Mbeke Blog

Mbeke Blog

Category: Expatstories

Black Expat Stories – Ode to Aunty Dimela

 

 

It was too hard and I was too far away.

I had received the message that you had passed on aunty. I had not seen you for some time with thisAfrican clothes

expatriate life that I now live. My trips were always full. Filled with family, friends and house things. Nothing really… Our relationship had changed when I no longer heard from you. I didn’t know. I didn’t know you were ill. It seemed fine but now, as I looked at the pictures which were coming through, it was so not fine.

So much time had passed and now, not only had the time passed but so had you.  Being this far and not able to attend the nine nights where I knew you would be celebrated. Where the old friends would reunite and remember. Where libation would be poured, messages would be spoken, good food would be shared and tears would be allowed to fall.

A  space where your spirit would laugh and dance with all those who had gathered….I weep for not being there. I smile for having enjoyed your words of wisdom for many many years.  Your direct questions and unsolicited advise that, whether liked or accepted, I always knew was right.

I looked at us in our African clothes. Matching head wraps which are now sold to everyone in high street designer stores across the world. Our revolutionary clothes took a turn into the fashion houses aunty!  In those clothes, our family had provided love, laughter, nourishment, and security back then.  In our difference, we were the same and aspired for the same ideals that we knew the united states of Africa and united states of the Caribbean, would ultimately bring.

Our heroes and sheroes were Davis, Winnie, Lumumba, James, Makeba, Bishop, Manley, Nkrumah, John, Kuti, Marley, Jeffries, Diop, Shange, Welsing, Van Sertima, Angelou, Walker, Nyere, Biko, Morrison, Karenga, Collins, Iyapo, Baldwin, Gilroy, Zephaniah, Stuart and Yekwai….yes….Yekwai.  For you had penned our thoughts and told the world that we knew of their lies and actions towards us. Oh yes, you knew!

Travel safely over aunty and be well. Have the peace of heart, mind, and body that was denied to you in its entirety in this incarnation  A place that is denied to many of us who really know.

I love you and I hear your all-knowing energetically earthly laughter.

Walk good and rest until you come again.

 

 

Mbeke Waseme

19.7.2018

 

Black Expat Stories – Meet you at the Toast Masters Club

Meet up groups were a new discovery for me. Whilst I was working in the Far East with no friends and family to call on, it meant that I had to create my own work-life balance. For me, this meant spending time with people beyond those who were working on the same project as I.  In my previous overseas roles,  family and friends had resided locally and I had happily spent much of my social time with them.  This location came with none of that!

 

It was not long before I found a large number of groups on the Meetup platform. They included cookery, language, travel, wealth creation, discussions about spirituality and lots of health-related activities. There were many clubs and outlets and it was easy to spend a Sunday afternoon visiting a local indigenous group, observing

their traditions and wearing their customs, or traveling out to see traditional dishes being made and having the opportunity to meet other local and expat travelers. The writers club was fun, although a little confusing as I had rushed over, thinking the black UK writer, Zadie Smith was going to be present, whilst they thought I was her when I arrived!!

The photographer group took me to Chow kit market where I discovered plantain, and black hair products on sale everywhere!  I met one of my fellow photographers on the journey home and we sat on the train discussing how we had both toyed with the idea of attending the Toastmasters club.  It had taken me about a year before I attended my first meeting and she had been considering attending for just as long. Others whom I’d spoken to, had said the same thing.  This was strange for me as, there we were, both professional trainers and yet there was a reluctance to place ourselves in a space where we’d be judged on something that we did every week. I decided to go along as my curiosity and love of words meant that I couldn’t stay away.

 

My first Toastmasters visit had me in awe and bouts of laughter at the same time.  There were a conviction and commitment that the core members demonstrated through their opening allegiance. Traditions which had been recorded and started in 1903 by Ralph Smedley, and which were alive here in Malaysia in 2018.  Needless to say, other clubs existed then and still do in many parts of the world with very similar aims and objectives.

Toastmasters prides itself on the development of confident and proficient speakers and leaders.  As a professional, these are two of the core transferable skills that I and many others,  find ourselves teaching, training and coaching groups and individuals in the development of.  In this fast-changing and unpredictable environment,  Leadership and Presentation skills remain current and necessary for us all.  Whether you are a business owner, self-employed, employed or unemployed, the ability to sell our skill set, improves with confidence and proficiency in our presentation and leadership skills.

At my first session, the evening began with the usual ‘Where are you from ?’ question.    My ‘proper English accent’ did not fit in with some of the member’s prejudgments of how a woman with this voice, should look, so the inquiry was lodged again and my response was repeated.  In my mot non threatening voice, I asked if I had been white, would they have had a problem with my location of birth.  There were uncomfortable stares and some silence. Eventually, a braver soul inquired, so where are your parents from and the pompous ‘Ah ha’ to my answer  ‘Jamaica’, was familiar.  After all, they knew there was ‘something else which I just wasn’t saying!!! I could not be ‘British’ !

 

The roles were introduced and I watched with an increasing curiosity and excitement.  The Time Keeper, Grammarian, and Ah counter would evaluate each person that presented a Table Topic.  The timekeepers’ lights would guide the presenter through,  the grammarian would feedback on the accurate and inaccurate use of grammar and the ‘Ah’ counter cited all of those Ah, well, hmm moments which find their way into presentations.

The table topics and word of the day followed and this opened up the opportunity for anyone to speak on the topic for two minutes. I volunteered on my first evening and the feedback was kind. It was a test speaking to a line of a nursery rhyme so, as they say, I did my best! I cringed as I watched the man from Bangladesh who volunteered after me.  He was not familiar with English nursery rhymes.  He spoke for two minutes as to why ‘the dish ran away with the spoon’ but his logical approach to this nursery rhythm, which of course has an adult history to it, was painful to observe.   The voices in my head complained about Cultural inappropriateness and being inclusive. Were these issues not of concern to this club in the heart of Kuala Lumpur?

 

The set speakers of the evening,  presented and we were then tasked with providing feedback to the evaluators once they had given their feedback to those speakers. As a Coach trainer, I know whenever a role play situation is enacted,  the coach, coachee, and observer gain equal value as each role affords the participant, a unique perspective and opportunity to develop their skills. On this evening, we had the opportunity to speak, to give feedback and to evaluate those who had evaluated!

The club is based on what some may consider as old-fashioned, albeit, sturdy values.  They do form part of the cry for 21st-century skills and an evening at the Toastmasters club will include problem-solving, critical thinking, flexibility, managing uncertainty and providing constructive feedback. All are cited by the top leadership and management game changers as critical for survival in this century,

 

I left the Toast Masters club feeling satisfied.  It had been a good use of my time. The gentleman who I left the building with asked me why did you come?. I was a little taken aback and responded that feedback in a friendly environment is always useful.  He had won but had seen a light in me, even though I had not thought I had presented well. I  was reminded that I am often my worst critic and that I need to be a lot less harsh! Pictures were taken and moments captured as is the case at every event I have attended in Malaysia so far.

My work colleagues were invited to the second Toastmasters trip. They too had been considering it for over a year. Unfortunately, they couldn’t make it that evening.  The core members and 10 guests were in attendance at my second session. One of these was the international champion for Malaysia who had recently come second in a tournament. He is a lecturer by profession.

I grabbed the opportunity to do the two-minute table top talk again and froze at the first sentence.  I wanted to remember FEAR as False Evidence Appearing Real. It wouldn’t come and there lies the irony! I asked if I could begin again and the smiles and head nodding confirmed that I could. The skill of being able to come back from the floor and to still do well takes confidence, determination, and a little arrogance.  I left knowing that, it doesn’t always go well, and that too is ok.

Yes, the Toastmasters club is filled with quirky word enthusiasts who are taking every opportunity to improve those all important presentation skills as they surface in so many areas of our life. As with every other place where two or more people meet up, this is also a networking opportunity. One of the new guests ( but a long-standing toastmasters attendee from Lithuania) is employed at the Mind Valley corporation office in the same building! Mind Valley produce amazing self empowerment material.

If there are any grammatical or spelling mistakes, unwanted ‘ahs’ or ‘wells’ in my written or spoken pieces, get ready to see the back of them as I fine tune my skills through my attendance at the Toastmasters clubs in Malaysia.

 

DISCLAIMER:

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

 

 

 

Black Expat Stories – Eating Durian in Malaysia (what was all the fuss about)

Just do it! Yes, I know it’s the Nike strapline but it dawned on me that its success had come from the fact that it was true! There are things which we take far too look to make a decision on and yes, I know about all of those sayings including the one that says that nothing happens before its time.  I had not tasted Durian in Malaysia,  even though 24 months had already gone by since I first moved to live and work in South East Asia.  With the pungent smell that overpowered everything around it, that for me had a big turn off.  Its offense was so indignant,  that it was banned in hotels and many condominiums. That had been enough for me to refuse every invitation to ‘Durian eating sessions’. I had given into my fear of this strange fruit which others seemed to be happily enjoying with no lasting consequences or illness. You know that I had checked!!!

Walking through Penang after a day of consulting in schools, it was easy to feel motivated around Azinah though. Her loving and sweet personality had us chatting and laughing at the ease and delights of this part of Malaysia. When she asked

Would you like to join me for Durian ?’ in that happy jovial Azinah way, my natural reply of ‘why not’ made total sense. I let my mood dictate my openness to this adventure for her energy was always so pure and kind.

Have you had it before ?’, she asked as we entered the store

I haven’t’, I admitted, a little embarrassed.

This store we entered sold nothing but Durian. The aesthetics were not important here.  The café style tables and chairs were plastic and very basic.  The Durian fruit and Durian products were scattered on the shelves but it was safe to say that all overheads had been kept to a minimum. It was not so much a store as an open space with some Durians on a rack, a sink where you could wash your hands and table and chairs.

The young man at the door looked as if he’d been on shift all day. He was not kind to my many questions about why the Durian came in different shades of yellow or why it was so expensive (equivalent to 20 British pounds) or what the health benefits were. Whilst Azinah giggled at the blatant curiosity of this expat, he simply stopped answering for he was not about to be my Wikipedia for the day. Didn’t he understand that I still thrived on human interaction and to be honest, I thought his answers would be more authentic than Wikipedias. We opted for what was the king durian and as there was no queen durian.  Having made out purchase, we sat down ready!

I looked over at the table of eight men and women who ranged from dark to light shades. They were also sharing the experience of durian eating.  I could hear Asian and European accents.  The fear on my face must have been evident.

Is it your first time? , one of the men asked

It is!!! Answered I, the virgin Durian eater

You’ll be alright. It really isn’t that bad!!!!. He reassured me as he returned to his group.

 

I smiled and wondered why there were no beautiful pictures or some degree of distraction for us over emotional and sensitive types! As I sat in front of Azinah, I asked her to record this coming of age experience in Malaysia for it was time!

 

The bright sunshine, Azinah’s smile and the laughter from the other table, all helped to diffuse the pungent smell. The first taste was mild. Incredibly mild compared to the smell.  I was waiting for the taste to knock me down or to at least throw me from my seat and a little way from the table. It didn’t do any of that. The texture reminded me of freshly made butter. Incredibly rich and creamy. The fruit slid from the seed into my mouth with so much ease. The richness of the texture made eating large amounts impossible. It had to be taken a small mouthful at a time and  I closed my eyes and swallowed the rich, slightly pungent tasting fruit. It was however not offensive. I had tasted grapefruits in the UK which had me twisting, and resisting the next segment. In this case, the smell soon disappeared and the specialness of the fruit lingered. I ate another piece and found that I liked this strange fruit. I liked that it was warm and comforting and strangely familiar.

My husband hates it so I have to eat it outside,   Azinah explained.  She smiled all the time, what seemed to be a genuine and love filled smile. I wondered if there were things her husband ate or did which she didn’t like.  Did she have space to also express or to object? So many of the women I had met here, were warriors. just like other women. I had stopped letting the smile and hijab fool me in any way.

One of the men from the other table joined us. He had a German accent. He had come to see if I had survived the ordeal for he had been watching me.

How was it? my new friend enquired

It was fine, I smiled still eating small pieces.  Have you finished yours?

No, I didn’t take any today. I’ve had it before…my friends wanted to come.

Ahh. So you just accompanied them?, I asked

Yes. I don’t like it that much anyhow. He admitted

I understand, I said, eating the last of my own supply. It had begun to grow on me

He sat with us for a few minutes and then wished us a good evening as he returned to his group.  They were still laughing and discussing the experience.

Azinah and I had planned to take some back but our plates were empty and we remembered that it was banned in the hotel. Having had such a great afternoon, I wondered what had all the fuss really been about anyway. I shall certainly eat Durian again!

 

 

DISCLAIMER:

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

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 – Bus time story

The road was so busy. I stood there for a moment as cars, trucks, motorbikes and buses whizzed by. I made it to the centre and the crossing point, with its water logged grass was not going to stop me. I did wonder why they had put the bus stop so far away from the airport. Surely, if they had wanted to increase the use of public transportation to and from the airport, they should have positioned the stop closer. I put my hand out and stepped onto the warm bus with my small case. The comfort of that heat versus the ongoing negotiation that I would have entered with the taxi driver to turn down the air conditioning, was an easy choice after a freezing cold return flight. Most taxi drivers would turn around to look at me twice, whenever I asked for the AC to be lowered. That alone was disconcerting.
The bus was full of black and brown people. The buses were always full of brown and black people. I had never seen a pink or beige  person on the buses in Selangor. In Accra I had seen the khaki-shorts=Dr Martens-wearing types. They were never alone though and this was only occasionally. In Jamaica, the ones on the buses always looked like missionaries, as if they had come to save the passengers. I recall coming down the hill in Cameroun with broken headlights on a small bus. Someone hanging out of the window with a torch for light and Peter Tosh singing African. The Legalise album had been playing and the locals sang every word. There were a few white people on that bus, the last one for the evening. On leaving a conference in London, I had suggested to a friend that we take a bus to the next event. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon and she was totally bemused, admitting that she had never taken a bus. We laughed. Yes, I enjoyed buses and being around the ‘public’. It was so easy to slip into the exclusive life of being an expat with the condo, mall and taxi lifestyle.
I swiped my card and sat down on the vacant seats close to the driver. I was still wearing my long skirt from having worked in one of the Islamic regions. There had been no time to change at the airport, for when the check in assistant had offered me an earlier flight, I literally had to run to board the half empty plane. Looking around at the women in their shirts and jeans, I so wished I had changed into my trousers. It was just easier. As the stares began, I could see that my braids were raising questions. My brown skin meant I could be African, Malay or Indian. My hair though. It didn’t make sense to the other people on the bus. I could see the passengers weighing up their questions about my ‘identity’ through my hair.

 

Plugging my earphones in, I relaxed to Earth Wind and Fire. It had been a long two days and the school visits had involved three hours of travel each day. The roads were rough and the rain was amazing. Torrential down pours are great when you are safely tucked up in bed. When the raindrops against the corrugated roof , become a part of the canvas to a sultry intimate scene, that is where rain and love making completely synergize. Driving along those roads to a new location, whilst hoping that the GPA wouldn’t go down, or that the hire car would perform well or that the rain would just stop, equalled too many challenges to my senses. There was little fun in that experience.
You take public transportation? Their faces looked confused. The locals and the expats asked the same question. Standing in the space of privilege where the taxi app on the phone is the only transportation option you know or would consider, looked like a disability to me. Not wanting to be close to ‘the workers’ as a Malay women had termed those who rode the bus, made me reflective. The workers were ok to build the shopping malls and expensive condominiums. They were not ok to be seated next to. There were always so many infinite possibilities and experiences that I had or observed with the public on these buses. The majority of the public take buses and I have learnt so much on those journeys.

 

The police often stop the buses to search for illegal immigrants.One evening the officers jumped on and asked for something. I wasn’t sure as they had spoken in Malay. I had woken from my drowsy state to demands and outstretched palms. I handed over my bus pass and the passengers laughed. I realised that was definitely a UK response with memories of inspectors and badges! The police officer smirked and then I heard the word Passport. I didn’t have it and so handed him my business card which he took to the officer outside. I wondered if he could read. He came back and asked ‘You work here?’. I do. ‘Carry passport’ he insisted in his best English. I agreed with my best nodding and dozed back off to pretend sleeping. In Malacca the brown people had been led off the bus and told to lay on the ground as their papers were not in order. I had been stopped there too. After all, my papers may also not have been in order. The white people in shorts and T-shirts had walked past this undisturbed. No one asked if their papers were in order.

 

On my previous bus journeys, I had met a Chinese woman who had complained bitterly about the Malay. She spoke of them as lazy and undeserving of all the perks which they received. I had listened. I had met a Malay man who asked me if I was married. He complained about corruption in their government. He complained of the rich Chinese taking over. I listened. I’ve met people who studied in the UK as the 1960s newly independent Malaysia had attracted scholarship offers which many of them had gained from. As a result of their own experience, they had chosen to send their own children to the UK and to the US to do their graduate studies. These elders had returned. Many of the stories ended with the children remaining. Those places had become familiar and their comfort zones had changed as they experienced the anonymity which places like London gave them.

My journey from the airport ended and the driver let me out at the traffic lights instead of taking me another half a kilometre away from my home. He must have known how much I was dreading that walk up the hill to my condo. He knew my brown face.

The Black Expat Stories – Curtains

As an expat, there is a crazy sense of displacement that I experience when it comes to things like washing curtains. Having spent most of my adult life in the UK, it was a real ritual that went alongside pulling the furniture out and vacuuming those corners which may not have been touched for months (I am embarrassed to say). It meant wiping down all of those large pieces of furniture where the dust had been hidden. The first day of sunshine was the new high wattage bulb and It would send me to the supermarket to purchase cleaning items like nice spelling Zora disinfectants.

Now I live in someone else’s home. Their agreement states that I cannot put pictures on any of the walls, so I haven’t. Me who once had a living room so filled with African masks, family pictures, sculptures and cloth that my friend’s son, on arriving for the first time, whispered to him, “is this a museum daddy?”, now lives with bare walls.

I was young, naive and hungry for everything African. My walls were a testimony to my commitment to living a truly authentic African life. The first payment which I received for a poetry reading was used to purchase an African woman with braids who sat on my wall for many years. There were copper sculptures from Ghana, cloth from Nigeria and Ethiopia, cushion covers from Kenya and that large Ashanti stool which the authorities had challenged me on carrying as they suspected I had drugs hidden inside. Of course, with my having dreadlocks that I covered, how could they come to any other conclusion.

The new sun would make all of the carvings and sculptures expose that covering they had collected over the previous six-months. As I polished some, dusted others, ensuring that those corners were clean, the curtains would be soaking. The clean lace curtains reflected the bright sunshine and sent a wave of satisfaction of a job well done. This was my home and I had put the effort in to make it look, smell and feel good for my family and I. It was always a good day when the curtains were washed.

Now I rent an apartment, with a balcony that is hardly used due to the noisy ongoing construction of yet another apartment block which has stolen the peace and tranquillity that living next to a forest should have bought me. I watch the dark skinned men working on this building site each day and I wonder if their story is in line with those I have heard of the labour force that comes from Bangladesh or Sri Lanka. Men who work long hours, while their passports and mobile phones are held. Men with long periods away from their families who look lustily at the Chinese women who bare so much flesh in their shorts and strap tops, against the backdrop of Hindu and Malay women in their (mainly) modest attire.

The curtains were filthy. Having lived in the apartment for ten months, I could not figure out why washing the curtains had become such a big deal. Then it hit me. It was about the ritual. The history. The practise and memory of this one act. There was so much love in cleansing the winter and in welcoming in the summer in the UK

In hot countries, there are no clearly defined seasons. There are days of sunshine or cloud. Drizzle or torrential downpours. After living in Jamaica, I returned to the UK during the winter and depression had set in. I could not stand the cold, the unfriendly people and the effort that everything took once I had on my two or three layers of clothing. I remember signing up for a community yoga class and being the only student who would attend. One day the yoga teacher must have had enough of my long face. He stopped the class and asked me what the matter was. I went on and on about how cold I was, how I missed Jamaica’s heat and people and how sad everyone in the UK looked. He listened attentively, showing no sign of frustration or disappointment in the views I had expressed.

He simply said

You must really live, wherever you are. Unpack the boxes. Enjoy all there is to enjoy.

I said thank you and stopped the complaining. I unpacked the many boxes which I had walked passed every day and sorted out my apartment. I put the pictures back on the wall.

Washing the curtains and cleaning the windows took me to a place of doing things on purpose. Enjoying where I am…wherever I find myself. I celebrated the array of colours which I now have every day.  The sunshine and warmth which I now have everyday.  I have new rituals .

DISCLAIMER:

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

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén