London lives: the Ghanaian doctor
Charlie Easmon‘s great grandfather was one of London‘s first black doctors; his father, also a doctor, set up a medical school back in Ghana. Now he‘s followed in their footsteps with his own Harley Street practice
Kitted out in formal Victorian top hat and tails, Dr John Ferrel Easmon stares out from a black-and-white photo that shows his graduation from University College Hospital, Bloomsbury, in 1879. There is nothing unusual about this photo – apart from the fact Dr Easmon is black. ‘We think he was probably the first black doctor at UCH,’ says 45-year-old Charlie Easmon, Ferrel Easmon’s great grandson, and himself a doctor in Harley Street where he set up his own practice in 2002.
Born in Sekondi in Ghana in 1961, Easmon,who now lives in Clapham with his Scottish wife and six-year-old son Byron, comes from a distinguished line of Ghanaian doctors – after his great grandfather, his father was the second African to become a member of the Royal College of Surgeons, returning to Ghana to set up a medical school. His parents separated soon after he was born and when Easmon was two years old he left Ghana with his mother, a nurse, who hoped to find work in Scotland (a common destination for Ghanaian nurses at the time). He was eventually sent to a Catholic boarding school in Dorset – the only black child out of 300 students – ‘it helped to develop my survival tactics,’ he says, ruefully. After this, he took up medicine at St George’s medical school in Tooting in 1979.
Easmon has vivid memories of being a student in south London in the early 1980s: ‘It was the real Wolfie Smith “Rooting for Tooting” era. I had a great time. We had fabulous parties. I was getting into punk and then the New Romantics and it didn’t matter if you were black, white, green, pink or yellow.’ He formed a (Bowie-inspired) band called The Drooges, and fondly remembers nights at the infamous Blitz club kitted out with sprayed silver hair. ‘I remember one night coming home from a party. I was really dressed up and sporting a lovely pair of Bowie tights. But I realised I had forgotten my key and had to walk back to the hospital where I’d left it. I walked across this rough council estate and a couple of skinheads started walking towards me. I thought: Oh no, this is trouble but I looked straight at them and said “Evening guys”, and they just nodded and walked by. I think they were so stunned to see a black guy in tights and sparkly hair they thought it was probably better to leave me alone.’
The ’80s was also a time of great upheaval in the black community, with the riots in Brixton and Broadwater Farm. Although he wasn’t politically active, Easmon remembers that London was a very different place back then if you were black. ‘I remember one day around 1981, going with my friend Milton to a pub in Hampstead. As soon as we stepped in the door the pub literally came to a standstill. You could hear a pin drop.’ He insists things have changed now.
Ghanaians had traditionally been part of the transient community of sailors around Docklands while, more recently, they have fled political oppression. However, the last decade has seen stability in his country of birth, making it possible for political refugees to come and go. Today, Ghanaians live across the whole of London, with concentrations around Dalston, Brixton and Lewisham. Easmon retains few Ghanaian traditions now, but he still has to respect his elders. ‘Any older relative we have to call “uncle” or “aunt”. Even when I got to the age of 30 and asked them if I could call them by their first name, I was told no! You must show respect to your elders and can’t argue back to them about things – even if they’re wrong.’
He mostly sees other Ghanaians at family events such as weddings, which are big celebrations. ‘There’s the highlife music [one of the oldest African dance music styles]; men drink whisky and the women dress fabulously.’ And of course there’s the food. Easmon’s favourite fare includes jollof rice (an orange-flavoured rice cooked with tomato sauce and vegetables), red-red (fried plantain and bean sauce), and peanut stew. He particularly recommends the Gold Coast restaurant in South Norwood, which does a mean chichinga (type of kebab).
Easmon has returned to Ghana once, in 1983 and a period of work doing medical evacuations has taken him to other African countries – including a flying visit to Nairobi where he treated a man who had been gored by an elephant. In 1996 he also helped set up a refugee camp in Rwanda. ‘It was one of the most worthwhile things I’ve done.’
These days, although his efforts are concentrated on his Harley Street practice, Easmon is keen to retain his Ghanaian roots. ‘We’d like Byron to be aware of both sides of his heritage. I’d like to take him to visit Ghana one day.’
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