Like many of the Windrush generation, my mother, Etta Khwaja, who has died aged 88, went to Britain to train to be a nurse. She became a deputy headteacher and a long-serving community leader in Haringey, north London.
Born in Lititz in St Elizabeth parish, Jamaica, to Vera (nee Stephenson) and William Parchment, both smallholder farmers, Etta left home in 1954 as a 20-year-old and in London met and married, in 1955, Wazir Khwaja. Etta worked initially as a nurse, and she and her husband went on to have eight children.
In 1971, Wazir suffered a stroke, which left him permanently disabled and unable to work. As the main breadwinner, Etta took jobs in various Haringey schools in north London, first as a playground supervisor and as a teaching assistant. She then trained as a teacher at the College of All Saints, Tottenham (which merged with Middlesex Polytechnic), and began teaching in 1979. From 1986 until her retirement in 1998, she was deputy headteacher of Lordship Lane primary school in Tottenham.
Etta made a significant contribution to race equality in Haringey over many years and was the leading light in the Haringey Race Equality Council. As one of her NUT colleagues said, “She consistently challenged tyranny, racism, and the ill-thought-out ideas so often foisted upon schools. She was a committed advocate for the multicultural approach to education well before this became the norm in Haringey. She had a major influence on Haringey council and on all Haringey schools, not just her own.”
Etta was the first woman to be elected as the chair of the West Indian Leadership Council, and was instrumental in setting up the West Indian Cultural Centre, in Wood Green, which was opened by Bernie Grant MP in 1987. She was the education officer for the Association of Jamaicans (UK) Trust, and the vice-chair of the Caribbean Teachers’ Association.
Etta Khwaja with Bernie Grant, MP for Tottenham, at the opening of the West Indian Cultural Centre, Wood Green, in November 1987. Photograph: Bernie Grant Archive/Sharon Grant
In 1991, Etta started to send books and teaching resources to schools in St Elizabeth. But she also wanted to create a public library there. Etta successfully petitioned the Alpart bauxite mining company for a site and building and she provided 5,000 books. The library opened in Nain in 1997 with a collection named in honour of her mother.
She continued her interest in health matters, through her work with the Patient and Public Involvement in Health forum for Haringey. She prepared a paper to discuss the health and safety of bauxite mining company workers, which was presented at the Jamaica Diaspora Conference held in Jamaica by the sponsored delegate of the Association of Jamaicans (UK) Trust. Whatever she was involved in, Etta worked tirelessly to advance the education and health opportunities and the working conditions of others both in the UK and at home in Jamaica.
As the secretary for the Mary Seacole Memorial Association from 1998 to 2005, Etta helped to commission a statue of Mary Seacole for St Thomas’ hospital, London, which was unveiled in 2016.
Wazir died in 1988. Etta is survived by six of her children, Elaine, Barbara, John, Diana, Peter and me. Two children, James and Brenda, predeceased her.