retired as she turned 60 leaving an indelible mark in the health sector of the state. She shares her childhood and career experiences with Funkes Olaode
I was born in Lagos on January 24, 1953. As at the time of my birth, my father was a lawyer and my mother was a confidential secretary. My father, the late Alhaji Nurudeen Bolaji Adisa Animashaun was from the Animashaun family and his mother was from the Fashola family. My mother on the other hand was from the King family on father side and on the mother side she was from the Lawani Kakawa family. My grandfather who was a King was a descendant of Tinubu family. The pedigree is rooted in Lagos Island. So, I am, Lagosian. I had a privileged and comfortable beginning which impacted on my life positively. My mother was a disciplinarian. She was very strict and when we were young, we used to say she was too strict. She believed in good upbringing and that impacted on me as a child and coupled with the fact that where I trained in USSR, the former Russia, you have to do things right. The atmosphere then didn’t allow for laziness or mediocrity. So the background and the training prepared me for the role I have been able to play while I worked in Lagos public service.
Growing up in the Lagos of ‘old’
I was born during pre-colonial era and grew up partly at Kakawa Street in Tinubu Family house with my great grandparents. It used to be fun especially during different festivals and people came in to the center of the house dancing and merry making. That was what we met on ground. Lagos wasn’t as big as this but even then, we envisaged that with time there was going to be expansion and progress. As at that time, Surulere area was a bushy area as most people were living within central Lagos. We had some people in Bank Olemo and all other sides. And if you were living in Mushin, it was considered outside Lagos. With time, there was expansion mixed with modernity and all the bushy areas have been accommodated. There was electricity. There were bicycles but there were no so many cars.
I was a shy kid
I was six years when Nigeria gained independence in 1960 but I still recall vividly some remarkable events. On the October 1st celebrations, we used to go to the Race Course for festivity. We had the flag and because we were living in Kakawa, it was a walking distance to Race Course. I was a very shy and quiet kid. I didn’t like talking too much. It was when I became the head of department that I started talking. I was more of an extrovert. I don’t like mixing too much. I like easy life and I am very happy reading my novels, listening to music and so on.
Never set out to study medicine
I began my early education at Ahmadiyya Girls’ School, Olusi in Lagos at age six in 1960. After my primary education, I proceeded to St. Theresa College Ibadan where I did my West African School Certificate Examination coming out in Grade One in 1972. I spent one year at the Federal School of Arts and Science in Lagos. I was given scholarship by the Federal Government of Nigeria to study medicine in the then Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR). My father was a lawyer and to be honest with you, I did not choose medicine. I came out with Grade 1 in my school certificate and I had all the subjects required for me to pursue my ambitions. I had three choices then: one was chemical engineering, the other one was medicine and the third was pharmacy. When I went for the interview, it was the panel that thought I would be better off as a medical doctor. Also, I was told by the panel then that to study in Russia was an added advantage because they had more female doctors. They suggested it would be better for me to go for my second choice which was medicine rather than chemical engineering. That was how I embraced medicine.
Landing in Russia
In our time, we saw scholarship opportunity as a relief to pursue one’s dream. Although, my parents could afford it. The scholarships that came forward were for the Eastern Europe countries. It was just like exploring. I went to Russia in 1975 to pursue a career in Medicine in September of that year. What struck me the day we landed in the country was the extreme cold. And coming from our climate was not funny. But I coped. We were taking to the big Mall to go and get winter coats. We had a one year for the preliminary where we learnt the Russian language. We were taught in Russia and Latin because in Medicine they used Latin words mostly. But for the expression and explanation it was all Russian Language. We learnt very fast because we were surrounded with people who were speaking the language. After three months of training, I was at the State Medical Institute of Zaporozhe Ukraine for medicine in 1975. I successfully completed my Doctor of Medicine Degree in 1981 and returned to Nigeria.
Beginning a career
I returned to Nigeria in 1981 and immediately moved to Ogbomosho Baptist Hospital Oyo State for housemanship and the mandatory one year National Youth Service Corp (NYSC). I worked in this hospital for three years. In 1984, I joined the service of Lagos State Hospitals Management Board as a medical officer ll. I had always wanted to get to the peak of my career, which was to do a residency programme and become a consultant. The initial challenge was deciding on which area of medicine to specialize in until I came to work with Lagos State and I had the opportunity of working with Dr. Braimoh who was a consultant hematologist. I was looking at pathology generally but wanted the aspect of pathology that had clinical side to it and the only one that came to mind was hematology and I went in to do the course. From medical officer ll, I rose to become a consultant after going through postgraduate training in Haematology and Blood Transfusion at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital Idi-Araba from 1988-1993. I became the fellow of the National Postgraduate Medical College of Nigeria in May, 1993. This step actually helped my career because I moved up the ladder as a consultant Haematologist at the General Hospital Lagos from 1993 and rose to become a senior consultant and later a chief consultant in that department. I was appointed the head of department of Haematology and Blood Transfusion in 1996. After three years stint in this position, I was appointed the director and coordinator of the Lagos State Laboratory Services in 1999. I served as the director between 1999-2003 when I was appointed the medical director/chief executive officer of General Hospital Lagos in August of 2002. In 2005, I became the permanent secretary, Health Service Commission, Lagos State. The position I held until I retired in January this year.
Experience working in the public service
Working in government sector has shown me another side of how people perform and function. May be my background from Russia and coming to do work at Ogbomosho Baptist Hospital and the setting did not prepare for what I met in the government circle. Then I met people who were laid back, not ready to put in their best and at the same time expecting the pay at the end of the day. It was one of the main challenges I had when I came on board. I just made sure that I did what I was meant to do right from the time I came in as a medical officer II till the moment that I was living as permanent secretary. I had always been guided by the principle that you work for what you are paid. Along the line I have always encouraged people that work with me to do the same. But my becoming the head of department and a medical director of a hospital gave me better opportunity to impact that idea into a lot of people. I want the people I left behind to continue providing the best of care for the people of Lagos State. Health is a very sensitive and important area. So everybody should work as a team and partners in progress. And collectively things will improve. It is only when all of them remain focused, pledge, rededicate and recommit themselves to their duties that we would have a better health delivery in Lagos State.
Holding her head high
One thing I believe and I do advise the younger ones is that anything you are doing you need to do it right. If you are doctor and a consultant in a field, you need to go the whole length to acquire the knowledge required of you to be able to stand your ground. If you have knowledge about what you are doing, no matter where you find yourself, you will be able to hold your head high at any point in time because you know what you are talking about. If you don’t know what you are talking about and you don’t have enough knowledge on the subject matter it makes it difficult for you to be able to express yourself. For instance, I didn’t face any discrimination as a woman because I was well equipped to face the task ahead. As said earlier, anywhere I found myself I must put in my best, make sure I know what it takes for me to maintain that standard there. I have never at any point in time felt discriminated about.
Well, I am not retiring from my profession but I am just retiring from the civil service. Turning 60 is just natural. I feel great and don’t feel any difference from the way I did last year or year before. You grow old from your childhood to a certain age and the stipulated time for civil servants is 60 I have to leave. I am happy to retire and I pray that I would have more than enough time to engage myself in the next couple of years.
I went to Russia at age 20 and by the time I turned 21, I was already at medical school. I have always seen myself as a book person. I wasn’t a make-up person and just lived a normal life. I met my husband as a student in Russia and just realized that the chemistry just jellied. We got married after my studies and it has been a wonderful experience.
It has been a life filled with aspirations and at the end of the day I achieved all. I didn’t set out to be a medical doctor but God used the panel at the screening center to direct my path. I started and ended well by reaching the peak of my career. And looking at my life trajectory I can see the hand of God all the way. I have been guarded by God. I began a career in the Lagos Civil service as a medical officer II and by the special grace of God I reached the peak.