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African Writing Archives


Olamide Awonubi


Olamide Awonubi

Awonubi works as a secretary in London. She was an editorial assistant for South Magazine, and she has written articles for the magazine as well
as reviews for the Arts and Culture page. She has also had articles
published in the New Nation and Voice newspapers. She is currently
working on a collection of short stories based on the African experience
in England, a collection of poems and a novel.


 Born in Britain

Getting to know the locals

It was the mid-sixties and Mother and Father had been in London for a year, which was just long enough to get used to the strange ways of the locals. The drinking, the swearing and racial abuse introduced them to a different England from the one painted by the colonists in Lagos.

Father worked three jobs - I remember now how he only really started talking about them when we returned to Nigeria. On those hot, moist nights he would tell us how he worked in the post office in the day and washed dishes in a hospital by night. Mother worked in a factory that made women’s clothes somewhere in Hackney. Her memories were of harsh winters and damp bed-sits that smelt of stale laundry and the food they cooked. Winter snow dissolved in spring showers, which paved the way for summer, and I arrived in early July. My parents worried about raising a baby in the little flat and friends advised them to look for a ‘nanny’. In those days, young Nigerians who came over to work and study often sent their children to live with English ‘nannies’ and their families in the suburbs, while they tried to make a living in the city.

My parents tried a couple of places outside London. It must have been quite far away from London, because in one village the locals were so annoyed that they had dared to venture out of London that one individual chased them off his property with a gun. In another they were escorted to a potential nanny’s house by a pack of skinhead teddy boys hunting prey on motorbikes - the equivalent of today’s ‘yobs’, jobless youths intent on amusing themselves by inflicting pain on others.

One on occasion they managed to find a woman who was prepared to look after me. She was rather reluctant about it, at first, which Mother said was a little strange - considering she had advertised her services in the paper and down at the social. Mother said a couple of weeks’ advance helped her make up her mind. They agreed to come back after a week to see how I was getting on.

Mother said that they left a healthy baby with this woman on the Saturday and returned the week after to find a sick one. They were horrified. I was covered in sores and vomit. My nostrils were jammed with slime, my nappy oozed with faeces and my clothes were caked with baby food. I was too sick even to cry. Mother snatched me and demanded to know what had happened.

The woman burst into tears and called for her husband, a little, timid, mouse of a man, for back up. That didn’t help her much because he scurried upstairs, quite content to let her do the talking: she had tried her best to look after me but I had been unsettled and irritable, refusing to eat and sleep. I had cried like a banshee into the night and that couldn’t do, because of the neighbours, and because her husband needed his sleep. He was a busy man.

Eh? What about a bath for baby?

My mother demanded answers. The woman said she didn’t know what kind of soap to use on a black baby so she had washed me once in the kitchen sink with some warm water and Lux soap. They bathed weekly every Friday themselves.

Once? You bathed my baby once in seven days?

My mother said she had wanted to slap her so hard that it would have registered ten generations back, and the woman started shaking and called for her husband, who stayed upstairs and threatened to call the police if we didn’t leave. He didn’t want trouble from any darkies. His wife had been getting strange looks in the town when she took me out in the pram and he didn’t want the local ‘teddies’ to cause any trouble for her.

So we left for London. In the next couple of weeks they took turns to look after me in between work and study. A friend told them about a couple in Brighton that another friend had recommended as being really nice. My parents were sceptical at first, but they were getting desperate and needed help.

That weekend they got me ready and went down to Brighton. This family had four children but the first two had left home. The house was white, with a green door, and it opened to reveal the woman and the family I was to bond with for life. Prepared for cold stares and tight lips they got a warm welcome and grins all round as they were ushered in to cups of tea. The two teenagers of the family took turns to cuddle me and make me welcome.

My parents had made the right decision. Forty-odd years later I am so glad they took that trip to Brighton.


Me, my hair and school

My foster mother said that one day when I was older I would be happy to look so different, every one wanted to be darker - they went on holidays to get a tan. Sometimes I would stand in the front of the mirror and pull at the thick, woolly clumps on my head. I wished I could wake up and look in the mirror and see sleek curls that I could sweep back into a ponytail or flick over my shoulders, just like the ‘Supremes’ and the ‘Three Degrees’.

My hair was short, stubborn and grew in painful, knotty tangles. It was wild, like the back of our neighbour’s garden. My foster mother, bless her soul, didn’t know much about black hair and therefore I had to wait for Mother’s fortnightly visits with The Comb. I called it The Comb because it was shaped like some kind of torture implement from the medieval ages; and having Mother in my hair was certainly torture. It was metal, had sharp teeth, and attacked my tight curls, forcing them against their nature. No matter how much I cried, Mother would pull and tug the hair until it surrendered.

First she would wash the hair with Lux, dry it with her fluffy pink towel, and then proceed to pull the curls into segments. She would comb them out - even more agony - rub in a little Morgan’s pomade, and start plaiting with black thread. Hours later and I would be almost unconscious with pain. Long plaits stood out at right angles all over my head. Any attempt to push them down increased the pain so it was best left alone. People had said I was an alien; now I really looked like one, with my hair drawn back from my face, forcing my eyes into an upward slant.

Once, in the playground, a group of girls crowded around. They were laughing, teasing, prodding and cursing.

“She’s got twigs all over her head.” Someone pulled one and my eyes watered. I lashed out, kicking the tallest in the shins.

She screamed, “I’ll get you for that. Right, let’s see if this monkey has a tail….”

In the scuffle they pulled up my dress and I could have died with the embarrassment as the kids whistled and jeered. I remembered wondering if they were clean. My foster mum was always on about clean underwear – supposing you got knocked down and they had to take you to hospital…

Then someone wanted to find out if I had red blood. I didn’t wait around to find out how they planned to do that experiment so I ran off to tell my teacher the Whole Sad Story. Maybe that was a mistake. She decided to handle things in her own way.

“I want you to sit here…right under my nose,” she said, leading me to the front desk occupied by an pale, overweight boy with greasy skin.

I don’t want to sit there”

The teacher was resolute, “It’s for the best.”

So that was how I came to share a desk with The Smelliest Boy in the School; the walking stink bomb. Word had it that he ate his bogies, never bathed and was always picking away at some part of his body. After sitting with him for a morning I realised that he more than lived up to his reputation.

My foster mum brought me loads of books. She taught me the endless joy you can get from reading – I was reared on Ladybirds, ‘Peter and Jane’, Enid Blyton’s ‘Famous Five’ and on the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. I read Dickens, the sagas of Crusoe, and searched in vain for a black princess, heroine or adventurer, so I made up my own stories in my head – daydreaming in class about becoming a writer some day.

My foster mother told my mum that I was going to be a writer.

“She needs to improve her mMathematics,” said my mum

“She got A plus in English.”

My mother laughed, “She was born in England. What else is she supposed to get? Let me see her Maths book.”

I went on to hate Maths all through primary and secondary school – only improving a little when I later read Business Studies. Yet ,English literature remained my true love; and that is something that will never change.

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