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“I’ve had enough” – part-time precarious work, poverty and the London experience

christopher-rusev-WYPXKxCfH_I-unsplashI recently had my hair braided at an ‘Aunty’s’ house. The woman who does it is comfortably into her late 50s, possibly older and I call her Aunty by default. We are not related but, as is customary in West African cultures, I would never dare address her on first name terms so Aunty it is because what would swiftly follow is  –‘I am not your age mate’.

As she braids my hair, we watch numerous Nollywood movies – commenting on all the scandalous storylines and characters, me, enjoying her witty one-line words of wisdom drawn from decades of life experience.

But through all our small talk I couldn’t get over what had happened just moments before. This woman lives in privately rented shared accommodation with others from a similar background. There is a shared bathroom on the ground floor which is an outhouse reminiscent of the Victorian era. The place is so rundown and dilapidated it’s probably not seen a lick of paint in 2 decades. Her room is cold and filled to the brim with her belongings.

‘I’ve had enough’ she said just moments before sitting on her bed. Aunty had just an argument with one of the other tenants in the house over something seemingly trivial. I could hear her shouting in her native tongue with the other tenant – her response feeling disproportionately heavy-handed compared to this single occurrence. But it wasn’t a single issue – it was a build up of multiple issues – from the irritating (dirty bathroom) to the dangerous (gas cooker being accidentally left on).

This was just too much for her. 9 years on – this type of living was no longer for her. But unfortunately, as an older woman, with low paying insecure work she can’t afford much else and this is the best that money can provide in the private rent sector in London.

Aunty had been on the local council’s waiting list for years and was putting pressure them to find her somewhere to live. But as we all know, even though she is an older person with minor health conditions, she is not a priority. She has gone through the bidding process but with little success. I am not privy to the intricacies of her specific situation, but I know enough to know this is not right.

Our public / social housing sector is in crisis with so many people in accommodation that is not suitable for them. Families are packed into 1-bedroom flats or single rooms in hostels waiting for bigger places. Whilst some people are drowning in properties they no longer need, but because of recent government reforms – where lifelong tenancies have been replaced with assured short hold tenancies (threatening their sense of stability / security)  they have stayed put – preferring to bite the bullet and pay the penalty in the form of the bedroom tax. Many I know in this position would happily downsize but the assured short hold tenancies – where their contracts could be evaluated every 2-5 years – makes this, not only an unattractive prospect but a distressing one, especially if the eligibility criteria fluctuates depending on who is in government.

She finishes my hair and I promise to pray for her. As I make the hour plus journey home – the scenario before running through my mind– there’s a woman having a conversation on the bus with her child at her side. She sounds frustrated. Trying not to be nosy, her volume and the content makes it hard to ignore. Long story short, she is a single parent, doing low paid agency work in schools. She’s just been told that the school she has been working no longer needs her services.  The hours were already a struggle because of childcare but made it work with the help of friends– now she is back to square one. Obviously, I can hear only her side of the story, but this scenario I have heard many times. Then the lady mentions the problems she’s currently having with Universal Credit but I have to get off the bus before she goes into detail. The irony is, less than two weeks ago, the DWP announced there would be further delays to rolling out Universal Credit costing £500 million pounds.

These stories are all to familiar and they are painful. The issues are complex as are the solutions.

It would be all to easy to blame the Government or go the other way and blame the individuals. Neither of these positions are helpful, though in some situations, like Universal Credit, it is glaringly obvious where the blame lies.

We all have a responsibility and role to play- individually and collectively in the well being of others and of society’s potentially most vulnerable. Business has a role to play, faith communities have a role to play, there’s so much to say…

All I know is that this – an elderly woman reduced to living in rundown accommodation or a  young single, working parent balancing insecure work and childcare– both trapped – caught between a rock and a hard place yet trying to find a way of escape- are problems that can and should be solvable.

These two situations say a lot about the state of our society – our housing system and welfare state (both of which are inherently wonderful) but under considerable strain. There are many other sectors which are providing a safety net for the most vulnerable but are at breaking point, just like some of the fragile people caught in it. What can we do? How do we move forward? Can we move forward?

 

 

 

 

 

Valuable lessons on thrifty living from my mama

Happy New Year and decade! It has been such a long time since I have blogged here but I felt inspired to after spending some time at my mother’s house.

Over the last month, I have been recovering from major surgery so needed to stay with my mum until I am strong enough to take care of myself. This time has been a source of unexpected joy and deep healing in more ways than one. One of the things that has provided endless entertainment during this period is realising just how funny and thrifty my mum is! And also how much I love her!

Growing up, my mum has always been very resourceful but experiencing it as an adult has been inspiring and humorous on another level!

Here are just a few of the little lessons on thrifty living I’ve learnt during my stay:

  1. Do not waste water – I have my own method of washing up and my mum has her own. For me, washing up is a quasi-therapeutic, multi-sensory experience so I can be quite liberal (not excessive) in my water usage. I like the sound of the tap quietly running in the background, immersing my hands in the soapy water, and if time permits, really take the time to wash the dishes until they are sparkling clean. But to my mum, the ongoing running water is a monumental waste; it’s best to have one tub of soapy water to wash the dishes, and then do a similar thing re. rinsing them out apart from cups / glasses (which need to be rinsed in fresh water). And if I fail to fall in line, mum is quick to remind me that if I paid my own water bill in full, I would be more economical – ouch! So whilst I am at her house, I have been mindful to use less water, especially since mum has a sixth sense when it comes to water and energy wastage. I swear she can hear the sound of running water at long distances – from the other side of the house – even with the doors shut and TV on. (This must come with decades of being a parent?!). You may even be asking the question – ‘why don’t we have a dishwasher?’ The answer is simple: my mum is old school and still doesn’t believe they wash dishes properly!
  2. Ration washing up liquid – it’s been a while since I have seen washing up liquid diluted in a bottle as standard practice. Most people only resort to this if they are running a little low and need to make it stretch for a short while. However, this is the norm at my mum’s. Apparently some people don’t have the ability to regulate their usage so my mum just wants to help them out! I remember when one of my housemates tried to do this a while ago so that we’d be more economical. This didn’t last long; seeing that we are all adults -living independently of our parents -hopefully we have some ability to manage our usage!
  3. Turn off the lights – I am pretty good with turning off the lights if they are not in use, but my mum is a supremo. Before you’ve barely left the room the lights must be off or she is following closely behind like a ninja to turn them off if she happens to be doing a round of ‘inspections’. And this also goes for household electrical appliances. There is a nightly ritual at mum’s – partly motivated by fire safety and also a commitment to energy efficiency – where all appliances must be turned off at the mains to reduce energy wastage apart from the fridge etc.
  4.  Re-use margarine containers and jars for storage – I have written about this before but coming back to my mum’s home, I saw margarine containers used as tupperware; old coffee glass jars creatively transformed into containers for dried goods and other random plastic containers take on a new lease of life as bowls. In my mum’s own words ‘why should I pay money for these things when I can get them for free?’
  5.  Don’t pay for convenience – Mum and I went to a local franchise of a big supermarket chain. Mum wanted coffee from the store but when she saw the price – almost had a meltdown. “This is half the size of the one at the bigger stores yet almost the same price. No, I am not paying that much for a small jar.” I replied “But Mum, I will buy it for you, don’t worry about it.” My mum retorts: ” No, that’s not the point. I don’t want you spending this amount for this size – it’s the principle. Why should it be so expensive? I’ll go to the bigger store later tonight so I can get the one I normally buy. It’s a rip off. I can’t believe it.’‘ I laughed so much because this instance reminded me of numerous times as a child, when my mum would go to another shop – 10 mins away – to buy the same product which might be 20p cheaper because of ‘principle’.  At that moment, I had an epiphany; my mum is the original Thrifty Afropolitan. I can drop off from time to time- but she is the real deal when it comes to adopting a resourceful, frugal lifestyle influenced by her West African heritage.

On reflection, perhaps God brought me home as a reminder and a challenge to do better re. managing my finances in the new decade ahead…

What lifestyle / household hacks do you remember parents doing to save money? Share them in the comments section below.

Here are a few of the recycled jars in my mum’s kitchen!

Life is short… Don’t waste it!

Are you crazy? This was the question whizzing through my mind as I handed in my resignation. I was in a relatively well paid job, worked with lovely people but I wasn’t ‘happy’ (using this term loosely). The decision to leave wasn’t sudden, I prayed and agonised over it for months but as soon as the decision was made, I was at peace even if it appeared nonsensical to the world. A wise friend once told me that whatever brings you peace should be the guide when making difficult decisions.

In the months leading up to my resignation I had become increasingly unhappy, very negative and critical about work to my nearest and dearest. I was use to working in an environment where there’s lots of changes but this was more than change; it was chaos. The organisation seemed to be in a constant state of flux and my role, for all intents and purposes, was unclear from the outset. I should have known any role created off the back of a restructure would be an experimental one but in my naïveté and relative  inexperience, didn’t foresee the almost insurmountable frustrations and challenges.

But more than this I came to realise I was tired, fatigued of work and life. I needed a proper break not just a week’s holiday, I needed proper time to rest and recuperate. How can you need a ‘break’ at the tender age of 30? What are you having an early mid life crisis? These were the questions whirling round in my mind.

Me, free

Me. Free.

Earlier this year I lost my dad, two years ago my great uncle/grandad and two before that my godfather. All had died from debilitating illnesses which had made these once healthy, fit men  bed bound and utterly dependent even for the smallest of tasks. After five years of trauma and delayed mourning I finally hit a wall and realised; I needed to rest.

Before taking the decision I spoke with my mum and big sister and in true Afropolitan style they were naturally concerned for me. My mum (bless her) began to panic slightly. ‘Are you sure you can’t make it work?’ ‘How are you going to pay your bills?’ I completely understood her concerns. In fact I could hear my dad’s voice saying  as he often did ‘make sure you have another job to go into, don’t just leave, you hear?’ His theatrical Nollywood imagination would have gone into overdrive frightened that his ‘little girl’ would end up destitute and on the streets.

A Nigerian mum's expression when you tell her you resigned. (Copyright: taken from a Nollywood film)

A Nigerian mum’s expression when you tell her you resigned. (Copyright: taken from a Nollywood film)

I didn’t take the decision lightly, nor do I encourage anyone else to. I am not generally a quitter, I try my best to stick things out. As an eternal optimist I will exhaust every angle and try to ‘make it work’ but sometimes you just have to let go and move on, especially when it begins to affect your mental health.

Similarly I made the decision knowing that I had a little financial cushion to fall back on, at least for a few months. As much as the decision may have appeared irrational and sudden, I was sensible and would encourage anyone else thinking of doing the same to consider having at least 2- 3months outgoings set aside as contingency.

The moment I made the decision I felt such peace in fact I could audibly hear God say that I had been ‘set free’ – wow. Anyone who knows me knows that I need constant reassurance; contingency is my middle name- ‘what if”?’, evidence is essential for any decision making and I like to ruminate on things for a long while before saying yay or nay. But God was calling me to step out and have faith and make a decision about the future to trust Him even thought was l clueless as to what the future ‘looked’ like. I only know that I needed to let go of this job and ‘make space’ for Him.

I was angry it had taken me so long to come to this conclusion, letting myself become so negative and critical in the process. I had promised myself a few years  back that I would never allow myself to get to this point. In fact, I remember working in a well known hospital’s admin department surrounded by very negative people, perpetually grumbling about their jobs and about each other; to the extent accusations about theft and managers making nasty comments about people’s sexuality in full view of other staff were commonplace. Now even I am not that naive to think there is a perfect work environment;  but this place was particularly nasty. I made a vow that day to never allow myself to become ‘one of them’ to hate my job so much that I would become infested with bitterness and negativity. I didn’t have a mortgage, husband and children yo provide for,  just little old me so I could ‘afford’ to do this; the cost of staying in a job which was slowly killing me from the inside was an even greater cost I couldn’t afford to pay.

As I handed it in, my new manager (who is wonderful!) tried to negotiate; ‘Did I want to take a sabbatical instead?’ ‘Would I be interested in another job?’ They could amend my role to suit my emerging passions? No was my answer. I just knew I couldn’t be in that environment -slowly chipping away at my confidence, eroding my creativity, making me stagnant, frustrated and lazy- drinking tea and pretending to do something meaningful – I just couldn’t do it anymore. Even a mini ‘campaign’ from beautiful colleagues to get me to stay wasn’t enough.

Since I have told people the most common follow up question is if I have another job to go into and have I been looking. This is an obvious question to ask but one, if not careful can be presented in such a way that it induces slight panic; basically it’s the equivalent of saying ‘get a move on, what are you waiting for?’ I know most people who do ask this do so out of genuine concern, care and curiosity. Truth is I have been looking, have had a few interviews ( been unsuccessful) but I am not in a rush (until my bank account says otherwise). I just don’t have the mental or physical energy to give 100%to a career job at this moment.

Randomly saw and loved.

Randomly saw and loved.

Others have called me courageous, some crazy, others still, inspiring – the list goes on. All I know is that I need to be true to my truest self and obey God. And as crazy as it sounds I know that He has got my back (I have put money aside to). No longer do I want to operate from a place of scarcity and desperation I.e. There are not enough jobs take the first thing that comes etc. I will look and I will apply all in the right time praying to be planted in the right place where I can grow and contribute meaningfully.

For now I am looking forward to filling my days with the following: visits to as many parks as the British weather will permit; listening to great music live or otherwise; making a dent in my five year long reading list; writing; singing; playing piano; seeing family and friends; sleeping; exercising; getting work experience in other areas I am interested in (never too late to start all over and learn new things); spending quality time with God….

This is a time to pause, reflect and redirect. What do I really want from life? If I hush the noise all around and forget about the rat race what have I been ‘called’ to do? What are the dreams in my heart that won’t go away but keep resurfacing the more I try to suppress them?

Since losing my ‘three kings’  the cliche ‘life is short’ has never rung truer; my time on earth is finite and  there is simply no point wasting it on what doesn’t matter. I owe it to myself and I owe it to them (my earthly father figures gone to rest and my Heavenly one) to live the very best possible life I can and to give my dreams a chance to grow.

My personal manifesto...

My personal manifesto…

 

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‘Manchester’ Music, 2nd marriages and enjoying life

As wedding season is underway I wanted to share a few wise words my beloved great uncle shared with me a few years ago re. Having a lasting and happy marriage (he was married for 40 years before his death in 2013). This is an oldie but goodie which I hope blesses you x

Wise man: Great Uncle Kehinde Bamgbose

Wise man: Great Uncle Kehinde Bamgbose

MC2- Mimi Caroline on Music and Culture

This weekend I went ‘up north’ to Manchester to see my great uncle and aunt- whom I have lovingly nicknamed ‘Grandad and Nana’. In my opinion they are some of the sweetest, funniest and kindest people I have ever met and am ever likely to meet in my lifetime.

Rather irritatingly, my journey began with Rihanna’s  ‘Only girl in the world’, played no less than twenty times, in 10 second snippets (as is the case with mobile ring tones) throughout a five- hour, early morning coach trip whilst most people (myself included) were trying to sleep- grrr!

At the half way point the coach stopped for a break and  I hopped off  the coach, grateful to stretch my legs, and naturally gravitated towards the music section in WH Smith- every coach stop station staple! I was very nearly tempted to buy a jazz funk CD which had some great…

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