Dr. Boluwaji Ogunyemi may have been born in Nigeria, but St. John’s will always be his home
When Boluwaji Ogunyemi was just a kid playing basketball with friends in his cul-de-sac, he didn’t have much reason to think about things that made him different. That would come later, in high school, but in his family’s neighbourhood in the west end of St. John’s, his life revolved around sports, family, and the park.
“None of that had anything to do with skin colour,” Ogunyemi says. “I was barely conscious of it.”
While news headlines inundate us every day with stories about the fallout from systemic racism, it’s a relief to hear Ogunyemi talk about growing up in St. John’s in a way that sounds enviable.
“I had a great childhood growing up here, it’s walkable, super safe — back then we didn’t used to lock our doors,” Ogunyemi says. He worked hard in school and played a lot of sports in that cul-de-sac — street hockey, basketball — every weeknight, often for hours.
Ogunyemi, is now a doctor of many hats: a dermatologist, a clinical assistant professor of medicine at Memorial University, as well as the assistant dean of social accountability, a role he helped create. But he is also, perhaps above all, a Newfoundlander, who has a familiar story about longing for home.
“Even during undergrad (in Ontario), I went home every Christmas,” Ogunyemi says. “I was very connected.” When it came time to choose his field, he made sure to choose a field, dermatology, that would all but guarantee he would be in demand everywhere, including his home province.
Ogunyemi arrived in Newfoundland when he was just three-years-old, when his father, a neurologist who specialized in epilepsy, accepted a job offer in Newfoundland. Ogunyemi’s family had moved briefly to California from Lagos, Nigeria, but they would end up calling St. John’s home for the next three decades.
“I think most people consider me a Newfoundlander,” Ogunyemi says, “not a newcomer.” He says he straddles both worlds. In a thoughtful piece for the New York Times, Ogunyemi told the story of a fellow pre-med undergrad who, in front of a group of their friends, called out Ogunyemi for supposedly “acting white” after earning a high exam grade.
“Seventy-six!” a friend proclaimed, appearing satisfied. “Eighty” from my roommate. “Seventy-four” from another. “Seventy-two,” lamented another. Then I nervously stepped up to enter my login. “Ninety-four!” I declared in relief. Most of the others donned looks of approval or surprise, while one, an Indo-Canadian business student, was notably shocked. “Are you trying to be white, Bolu?!” he jeered. The others laughed boisterously at the question.
Later, in British Columbia, he turned a corner to overhear two other residents muttering about another doctor, a “Newfie,” who’d done something they’d disagreed with.
Ogunyemi’s new role, as assistant dean of social accountability, puts him front and centre in examining Memorial’s faculty of medicine’s policies for equity, diversity, and community outreach. These are vital skills in a province that’s overwhelmingly white, where the centre of political power is far removed, both geographically and culturally, from many of its citizens, most prominently, indigenous groups in rural Labrador.
Ogunyemi explains this new effort means the medical school, both in teaching physicians and researchers, and in clinical care and research, “should maximally improve the health of the populations we serve.” And recognize folks who are underserved.
“They (marginalized folks, remote communities, indigenous populations) can have specific health needs,” Ogunyemi says. Health care must orient itself to address that, for instance, by focusing university research on studying diseases that are major problems among the local communities.
“We’re accountable to society,” he says. “The only reason the medical school exists is to serve its community.”
Ogunyemi often puts that service into action, with trips to Labrador City and Natuashish. In Natuashish, a fly-in only community of about 900, Ogunyemi says there’s a problem with paediatric eczema and going to see patients in person is important.
His work in Labrador often crosses into training doctors and nurses in some of the insights required to sensitively treat indigenous patients, as well as settlers and non-settlers. As a Canadian of Nigerian descent, Ogunyemi is familiar with the outfall of colonialism because, like indigenous people in Labrador, Nigerians were also colonised. As a result, he says, “racism towards those folks is more pronounced. They have different sets of values.” It’s one thing to read about it, he says, but it’s another to be raised in a culture that has different foods and ideas about living.
Ogunyemi is an optimist. He describes himself as being naturally affable, outgoing.
“You’ll have the occasional ignorant racial comment,” he says, but it seems he rarely felt alone. His brother was a year ahead in school, which has its advantages. “You’re not the only person of colour.
“Sometimes it’s a burden to be an ambassador,” he says, “For some people maybe I was the only black person they knew.”
Being “hypervisible,” being black in a white place, does initiate interactions and questions.
“A lot of patients ask, ‘Do you like it here?’ I don’t remember anything ‘not’ in Newfoundland,” Ogunyemi says. “I don’t have anything to compare it to!”
Ogunyemi calls his mother a serial entrepreneur.
“She started a number of businesses,” he says. “A lot of immigrants will use their experience and their culture and bring that to Atlantic Canada and other places.” For his mom, that idea was to bring in afro-textured hair products to the province. “Just think about 1990 Newfoundland,” Ogunyemi says, “there’s not a lot of black-women’s salons.”
When we discuss what Newfoundland could be doing to recruit and retain recent immigrants to the province, Ogunyemi says on some level there’s not much you can do to improve retention. There will always be recent immigrants attracted to larger centres in Ontario or Alberta. They will always be in search of community and job opportunities. He says the local Nigerian community in Newfoundland is growing and making its presence known and this will undoubtedly help.
One of the pillars of retention, he says, is “a long-term commitment to anti-racism,” because no one wants to move only to experience discrimination. Another pillar is making jobs here, especially for spouses, who may not have been recruited by large companies or the university.
Ogunyemi says the barrier to entry for new immigrants is lower now than it once was. You can set up a shop or restaurant at the St. John’s Farmer’s Market for relatively little money, instead of having to buy or rent expensive storefronts. This helps improve the immigrant experience, he says.
“We have many opportunities we didn’t foresee when we came here 31 years ago,” Ogunyemi says. That’s one reason he moved back, with his partner, and is now raising a child here.
But the most important piece in the puzzle of why he chose to return to Newfoundland to practice, instead of choosing a bigger city, seems to be the same reason most Newfoundlanders seek to return home: the familiarity and openness of this community.
“Oh, you went to school with my daughter, or my cousin,” Ogunyemi’s patients will tell him. “I’ve had some of my teachers come in,” he says, “that’s nice.” Interacting with this community every day, he says, brings back old memories. “For me you can’t get that anywhere else.”