Mbeke Blog

Mbeke Blog

Category: UK

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 – 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.

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