• September 21st, 2020

A Committed Life


By Catherine Sasman Annchen Parkhouse is synonymous with the development of Namibia's health-care system and, at the age of 67, she has no plans to slow down. WINDHOEK "My first love was always primary health-care," says Annchen Parkhouse from her private clinic, Health 4 You, at Wernhil. "I was never a good hospital nurse. I didn't like the blood and guts." After 47 years of working as a nurse in varying categories, Parkhouse opened the clinic with Thers Marais in 2005. The two were then respectively aged 65 and 67. "We have no plans to retire," says Parkhouse. "We have decided to give ourselves five years at this clinic, after which we will evaluate ourselves and see if we are still fit for the job." In the meantime, the team will consider finding a younger person "with the same values and commitment to nursing and the community" to be trained to take over. But this is her last stop, says Parkhouse, who opened the clinic after selling off the nine Namibia Health Clinics she started in 1993. "Sister Marais and I worked as primary health-care nurses at these clinics until I sold it because we did not fit in with the new management. According to them, we were too old and we didn't like their ethics. We then decided that we had been long enough in this game to go on our own." Parkhouse started her nursing career in 1960 at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town, South Africa. At the end of that year, her parents, originally from Klerksdorp, moved to Windhoek, where her mother, Etta Bremer, became the first matron at the State Hospital. It was there that the young Parkhouse, under her mother's wing, completed her training in 1963 - one of the first three nurses to do so there. "I worked as a staff nurse, a ward sister and then as a relief staff member," she recalls. "My mother shunted me around because she was the chief nursing officer." This experience took Parkhouse to all four corners of the country at the state's expense. "It was an excellent and magic experience that you cannot replace with book knowledge. We were often alone at a clinic, without a doctor, and in those days there were no telephones. We were only able to make radio contact once a day. But, through this experience I learned the ropes of the trade." In 1966 she was channelled to the Oshakati State Hospital, which had not yet opened at the time, to assist with the training of the first group of nurses in the north. The 35 trainees arrived, says Parkhouse, all with their Standard 6 (Grade 8) certificates in brown manila envelopes. This was after permission was obtained from the then South African Nurses' Council to train enrolled nurses with Standard 6. The qualification was a Standard 8 (Grade 10). The trainees didn't have any shoes, says Parkhouse, and so everyone at the hospital worked barefoot. "When we took the first photographs of the trainees, they stood with their feet in a drain so that their feet wouldn't show on the photos," she laughs. The women - 36 including Parkhouse - took over the hospital building "ward for ward", cleaning up the builders' rubble, hanging curtains, screwing beds together, screwing on the handles of bedside lockers, with an elderly nurse supervising the process. The hospital was officially opened in July 1966 by the then Administrator-General, Wennie du Plessis, and Chief Uushona Shiimi making a speech in tow. The trainee nurses served as waitresses for the VIPs "in their grand red uniforms, white aprons and caps". On 1 August that year, the hospital received its first patient. "I was on night duty with the first group of night nurses, and it was terrible to be with one patient from seven in the evening until seven the next morning," Parkhouse relates. The following year, Parkhouse was transferred to Gobabis, and at the end of 1967 she went to Durban to do a course in midwifery, which she completed in 1968. She then returned to the old South-West Africa and worked as a permanent night-duty nurse in the maternity ward of the State Hospital for the next 18 months. "My mother said, 'Listen, if you don't do something with your life, you will end up here as an old maid'." She then decided to spread her wings and registered with the British Nursing Council in 1970, and worked at the Hammer Smith Hospital, an old establishment of about 250 years. There, she joined another South African nurse - "I then still had South African citizenship" - with other nurses from the Commonwealth countries such as Jamaica, India, Pakistan and Nigeria that gravitated to London because they had to register with the British Medical Council at the time. "We were highly sought after because we knew how to work, and we worked." At one stage the two South African nurses found themselves working alone when the other nurses went on a strike. The South African Nursing Act forbade such industrial action and the two did not want that to be held against them on their return to their country. While in London, Parkhouse met the love of her life, the British immigrant to South Africa, Tim Parkhouse, whom she later divorced after 18 years of marriage. They got married in Windhoek, and returned to live in Johannesburg at the end of 1971, where her husband worked at Barclay's Bank. There, she did a course in community health-care, or public health-care as it was called then, at the Witwatersrand Technical College. "But I cried non-stop. I was not homesick, but I wanted to come back to this country." And so, by the end of 1971, the young couple moved to Windhoek. Parkhouse then started working as a community health-care nurse in Katutura. "In those days we had to have a permit as whites to enter Katutura," she says. "I had to go to the municipal offices at the start of every month to renew my permit." She was only allowed to be in Katutura from eight in the morning until five in the afternoon. On the occasions when she had to work on Saturdays and Sundays, she had to get a special clearance to enter the township, but then it was limited from one o'clock until five in the afternoon. "All the years I did inspection in Rehoboth, I was only allowed to eat in the kitchen of the hotel I visited, because no whites were allowed in the hotel," she remembers. "But we lived with that until 1978." That year marked elections for Namibia's first-ever multi-tiered government, allowing non-whites to vote for the first time. "Things changed radically then," she relates. "The Administrator-General, Theunis Steyn, put one big red line through all the apartheid legislation. In one day we became a so-called integrated society. It was an enormous culture shock to all, and there was a great rebellion among the white conservatives. They went hysterical. It was a very interesting time of our lives." Then working as the chief matron at the State Hospital complex in Windhoek, she approached Steyn and told him to equalize the salaries of all nurses across the colour board. "I told him that if he wanted to win the election, then he'd have to equalize the salaries because we had the same training and the same responsibilities and yet there were these huge discrepancies in salaries. Then, the non-white nurses did not have any pension fund or anything." The nurses' salaries were equalized that year, which caused a "huge disaster for the rest of the country and other civil servants" because then everyone demanded equal pay for the same qualifications. "I had opened a beehive, and I can assure you that made me highly unpopular," says Parkhouse. And at the end of 1978, the first black matrons were appointed. "And then I was labelled a kafferboetie, a communist and a Swapo member by conservative whites." In 1979 she was removed from her position as chief matron with a letter from Eben van Zyl, the then member of the Legislative Assembly for Health, and was told to report to the headquarters of the Directorate for Health. "According to the letter, I had become an 'embarrassment' to the hospital." The other "ungodly and unforgivable" thing she did, says Parkhouse, was when she adopted a black child - Fritz, now 34. The adoption proceedings were only concluded after five years, because the white social workers did not want to handle the case. A man was then sent from Johannesburg to deal with the matter. "This man interviewed everyone who had ever worked with me or knew me, my husband and mother, and even Fritz," she recalls. "We got the most terrible letters from members of the AWB (Afrikaner Broederbond) and true blue nationalists. But we weathered the storm that broke loose all over us." She then went on to work for a year for the Private Foundation, which she started with Zed Ngavirue and Charles Truebody. After that stint, she again entered government services, working in the community development department of the Ministry of Health for another two-and-a-half years. "And then I did a very stupid thing. I entered politics as a DTA candidate for the 1989 elections." That year she spent most of her time in the north, canvassing votes for the DTA. "It was a fantastic period, not to be missed but never to be repeated," she quips. She ended up as the 22nd candidate on the party list and, because the DTA got 21 seats in Parliament, just barely missed the chance to sit in Parliament. But that was not where her interest was. At the beginning of 1990 she resigned from active politics and took up the position of the first hospital administrator of Medi-City Clinic for the next three years. She later formed MedRescue, and got involved in the building of the Rhino Park Clinic, and still later established her own line of clinics, the Namibia Health Clinics. In 2004, her book Ons mense se gesondheid (Our Health, in the English version), was published. Her regular radio programme on NBC radio is based on the book, which deals with primary health-care in layman's language. She is currently working with the GIPF to start another radio series for the elderly, and will make contributions to the GIPF quarterly newsletter. "Primary health-care is the future, because no government can afford secondary and tertiary health-care at all levels," she says. "We've got to get back to basics and keep people healthy. The pillars of a healthy nation are hygiene, clean water, sanitation, proper housing and healthy lifestyles. We have got to get that right."
New Era Reporter
2007-04-25 00:00:00 | 13 years ago

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