Mbeke Blog

Mbeke Blog

Month: November 2017

The Black Expat Stories – Conversations in Cameroon

I stood on the corner watching the women carry their baskets up the hill. I had long admired the straight back mena dn women who could carry things on their heads, leaving both of their hands free. The first month of the volunteer position in Cameroon was over and we were moving to a new village today.

Sitting in my chair in Catford, I had been waiting for something to happen. Working with homeless young people and responding to complaints about loud music and disruptive arguing was not what life was supposed to be about. A young man had moved in with the speaker boxes from his sound system.  The boxes were as big as the wardrobes we provided and his room went from being 24 by 20, with lots of floor space to 6×4 available floor space. The complaints came in thick and fast and those meetings where I at twenty-one, had to tell him at seventeen, not to play the boxes in the house or in the street, became more and more hilarious. Then he dared to ask if I would go out with him. After all, he fancied me and age was nothing but a number.  I understood why they had thought I was too young to be recruited for such a ‘responsible role’.

Three months of voluntary work in West Africa sounded great. I had to be fit and healthy as the role involved lots of walking.  Whatever my state of health was, it sure was not going to improve sitting around in the office. I asked the management committee for three months of unpaid leave, making sure that the rent and bills were paid up before I left.  The voluntary sector of the 1980s was so cool and off to Cameroun I went.

The group of women stopped at the top of the hill. They were sweating and took the baskets and bags from off the top of their heads.

‘Are you waiting for your parents?’  they asked me

‘No. Just waiting for friends.’ I answered

‘Which part of Cameroun are you from?’ they enquired

‘I am not from Cameroun’, I responded

‘So which part of Africa are you from?’. Their look of concern was funny and endearing at the same time.

‘I am not from Africa…. well not born here’.  I could feel myself stumbling.  They looked at each other. Puzzled.

As I had walked through Goldsmiths college that day wearing my new Kaba and slit from Ghana, a white man had asked me the same question.  In the time I had thought about how to answer him, he had stabbed me with Well I am from Zimbabwe so I am more African than you. I had crashed to the floor but risen as quickly. The wound had taken some time to heal though.

‘So where are you from?’ they asked. More concerned and a little impatient now.

‘I am from…I am from Jamaica’, I blurted out. I made a decision to say Jamaica today.

‘Jamaica?’  they asked repeating the name quietly. It was not familiar to them.

‘Where is that?’, they asked and I wondered if it was my accent.  They were saying various versions of Jamaica.

You are African! They confirmed. ‘Where is Ja…may…kah? In their world, life was simple and all black people were from Africa. The oldest known body confirms this.

‘The Caribbean!’  was the answer I gave and this was met with more puzzled looks. I so wished the car would turn up

‘Where is this place?’ They asked one after the other.

‘Do you know Bob Marley?’ I asked as a last resort. I assumed that if people didn’t know Jamaica, they would certainly know Bob Marley.

They all laughed. ‘ Yes. He brings us reggae music.  We like to dance to this.’  they all smiled. I liked the term ‘he brings us’.  They still needed their question answered.

‘So how did you get there…to this Ja,,,may..kah place ?

I looked at their concerned faces for this young African girl who they thought should be home with her husband or family.  I wanted to say something that I hoped they would know.

‘Slavery’, I said quietly. It was a word that could never be empowering. I didn’t even know if it was true.  The staistics showed that most African people arrived in the Caribbean through the Atlantic slave trade. Not all though.

‘Slavry! What is that?’, they asked.  This was so much harder that I had thought it would be!

‘White people took African people to work for free in other countries’ was the simplest way I could explain this antisocial and greatly economic system. It was complex and left scars on the taken and the takers.

‘Why did they do that?,’ was the obvious follow up question. Why does one group use Christianity to justify 4-500 years of enslavement of another group of people and then systematically reduce the majority of the world’s views of that group to a list of negative nouns that many spend their life trying to redress? I looked at the faces of these women who were busy trying to get this young girl to her home.

‘Are you all married?’,  I asked. I needed to change the subject.  I realised how much I had taken for granted in my previous conversations. The reality was that these were not simple concepts or ideas.

‘Yes we are all married.  I am the second wife, she is a third wife and she is a second wife too’, said the tallest of the three women. She pointed to the other two women as she spoke.

‘What is that like?’  I had to ask.  I knew men who had girlfriends in the UK and in Jamaica. Those relationships were fluid though and although the women sometimes knew they had signed up for relationships where they would be sharing their partner, others did not.  A past relationship came to mind when a man I was dating, had no time to respond to messages from exceptional  me and after week three, when I called him out, he told me ‘I was quick’. He had expected me to hang around and just be there for when he was ready to show up.

‘It’s not good. The men have favourites’. They looked at each other and continued.  It was safe as I was a stranger from a place Bob Marley had come from. I had read about polygyny.  It is where a man can take more than one wife.  I had also read about polyandry and liked that more. After all, the idea of having more than one husband was somewhat appealing and I had already figured out at 21 that everything could not come from one person.

‘What do you mean?’ I asked. I shared the little knowledge that I had.’ Do you all get a home, food, clothes and school fees for the children?’

‘Yes, yes! That is easy for he has money!’. They sighed

‘What is missing then?’ the curious and naive twenty-five-year-old me asked.

‘Many of these men do not spend time with you when you are no longer the new wife.  We feel it as our bodies change and we become older.  Each new wife is younger and younger’.

The main speaker signed and looked out to the hills ahead. I had not thought that this system of legal sharing would also bring preferential treatment and imparity.

‘Hey!’ one of the women exclaimed as the other spoke these words. She had been very quiet up to then. She threw her hands and head up to the sky and hugged her stomach, bending over.  I watched in silence. This looked like too much pain for her alone to be carrying.

‘She is pregnant again’, one of the women said. ‘It is the second time her husband has slept with her this year and we are in March already. A woman has needs beyond clothes, a house, school fees and dresses’.

I nodded my head. I didn’t know what to say

‘You western women. You always ask us about the same things. Do you think we do not have feelings and suffer from loneliness?’

I had not thought.  I had just wanted to make conversation. To change the subject. The car pulled up. I turned to the women who had already positioned the baskets back on their heads. We had not exchanged names. They continued on their journey. Angela Davis had spoken of her experience in Sudan. The women had said to her that outlawing FGM would not make them free.  It was a western agenda.

DISCLAIMER:

The thoughts in this blog are mine. My opinions, uncensored.  Please don’t take it personally.

 

 

The Black Expat stories – Meeting Winnie in Jamaica

‘Mummy aunty Precious is on the phone’ my daughter called

‘Tell her I said good morning and I’ll call her back’ I shouted back to Ams in the other room

‘She said it’s important mummy’. Came back the response

I loved Precious but with her children all grown up, she had a lot more time on her hands that I with my two small ones at two and seven years old.

‘Marning Sis. What’s up?’ I asked whilst thinking about the green gungo soup I was trying to master.

‘Everyting cool! What you up today?’ I could hear that Nat King Cole album playing in the background. She played it a lot all by herself up there in red hills

‘Nothing planned. Just cooking breakfast and dinner now. Plan to chillax today. Why what’s occurring?

‘You want to meet Winnie?’ Precious asked. She was always inviting me to things.

‘Winnie who?’ I asked whilst thinking about where I could source a coconut this morning. The soup tasted better with fresh coconut milk.

‘Winnie Mandela!’ she said casually

‘Precious how you can ask me dat!’ I screamed back laughing! The children jumped up and started to laugh too. ‘Of course, me waaan fe meet dah great Winnie Mandela! Where and what time? Jamaicans were often so casual about super important things. I had come to the conclusion that Jamaica had so many internationally renowned famous people from this ‘small island’, that everyone had simply stopped thinking fame was any ‘big ting’

‘3pm at the Pegasus. Come for 2 pm if you can’. She laughed.

‘Will be there by 1.30!’ I responded as I started to think about what the children and I would wear.

I heard Precious laugh and mutter to herself as we hung up.

Out came our best African matching outfits. Royal blue or Orange? I couldn’t decide. Both seemed perfect for the occasion The Pegasus was close by so we dressed and walked across emancipation park to the hotel lobby. The children and I looked and felt fine and people commented on as we passed by. ‘Yes Queen’ and ‘Africa fambly’ came from many passers-by. All three of us smiled.

The park was a mess although there were great stories of the plans to renovate it. They would turn it into a space that Jamaicans would be proud of. A place that celebrated ‘Jamaica’s emancipation’. I looked forward to that day. Joggers were happy to just have something other than the pavement even though it meant jumping over rubble and garbage, it was an open space all the same.

I sat in the foyer and the children ran around. Hotel lobbies were great places for people watching as families, couples and young groups came and went. Jamaica was the place that people dreamed of going to and, for many, once they arrived, it was just one long hot sunny and sexy party. An opportunity to do and play in a way that only Jamaica allowed for.

The South African football team emerged and like all good Pan Africanist, I knew their flag alongside most of the African countries. They looked like kings with reporters and photographers surrounding them. I so wanted to push them out of the way to just get one photograph but, alas, there wasn’t a hope in Jamaica of that happening. I sat enjoying the show that celebrities have to put on for the cameramen and women. Precious appeared at 1.45 and I was glad I had shown up early.

She beckoned me over.

‘You have yoh camera Sis?’ she asked whilst talking on her phone.

‘Of course!’, I mimed back.

‘Good. We going upstairs. Winnie here already and Muta comin over too,’ she confirmed

‘Great’. I said calling the children over as we followed obediently.

Precious smiled at the security guards who already knew her. They are with me. She said and they escorted us all to the lift play fighting with my son and telling my daughter she was a ‘beautiful African princess’. We all felt super proud. I could hear Winnies’ rich textured south African voice, on exiting the lift. Walking towards the room, I remembered all of the times I had watched her with fist raised on the TV. Winnie had symbolized the struggle against Apartheid more than Nelson had ever done for me. For, whilst he had been locked away on Robbin island, she had carried the baton like a warrior queen. As a human being, she had made some mistakes. They say she had lovers and I had wondered why she wouldn’t. Twenty-odd years with her husband in jail. She was not a nun. The killing of Stompie was a media story I had not been comfortable with. I had also learned how hard it was to trust the media though She had danced the warrior dance society was always unjust with women leaders. As I had watched the announcement of the separation of her and Nelson and saw the meek-mannered Graca Machel take her place, I knew it was a victory for patriarchal, capitalist society. There would be no justice and no peace for warrior queens…not now anyway.

Time was of the essence. I didn’t want my picture taken with her but if she could just hold my son…I handed him to Winnie and he looked at her strangely. He didn’t know who this woman was but he was a sociable child. My daughter was playing with the other children and as soon as the photograph with Khu was taken, Muta arrived. He hugged Winnie like an old friend. Greeting me like a new friend. I was still yet to be positioned in Jamaican society. I hadn’t been there long enough and whilst people knew I was a teacher, they had also seen me with a ‘real camera’ and knew I wrote for the African Business magazine in the UK. In this class based society with colorism and so many uptown and downtown judgments at play, they were still unpacking me. Precious was one for picking up strays like me though so it was not surprising that we had this ‘kinda friendship ting’ going on.

Muta did not want a photograph of him standing and Winnie seated. He chanted that down as ‘Victorian’ and was clear that was not how he wanted to depict. He kneeled down next to Winnie, happy to be in that position. Winnie laughed a deep throaty genuine laugh. I wanted to bottle the feeling of gratitude I had for being there at that moment.

 

L’Acadco dance group performed and L’Antoinette conjured all she could with her Yoruba high priestess training. The first piece was a powerful dance of a people in exile and the pain which this brings. The second piece was a celebratory dance with African moves from Ghana, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. Phenomenal dance pieces from African Jamaicans through which Winnie’s gaze never shifted. Black woman sang by Judy Mowatt, had been an anthem which many in that room had grown to love and when Carlene Davis sang ‘Winnie Mandela’, the room moved to a dream-like state for reality and fantasy had merged. My spirit could not be still and I watched as it danced around the room flowing, trancing and beating drums. Luciano apologized for being late. He had just heard and could not have Winnie in town and not perform for her. Being in the Tuff gong or Motown studio must have felt like this.

Winnie stood up and looked around the room. She looked at each one of our familiar faces smiling. We knew each other. We had journeyed together.

I did not know. I did not know there was so much Africa here in Jamaica. It was your music… Your Jamaican music that we listened to under tables as others looked out for the police. The revolutionary music of Jamaica helped us during those days of Apartheid… and still does now.

She raised her fist and shouted Amandla and we responded Awethu!

 

I could not sleep that night. My spirit was too excited. It would not settle. The visitors in that room were ancestors who came to pay homage to one of our leading warrior queens. My children were quiet. There were many familiar faces in the room and they had been to many talks over the years. For them, this was another gathering of people ‘like mummy’.

 

Disclaimer

This is my work and these are my opinions.

 

The Black Expat Stories- Taxi Journey lamentations

As he typed his what’s app message. I looked over his shoulder. I wanted to ask him not to do this whilst he had a passenger. Whilst he should be focused on the road ahead. I decided not to. The last driver had told me I only had a 3.8 score. I was busy looking for my keys which I had lost once already that week.

I looked up and agreed vaguely with him.

Do you understand what this means?

I don’t…sorry…what? I continued to search for my keys. I had no idea what the protocol was if keys were left in these Uber taxis and I didn’t want to find out today.

You have a 3.8. score. As a friend, I have to tell you that your Uber account won’t work in the states or the UK with a score of less than 4.00

Score? What do you mean? Friend???

The drivers score you when you ride in their cars

I stopped. He now had my full attention.

That night I had been so scared. I had been in the country for less than a month and had been using the buses. It was easy, cheap and no matter what the bus driver thought of me, we all paid the same fare. Taxis’ were a whole different story and with no idea of the city layout, public transportation became my preferred method of travel. It was a fact that the bus drivers did not always stick to the route yet the fare would not change. With a taxi driver, them going off route could make a big difference.  Questioning a taxi driver over a 10 ringgit fare which had gone past 35 ringgits. resulted in my being thrown out! I learned then that Malaysian taxi drivers do not like to be challenged. Granted, this was before I discovered Uber and Grab.

Taking the buses, and then walking had meant another challenge as I was stopped by the police on the days when I wore my Nigerian or Ghanaian head wraps.  A long-held cultural, fashion and personal style that I had no intention of giving up became an excuse for the police to interrogate me. It was a pain I had experienced many times in a country with its numerous overt prejudices. Once they heard my UK accent, they always stopped asking for my passport or what job I was doing there. It seemed that none of that mattered once they established that I was English. I learned quickly that life was a matter of ongoing negotiations in this new space.

The driver messaged to say ‘I am here’ but I couldn’t see him or the green car described on the app. There were so many cars pulling up but definitely no green one. Here where? Around the corner came his response. I was tense and didn’t want to walk around the corner into a dark road. I so wished I had canceled and just gone home after work! I messaged asking him to come to the KFC where the road was well lit. He replied ‘Just two minutes around the corner’. I could feel my anxiety levels risings and by the time I found and sat down in the car. I was a nervous shaking wreck. My evening activities were limited and I realized how vulnerable I felt out by myself once the sun had set. The show I was going to see needed to be good! It was a recommendation from my friend in the UK which I was so wishing I had passed on.

Why didn’t you come to the KFC? I asked on entering the small car.

One way. One way! was his response.

So you could have come up the one way, I retorted in a less than pleasant tone.

Ok! Ok!

It was a ‘you’re in the car now, so shut the fuck up ok!

What do you mean? I asked responding to my interpretation of what I had heard.

He didn’t answer.

The journey took around five minutes and I imagined a horrible ending. What did Uber drivers do with angry or anxious customers? We pulled into the mall carpark.

Let me out I said once I recognized where I was.

What here? His English returned and he was annoyed for he was about to park

Yes, right here! I said, paying him and slamming the door behind me. I headed towards the Library where the performance was scheduled to take place.

You need see doctor! You are mad. Shouldn’t be allowed on the street was the SMS which came through. It took a few minutes before I connected that this was the driver. On that night, he may have been closer to the truth than I dare to admit. But regardless, what right did he have to send me that message! I reckon that we are all mad anyhow. It just depended on who labeled it as madness or as creativity or genius. Jack Nicolson in One flew over the cuckoo’s nest was just a great critique of the hypocrisy that exists around madness and remains a favorite movie of mine.

I contacted Uber who assured me they would warn him not to do this again.

They could not, however, ask him to apologize.

Yes, you need to keep your score above 4.

I felt straight jacketed after that. As I leave the Uber or Grab rides now, they all say, give me high scores. Even when drivers speak on their phones, answer what’s app messages and get me lost (with the GPS directing them) I still leave them the highest score. They are under pressure to maintain a high score as are the passengers to receive them.

The world of constant feedback and monitoring has escalated. I hear young people talking about how many ‘likes’ or views they have received on social media. The pressure to be popular, to be always smiling and having a great life is on full throttle. So many school teachers judge their new students on what previous teachers have written. I know that there isn’t always time to get to know all of their students so they rely on other’s  judgments. Teachers, Taxi drivers, and users of social media are all affected by other peoples comments.  Social media responses have resulted in Adults and Children committing suicide as the pressure creates unnatural expectations based on these totally subjective views.

I ask myself if real stories exist anymore with all of this pressure? It seems they are rare. I decided that I may just need this account somewhere else where I live or travel to.  There are also alternative means of transportation which I am not ruling out.  For now, though,  my score has gone up to 4.5!

The Black Expat stories – In search of plantain

I realized how low I was feeling as I sat at the bus stop watching the young college students. It was the time of the day where there was a lull.  The afternoon school session had ended and the workday rush had not yet begun. At 5 pm, I knew I was cutting it fine as I walked up the road to the stall. It was closed. This was my third attempt in three weeks and each time the stall had been covered over. I wondered if the trader had moved on.

I had not formed a great relationship with him. The men at the coconut stall were friendlier. They were bad boys after all and although now in their 50s and 60s, the free spirit bad girl in me, connected with them. They were always chatty and pleasant and allowed me to have coconut water in those few days when I had changed bags and left my purse at home. The owner would tell his assistants, ‘she is my good customer…comes all the time’. Some evenings, I had stopped there just to revel in the thrill of watching the men play their board games. Their bodies swayed as they weighed up the opposition, cigarette smoke hanging over them, suspended until, bang! Down would go the piece they had played, which was often followed by laughter, shouting and then silence again as the next player repeated the same process. It reminded me of the big men who played dominoes at the Christmas gatherings, weddings, and christenings, I had attended as a child. I never quite got why they banged the pieces or made so much noise but I did get that the socializing and comradery that came with playing, was always more important than winning. Here the noise level was about the same.

This man, however, insisted on short-changing me every time. He had a limp and a funny mouth. I wondered if he may have suffered a stroke at some point. He usually had to stop our proceedings to cough at length, sounding like he had bronchitis or a chest infection. He would always return my change 5 or 10 ringgit short. I had started simply standing there with my hand holding what change he had given me. The gently bang on his head which he administered, resulted in him going back to the till and returning with my balance. Maybe he was knocking sense into self! No, we were not great friends but he was the only one who sold plantain in walking distance from where I lived, and he was who I wanted to see today.

As I sat at the bus stop, too forlorn to walk back and allowing myself to indulge in this overreaction that only a plantain loving person could relate to, a Malay woman approached me. She was smiling and I knew she was going to say something about my hair.

‘Where did you get your hair done?’, she asked

‘Sorry?’, I looked at her before answering. After all, she was fully covered and I had made a lot of assumptions.

‘Where did you get your hair done? I want to do mine!

‘Sorry…? I was repeating myself!  I could hear her words yet her full covering and question did not make any sense to me. I knew that Muslims in Malaysia were more liberal than other interpretations of Islam I had experienced, but still, I was confused. She saw my confusion.

‘Yes, I’ve had it done before and I love it!’ she said “Even when it hurts’. She was clearly excited at the prospect of doing it again.

‘Sorry?’ I could feel myself repeating the same response but I seriously could not help myself. Broken record syndrome had taken full hold of me.

‘Are you a Muslim?’ I eventually asked.

‘I am but I wear braids sometimes. My husband doesn’t like it but hey ho!’ She was bubbly and funny and I was stunned and awkward.

‘I had my hair braided in London.’ I finally responded. ‘ I do know a few people here who braid too’, I added

‘Great. I shall take their numbers from you. I am not sure if those who do my hair are charging me correctly’ she admitted

‘How much do you pay?’ I enquired

‘600 ringgits. I have a Nigerian woman in Kuching who does it for me. She is married to a Malay man.’ She had definitely been overcharged. I wondered about the Nigerian woman and Malay Man. I let it go as I was working hard unpacking the Muslim women in front of me.

‘Do you live around here?’ she enquired

‘Yes…not too far. I just came to buy Plantain but the man isn’t there. I could walk home but I feel lazy’. It was a half-truth. I didn’t feel the need to bore her with my drama and recount of longing for something I could not get. Being an expat who didn’t drive often meant that I knew of only one or two places where I could find certain things. In this case, it was one.

‘Plantain? Plantain?’ She had gone into recall zone. ‘Oh yes, those big bananas! My Nigerian friends eat them’ she confirmed

‘Yes, yes!’, I agreed ‘They eat a lot of plantains’. I remembered that it had been my Nigerian friends in the UK who first introduced me to the black eye beans and plantain stew in red oil. In that world, any pot with fish or meat in it was called ‘stew’. What sweet memories!

‘I am sure they sell it in Gasing. Oh yes, my name is Rosita’ She said stretching her hand out. ‘What’s yours? My car is there so jump in and I’ll drive you there’.

I got into the car smiling at how bizarre the situation was. I had taken lifts with strangers in Ghana and in Jamaica so that was not new. It was one of the ‘calculated risks’ that I was willing to take. We stopped at the small shops a few roads from where we had met. Rosita asked trader after trader and they all seemed to be pointing in the same direction.

‘Yes, I was right. We will have to go to Gasing’ she said with a determination and spirit which totally bowled me over. Heading towards Gasing took us along some pretty rough terrain. It was an area where recent demolition had taken place and where new apartment blocks were already going up. I wondered if I had made the right decision though. I was going further and further away from my home and I didn’t know how I would get back. I felt so vulnerable in local areas without the language skills and where English was rarely spoken. Did I want plantain that badly?????

Rosita spoke openly about being a doctor as we drove along. Coming from a family where she was expected to be a doctor or lawyer, she had not planned to be anything else.   I asked her what she had wanted to do. She said Art and Design but her parents had told her that it wasn’t a solid career…. wouldn’t pay the rent. She and I came from a time where our parents were gods. My mum had died when I was sixteen and yet, two years later when I applied to university, I still didn’t do the BA in Linguistics as I could hear her voice asking me first of all, what is linguistics and what job I would get with this ‘Linguistics degree’. Hearing this in her quietly spoken Jamaican accent, meant that it sounded so much more demoralizing. I opted for Sociology instead!!!

As we pulled up at the stall, I smiled broadly. There were bunches of plantain and coconuts everywhere. It was that thing. That thing which connected me to home (UK, Jamaica, and Ghana). There it was. And plenty of it. Maybe this place too would be one of my homes…one of the places I would become a local of. A bus passed us by. A bus I had seen many times parked at the station next to my office. It was another place I could travel to by bus or taxi. I had options and everything was alright. I purchased ripe and unripe ones. Enough to last me

Rosita insisted on dropping me home and we chatted about the many ways in which plantain could be prepared. She was fascinated that I would consider eating it raw. She had eaten it boiled, mashed and fried with her Nigerian friends but none of them had ever spoken of eating it raw. She asked the usual questions about whether it would make me sick or wasn’t it designed to be ‘cooked’. Sharing my limited knowledge of foods that could be eaten raw felt good.

Outside my apartment, I asked a stranger to take a photograph of us two laughing ladies. He was in a bad mood and said he would only take one. It was not like the experience of Malaysians who often took 10 photographs when you handed them your camera and of the last five, my hand would be stretched out indicating that I’d like my phone back…please. Rosita and I laughed lots and I knew I had found a kindred spirit. As the angry stranger handed me back my phone, we both hoped he too would meet a stranger that would help to take that cloud away.

 

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