Interview with Annabel Sowemimo

Orwell Prize nominated writer on decolonising medicine, being inspired by her father and her experiences working as a sexual and reproductive health registrar in the NHS

July 6, 2023
Source: Tom Trevatt

Annabel Sowemimo is a doctor, academic, activist and writer. A part-time PhD student and Harold Moody scholar at King’s College London, her research draws on her experiences as a sexual and reproductive health registrar working in the NHS. Her first book, Divided: Racism, Medicine and Why We Need to Decolonise Healthcare, was recently shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for political writing.

Where were you born?
The Royal Free Hospital in north-west London. Later, I trained there as a medical student, and I used to bump into my family members attending their hospital appointments all the time. My grandma was also a nursing auxiliary at the Royal Free in the 1950s after she migrated from Nigeria. She passed away there in 2022, and it was also where my grandad died. I often say that while London is a huge city, many of us have a small village mentality and stay within our own community growing up.

How has this shaped who you are?
North-west London feels like home for me. My childhood began in the inner city, and then we moved to the suburbs. I would visit friends who lived in these huge mansions one day, and then go with my nana to buy ingredients for Yoruba food in Dalston market the next. This diversity of experience, and the people I have met, has allowed me to cultivate relationships with people that have very different upbringings and cultural backgrounds to myself.

Tell us how your recent book, Divided, came about.
During lockdown, I started writing a column, Decolonising Healthcare, for, an independent platform for women and non-binary people of colour, which sadly just shut down. I had been writing for them for four years on anything from music reviews to opinion pieces. It enabled my work to get noticed, and I was fortunate to have my book pre-empted by the Wellcome Collection and Profile Books, which meant that a lot of the difficulties that new authors face when submitting their work to publishers was cut out. I think it shows the importance of supporting independent media. We were writing stories that simply could not find a voice elsewhere.

The book was written during the pandemic, how did that shape your writing?
Addressing the racial inequities in healthcare and racism within medicine has always been a driving force within my work; the pandemic simply made this discussion even more urgent. The first 20 clinicians or so who died due to Covid-19 were from racially marginalised backgrounds, and yet I felt many of my colleagues really had not considered how this had come to be. The magnitude of the lives lost during the pandemic meant that injustice and inequity were much more visible to many people who would have otherwise ignored the issue.

How does the book align with your PhD research?
I started writing my book a year or so before I started my PhD research at King’s, so while there are, of course, themes that run through all my work – race, science, bodily autonomy, medicalisation and doctor-patient relationships, to name a few – it is its own body of work. My PhD thesis is on the experiences of black women in Britain with fertility control. It is a piece of work that I think is long overdue, and that I felt compelled to undertake due to both my work in the NHS and with grassroots communities.

Alongside your clinical and academic work, you also run a charity – how do you balance all your commitments?
I would be lying if I didn’t say it is incredibly demanding. I have a phenomenal co-director at the Reproductive Justice Initiative (formerly Decolonising Contraception), and I have also had some wonderfully supportive friends. Anyone who has run a small charity knows how difficult it can be to focus on the work you wish to do when you have relatively little money. We have persevered for five years now, and I am so happy with what we have achieved.

You’ve been honest about the lack of easy answers to the questions you pose. Is change possible and how?
I love the Angela Davis quote “You have to act as if it were possible to change the world. And you have to do it all of the time.” I believe that writing Divided can help shift the narrative when it comes to healthcare. However, I am also conscious that sometimes we are fighting just to stand still and that sometimes you must mount a resistance so that you do not regress.

Tell us about someone you’ve always admired.
My dad. It is perhaps a cliché, but he is an incredible person. He has time for everyone, even those that are so incredibly different to him. He migrated to the UK from Nigeria aged 21 without any family, and despite the difficulties he experienced, he is such a bright and brilliant person. He has always let me be my full self, without judgement. I wish all children could have parents that allowed them to express their full selves.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
A tired and slightly frustrated one. Medicine is an exceptionally demanding course, but I never wanted to let my other interests suffer. I was part of the drama society, and I was president of Medsin, a global health society. On top of this, I was very sociable and was always out with friends. By stepping outside the spheres of most medical students, I think I always thought my medical training was lacking and we could do more to build well-rounded doctors. I think courses are changing, but the humanities have a lot to offer healthcare professionals; I would like to see them centred more in the curriculum.

What divided your life into a ‘before’ and ‘after’?
I had scoliosis surgery, which included spinal fusion, when I was 14. Until recently, I have shied away from speaking about it; but increasingly, I think it is important that I do. Since I was 14, I have experienced daily back pain, and I rarely even acknowledge to myself that perhaps I need to slow down. I think we are conditioned to persevere with chronic illness or disability, but that means the world fails to adapt and accommodate.


2008-11 medical anthropology (iBSc), UCL

2011-14 bachelor of medicine, bachelor of surgery, UCL

2016-18 MSc sexual and reproductive health, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

2017-present community sexual and reproductive health registrar, Haymarket Sexual Health

2017-present co-director, Reproductive Justice Initiative

2021-present PhD candidate in black women in Britain’s experience of fertility control methods, King’s College London

2021-present Harold Moody studentship, King’s College London

2022-present Member of the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Health (MFSRH)


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