Inspirational Portsmouth community leader discusses her achievements, racism and Black Lives Matter

Delving through the archives of The News, there are many articles about Marie Costa describing her variously as ‘formidable’, inspirational’, and ‘a doer’.

Monday, 15th June 2020, 5:04 pm
Updated Tuesday, 16th June 2020, 11:22 am

There’s even a letter from a reader praising her ‘magnificent’ cooking for a fundraising event.

It is very likely you will have heard of Marie, she is part of the cultural fabric of Portsmouth, where she has worked as a nurse, teacher, carer, businesswoman, university governor and community volunteer since the 1960s.

Marie’s achievements on behalf of the black and ethnic minority communities in the city are huge.

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Marie Costa on Southsea Common. Picture: Habibur Rahman

In the early 1990s she became chairwoman of the Portsmouth and South-East Hampshire Multicultural Group, which went on to establish successful multicultural festivals in Southsea every year.

In 1996 she founded the Portsmouth African Women’s Forum, which is still going strong.

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In 2007 she led the commemoration in the city of the bicentenary of the abolition of slavery, and in 2018 the Mandela 100 community project. Last year she played a leading role in setting up The Windrush Generation Exhibition at Portsmouth Central Library.

Marie Costa on the day she was made a Fellow of the University of Portsmouth.

And there is her ongoing role in campaigning to end female genital mutilation (FGM) in the African community. Oh, and she's also a founding member of the Africapella Choir which keeps alive African folk songs.

In 2018 she was made a fellow of the University of Portsmouth for her community work.

It's an exhaustive list, and it only contains a few of the highlights.

The 81-year-old laughs when I reel them off and says: ‘I have been on so many committees and chaired so many organisations, and I’m pleased I did. I look back on my life and see that I was so het-up and ready to fight anybody, but I had to.

Marie Costa with her children Anne-Marie and Victor in the 1970s.

‘But things are easier for the ethnic minorities in Portsmouth now because we paved the way for young people. There is legislation in place, people are now accountable.

‘My main grudge was people making decisions for us and telling us afterwards that we were going to be part of it. Sometimes they used us to tick boxes. I knew we had to be involved, to shape decisions.’

Born in Nigeria, Marie came to England in 1957 aged 18 to study nursing at Blackburn Royal Infirmary.

‘I was completely on my own’, she recalls. ‘I knew one person from my tribal area. They were studying medicine in London and they picked me up from Heathrow but the next day I went up to Blackburn alone.

‘I was used to being away from my parents because I had been at convent boarding school but coming to England was a different experience altogether. I knew I would not be going home, I would not be able to speak to my parents, the weather was awful and I didn’t have any friends.’

One thing struck her instantly.

‘It was so cold!’, she laughs. ‘When you have lived all your life in the tropics no one can prepare you for it. It was always foggy back then. The houses were all the same, everywhere was dark. I was shivering all the time and it was September. I had no coat, just a cardigan.’

After general nursing training, Marie specialised in midwifery and moved to Sunderland where she married and had two children, Victor and Anne-Marie, now 56 and 57.

When her marriage ended she moved, as a single mother, down to Portsmouth where she took a job as a community midwife attached to the GP unit at St Mary’s Hospital, Milton, in 1969.

The family were given a maisonette in Somers Town because she was a key worker. She says: ‘I loved it. The children had their own bedroom and they played with all the other children in the block with no problems.

‘Everyone knew I was a nurse and would come to me for advice. For me there was no racial tension.’

Her first experience of it in Portsmouth came on her first day at St Mary’s. She says: ‘A very stern old midwife said to me, “do you know you are the first black midwife we’ve had!” I said nothing in reply because I was so shocked. I wondered what she meant – that I should behave myself? Was she questioning whether I was properly qualified? But I always got on with the patients, nurses and doctors. They were very kind.’

Victor and Anne-Marie joined St John’s Cathedral School in Landport. Marie was horrified when Victor brought home his first school report in which his teacher had labelled him ‘backward’. ‘I was furious’, says Marie. ‘By the time he went to school I had taught him to read and write his name and suddenly he was backwards? I marched to the school and asked them what they meant by that. They told me he messed about in class and did not work.

‘When I pushed my son on it he admitted that a boy he sat next to was calling him names, like Blackie, and he would mess around with him and his gang so that he would not get called names by the other children.’

Marie had Victor moved and he went on to become head boy and passed his 11 plus, enabling him to go to St John’s College.

She is fiercely proud of her children but recalls: 'Later they told me they experienced racism throughout school but they didn’t tell me at the time because they did not want to upset me. ‘It makes me sad to think they went through all that without me knowing. They wanted to protect me.’

Following a history degree in the 1970s at what was then Portsmouth Polytechnic, Marie trained to be a teacher. About that time she also began volunteering as a befriender to elderly people – doing household chores, shopping, or simply talking with them.

And after becoming chairwoman of the Portsmouth and South East Hampshire Multicultural Group in the early ’90s, she realised more needed to be done to unite African women in the city.

She says: ‘There were a few African women but we were scattered around, so we did not meet. Our children did not have any positive images of African female role models. Our children needed to see that we were professional women.’

Portsmouth African Women’s Forum was born. The members found companionship and, in turn, they have educated the community about their culture.

She says: ‘Our aim at the beginning was to get everyone together to talk, eat, laugh loudly, discuss problems with schools, social services, to provide support to each other.

‘They were things that women at home in Africa would have done – help to bring up children, chastise them if we had to. We had fun. But I knew it would not last if it was just based on social chit chat.’

The group became involved in Black History Month. They secured funding to put on events to share their music, fashion, and food in schools across the city.

She says: ‘It was so successful but, my god, it was hard work.’

The Portsmouth African Women’s Forum grew and in 2007 Marie secured funding of more than £80,000 to commemorate the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade.

By this time Marie had left teaching and was running a nursing home but still managed to organise many events. The commemorations had a profound impact on her.

On a research trip, 24 African and Caribbean Portsmouth residents visited slave museums in Hull, Liverpool and Bristol. She says: ‘We learned so much, and we wept so much. I don’t know if there was anyone there who didn’t shed a tear. There was complete silence on the coach home. It was emotionally draining.’

Marie believes everyone should know Britain’s slave trade history and that the Black Lives Matter movement is vital.

'When I was a history teacher we had one lesson of 45 minutes on the slave trade’, she says, incredulously. ‘Twenty million Africans were taken from the west African coast to work in the slave trade. Most of that was by Britain and many died en route.

‘The statues should have encompassed those who were enslaved, side by side. I can see why people want to bring them down', says Marie. 'I abhor violence but why wasn’t the Bristol statue put in a museum long ago?

‘As an historian, I don’t think history should be destroyed but it should be taught in context. Colston was a philanthropist, but this was a man who traded in slavery. It [the statue] should be among the artefacts, the maps. A museum is the right place for him. ‘

And, having seen the video of the killing of George Floyd which sparked the protests, Marie says: ‘I can’t believe this is allowed to continue in a country that’s supposed to be democratic. The richest country in the world. They treat people, mostly people of colour, like animals.

‘What I like about it (Black Lives Matter movement) is that it has united people of all colours and ethnicities around the world. They are protesting together and making their voices heard. I hope good will come of it.’

Having done so much to promote inter-cultural understanding, Marie’s is a voice we should all listen to.