Mr Ken Saro-Wiwa: 21 years on

I’d been following the story of nine activists who were days away from death over what seemed to be the duration of one week; I was ten years old. Before the days when the Internet was widely available, the News and my parents’ conversations were my sole sources of information fuelling my hungry, little mind.

I will never forget watching the live coverage, 21 years ago this month, knowing that within just a few minutes one man and his fellow activists were to be hanged. I wept and shouted at the TV whilst my mum sat static with horror.

This news story played out in my conscience repeatedly for days, months, years later in a way like no other had. At the time, I couldn’t fully articulate the depths of what I felt, but in retrospect, it was significant because it was one my earliest recollections of evil operating at an institutional ( global ) level.

With baited breath my family and I watched the News that evening hopeful of a last minute reprieve. It didn’t come. Despite outrage from the ‘international’ community, the Nigerian government remained defiant; death by hanging, an effective deterrent to any potential ‘upstarts’ seeking to challenge the status quo.

The murdered activists were known as the Ogoni nine; the leader, Mr Ken Saro-Wiwa.

His death had a profound personal impact for a number of reasons beyond the obvious injustice. It was the first time I had publicly witnessed, in my own lifetime, someone (previously alive) possess an ideal for which they were literally prepared to die and did. It also resonated due to its proximity; despite being geographically thousands of miles away from our London home, my mother’s family originate from the very region it all happened – the Niger Delta.

Weeks after the execution, I had to write a piece at primary school about my hero. I had no hesitation in writing about Mr Saro-Wiwa. I remember passionately scribbling down my thoughts, raw emotion, etched on paper. I have no recollection of what I wrote except that it resonated with my peers and my teacher. Today, 21 years later, he still remains one of my ‘heroes’ –  a term I do not use lightly. And like then, today I write this piece in remembrance of him.

For years the oil company, Royal Dutch Shell, had been extracting oil from the Niger Delta – profiting millions if not billions of pounds to the detriment of local communities.

Spillages were commonplace causing irreversible damage to the local environment and ecosystems. Rivers were poisoned for profit – destroying the main source of livelihood for many of the Ogoni people. Thousands have been harmed both directly and indirectly; death, a common consequence of their operations.

The full extent of the damage caused will never be fully known but there is sufficient evidence to show serious human rights abuses occurred.

Mr Saro-Wiwa was one of, if not, the most prominent voice drawing the world’s attention to the environmental crisis in his native Ogoniland. And clearly to great effect; such that he, along with members of the Ogoni leadership (Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People) and many other ordinary citizens, were subjected to a horrific campaign of harassment, murder and intimidation.

Last year Shell promised to pay out £55million pounds in an out-of- court settlement to communities affected by the oil spills in the Delta region. They have also since publicly acknowledged the human right abuses caused… its a sort of ‘progress’ I suppose.

The story is far from finished but there are encouraging developments demonstrating Mr Saro-Wiwa’s sacrifice was not in vain, nor the countless other victims, whose blood cries out from the Niger Delta soil.

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‘I can take the cold weather but I can’t take cold hearts’ – Tom

It was a crisp, autumnal morning and the skies were slightly overcast, threatening rain. The day started off seemingly uneventful; the usual morning commute comprising a leisurely stroll to the office – providing necessary thinking time – whilst also drinking in the scenery of this beautifully historic part of London.

But as I walked through the little church courtyard, I came across a homeless man sleeping on a bench. Not unusual but what happened next was. Out of habit, I said good morning – looking him directly in the eyes and ensuring my body language conveyed an openness to conversation. He replied good morning. I asked how he was doing, expecting a simple one word reply. Instead he spoke about how much he’d enjoyed last night’s sleep noting it was ‘one of the best nights in a while’.

In his fifties, white and of fair appearance, what struck me most about his obviously dishevelled exterior was the blue rosary around his neck.This would normally be my cue to say ‘God bless’ upon departure but the words froze in my mouth. And as if he were a mindreader, he looked me straight in the eyes and said the very words I couldn’t utter. ‘God bless you.’ I replied sheepishly- surely I should not have been afraid to say something to him?

The next morning, I saw him, Tom, again and we had similar conversation but this time with a little more detail. Someone had given him coffee and it said it made him feel alive and warm. I promised to bring him some tomorrow if he would like? Yes please he responded.

I didn’t buy the coffee. It rained so heavily the next morning that I knew I wouldn’t see him. Eventually I did see Tom, the day after, and came equipped with a mini snack pack of pastries, coke and a banana for energy. This time we spoke for a little longer. Tom told me some of his story; he had an alcohol addiction and wanted to be rid of it. Tom also spoke of his faith – he believed in God – and how thankful he was to the faith- based charity which was currently supporting him.

What struck me most about our conversations was how grateful Tom was just to talk to someone. He said so many times people would walk right past as though he didn’t exist, even when he’d say hello. To make matters worse, Tom does not beg, he is not interested in people’s money or pity. Tom just wanted to be acknowledged and his inherent dignity and worth respected as any other human being would.

We both agreed some people are just plain rude, whilst others are simply oblivious to those around them, especially in London with all it’s hustle and bustle. Tom was from up north originally and because I have family based up there too, we noted that, generally speaking, northerners were a tad bit more warm, open and friendly compared to us southerners. What he said next touched me in a way I can’t express: ‘I can take the cold weather but I can’t take cold hearts’. Looking me deep in the eyes.

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It echoes a similar episode in ‘Overrated‘, written by an American Korean called Pastor Eugene Cho, who I heard speak at the London School of Theology’s annual Deo Gloria lecture a few years ago. In the book (which I would highly recommend reading) Pastor Eugene shares his experience of playing a homeless person in a play at high school. Noticing his inability to get into character, his drama teacher challenges him to be ‘homeless’ for a day, in the hope that it would improve (by his own admission) his abysmal acting skills.

Rising to the occasion, Eugene noticed people would give, in some instances, throw money at him but completely avoid eye contact or any sort of meaningful interaction.

All he wanted was to be acknowledged and known, yet, in his own words, he felt utterly invisible. It was this – not the tiredness, the lack of sanitation, privacy, absence of a peaceful night’s sleep or place to rest – that most affected him. Tom was saying something similar.

We spoke some more but ever conscious of being late for work, I weakly attempted an exit, but how could I leave knowing full well Tom wanted to continue the conversation? Eventually another gentleman passed by who he knew. They greeted one including shaking hands. At this point I acknowledged the substantial amount of dirt under his finger nails, like talons. I would be lying if the sight of it and the prospect of a handshake, didn’t make me flinch momentarily. But as if by divine prompting, I knew that this is exactly what was going to happen next.

As I said goodbye, and that I hoped to see him next week (although really hoping he would be in a shelter rather than outside) I told Tom I would pray for him even if I didn’t see him. He wished me all the best for the day, favour with my manager but more than this, he did the very thing I knew he would. Tom took my hand, shook it and then did something beyond beautiful. He kissed my hand and said “I wanted to treat you like the lady you deserve to be treated. God bless and thank you.”
To this day, this act of kindness overwhelms me, even with all he was going through.

I have had several divine encounters like this with homeless people who have such a deep sense of spirituality. I can’t help but wonder- could we be entertaining angels without knowing it?

The winter chill has settled in and as I reluctantly reach for my winter coat, admitting defeat that summer is dead and gone, I can’t help but remember those who don’t have a roof over their heads.

There are plenty of ways to get involved and support those experiencing homelessness including volunteering at your local homeless shelter (The Robes Project, ASLAN, Brixton Soup Kitchen); volunteering over Christmas – through Crisis; donating money or supplies to a homeless project; buying a hot meal for someone or a bed for the night (there are several initiatives which allow you to do this); give money if you feel compelled to (there is huge debate about this- trust your gut) or supplies (personal hygiene packs, jumpers, jackets, socks etc)- these are some of the most obvious practical things to do.

One of my favourite initiatives, Wrap Up London, is a three day campaign by Hands On London, where they collect coats from the public to give to those who need it – including people who are on low incomes and homeless people. This year’s collection is taking place in various locations across London between 7th – 9th November- check them out if you have any coats spare!

But whether you do this or not – one of the simplest and most effective things I have learnt is to show kindness; look a (homeless) person in the eyes, smile (if appropriate) and just say hello- open to conversation and simply recognising they are also made in in His image too.

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Thrifty Afropolitan in Berlin

Earlier this year, I visited Germany’s capital city on a whim. It seemed everyone I knew had been or was planning to go so being the naturally curious kitten that I am, I wanted to find out what all the fuss was about.  And it didn’t disappoint.

Travelling solo is good for the soul and forces you to come out of your comfort zone which is a necessary thing to do from time to time. I have travelled alone before, but it is the first time I have visited a place where I couldn’t speak the main language.  Similarly, and rather selfishly, I also decided to travel solo because I just wanted to disappear, immersing myself into another culture without having to compromise – just a straightforward, disappear and do-what- I-want sort of holiday.

The trip was so enriching in many ways; East Berlin is incredibly vibrant with a very youthful and creative energy.  A friend of mine described it as ‘painfully edgy’ comparable to Shoreditch, East London.

Berlin is a relatively multicultural city including a huge Turkish population and is also varied architecturally with some truly beautiful buildings to behold.

Berlin was ridiculously affordable (compared to London) from dining out to the range of touristy activities on offer, many of which were free. I had a whole host of recommendations from friends (thank you) but only managed to do a few things given that it was a short break. I planned one thing a day and then left the rest open to whatever opportunities presented themselves.

“Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”

Most people I met were friendly with almost all being able to speak English. However I really wish I’d made an effort to learn a few German phrases. I am not fond of the incredibly arrogant way of travelling and assuming everyone speaks English which unfortunately I did on this occasion. Also not speaking the language meant I missed opportunities for meaningful interactions with German natives.

On one occasion I was sat on a train making my way to a friend’s church on the other side of Berlin.  This guy, who looked slightly rough in appearance, kept staring at me. I wasn’t offended or scared as I sensed he was harmless – more intrigued than hostile. Eventually I offered him a sweet just to break up the intense staring.  He refused politely then proceeded to speak in German. I couldn’t answer back and he seemed a little disappointed by it but kept staring at me until I got off. I would love to have known what thoughts lie beneath…

As usual on the arrival I had a slight panic. What am I doing in this city, where I don’t know anyone and I don’t speak the language? But then I took a deep breath, reminded myself that I am a grown woman, only 1.5 hours away from ‘home’ and that the whole point of the trip was to explore, be patient with myself and come out of the ‘known’.

In all honesty I was concerned about experiencing racism (historically Germany has a track record) and not having the language or wherewithal to respond. I was also worried about my inability to speak German. To appease the panic I returned to the familiar and sat in a local McDonald’s for Wifi and for comfort.
With a shortage of tables, a white woman, middle-aged, friendly faced asked to sit down across from me. I said yes and then she began to talk in German to which I couldn’t reply. For the duration of her lunch, she sat and looked at me, my face and hair in particular – with a semi smile resting on her face.

When God just hooks you up

I stayed in a lovely combination hostel and hotel called Plus Berlin which I would highly recommend due to its location (not far from the Eastside Gallery), amenities and affordability. I absolutely love staying in hostels for short city breaks because of the instant community and the potential to meet different people from around the world.

The first of the serendipitous moments happened when I arrived at the hostel. There was a concert I wanted to go to, part of the reason I came to Berlin, but I didn’t book any advance tickets.  Through a chance conversation with the receptionist, one of his colleagues was planning to go and invited me along.  However I did end up going on my own (and met him there)  but I also met some other wonderful people including a young American female drummer and a fellow Nigerian creative (journalist, dancer & curator) who I immediately clicked with. We all swapped notes on the cost of living in our respective cities and what it means to be Nigerian in our various lands (UK and Germany respectively) as well as hopes for the future etc.

I danced the night away and as if things couldn’t get any better, because of these newly forged friendships, I got to meet the legend and Afrobeat pioneer, Mr Tony Allen (Fela’s drummer), who was incredibly gracious and warm. He even tried to talk to me in Yoruba (my father’s native tongue) when I told him my name but unfortunately ( no thanks to my parents but I still love you) I can’t speak the language! Golden opportunity missed.

Awestruck: Sir Tony Allen, Afrobeat legend and I

Awestruck: Sir Tony Allen, Afrobeat legend and I

Some of the other highlights of my short trip included:

Walking tour – Everyone I knew recommended the walking tour and it was brilliant. Different companies offer them – I went with Original Berlin Tours. The tours are free (although it’s courteous to tip the guide at the end) and lasted for 2.5 hours.  Our tour guide was a young, Irish guy who was passionate and knowledgeable about modern European history so the tour was very well informed.

Walking tours are a good way to meet people if you are travelling solo and I happened to meet some wonderful people including a young woman from London who began solo travelling for much the same reasons as I (the freedom and differing ideas of what constitutes a good holiday compared to her friends.)

The walk covered most of the major landmarks including Checkpoint Charlie, remains of the Berlin Wall, the Holocaust memorial, the Brandenburg gate, the location of Hitler’s bunker and other weird, wonderful and sobering locations.  Towards the end of the tour I stumbled across the Room of Silence– powerful and thought provoking which I would highly recommend even if just to escape the frenzied tourist activity.

Tiergarten – a refreshing oasis in the midst of the hustle and bustle – Tiergarten is the equivalent of London’s Hyde Park – a beautiful sprawling space includes a beer garden, statutes of famous German composers (including one of my favourites Uncle Beethoven) and is surrounded by important landmarks such as the Bundestag and the Brandeburg Gate.

Tasting Turkish food There are lots of Turkish food places with a significant number located near Kotbusser Strasse. I visited several during my short stay the food was that delicious and affordable. I do also recommend trying some German cuisine- a friend of mine who was raised in Berlin but lives in London, recommended I taste a Currywurst- a sausage covered in curry sauce which was quite tasty.

Tempelhof– Formerly an airport, I visited this quirky and wonderful park by accident. It was a hive of activity when I went with numerous sunbathers, cyclists and people having BBQs.  Lovely space and worth visiting to see how the space is being used.

People watching / Bottle collecting – I know it is an odd one ( I promise I am no voyeur)  but on several occasions I noticed grown men picking glass bottles out of bins so asked my friend why this was the case. He mentioned that bottle collecting was common amongst some, usually older people, as a means of supplementing their income. Essentially they can earn extra money if returned to a supermarket as part of a deposit scheme.

Eastside Gallery – you just have to go just because it is so culturally and historically important.

Bundestag– I visited the German parliament building at night and it was spectacular especially the panoramic views from the rooftop. It’s free and really worth going to see especially if you are into architectural design.

Church– I was meant to visit Mauer park, a popular Sunday hangout (again highly recommended) but ended up going to my friend’s church instead. The church was very multicultural – with an American pastor, lovely and welcoming.  After the service, a group of us visited a Latvian restaurant for lunch providing an excellent opportunity to get know them properly.  The group consisted mainly of international students from Ecuador, Canada, Latvia, Brazil and England all developing their German language skills and making the most of the study abroad experience.  I couldn’t help feeling inspired by their experiences- I didn’t study abroad as part of my degree- which I regret, but I do believe it is never to late to cease the opportunity to travel and live abroad (even if for a little while) if that is what your heart desires.

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Can’t be all good, can it?
In terms of travel, Berlin has a good, organised and affordable transport system. It is also a cyclist’s city, so refreshing to see people of all ages cycling around as a way of life. I made a few faux pas during the trip mainly getting confused between the S-Bahn (the  overground trains) and the U-Bahn ( like the London Underground) which led to some frustrating episodes- like missing trains but they were fairly frequent so an easy problem to rectify.

The only down side to my trip was on the third night when the new roommate arrived. A lovely and friendly older woman when awake but a terrifyingly loud chronic snorer by night (resembling the sound of a small freight train) making sleep for the last two nights somewhat elusive. Thankfully I only had two nights of left but at one point wondered if this was part of the hostel’s conspiracy to get guests to upgrade to a hotel room!

In terms of costs I bought cheap return flights for £40 through Easyjet.  My accommodation for 4 nights worked out at approximately 85 euros (£70) which included a shared en suite bathroom. (These prices were pre- Brexit decision) so could be subject to change. And I took a fair amount of spending money but still ended up with a considerable amount left.

In a nutshell:  great city+ great people+ great value = Berlin.

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Don’t give me tat!

Having spent numerous afternoons sorting through donations in a charity shop as a child, I was always amazed by the things people would give ranging from high quality goods to pure junk.

Last summer I was sifting through items to be sent to refugees in Calais, France along with some other volunteers. Many useful things such as clothing, camping kit, practical shoes and non-perishable food were generously donated by the public but on the odd occasion I’d stumble across what can only be described as  ludicrously impractical.

The collection had taken place in a relatively affluent part of London so good quality donations were to be expected. But designer Hugo Boss suits? Dinner dresses and stiletto heels? For refugees who have fled terror and war currently living in squalid conditions? Utterly unbelievable.

Perhaps if the clothing had been donated as part of a resettlement project, providing refugees with smart suits for job interviews for example, then this would make sense. But these items were stupidly inappropriate.

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The donors were clearly having a spring clean and wanted to contribute their unwanted wares to a ‘worthy’ cause, but their ‘charitable’ deeds were completely misguided. And herein lies the problem; Rather than acting primarily out of a genuine desire to help those in need, they were spurred on by a range of questionable motives; namely to appease their conscience, ‘legitimise’ their affluence and ultimately, make themselves feel better.

This also extends the other way, to those individuals who donate absolute tat which belong in one place- the bin. Soiled trousers, torn tops and weather beaten, worn- out shoes; surely if it is not good enough for you, why should it be for someone else?

I truly believe this is what happens when we operate from wrong motives – a sort of disembodied faux compassion. When we fail to fully see people as they should be, as fellow human beings, to be afforded the same dignity we would expect in turn.

There are other circumstances where this could apply such as donating unwanted food to a local food bank. Let’s be honest, how many times have you been tempted to give those unwanted tins, lurking in the kitchen cupboard since time immemorial, to your local food bank? Surely somebody would want that unidentified tinned fruit / vegetables, random pulse or such like, which even you haven’t gotten round to eating despite those bare cupboard / broke days. In all honesty, we would sooner find something else to eat, so why do we insist on giving food that we ourselves would not want? (This piece sums it up perfectly – excuse the naughty language.)

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Another related bug bear of mine, is the assumption homeless people will want things – food specifically- without considering their preferences. Its the equivalent of giving a homeless person who is vegetarian – due to deeply held personal beliefs – a ham sandwich and insisting they eat and be grateful. Just because they are homeless, we assume beggars shouldn’t be choosers. And although there is a modicum of truth entailed in this statement, (if you are desperately in need, you will pretty much take what you are given), irrespective of a person’s status – homeless, refugee, food bank user or someone whose simply fallen on hard times (which most of us have or will at some point) our response should be the same; We see the person, respond to their needs, respecting their being, preferences and desires, and where possible accommodate these accordingly.

May I hasten to add that I am not saying acquiesce to ridiculous requests; a Byron burger when perhaps you can only afford Burger King or a posh sandwich from Selfridges food hall when a similar sandwich from M&S or Tesco will suffice. (Disclaimer: If you can afford to and want to then absolutely respond with radical generosity. But I suspect most people who are in need would be content with a fairly standard version of the said item.)

Nor do I want discourage genuine acts of kindness – even if the outcome is slightly questionable! We may not always be in a position to give people what they want – whether it is due to time, finances or other constraints, but hopefully operating from a place of true compassion and common sense will minimise potential faux pas aka stilettos and Hugo Boss suits.

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Random Afropolitan Childhood memories

Sometimes I am random and to celebrate this I would like to share a silly selection of childhood Afropolitan memories:

  1. Rice stored in the margarine container in the fridge rather than tupperware.
  2. School pack lunch placed in an ice cream tub, much to your embarrassment, whilst all your other friends had nice, child friendly tupperware.  To be fair, this only lasted for a short period of time (thanks Dad for the intervention).
  3. Sandwich fillings – when your mum decides to make your packed lunch for a school trip and  includes sardines, mackerel, boiled eggs- basically the smelliest fillings she can find deliberately designed to embarrass you. Meanwhile all your friends are eating Dairylea and cheese and ham.
  4. Old clothes used as floor rags.
  5. Always had a tin of ‘African milk’- condensed milk in the cupboard just in case.
  6. Old tights being used as a bedtime scarf.
  7. Mum styled your hair in threads because it grows your hair quickly but really it’s just an invitation for ridicule.
  8. Parents generous with their wisdom and their backhands too.
  9. You had to ask before you could help yourself to a snack at home.
  10. Saturday morning was spent food shopping and the dreaded visit to the market.
  11. You remember using the ‘broom’ even though you had a Hoover that worked perfectly fine.
  12. Having to do chores on Saturday before going out to play and feeling like you are missing out even though eventually the parents would let you- FREEDOM!
  13. Child of the 80’s living in London, I guarantee your front room had one of the following; brick wall paper, beaded curtains or a random cocktail bar.
  14. Visiting that one relative on the weekend when you really didn’t want to but had no choice. Felt like temporary imprisonment /punishment when all your friends were out playing and you were made to go against your will. Worst of all that person’s home was so BORING- nothing remotely child friendly about that environment but you had to suck it up!
  15. The ice cream van in the summer- 50p- screwballs/ Feast or the 99 – ice cream with the strawberry sauce and chocolate flake – brought many a smile to my face as a child!

What random childhood memories do you have? Would love to hear them x

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Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of Nigerian party gifts

We Nigerians are a generous bunch; whether it is a wedding or a funeral, we enjoy giving gifts to our guests. Our generosity is legendary simply because the range of commemorative goodies given at parties range from the sublime to the utterly ridiculous.

My uncle and I recently spoke about the most memorable random gifts we have received, some of which are featured in the list below. So in this vein, welcome to the weird, wonderful and sometimes, extravagant world of Nigerian party favours! How many items on the list have you been given?

Commemorative Tupperware– I have countless childhood memories of stumbling across new Tupperware in the kitchen. It usually had the face of some random Aunty or Uncle emblazoned on it along with a message ‘In loving memory of ‘ or ‘Happy 50th Birthday’. These gifts are usually given to be practical- you can take food away with you from a party, but are also useful much later on.

A mug– complete with a mug-shot (get it) of the celebrant.
A Calendar– As much as I love people, I can’t help thinking – ‘why would I want to stare at your face, everyday, for the whole year?!’
A keyring– cheap, cheerful and useful- #YesPlease.
A watch– this is more likely to be given at an  ‘upmarket affair’. I once went to a party where I was accidentally given this, but had to be returned unfortunately as it was gift for the men.
A bubble bath set– this was a gift for all the women at the same party. Some might call it sexist / gender stereotyping but I quite liked it. #smellinglikeroses
A box of salt– I know, I know but on the plus side salt has many uses like cooking, cleaning, preserving etc.
A bottle of washing up liquid– Again, don’t judge this is a very practical gift and probably one appreciated by the older women- my grandma included.
A mini clothes rack complete with pegs– again, interesting choice of gift, wrong demographic (another one for the aunties methinks).
A pen– this has to be one of my favourite gifts. Why? Because the last time I received this as a present (which was a few years ago), it was no ordinary pen; it was a GIANT one which I still use! Practical, cool and quirky, this has to be one of my favs.
Packets of noodles– You hit the jackpot if you got Indomie.
A tray– this is one of the most common and traditional gifts you will receive- again very useful.
A bottle opener– practical for popping open those bottles of Supermalt or Nigerian Guinness.
A Fridge magnet– everyone loves a fridge magnet right?
Perfume –Oh yes please.

It is customary for families and friends of the celebrant to donate gifts and put their name on it where possible. Some might consider this egotistical – (why couldn’t it have been anonymously?) but that is not how Nigerians work. We want you to know, in no uncertain terms, who is responsible for this public gesture of generosity.

What has been the most ridiculous gift you have ever received?

 

 

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