Mbeke Blog

Mbeke Blog

Category: Jamaica

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.

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 – Women going tru!

You are no longer employed here.Your contract has been terminated
Ok. I wasn’t expecting that. Having returned to the UK during the vacation, this was simply a courtesy call to inform the principal that I’d be back this weekend. I would return one week late and had warned her that may be the case. The training at the beginning of each term was not challenging. In fact, the trip had been a great excuse for me to miss this. I hated in-service training that didn’t provide any new information. Maybe it had backfired. I needed to think quickly. Would I return to Jamaica with my two children or stay in the UK? Jamaica was still calling me so we boarded the plane for year three. There was no knowing what that return trip would bring. I was more than willing to find out though

Our home was owned by the school where I no longer worked and the children attended the school where I no longer worked. Schools fees needed to be paid and I had very little reserves. I was figuring it out as I went along. Sitting on the bed thinking about how best to manage this, I thought about another credit card. My current plastic options were limited and if the truth be told, I was in no state to apply for another one. They were too damn easy to get anyhow. The rent for month one was there. We’d have to see what happened in month two.

Being let go from positions is a humbling experience. I had been too radical for them, teaching my students about Marcus Mosiah Garvey and Nanny of the Maroons in the Language Arts class. The US curriculum in Jamaica angered me so much. Why couldn’t I teach about Jamaican heroes in Jamaica? The parents complained. They did not want their children knowing about ‘dem deh people’. Their privileged lives left no space for this perspective. For if Garvey spoke of ‘African for the Africans, at home and abroad’ and they didn’t see themselves as African, my influence could only be negative. I had worn my Nigerian dress to school with my hair in an Afro and the head teacher remarked that I looked like an ‘African Princess’ to which I had responded ‘I am’. Working in a Christian school as a non-Christian was a compromise I had made to get the bills paid. This school needed me to compromise in a way I hadn’t even considered.

When I had sat eating roasted sweet potato or breadfruit at lunchtime, the children had asked me what is that maam? Their privileged lives took them to eat KFC and Haggen Dazs ice cream after school. It was at a cost that many Jamaicans were paid for the whole month, what these students had access to for their afterschool snacks. Their relationship with the place where they were born, was not connected to the things which long haired tourist loved to experience in authentic Jamaica. There seemed to be so much disconnection or maybe it was I who was disconnected.

Debbie called me from downstairs, ‘Me can come up?’ It was mid-day so she must be home for lunch. She ate turn cornmeal with sardines most lunchtime. We had experienced a few lunchtimes catch ups since I found myself between jobs
W’happen’, she greeted me. She always looked like she pitied me. Like I just didn’t get it.
“How tings?’ she asked leaning over to look at my computer screen.
‘Tings noh so nice since me loss me job. Me ah look fe wok’. I explained. She looked at me
‘Wok? You pretty you know,” she said as if I didn’t know.
‘Yeah’, I responded in a way as if to ask and how will that help me
‘Why you don’t just go fin a man, one a dem rich one up ah red hills. Plenty returnees deh bout’. She looked satisfied as if she had just given me a gift. The answer to all of my problems for the foreseeable future.
She was right. In her world, pretty light brown women did not sit around musing over small things like paying bills, school fees and buying food. In my world, the social security and unemployment benefit offices served the same purpose. As my surrogate husband, they would give me a small allowance so long as I complied with their rules, behaved myself and didn’t try to earn a penny more.

He had been watching me for a while. He was tall, dark and very handsome. Always beautifully dressed. There to pursue his graduate program in Global Development studies. I was an 18-year-old duffle coat wearing child from London who was wondering what the heck she was doing at University. Coming for a poor background, it really was not a part of the plan. When mummy died, it seemed that anything and nothing were possible.

We met at the African society where people with black skin all came together. As I sat in his room listening to his musings about the car he was shipping from Germany and his house in Benin state which his relatives lived in, I suspected that sex would have been my passport to some of these things too. His thick accent was interesting and although there were some words I didn’t quite catch, I knew Bumi and her family well back on our estate. The intonation was familiar. My mother was not happy with this, always warning me Don’t eat from dem, but they were orders which I ignored. I looked at him and understood the trade-off. It would be my body for the ‘things’ which he had access to. After all, that was the world I lived in.

‘I have to go’, I said standing to change the reality in front of me.
‘But…I thought you would stay’. His gentle voice and beautiful face, sounded and looked so disappointed. It was hard to tell if it was affection or wounded ego. I didn’t look back, buttoning my duffle coat and walking through the campus through the cold November air, I exhaled once I was in my room. At 18, I knew that big cars and houses weren’t the most important things for me.

I had been watching Debbie since she moved in with her sister. Let me reframe that. Since her sister had sublet one of her two rooms. I was so glad that the children and I had the top two rooms. With the different hours they all kept, I wouldn’t have been able to withstand the door banging and smell of food wafting past our doors at all hours. It’s funny how I had learned to compromise on what at another time in my life, would be totally not up for discussion.

Why you don’t just go fin a man…look how you pretty She exclaimed. I smiled and made no judgement. She worked in an expensive shoe shop which paid enough for her to pay her sister for the one room which she occupied with her son. There were at least three men who picked her up on respective nights and there was one from whom she returned home with many bags of shopping. I suspected that the others paid for her son’s school fees and towards her rent. Even nice shoe shops in Constant Springs didn’t pay local floor staff high salaries.

It was her reality and a reminder of why I had swotted over those books late at night for my Teachers certificate and Master’s degree. The next day I woke early, went to the internet café to print of copies of my CV and targeted the UN offices in New Kingston where I was offered work as a Consultant.

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.

 

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