Thursday, April 23, 2015


In the mid-80s I was a postgraduate student in London and it was there that I first experienced the need to act on the nudging of my political conscience. Living abroad as a member of a minority race put into perspective the struggles of all oppressed people. One rainy evening - and there are many of those in England; - my friend Juliet and I emptied our purses and put together enough notes and coins to pay a fare. Golders Green was quite a distance from our College in Central London. Normally we would have taken the Tube and a bus to reach our destination but because of the rain we took the Tube to the closest train station and then flagged a black cab for the rest of the journey. At our destination we stepped out of the cab and I counted the notes and coins while Juliet tried to hold an umbrella steady over our heads. I handed the exact fare to the cab driver because of course we had no extra money for a tip. The cab driver knew before counting that he wasn't getting tipped for this trip and so I experienced my first racist attack: "Why don't you just stay in Africa you monkeys?" it hit me like slap across the face but before I could think of a sharp retort he had driven away. Juliet and I were momentarily oblivious of the weather and stood in the rain gaping in disbelief as he sped off.
Another time we were on a crowded train with some 'Yobs' (Boys spelled wrong because they behaved wrong;) coming from a football match where things may or may not have gone too well for their team, so they were in a frightfully loud mood. We ignored them mostly and continued chatting in our mother tongue. Our failure to acknowledge their presence may have irritated them so they turned on us and demanded "Sing it in English!" Well, first of all we were not singing and then there was no need for us to communicate in English since we both understood each other perfectly well in Runyankore. We continued to ignore them but felt the temperature in the train rising by the second. At the next stop we scurried off the train followed by abusive racist remarks.
We felt closer to our roots in London and started patronizing those pubs where we were guaranteed to meet other African students. The Winnie Mandela pub in the basement of the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies was a favorite and it was here that I got first hand accounts of what it meant to live under apartheid. I was infuriated that even in a black majority nation, Africans had no say in how they were governed and lived like second class citizens. So I demonstrated with our brothers and sisters, keeping vigil through a cold winter's night at the South African High Commission on Trafalgar Square, I marched with them to Wembley to celebrate Nelson Mandela's 70th birthday. The camaraderie was both comforting and uplifting. We were one, brought together by our intolerance of racism and the human rights abuses suffered under apartheid. We sang together, we drank together, we laughed together and we kept the fire burning in our hearts long after we left London. So when Mandela walked free we celebrated together from wherever we were that fine day in 1990.

At 50 when I turn on my TV and see South Africans killing fellow Africans, demanding that they leave their country, I know that there are racists out there grinning and thinking they were right all along to say that black Africans have the attention span of a squirrel.

feeling sad.

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