Mbeke Blog

Mbeke Blog

Category: In My 50s

Black Expat Stories – Police people

We sat in the car nervously. We had a Nigerian driver for today’s excursion and the police had pulled our car over. It would seem that three black women and a black driver were cause for concern in Malaysia

They demanded our passports and none of us had them with us. We hadn’t thought and so the driver was asked to step out.

They want money I thought.

 In Ghana, my driver was tired of dashing anything to the policemen.  The one who pulled us over on that Christmas Eve morning was drunk. I smelt the alcohol on his breath and saw the gun swinging carelessly on his arm.  I became worried for I had not gone to Ghana to die! I suggested to the driver,

 I will pay. It is not a problem!

 He did not care anymore for he was tired.  His Christmas earnings were disappearing and there seemed to be stop points at every junction. I paid and we moved on.

 The policemen in Malaysia looked so young on that morning.  He had demanded that the tinted windows be opened.  As he heard our English, Carribean and Yorkshire accents, he seemed confused though. Somewhat agitated too.  He may not have been able to identify our accents but it wasn’t what he expected.  After all, all black people are Nigerian….

 Passports! Where are your passports? He asked

 I felt a slight anxiety begin to rise. We, like any vulnerable group, could be taken to a police station and never seen again. People did not stay connected in this day and age. Once they did not hear from you, a fleeting thought of I wonder what happened to so and so would so be lost I the noise and disruption of gadgets and social media.

 The driver came back to the car where his brow showed signs of serious tension.

 Where are your passports? he asked.  He knew the answer yet hoped they would appear…just to make this situation right.

 My day of black girl magic had started with the reminder that black peoples power is so great that the whole damn world is threatened.

 We want to see your passports

 No problem, you just need to follow us to the hotel and we’ll present them, we confirmed.

 I work here, I repeated.  He didn’t flinch. He was preparing to deliver the classic line

 I am the police. I don’t follow you!  You follow me to the station! There it was! Power over those who, at the moment, have very little!

 I work here, I repeated. It is an MOE project, I said   He didn’t flinch. I tried giving him specific details of where the office is and the name of the departments who we worked with. He was not interested.

 Has your work permit run out? He asked, smiling

 I reminded myself that the woman who carried the AK47 was not needed today so I simply smiled too. My sister stepped in and stated what everyone knew.

 If we follow you to the police station, we still won’t have our passports!

 Don’t get loud with me. He responded. She was not loud.  She was a gentle professional black woman. It was clearly time to retreat.

Let’s go back to the car I suggested, leaving the driver to negotiate his (and our) way out of this one. He came to the car just after we sat down and took some money from his wallet.

 How much are you giving them? I asked

 I only have 50, he answered as he hoped this would buy us our freedom today.

 OK. I said. I was angry at the global abuse of power that police people demonstrate. I wondered where the land was that this did not take place.

Some of the women in the car were surprised. I was not for I knew this from Ghana, Jamaica, South Africa, Tunisia, and Malaysia. And yes, it happens in the UK!! It was not a surprise. The stop. The threat. The unreasonable demands. More threats. The solution to help us. The result is that we really don’t need to go to the station. And then, the exchange!

 

With passports in hand, we began the day again. We would not be defeated!

Black Expat Stories – My original hair they asked

I peeped around the corner, as I  quickly pulled the hot comb through my hair. There was no sound. Thank goodness, my mother was still sleeping.  The kitchen window was open so that she wouldn’t smell the hot comb process from that morning.  It was 1976 and a seriously hot summer.  My afro would go from 7 to 2 inches as soon as I started to sweat. I loved the work of Angela Davis and so wanted my afro to look just like hers. In 1976, as one of the hottest recorded summers in the UK, the shrinkage was real!

I allowed my sister to convince me to put ‘realxing cream’ into my hair once. It was hard work though and all of that burning, visits to the hairdresser and ‘treatment’ really didn’t work for me. It was so funny watching the women flock to be around the male hairdresser. He reminded me of Marvin Gaye, but that was insignificance once he started doing my hair as it all took so long and seemed to cost so much money! He was making a killing as I suspect those women would have paid him just to walk across the shop floor.

I had locks for years. Once I cut my locks off, I wore all of the hairstyles which looked exactly like locks. Single plaits and that pineapple wrapped thing were my favorites. Whilst I had lived in Ghana, having my hair ‘fixed’ was easy and cheap.  I could change my style every week if I wanted to and explore colors, up, down, braid, weave, whatever I fancied!.

Moving to Asia was a different ball game. There was one Ghanian aunty who I found after asking all the women who I saw with braids, where did you do your hair?  Aunty Cynthia was great and I bathed in the familiarity of her and her twi speaking customers.  Her tails of the traffic she endured to get to her place in Cape Coast and the constant light off, brought back fond memories.  I had loved many aspects of my Ghana journey. The traffic Jams and power outage were not part of that though! I liked aunty but she never really understood how tender my scalp was. I mean, really was.  Twelve years of locks had made my scalp super tender.  On my last visit, I had to bite my tongue and hold myself from cursing as she had not mastered the crochet style and kept digging my head with the needle. It was not a good look and my blood pressure rose every time she exclaimed ‘sorry o’. I decided to only go there if I was absolutely desperate.

The Nigerian community in Malaysia had grown and hair extensions, bleaching creams, and yam had appeared in Chowkit market.  The store owner offered me a hairdressers number but, if the truth be told, I was wary of the Nigerian women I had met so far. My Nigerian friends had also stayed away from Nigerians. The young men told me how their mothers had categorically warned them not to go to their churches. They said too much 911 was going on so I followed their advice.

I pulled out my braids on a trip to London, and, although I knew that the hairdresser there had overcharged me, I paid anyway. The fact that she whispered the price was not the friendly gesture that the mini-me had received this as.  My funds also looked greater on the first day than they did on the last. I wanted a good steam and wash, plus she reminded me that I have hair so I paid her asking price.

I left the hairdresser happy that my hair was clean and that she had managed to comb out all of the hair which had begun to lock for I had washed it many times with the braids in. As she blow dried my hair, I admired it in the mirror.  It looked good and felt so soft. I was considering a short neat cut, but not today.  I loved the feel as I walked down Peckham Rye Lane with my own hair. That trip to sunny London was way too hot to wear my wig and my hair demanded to be free of all attachments so I listened and complied.  I decided to stay in that space for my return to Malaysia.

People asked me is that your original hair?.   I loved the way that the English language took on its own style in the different places I have lived and worked in.  My hair! My original hair! Not someone else’s hair or a synthetic rendition but my own hair!  I told them yes.  It was not a perm.  Their stories came out of how they had longed for curly hair! How their children had been born with beautiful curly hair, which soon became limp and straight. Who would have known that these Malaysians wanted what I had been covering up for so long?

Black women support a billion dollar industry of hair extensions and products.  Indian and Brazilian women of all ages sell their hair for very little money.  Whilst wearing braids, I had wondered if, even though it was described as synthetic, whether it was, in fact, the hair of a cousin or sister of one of the many south Indian people who live in KL

I reminisced on my years of having locks. Large unruly beautiful locks in a time when locks were worn as a covenant with the most high. My cutting and disassociation from that community came after years of watching domestic violence and disrespect.  My son was born and there was no rasta man I wanted him to emulate. The locks could have been transformed into a ‘hairstyle’ but, that was not my attachment to them. They had to go.

 

I still watch admiringly now at the many who wear locks. There are sista locks,  ‘false’ locks and lots of different colored locks.  Some people feel that it is a mockery for all of these Asian, Caucasian and others to be wearing locks. I reflect that mocking can only take place if people don’t know their power.  If we don’t collectively know our power.

At the end of my UK trip, I let the Antiguan hairdresser straighten my hair.  I loved her energy and we both had lessons to learn. Me about the healing I and my loved ones needed. She about her health choices.  As she used the hairdryer and straightener,  I was fascinated as it smelt exactly as those early morning hot comb quickies had.  The hair looked lifeless though. My already thin hair hung and even though she tried hard to convince me that it looked ‘wonderful’, I wasn’t persuaded. As I left the salon, we hugged. Something special had been planted between us.

It took two hours for the humidity in Malaysia to kick all of that straightness out! My afro returned whilst all of that straightening and serum simply disappeared.  But hey, the fro looked good and Viola Davies and many other black women before her continue to empower as we celebrate our natural hair.

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There are women who work in countries and/or organizations where their natural hair and/or the wearing of braids is illegal. The growing movement of black women who are wearing their natural hair continues to challenge those systems and to empower women’s right to have this choice.

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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