I was born in Sapele, a port city in the Niger Delta of Nigeria. The images of my growing up include tractors hauling large hardwood logs from the surrounding forests to the waterfront and flotillas of logs tied into rafts, which were then navigated downstream, to be loaded onto ships that carried them to Europe.
Born into a large family, I grew up in an environment of caring and affection, one in which education for all of us, boys and girls, was of the utmost importance. Our parents, themselves educated, sent us to the best schools and provided the best teachers for us. We had uncles and cousins who had studied in Europe. We were surrounded by books, and it is no surprise that my younger brother, Dr. Joseph Okpaku, Sr., became a book publisher early in his career. There were many books on anatomy and midwifery in our house, as our mother was a midwife.
Our father loved music and played the organ. And although I was not allowed to play our organ because of fear that I might damage the pedals, I somehow managed to satisfy the curiosity I had for musical instruments. This interest carried through to the years I was in boarding school, where I played the recorder and was pianist at morning assemblies and musical plays staged by students in my years in medical school, where I was sometimes mistaken as a music student. Our father always said that “a home without music was not a home”. The result is that I, as well as a number of my siblings, have grand pianos in our homes and play frequently.
There were also several magazines available to us at home, including Psychology Today, which belonged to one of my uncles. With all this exposure, and with my mother and one of my aunts as midwives, and later, with my first cousin becoming a very well known young surgeon in Nigeria, I somehow knew, by age ten, that I would become a physician myself.
Growing up, we had a good number of mentors and role models, most important of them being our parents (my father was a civil servant), aunts and uncles (lawyers and politicians amongst them), teachers, close relatives and neighbors. They taught us hard work and diligence, self-confidence, good manners and courtesy in all circumstances, respect for our elders, generosity and magnanimity. They gave us a profound sense that there was nothing that we could not succeed at, if we worked hard to achieve our aims. This provided a deep sense of destiny, of family values and the strength inherent in a family that stands together.
As the first son in the family, I was the heir apparent. In our culture, this meant enormous responsibility, especially the knowledge that if anything happened to our parents I would have to take charge of the family’s well-being. This tradition profoundly shaped my sense of destiny and responsibility that has become a permanent part of my psyche and worldview.
After completing advanced secondary education in 1961, at one of the elite boarding schools in Nigeria, I was awarded several scholarships to study overseas. At the Independence of Nigeria from British rule in 1960, education was the foremost priority of the new government. Many foreign governments offered scholarships to Nigerians to study at their universities, as part of their diplomatic strategy to build close ties with the new nation, the most populous in sub-Saharan Africa.
One scholarship I received was to study music in Europe, and another to study medicine in Israel. So, in the summer of 1962, I left for Israel; to study at the Hadassah Medical School of Hebrew University. In those days, we knew little or nothing of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Israel we imagined was biblical. I was soon to experience the reality of conflict and the lessons of fortitude, human endurance and sacrifice on both sides, along with the plight of European émigrés and Palestinian refugees. I was particularly struck by the Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Memorial). The suffering of the Holocaust victims seemed beyond comprehension.
But somehow I enjoyed much of the time spent in Israel, especially my visits to the kibbutzim. I took every opportunity I could to spend time at the Givat Haim kibbutz, close to Nathanya. But the tension from the conflict was already palpable and not conducive to a relaxed academic experience with the freedom to mix with everyone and to come and go without fear of violence. Things were becoming quite tense, and they were to escalate to new heights a few years later.
I had always dreamed of studying at Edinburgh University, and when the opportunity came, I took it. WHO, which was sponsoring my scholarship, had promised me that they would support a transfer to Edinburgh University as long as it did not mean the loss of an academic year. But, to my surprise, they reneged on the commitment. I imagine that they presumed that without scholarship funds, I would be unable to go to Edinburgh. But we have been raised to rely on ourselves and to be prepared to work hard for our dreams. With the approval and blessing of my parents, I went to Edinburgh.
That summer, I worked as a nurse, sometimes doing three shifts in a row. On leaving Israel, I put all my money in a brown envelope, which I took out of my suitcase to show to customs officers at London Heathrow Airport. Somehow, I failed to put the envelope back in the suitcase. At the train station in London, a man pointed out to me that something was dropping out of my pocket. It was the envelope with all the money I had in the world.
When my train arrived in Edinburgh and I checked into the hall of residence, the first book I came across in the library was George Orwell’s, Down and Out In Paris and London. Barely a day in the United Kingdom, I knew exactly what Orwell meant, because I had already been there! The book had a chilling effect on me. Studying medicine at Edinburgh University was my dream come true and I enjoyed it, even though, WHO having failed to transfer my scholarship, I had to work while studying, in order to pay my way through medical school.
Psychiatry came late in my medical training. I was not really exposed to it until my fifth year in medical school. My prime interests remained sociology, psychology, music and traveling. I got married before graduation, and in order to care for my young family, I went to work three months ahead of my classmates. I served my medical internship under Professor J. Dulthie and my surgical internship under Sir Michael Woodruff, the Australian surgeon who, together with James A Ross, performed the first successful kidney transplant in the UK. I was also fortunate to work with Dr. Dugald Gardner, the pathologist. Dr. Gardner arranged an internship in immunology and hematology for me at the New York University Medical School, in the summer of 1966. Being a young African physician who could speak Yiddish in heavily Jewish New York City had its social appeal and fascination. The next summer I spent working with Dr. Gardner in London, where he had become head of the Kennedy Institute of Rheumatology.
It was time to choose a specialty. I was interested in many areas — neurosurgery, psychiatry, neurology, immunology and internal medicine, but I began to lean toward psychiatry.
The Chairman of Neurosurgery at Edinburgh offered me the position of Senior House Officer, but I declined. (My second son, Aubrey, is about to finish his residency in neurosurgery). I had a new baby (my first son, Anire, who himself has since become a plastic surgeon) and since internship in neurosurgery was particularly demanding, I did not want to combine that with raising a newborn. Instead, I took an offer as a Senior House Officer in Psychiatry at Guys Medical School Hospital in London. After one year, I began training in internal medicine.
Thereafter, for personal reasons, including the fact that many of my siblings were by now in the U.S. and I wanted to be near them, I moved to Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, on a National Institute of Mental Health fellowship, in a combined residency and social research program. There, I also earned a Doctorate of Philosophy in Social Welfare. I completed my residency in psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and then joined the faculty there as an Asst. Professor of Psychiatry.
From there I went on to Yale University as an Asst. Professor of Psychiatry, from 1984 to 1987, and thereafter to Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. I become Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Vanderbilt in 2003, and Professor of Psychiatry at Meharry Medical College, both in Nashville, Tennessee. In 2004 I accepted the position as Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at Meharry. I also built a successful private practice, the Centre for Health, Culture and Society, for which I serve as the Executive Director. The Centre seeks to promote cross-cultural interrelationships through shared knowledge and experience, and serves to advance my work in psychiatry, and cultural psychiatry.
I enjoy membership in several professional organizations, including the American Psychiatric Association and the Society for the Study of Psychiatry and Culture. This affords me enormous opportunities to share knowledge, information and professional experience. I particularly treasure being designated a Distinguished Life Fellow of the APA.
Looking back on my background, my upbringing, where I have been, studied, and worked, my worldview and my dreams for the future, I realize that I am a sort of case study in cultural psychiatry myself. I have traveled to many parts of the world, and remain committed to, and fascinated by, the challenges and opportunities posed by the inter-relationships between peoples and cultures under a singular umbrella of a common humanity.
My personal interests remain the continued well-being and success of my extended family, the search for solutions to the challenges that face humanity, in particular my fellow-Africans at home and abroad, including the African Diaspora, and how to contribute to making the world a slightly better place, by using my training and skills as a physician and a psychiatrist.
Professionally, I remain keenly interested in continuing work and research in the areas of culture and psychiatry, medicine and the humanities, and quality of life issues. In this regard, I plan in particular, to continue work in the areas of the elimination of health disparities, global psychiatry, and how to promote the relevance of cultural psychiatry in mitigating current and future global socio-political conflict and crises, and post-conflict reconciliation and reconstruction.
In this last part, I will be providing a cultural psychiatrist’s input to a subject already being addressed by my younger brother, Dr. Joseph Okpaku, Sr. from his vantage point as an expert in global strategic and political issues, governance, competitive development, and knowledge and information technology. The prospect of such family collaboration is exciting. We also plan to collaborate in addressing the challenge of HIV/AIDS, a subject in which both of us have published, again from the vantage point of two different perspectives.
I have had the opportunity to write and edit a number of books, including Sex, Orgasm and Depression and Their Interrelationship in a Changing Society, Clinical Methods in Transcultural Psychiatry (editor) and Mental Health in Africa and America Today (editor). I have lectured nationally and internationally, and published many professional and academic papers.
Above all, I maintain my keen interests in the arts and the humanities (my youngest son, Temisan, is an artist), and spend several hours each week playing the piano, as well as attending concerts and theater performances whenever possible.
July 5, 2007