Choice of Straws by ER Braithwaite. London’s East End 1960. Twins Jack and Dave Bennett are a happy-go-lucky, rootless pair of Teddy boys. If they do occasionally rough-up a black guy it’s just a game to them. Until a victim in Whitechapel fights back and Dave pulls a knife. From the writer of To Sir With Love.
Mr Spencer….. Alex Lanipekun
Dramatised by Roy Williams
Director Claire Grove
About the Play
Edward Ricardo Braithwaite is best known as the author of To Sir, With Love, the 1959 novel that was adapted into the 1967 hit film To Sir, With Love, starring Sidney Poitier, and the hit song To Sir, With Love, sung by Sidney Poitier’s co-star Lulu. His lesser known novel, a Choice of Straws, was originally published in 1965.
Choice of Straws is told from the perspective of Jack, a White East Londoner, who usually follows along with his Twin Brother Dave, who, while being inadvertently stabbed while attacking and killing a Black man, ends up dying in a car crash in a car driven by another Black man, a Medical student named Bill Spencer. Jack tells the truth to his parents about what happened and tries to dodge police inquiries. He also begins to discover himself as an individual, no longer in his brother’s shadow. This involves getting a girlfriend (Ruth) and losing his virginity while pursuing a romantic relationship with Bill’s sister Michelle.
Through Jack’s relationship with Michelle, Braithwaite revisits the divisions that race and class construct in people’s lives that he explored in To Sir with Love. In To Sir, With Love, the educated and sophisticated Afro-Caribbean Teacher is a victim of racism, however his pupils are victims of classism, which has meant that they have received a completely inadequate education to prepare them for anything but work as common labourers. Jack is working-class while Michelle is middle class and has a university education. She ends up ending their relationship for fear that Jack is just using her in order to experience dating a Black girl. This has happened to her before. Even the issue of Jack and Dave attacking the Black man is complicated by the fact that late in the radio play we learn that their father was assaulted by Black men during the 1958 Notting Hill Riots.
Choice of Straws doesn’t provide any easy answers to the racial and class conflicts that still divide Britain into many small islands, but it is a great exploration of these divisions and is itself an action of walking in the “other’s” shoes.
About E. R. Braithwaite
E.R. Braithwaite was born in Guyana in 1920. He was raised in a relatively privileged Afro-Guyanese family, both his parents were graduates of Oxford University. He served in the Royal Air Force as a pilot during World War II. He attended the University of Cambridge where he earned a doctorate in Physics. Like many people of colour in Britain after World War II, despite his qualifications, he found it hard to find employment in his field so was forced to take a job as a teacher in East London. The book, To Sir, with Love, was based on these experiences. Braithwaite pursued a career in social work and ended up getting a job finding foster homes for non-White children for the London County Council. He based his second novel, Paid Servant, published in 1962.
Braithwaite’s books were banned in Apartheid-Era South Africa until 1973. At this time, Braithwaite applied for a visa to visit South Africa. His visa as granted and he was given the status of “Honorary White”, which gave him far more freedoms and privileges than the indigenous Black population. He wrote about his experiences traveling in South Africa in the memoir Honorary White, published in 1975.
Braithwaite has worked as an educational consultant and lecturer for UNESCO, as the permanent representative for Guyana to the United Nations, as the Guyanese Ambassador to Venezuela, and as Writer in Residence at Howard University. Most recently, he has been a visiting professor at Manchester Community College. He now lives in Washington, D.C.
About the Notting Hill Race Riots
The 1958 Notting Hill Race Riots raged over the August Bank Holiday in Nottingham. Although dismissed by police at the time as just hooliganism perpetrated by White and people of colour alike, In 2002, theLondon Internal Metropolitan Police released documents related to the riots which told a different story:
The Met commissioner was told that of the 108 people who were charged with offences ranging from grievous bodily harm to affray and riot and possessing offensive weapons, 72 were white and 36 were “coloured”.
It is popularly believed that the riot began on the night of Saturday August 20 when a 400-strong crowd of white men, many of them “Teds”, attacked houses occupied by West Indians. Among the victims was Majbritt Morrison, a young white Swedish bride of a Jamaican. She was pelted with stones, glass and wood, and struck in the back with an iron bar as she tried to get home.
The internal police witness statements provide graphic evidence of the motives of the mobs – at one point crowds several thousand strong roamed the streets of Notting Hill, breaking into homes and attacking any West Indian they could find.
PC Richard Bedford said he had seen a mob of 300 to 400 white people in Bramley Road shouting: “We will kill all black bastards. Why don’t you send them home?” PC Ian McQueen on the same night said he was told: “Mind your own business, coppers. Keep out of it. We will settle these niggers our way. We’ll murder the bastards.”
The fact it is believed one of the first people attacked by Whites was a White woman in a romantic relationship with a Black man just demonstrates how subversive such unions were perceived as at the time. My own mother used to be called a “Nigger Lover” and “Race Traitor” jokingly by her family members when she married my father. The level of contempt that White women who agreed to be in romantic relationships with men of colour at this time, and in some places even now, is a phenomenon which I feel has not been explored well enough in anti-racism circles’ discussions around White Privilege.
The Notting Hill Carnival, an annual street festival led mainly by Britain’s Trinidadian and Tobagonian community, began in 1959 as a community response to the Notting Hill Race Riots. The first festival was organized by Claudia Jones, a Trinidadian American Communist and journalist who had been granted asylum in Britain in the late 195os after having been imprisoned and eventually deported from the United States due to her communist activities. In 1958, she founded the West Indian Gazette, the first newspaper printed in London for the Black community. She is considered “The Mother of the Notting Hill Carnival”. Black Academic Carole Boyce Davies has written her biography, Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones. The title of the book refers to the fact that Jones, who died in 1964 due to heart disease and tuberculosis, is buried in London’s Highgate cemetary to the left of Karl Marx.
About Gugu Mbatha-Raw
Mixed Race British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw has recently gained recognition in the United States as the star of the cancelled J.J. Abrams’ TV Series Undercovers. I can’t help but suspect that Undercovers partly failed because it had two Black leads playing “non-traditional Black roles”. Of the top of my head, I can’t think of any American TV Series with Black Leads, other than comedy series, that have survived very long. Despite this, Gugu’s beauty and talent has been “discovered” and we will be seeing more of her on the American screen. Gugu was born in 1973 in Oxford, England to South African doctor Patrick Mbatha and English nurse Anne Raw, who met while working together at a hospital . Her full name, Gugulethu, means “Our Pride” in Zulu. She is a graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. I first saw her in the British Sci-Fi TV Series Doctor Who, portraying Tish Jones, the sister of Doctor Who’s First Black Companion, Martha Jones. In 2009, Gugu played Ophelia opposite Jude Law in Donmar West End and Broadway Production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. We will be seeing her on the big screen soon in the comedy drama Larry Crowne starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts and in the American Supernatural Thriller “Odd Thomas“.
To Ricky with Love by Caryl Phillips (2005 Guardian article available online)
Notting Hill Race Riots
After 44 years secret papers reveal truth about five nights of violence in Notting Hill by Alan Travis (2002 Guardian article available online)
The Forgotten Race Riot (2007 BBC article available online)
Long History of Race Rioting (2001 BBC article available online)
Profile of Claudia Jones available online
Interview (2009) in The Guardian available
Interview (2009) in The Telegraph available online
Video Interview (2010) available online
Black British Literature
Black British Literature since Windrush by Onyekachi Wambu (BBC History article available online)
God’s President Mugabe of Zimbabwe is a play that was commissioned by BBC Radio 4 for its Friday Play Series to mark the 30th anniversary year of the Independence of Zimbabwe. According to the BBC Radio 4 website:
Kwame Kwei-Armah’s play tells the story of the tense negotiations around the Lancaster House Conference, and the road to Zimbabwe’s Independence.
On 4th March 1980 the Shona majority in Rhodesia was decisive in electing Robert Mugabe to head the first post-independence government as Prime Minister. Six weeks later, on April 18th, Zimbabwe celebrated its first Independence Day.
On the 21st December 1979, following three months of talks, the Lancaster House Agreement finally brought independence to Rhodesia following Ian Smith’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965.
Margaret Thatcher’s government had invited Bishop Muzorewa and Ian Smith, and the leaders of the Patriotic Front, led by Joshua Nkomo (Zimbabwe African People’s Union/ZAPU)and Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe African National Union/ZANU) to participate in a Constitutional Conference at Lancaster House in London, to be chaired by the foreign secretary, Lord Carrington.
The purpose of the Conference was to discuss and reach agreement on the terms of an Independence Constitution, and to ensure that elections should be supervised under British authority to enable Rhodesia to proceed to legal independence and the parties to settle their differences by political means.
Each scene of the play takes place on crucial day of Zimbabwe’s history, some of these days are well-known, others are not. The play jumps back and forth in history and goes back as early as 1960 and as late as 1980, covering twenty years in the history of Zimbabwe’s independence movement. British Zimbabwean actor Lucian Msamati (best known for his role as Mr. Matekoni in HBO’s No. 1 Ladies, Detective Agency) plays Robert Mugabe.
18th November 1971, in Salisbury Prison, Rhodesia
Alex Douglas Hume, the British Foreign Secretary under Prime Minister Heath and Bishop Muzorewa of the United African National Council visit Robert Mugabe and Edgar Tekere, who have been imprisoned by Ian Smith’s government. They are there to discuss the proposed constitutional settlement. The British government wants to get Tekere and Mugabe’s opinion.
Mugabe and Tekere feel that the proposal is just British capitulation to Ian Smith’s demands. Hume argues that the mechanisms are in place to lead to majority rule eventually. Bishop Muzorewa also objects to the proposal.
17th May 1979, Office of Lord Carrington, Britain
Lord Carrington reflects on Margaret Thatcher’s speech in regards to the crisis in Rhodesia. The British are considering recolonizing Rhodesia, establishing a constitution that both sides accept, then leaving. Margaret Thatcher doesn’t want to be seen as a racist by the Commonwealth and has sent a video of her speech to Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda in order to assure him that she supports Black Majority Rule.
3rd September 1979, Havana, Non Aligned Movement Summit, Cuba
Zambian President Kaunda is meeting with Robert Mugabe and challenging him on his squabbles with Nkomo. Kaunda doesn’t want to see more of his people die because Mugabe is behaving in a reckless and criminal fashion. Kaunda threatens to shut all of the ZAPU bases in Zambia if Mugabe won’t accept to negotiate a peace at Lancaster House.
10 September 1979, Lancaster House, Britain
Lord Carrington observes that Nkomo has come separately from Mugabe and they are both staying at separate hotels and have different PR representatives although they are both members of Zimbabwe’s Patriotic Front. Bishop Murorewa arrives with Ian Smith; they are both members of the Zimbabwe-Rhodesia delegation. Edgar Tekere arrives with Robert Mugabe.
10 September 1979, Lancaster House, Opening Plenary Session, Britain
Lord Carrington presents the proposed constitution for Rhodesia with which Britain will be prepared to grant independence. Lord Carrington expresses his anger that a cease-fire has not been called during these negotiations. Mugabe accuses Bishop Muzorewa of betraying the nationalist movement for siding with Ian Smith and defending thee rights of the White Minority.
In the bathroom, Robin Renwick, who works in the Rhodesia Department of the British Foreign Service, meets Tekere and expresses his hope that, even if official talks break down, he and Tekere can keep communicating.
Renwick asks if Tekere knew Mugabe before the liberation struggle because they seem so close. Tekere says he knew Mugabe would be their leader from the first time he spoke.
20th July 1960, Highfield Township, Salisbury, Rhodesia
Robert Mugabe has participated in demonstrations against and been chased by riot police. Tekere encourages Mugabe to speak to the crowd of demonstrators. Mugabe is hesitant because he doesn’t know what to say. Tekere tells him to just talk about his experience in the demonstration. Tekere introduces Mugabe to the crowd, explaining that he has three university degrees and has just returned from Ghana. Mugabe finally speaks. He says that Ghana was the first African state to gain independence and his expresses his admiration for that country where Africans are in control of their own affairs. While in Ghana, Mugabe realized that in Rhodesia Blacks are taught to worship the White man. Mugabe encourages the people in the crowd to stand up for their rights.
Tekere tells Mugabe that he is going to introduce him to Nkomo and invites him to join the party. Tekere tells Mugabe that he would be a great spokesperson. Mugabe states that he is a teacher in Ghana but Tekere says that now Mugabe’s job is to fight for freedom in Rhodesia.
10th September 1979, Lancaster House, Britain
Bishop Muzorewa is meeting with Lord Carrington on his own. Carrington emphasizes that if there is no settlement the British will not lift sanctions against Rhodesia. Carrington tells Bishop Muzorewa that his party needs to accept that White Privilege will come to an end in Rhodesia.
10th October 1979, Lord Carrington’s Office, Britain
The land of White farmers will be protected for 10 years in the proposed constitution. Mugabe says that this war is mostly about land and is angry about idea that Blacks will have to compensate Whites for the land they stole. Lord Carrington wants Mugabe to sign off on the constitution. Carrington informs Mugabe that he will only negotiate with Bishop Muzorewa and Ian Smith because they accept the proposed constitution. He tells Mugabe and Tekere that their attendance at the conference is no longer required and that they should keep in mind that Britain will be lifting sanctions on Rhodesia so they will facing a war with an economically revitalized country.
Mugabe is fed up with trying to negotiate with Carrington and decides to go over his head.
15th October 1979, Lord Carrington’s Office, White Hall, Britain
Secretary General of the Commonwealth, Sir Sonny Ramphal, who Mugabe has contacted, confronts Lord Carrington about his decision to expel Mugabe, Tekere, and Nkomo from the conference and accuses him of treating Mugabe like a child and being too close to Bishop Muzorewa and Ian Smith. Lord Carrington states that he thinks Mugabe is an unreasonable monster. Ramphal informs Lord Carrington that there are rumors that he had a separate meeting with Bishop Muzorewa, making it clear to him that he would get Mugabe, Tekere, and Nkomo to leave the negotiating table. Bishop Muzorewa discussed this meeting in a letter which has been leaked to African newspapers.
Ramphal says he can get Mugabe back to the table. Lord Carrington accuses Ramphal of being too close to the Africans. Ramphal explains that there are things he can get Nkomo and Mugabe to agree to that Lord Carrington can’t.
15th October 1979, a Hotel in Central London, Britain
Ramphal, Mugabe and Tekere are meeting. Mugabe is furious that in the proposed constitution Blacks will have to buy land from Whites at market price. Ramphal says that he spoke with President Jimmy Carter and America will contribute to the land resettlement fund to buy the land so it will not have to come from the new Zimbabwean government’s budget.
18th October 1979, Lancaster House, Britain
Tekere and Mugabe show up with a signed copy of the constitution, much to Lord Carrington’s surprise.
Now, the transition to democracy can be discussed. Lord Carrington says that Britain will return to Rhodesia for two or three months to monitor new elections.
Mugabe flips out and demands that their be a new Chair instead of Lord Carrington. He then storms off.
Robin Renwick tries to speak with Tekere before he goes off to follow Mugabe.
25th October 1979, Lord Carrington’s Office, White Hall, Britain
Bishop Muzorewa is meeting again with Lord Carrington. Lord Carrington asks Bishop Muzorewa to stand down as Rhodesian Prime Minister during the transition period because if he stays in power it looks like he is getting an unfair advantage. As he was only elected six months earlier, Bishop Muzorewa is not happy with this proposal. Lord Carrington assures the Bishop that British intelligence says that he is sure to win the election again and that Mugabe won’t be able to get his campaign together in only a few months so Muzorewa should not worry.
7th November 1979, Lancaster House, Britain
Lord Carrington is meeting with Robin Renwick. Lord Soames will be appointed as the New Governor of Rhodesia during the transitional period, although he knows nothing about Rhodesia.
14th November 1979, Lord Carrington’s Office, White Hall, Britain
Lord Carrington is happy that Bishop Muzorewa has agreed to step down as Prime Minister of Rhodesia. He reflects on the fact that in 1974, Ian Smith released Mugabe and his comrades from prison, only because the South African government asked him to. But then these former prisoners started getting killed. It looks like they were only released so that Ian Smith could take them out.
18th November 1974, Cambazumo/a Service Station, Salisbury, Rhodesia
Edgar Tekere picks up Mugabe in a car, Bob Marley music is playing on the radio. They are heading for the mountains at the border with Mozambique where they will walk to safety. They are fleeing assassination attempts by Ian Smith’s mercenaries. They have learned that Ian Smith’s mercenaries have sneaked into Patriotic Front camps and slaughtered men, women and children.
6th December 1979, Hotel Room in Central London, Britain
President Kaunda is meeting with Mugabe. He assures him that the Patriotic Front should not fear attacks by Ian Smith’s mercenaries as there will be a Commonwealth Monitoring Group stationed in Zimbabwe to ensure that the cease-fire is maintained.
14th December 1979, Press Conference , Hotel in Central London, Britain
Mugabe holds a Press Conference criticizing the negotiations and demanding that the international community become involved in order to protect the Zimbabwean people from the Rhodesian Security Forces.
14th December 1979, Hotel Room in Central London, Britain
Lord Carrington is angry about Mugabe’s Press Conference. Mugabe demands that Patriotic Front (ZAPU and ZANU) militias be permitted to have a central assembly point in Rhodesia so they are not vulnerable to attack at the country’s borders. He will only sign the Lancaster Agreement if his is allowed.
21st December 1979, Lancaster House, Britain
Members of the Patriotic Front delegation, the Zimbabwe Rhodesia delegation and the British delegation sign the Lancaster House agreement. Despite this, Mugabe expresses that he feels wronged and cheated.
20th February 1980, Election Rally, Harare, Zimbabwe
Mugabe and Tekere return to Zimbabwe after five years in exile. Lord Soames has been threatening to kick them out of the elections but if that happens, they have declared that they will consider the forces of the Patriotic Front absolved from maintaining the Lancaster Agreement, particularly the ceasefire.
4th March 1980, Harare, Zimbabwe
Nkomo’s Part, ZAPU has won 20 seats. Bishop Muzorewa’s party has won only 3 seats. Mugabe’s ZANU has won 57 seats. Although he has won, Mugabe says that the fight has only just begun.
18th April 1980, Zimbabwe House, Harare, Zimbabwe
Bob Marley has been invited to perform for Zimbabwe’s first Independence Day. Mugabe is so excited to meet him. He explains that Patriotic Front soldiers sung Marley’s songs while they fought the resistance struggle. Marley will be performing the song he wrote in support of Zimbabwe’s freedom struggle, Zimbabwe.
Bob Marley expresses concern with what he sees going on in Harare. He says that he doesn’t just want to perform for “Uptown people” and doesn’t want to see ordinary people being beaten by police just because they want to come and see him perform but were not invited. Mugabe agrees to organize a free concert for the masses on the next day.
Bob Marley quotes from the song Zimbabwe “Soon we will see who is the real revolutionary”.
Carrington, Renwick asks if they got the right man, relates that there have been reports of atrocities in the north, Carrington says that it’s Africa so a strong leader is needed, not sure
I’m not sure if you can consider this play “entertaining” in the traditional sense; however, for those of us who are interested in how politics actually works, it is a great play and incredibly informative. Dramatically speaking, there are many interesting moments which could be considered even poignant if you are knowledgable about Zimbabwe’s post-independence history. For example, the fack that Edgar Tekere was so close to Mugabe, that he actually was the one to encourage Mugabe to become a leader in his party, is ironic given their current rivalry. Bob Marley quoting from his song Zimbabwe by saying “soon we will see who is the real revolutionary” is very striking, as it has become quite clear that, although a Black Nationalist, Mugabe has seemed particularly inconsiderate about the lives of poor Zimbabweans and the fact that he at first only organized Marley’s concert for the political elite and their guests foreshadows this. Rasta Ngwenya describes Bob Marley’s first concert in Harare as follows:
In fact, the first official words uttered in Zimbabwe, following the raising of the new flag, were: “Ladies and gentlemen, Bob Marley and the Wailers.”
Twenty minutes later, Bob and The Wailers started their set. As soon as the first notes rang out, pandemonium broke loose in the enormous crowd gathered by the entrance to the sports stadium: the gates shook and began to break apart as the crush increased, the citizens of Harare, both excited and angry at being excluded from seeing these inspirational musicians.
As clouds of teargas drifted almost immediately into the stadium itself, the audience on the pitch fell on their feet in an attempt to protect themselves. The group members tasted their first whiffs of the gas and left the stage. “All of a sudden,” said Judy Mowatt, “you smell this thing taking over your whole body, going in your throat until you want to choke, burning your eyes. I looked at Rita (Marley) and Marcia and they were feeling the same thing.”
“I feel my eyes and nose,” remembered Family Man, “and think, from when I was born, I have to come all the way to Africa to experience teargas.”
Bob, however seemed to have moved to a transcendent state. His eyes were shut, and for a while the gas didn’t seem to have an effect at all. Then he opened his eyes and left the stage.
Backstage, the group had taken refuge in a truck. Outside they could see small children fainting and women collapsing. It looked like death personified to Mowatt, who briefly wondered whether they had been brought to Zimbabwe to meet their ends.
She persuaded someone to drive her and the other I-Threes back to the hotel, only to discover on the television that the show had resumed. After about half an hour Bob and the Wailers had gone back on stage. They ended their set with Zimbabwe, a song Bob had worked on during his pilgrimage to Ethiopia late in 1978, and which became arguably his most important single composition.
Bob was just coming offstage as Mowatt and her fellow women singers returned to the stadium. “Hah,” he looked at them with a half-grin, “now I know who the real revolutionaries are.”
It was decided that the group would play another concert the following day, to give the ordinary people of Zimbabwe an opportunity to see Bob Marley.
Over 100 000 people-an audience that was almost entirely black- watched this show by Bob Marley and The Wailers. The group performed for an hour and a half, the musicians fired up to a point of ecstasy. But Bob, who uncharacteristically hadn’t bothered to turn up for the sound check, was strangely lacklustre in his performance; a mood of disillusionment had set in around him following the tear-gassing the previous day.
After the day’s performance, the Bob Marley team was invited to spend the evening at the home of Tekere. This was not the most relaxed of social occasions.
As the henchmen strutted around with their Kalashnikovs, Mills was informed by Tekere that he wanted Bob to stay in Zimbabwe and tour the country. “Bob told me to say he wasn’t going to, but the guy didn’t want to hear me.”
While Bob remained in the house, Rob Partridge and Phil Cooper sat out in the garden. “I could hear,” said Cooper, head of international affairs, “Tekere saying to Bob, ‘I want this man Cooper. He’s been going around putting your image everywhere. He’s trying to portray you as a bigger man than our President.’ I could hear all this.
“Then Bob came out and said to us, in hushed, perfect Queen’s English; ‘I think it’s a good idea for you to leave’.”
“Partridge and I went and packed, and took the first international flight out, which was to Nairobi. About five months later Tekere was arrested and put in jail; he had been involved in the murder of some white settler.
I was particularly fascinated to learn about the roles played by Zambia’s President Kenneth Kaunda and Indo-Guyanese politician and former Foreign Minister of Guyana, Sir Sonny Ramphal, who is played by the writer of the play Kwame Kwei-Armah.
About Kwame Kwei-Armah
Kwame Kwei-Armah is a British playwright, actor, and singer. He is the First Black Briton to have a play staged on London’s West End when his play Elmina’s Kitchen was staged in Garrick’s Theatre in 2005. He was born Ian Roberts in London. His parents are immigrants from Grenada. He changed his name to Kwame Kwei-Armah in his 20s after he traced his family’s roots to Ghana.
Zimbabwe’s History: Key Dates (BBC News article available online)
Zimbabwe at 30 Audio Slideshow (BBC News article available online)
Joshua Nkomo’s Obituary (BBC News article available online)
Viewpoint: Kaunda on Mugabe (BBC News article available online)
House of Stone at 30 by Farai Sevenzo (BBC News article available online)
Lucian Msamati Cut His Teeth Doing Political Theatre in Zimbabwe. Now He Has a Lead Role in Alexander McCall Smith’s Rose-Tinted Vision of Africa by Aida Edemariam (Guardian article available online)
Interview (1980) with Lord Carrington by Time Magazine (Time article available online)
Interview (2000) with Lord Carrington by David Frost (BBC News transcript available online)
When Bob Marley Caused a Riot in Africa by Rasta Ngwenya (article available online)
Video of Bob Marley performing Zimbabwe, with lyrics available
Profile of Kwame Kwei-Armah (article available online)
Interview (2008) with Kwame Kwei-Armah available online
Interview with Kwame Kwei-Armah available online
Last week, I had the chance to listen to Don Letts’ BBC Radio 4’s Documentary about the life and work of Peter Tosh.
Here’s the description:
Peter Tosh found international fame alongside Bob Marley as a member of The Wailers. As a solo artist he released several landmark reggae albums and even recorded with the Rolling Stones. But he was more than just a successful pop star: he was a revolutionary and a hero to many of Jamaica’s poor. He spent his life as a strident campaigner for civil rights and for the legalisation of marijuana. He was more militant and political than his former band mate and his uncompromising arrogance often landed him in serious trouble. For that reason, as this documentary reveals, his life could be as brutal as the way it ended. Grammy award winning film-maker Don Letts explores his career.
The documentary opens with excerpts from interviews with people who knew Peter Tosh:
Peter Tosh was the Malcolm X to Bob Marley’s Martin Luther King. One was the arouser and one was the healer. But Peter was much more on the side of militancy. (Roger Steffens, Reggae Historian)
His songs have been recorded by Eric Clapton, Peter Gabriel, Jackson Brown, Ben Harper, Chrissie Hynes from the Pretenders, Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, Sinnead O’Connor. (Wayne Jobson, DJ and producer)
Peter was adored as a revolutionary in Jamaica. He was so charismatic and he was saying very much what the people thought. (Vivien Goldman, Journalist)
Don Letts’ opens the documentary with the following statement:
Peter Tosh was not your average rockstar and as a person you probably won’t even like him. He could be arrogant, unpleasant and intimidating. But for me he was also a completely awe-inspiring performer, a revolutionary who stood up for the equal rights of the Jamaican poor and Black people all over the world. They always call Bob Marley the Reggae Rebel but Peter Tosh was far more militant and political than Bob ever was. His uncompromising attitude often caused controversy and landed him in serious trouble and as you will hear his life could sometimes be as brutal as the way it ended.
As Bob Marley archivist Roger Steffens states:
He made a guitar out of wire and a sardine can and taught himself to play by watching an older man who actually had a guitar.
According to Jamaican-American Wayne Johnson, producer of the documentary Red X, about Peter Tosh:
I think with him growing up in Jamaica during the colonial days in the 50s and so it was you know as Peter said you never saw a Black school teacher, or a Black preacher or a Black bank manager or anything like it was all English people who came down and took the big jobs and therefore you know eventually you would want to rebel against this especially with the church where he was forced to go to church two, three times a week and every day he was singing “O Lord wash me and I’ll be as white as snow.” You can’t oppress anybody worse than that you know and so Peter said it was almost like apartheid in those days.
In a 1983 BBC Interview, Peter Tosh explains:
I was the first one in the group who played music. I used to play my guitar. I used to play the keyboards. I taught Bob to play guitar and I taught Bunny to play guitar because it was a part of making your music perfect see. And in those times is like we had a good voice but we wasn’t creating music that music that much it was just singing people song and singing people son and the people been telling us that we sound good why don’t go to the studio so we got together once and we did some recording recorded the first one which was Simmer Down and the people loved it. It sold well.
As Vivien Goldman explains:
I don’t think I’ve ever had as many arguments with anybody in my life as I did with Peter Tosh.I remember once I was interviewing him, he was like “Women are inferior to men!” I was like “Why is that?” you know “Oh look at the docks , if you go down to the docks a woman can’t pick up a heavy bag and carry it the same way a man can.” And there was you know there was quite embedded in Rasta certain things for women their period was regarded to be unclean but he was really into it “Oh!!!!” you know “ Are you having your period? Should you be in the room with me know?” I was like excuse me, I’m here as a working professional matey.
The Guardian’s Review of Arise Black Man The Peter Tosh Story by Elisabeth Mahoney
Roger Steffens’ Reggae Archives Website
Vivien Goldman’s Blog
The many voices of Rastafarian women : sexual subordination in the midst of liberation by O. Lake (essay available online)
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Independence for 17 African Nations, including Nigeria. The achievements of this landmark year inspired other African nations’ independence movements. To mark this year in African history, Tanzanian journalist Adam Lusekelo, presented on BBC Radio 4 the five episode documentary series Africa at 50: Wind of Change in which he interviews five Africans who grew up within African British colonies that achieved independence in the 50s and 60s and lived through this pivotal year in African history. There are five episodes in the series, each focused on one former British colony. Episode One is an interview with former Deputy Editor for BBC Worldservice Elizabeth Ohene from Ghana, which achieved independence in 1957; Episode Two is an interview with writer Adewale Maja-Pearce from Nigeria, which achieved independence in 1960; Episode Three is an interview with Brigadier General Hashim Mbita from Tanzania, which achieved independence in 1961; Episode Four is an interview with historian Zarina Patel from Kenya, which achieved independence in 1963; and finally Episode Five is an interview with Professor Thandika Mkandawire from Malawi, which achieved independence in 1964.
The title of the series comes from what is popularly known as the “Wind of Change’ Speech by British Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. The speech demonstrated that the Conservative-controlled British government, which had earlier halted the decolonization process begun by the Labour government from 1945 to 1951, intended to grant independence to Britain’s African colonies and that these were indeed the last days of the British Empire. Although actually first read on January 10th 1960 in Accra, Ghana, the speech first garnered media attention in Britain and across Africa when it was read to the apartheid South African government on February 3 1960 during Macmillan’s tour of British African colonies, which began on January 6th 1960 . In the speech Macmillan states:
The wind of change is blowing through this [African] continent, and whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact. We must all accept it as a fact, and our national policies must take account of it.
Although the speech showed support for the apartheid South African government, it also clearly expressed criticism of apartheid laws, as is demonstrated by the following statement:
As a fellow member of the Commonwealth it is our earnest desire to give South Africa our support and encouragement, but I hope you won’t mind my saying frankly that there are some aspects of your policies which make it impossible for us to do this without being false to our own deep convictions about the political destinies of free men to which in our own territories we are trying to give effect.
I chose to review the fifth Episode of this series because Malawi is a country I know very little about except from the media attention it has received because of American pop icon Madonna. Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world and Madonna, at the urging of Malawian Victoria Keelan, the managing director of a Malawian agricultural supply company, in 2006 visited the country (her first time in Africa) and made the controversial decision to adopt David Banda, a Malawian child of about two years old at the time who was suffering from malaria and pneumonia. Madonna set up the organization Raising Malawi, with Michael Berg, head of the Kabbalah Center in Los Angeles, in order to alleviate the extreme poverty experienced by Malawi’s orphans. In 2008, Madonna wrote, narrated and produced the documentary film I Am Because We Are, which depicts the plight of Malawi’s orphans, many of whom have lost parents to AIDS.
I always long to learn about African countries from Africans themselves instead of Western celebrities, journalists, and academics so the Africa at 50: Wind of Change Series was refreshing. This post is a review of Episode 5 of this series which focuses on Malawi through an interview with Thandika Mkandawire, who holds the first chair in African Development at the London School of Economics, and is the former Director of the United Nations Research Institute on Social Development and the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA).
When it was a British colony, Malawi was known as British Central Africa and Nyasaland, after Lake Nyasa (Nyasa means lake in the language of the Yao people), now known as Lake Malawi in Malawi. The word Malawi in Chewa, the national language of the Republic of Malawi, is thought to derive from Maravi, the name of the state built by Chewa iron workers in the area of Lake Malawi. The Chewa were migrants to the region from the modern day Republic of Congo. Maravi is believed to mean “rays of light”.
The following is a Synopsis of the programme on BBC Radio 4:
Malawi was the first country in the south to gain independence. By 1958, Nyasaland – as it was then called – was experiencing a mounting tide of political unrest. Dr. Hastings Banda, a respected medical doctor based for many years in the UK and Ghana, returned to lead the struggle for independence.
Professor Thandika Makandawire was still at school when a state of emergency was declared in Malawi in 1959, and Banda was arrested. It was a turning point in his life, and he became more active with the youth league of the nationalist movement. “You could see colonial rule was coming to an end”, says Makandawire. “It was very exciting for a young person.”
When Harold Macmillan toured southern Africa in early 1960, Makandawire took part in a rowdy demonstration outside his hotel. The police reacted violently, and he was arrested. But he believes that the incident dispelled the “myth of peaceful natives” and helped inform Macmillan’s “Wind of Change” speech.
In 1962, Thandika Makandawire won a scholarship to study in the USA. “The dream was that I’d go to the US and come back as soon as I could.” But within three months of independence, the new government was convulsed by a cabinet crisis and Makandawire’s passport was withdrawn. Unable to return to Malawi, he spent 30 years in exile.
Despite the price he paid, Makandawire is proud of the role he played in the independence struggle. “In my lifetime, I have seen the whole of the continent liberated. That’s priceless.”
Producer: Ruth Evans
A Ruth Evans Production for BBC Radio 4.
In the programme. Thandika Mkandawire reminisces about his student days during the final years of British colonial rule in Malawi from about 1958 to 1964.
Mkandawire explains that in the case of Malawi, there is no reason to romanticize British Colonial government as having been better than African government. The colonial government in Nyasaland was called the British Overseas Military Authority (BOMA). Mkandawire describes it as a garrison government that had little interaction with the countryside and could hardly be compared to a real state government that oversaw education, health care and the like.
Sir Hastings Banda, who had leaved abroad since 1925, and was educated as a doctor returned to Malawi in 1958. Throughout the episode, you can hear excerpts from Banda’s speeches and interviews at the time. Mkandawire observes that because Banda was an educated Malawian, and there were so few educated, he was seen as a national hero who could lead the country to independence. When he returned, according to Mkandawire, Malawians got “all worked up” and were clamouring for independence. This led to a crackdown of colonial authority. A state of emergency was declared in 1959, Banda, along with hundreds of Malawians involved with the independence movement were detained and imprisoned in Southern Rhodesia. Mkandawire remembers that the only African teacher at his secondary school was detained and eventually the headmaster of the school decided to shut it down because the students were proving too unruly due to the growing nationalist youth movement. Mkandawire reflects that the declaration of a State of Emergency was a turning point in his life as it was at this point that he became more active in the nationalist youth movement. He says that this moment in Malawi’s history was “incredibly exciting for a young person.”
in 1960 17 African nations became independent. Mkandawire reflects that although this gave the Malawian national movement hope, there was also a suspicion that things were easier in West Africa because they were not facing an apartheid regime. At the time, Nyasaland had been recently forced into a federation with Northern and Southern Rhodesia, states settled and ruled by Whites.
Mkandawire reflects that Blantyre, the second largest city in Malawi, was the least segregated town in Southern Africa at the time and many South African liberals would come to Blantyre. According to Mkandawire, African American musician Louis Armstrong, during his African tour, only agreed to play in Blantyre so many Whites from South Africa and the Rhodesias came Blantyre to listen to him perform. After secondary school, Mkandawire went to Blantyre to work, while waiting for his Cambridge School Certificate Exams results. He found employment in the Public Works Department of the Colonial government. He also began writing for the nationalist newspaper, The Malawi News, in the evening.
Mkandawire had read that Nigerians had demonstrated for the release of Banda while British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was visiting their country so Mkandawire and his fellow young nationalists organized a demonstration in front of the hotel where Macmillan was staying when he came to Malawi. According to Mkandawire, the colonial police were unprepared for the demonstration, and, embarrassed, responded brutally. British media that came with Macmillan were shocked by the level of violence meted out by the police, because they didn’t understand that “this is what happened in the backyard of the empire”, according to Mkandawire.
Mkandawire was arrested and detained over night. The police, according to Mkandawire, cooked up a story, accusing him and his comrades of inciting a riot and sentenced them to 18 months in prison. Orton Chirwa was Mkandawire and his comrades’ lawyer and he had an easy time winning the case on appeal. Chirwa, excited for having won their freedom, took Mkandawire and his comrades, still dressed in prison garb, to Banda’s surgery in order to celebrate. Banda was furious that Chirwa had brought them there and they all had to leave. Mkandawire didn’t understand why Banda didn’t want to celebrate their victory and he states “He was a strange man.”
Mkandawire shares another incident involving Banda’s temper. Mkandawire was at Banda’s house in order to interview him. He thought that Banda had asked him what he wanted to drink so Mkandawire said he would like to drink Coke. Banda was furious and insulted that Mkandawire would dare think he could drink Coke in Banda’s house. Banda took the incident all the way to the Malawi Congress Party’s disciplinary committee because he felt so insulted by Mkandawire.
Before Banda returned to Malawi, Mkandawire reflects, the Malawian nationalist movement had fairly democratic internal politics. Banda didn’t think this was good for mobilizing a movement so he centralized power. Mkandawire states at this point that “The Young Pioneers was a paramilitary thing,” and that “Among the young people there were a lot of jokes about a dictatorship emerging but I don’t think we fully understood what it would mean eventually.”
In 1962, Mkandawire won a scholarship to study journalism in the US. He had hoped to return to Malawi as soon as he finished his studies but this was not to be. In 1964, Malawi was granted independence. Three months later, there was a cabinet crisis and the national movement was split. Because Mkandawire supported the opposition to Banda, he was unable to return to Malawi. He couldn’t stay in the United States either because his passport was withdrawn so he had to become a refugee, living in exile in Sweden.
According to Mkandawire, the cabinet crisis was a result of all these grievances Party members had with Banda. These grievances had been suppressed during the struggle for independence in the name of solidarity but after independence, Party members became frustrated with Banda’s disrespect (He called him his boys). They wanted him to change his behaviour. He said he wouldn’t and if they didn’t like it he would resign. They asked him not to resign but instead he took revenge on them. Mkandawire reflects that the members of the cabinet were a brilliant group of young people and “if they had been allowed to stay on it would have been a different story for Malawi history.”
Banda eventually consolidated his dictatorship by declaring Malawi a one-party state and in 1971 he declared himself President for Life. However, by 1994, the Malawi people had had enough and despite that fact that the Young Pioneers were still on the loose, according to Mkandawire, people voted to end one-party rule in a referendum in 1994. It was only at this time that Mkandawire could return to Malawi after an absent of some 30 years. He had only been able to see his parents twice during his exile. Luckily, his parents were still alive and able to meet their grandchildren.
Mkandawire reflects that in Malawi today many people are still hurt and suffering because there has been no Truth and Reconciliation Process. People still don’t know who betrayed them or informed on them to the Banda government.
When asked what young Malawians think about colonialism, Mkandawire states that young Malawians just see that as part of the past because all the problems they have faced have been under an African government. It’s only Mkandawire’s generation that still talks about colonialism, he says. Mkandawire states “I’m proud that I was very involved in it. It was worth it. In my lifetime I have seen the whole continent liberated. That’s priceless. That’s priceless.”
One remarkable thing about the entire interview is that Mkandawire is laughing throughout it, even about troubling incidents. I guess, as the saying goes, if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry.
Each episode in this series was only about 15 minutes long. Enough time for a good interview, however, seeing as many people don’t know much about the colonial or postcolonial histories of African countries there is a lot can be misunderstood or simply overlooked with such a short interview. For example, on a few occasions, Mkandawire makes reference to the Young Pioneers as “a paramilitary thing” and that even during the 1994 referendum he says “the Young Pioneers were still on the loose”. Who the Young Pioneers are is never explained; it’s as if it is assumed that the listener already has a firm grip on Malawian history. Perhaps in Britain more people are informed but for a North American listener like myself, I was at a loss. Luckily, there is the internet and I soon discovered who the Young Pioneers were. According to Timothy Parsons in his book Race, Resistance, and the Boys Scout Movement in British Colonial Africa:
Banda recognized the political value of a disciplined youth movement and sent representatives to Ghana to study Nkrumah’s National Workers’ Brigade. After deciding that the Ghanaians lacked sufficient discipline, he turned to Israel for assistance in developing a paramilitary youth organization modeled on Gadna, the Israeli youth corps. Banda won funding for the plan from the World Bank and other international donors by depicting it as a development project. In reality, Banda’s Young Pioneers were a paramilitary political organization that helped him transform Malawi into a single party state. Recruits studied Kamuzism, the “teaching, philosophy and life of Ngwazi Dr. Kamuzu Banda, Father and Founder of the Nation of Malawi.” By the late 1960s, there were approximately three thousand Young Pioneers, five hundred of whom received full military training. They served as Banda’s personal bodyguard and had total immunity from arrest by the civil police. By the 1970s the Young Pioneers were better trained and equipped than the regular Malawian army and provided the coercive underpinning of Banda’s authoritarian regime.
So, it appears that the creation of the Young Pioneers was crucial in the development of Banda’s dictatorship. Another fact which I think it was necessary to mention in the episode is the truly dire consequences of Banda’s tyranny. Orton Chirwa is mentioned by Mkandawire as having been his lawyer. But Orton Chirwa is a central figure of Malawi’s colonial history and he was a leader of the opposition to Banda. Chirwa would pay dearly for this, eventually dying in prison in 1992. According to Chirwa’s Obituary in the Independent:
Orton Chirwa was Malawi’s first black barrister. A founder of the Nyasaland African Congress, he was one of a group of young nationalist leaders who in 1958 took the fateful decision to invite Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda, then living in Ghana, to return to Malawi. Chirwa and his colleagues felt that the experience and gravitas of an old man – Banda was already about 60 – would impress their African constituency.
In later years Banda would boast how he had single-handedly smashed the ‘stupid’ Central African Federation. Orton Chirwa and others of his generation were written out of history.
In 1959 the Federal Government banned the NAC and arrested many of its leaders, including Banda. As the senior leader at liberty Orton Chirwa set up the Malawi Congress Party and became its first president. The following year, after Banda’s release, he stood down and handed him the leadership.
At independence in 1964 Orton Chirwa became Attorney General, but fell out with Banda over the slow pace of African advancement in the civil service. Banda sacked Chirwa and three other ministers, driving them into exile.
Chirwa settled in Tanzania, where he taught and practised law. His new political party, the Malawi Freedom Movement, appears to have had little active support inside Malawi which was now a one-party state with Banda president for life.
On Christmas Eve 1981, Orton, Vera and their son Fumbani were visiting Zambia when they were abducted by Malawian security officials. What exactly happened that night remains a mystery. The Chirwas maintained that they were visiting a sick relative. Perhaps they were tricked into going to the border area. The lurid official description of the now elderly Orton ‘infiltrating’ the country with two members of his family was clearly nonsense.
Two years later Orton and Vera were put on trial for treason. Malawi’s legal system had changed since he was Attorney General. The Chirwas were tried before a ‘traditional’ court, with judges directly answerable to Banda. There was no defence counsel and they were not allowed to call witnesses. The procedural irregularities were bizarre: thus the police officer in charge of the investigation doubled as an ‘independent’ handwriting expert.
They were found guilty – of course – and sentenced to death. In 1984, after many appeals from governments and colleagues from their student days in London, Banda commuted their sentences to life imprisonment.
Life imprisonment proved to be a further sentence of death. The Chirwas were denied contact with each other and the outside world. Last year Orton tried to smuggle letters out to Tanzania. They were intercepted and he was punished with two days’ squatting in handcuffs and leg-irons, without lavatory facilities.
It seems strange to me that Chirwa’s tragic fate was not mentioned at all in the episode. That said, the interview did help me gain a better understanding of Malawi’s history and politics and has pointed me in the right direction for further study.
It appears to me that Banda wasn’t really needed for Malawi to gain independence. It seems that the Malawi people placed so much stock in this idea that Banda, as an educated man who had lived in the West, could properly lead them to independence because he would be in a better position to stand up the British because he could speak their language and was educated in their schools. But he had been away from Malawi from 1925 to 1958. How could he even be considered to still really understand the needs of his country of origin? I think that too much importance has been given to Western education and experience by colonized peoples, much to their detriment. Banda proved to not only be a dictator but to have a great deal of contempt for his own culture. At one point, he banned the speaking of Chewa, the national language in schools and demanded that students learn Greek and Latin. This sort of move seems straight out of the book of a British Colonial Headmaster. Banda also had a close relationship with apartheid South Africa, having full diplomatic relations with them, something which most independent African nations refused to do. I just wonder what made Malawians feel that Banda deserved to be a national hero? This begs the question: Is it better to be oppressed by foreigners or your own people?
I wonder if Madonna has ever consulted with Mkandawire in relation to her work with Malawian orphans, considering that he is an expert on development. One of the things that has always troubled me about Western celebrities who wish to do good in Africa is their reliance on expertise from non-African economists. It appears that many don’t seem to even know that Africa has produced economists and experts on development, despite the fact that many of these Africans are academics working in the West.
Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s February 3 1960 “Winds of Change” Speech available online
Adam Lusekelo’s 2003 BBC Radio Documentary A Fresh Start for Africa available for listening online
Adam Lusekelo’s Blog
I Am Because We Are, Madonna’s documentary about orphans in Malawi, available to view online
Works by Thandika Mkandawire
Our Continent, our Future: African Perspectives on Structural Adjustment by Thandika Mkandawire and Charles C. Soludo (Text available online)
Social Policy and Human Development (Essay available online)
Targeting and Universalism in Developing Countries (Essay available online)
On Tax Efforts and Colonial Heritage in Africa (Essay available online)
Institutional Monocroping and Monotasking In Africa (Essay available online)
Thinking About Developmental States in Africa (Essay available online)
Keynote Speech (2006) available online
Subverting Banda’s Dictatorship in Malawi: Orality as Counter-Discourse in Jack Mapanje’s Of Chameleons and Gods by Reuben Makayiko Chirambo (essay available online)
Gender and Ethnicity in Banda’s Malawi by Edwin S. Segal (essay available online)
October is Britain’s Black History Month. 2010 marks its 23rd year. Black History Month celebrations have spread since the first was held in London in 1987, a period declared African Jubilee Year by the then Greater London Council in recognition of the centenary of Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey’s birth, the 25th birthday of the Organisation of African Unity and the 150th anniversary of the emancipation of the Caribbean. British Ghanaian Akyaaba Addai Sebbo, then coordinator of Special Projects at the Greater London Council (GLC) is acknowledged as the originator of UK’s Black History Month along with Linda Bellos, daughter of a Jewish mother and Nigerian father, who was the Chair of the Greater London Council at the time. At one of the Month’s first celebrations, Bernie Grant MP stated that “Ignorance of Black history and heritage breeds low self-esteem.”
Although there were Blacks in Britain before since Roman times, 1948 marks the first major influx of Blacks to Britain. They came as migrants on the ship Windrush from the Caribbean. According to the BBC History website:
The Empire Windrush’s voyage from the Caribbean to Tilbury took place in 1948. Believe it or not, very few of the migrants intended to stay in Britain for more than a few years.
If it hadn’t been for the Second World War, the Windrush and her passengers might not have made the voyage at all. During the war, thousands of Caribbean men and women had been recruited to serve in the armed forces.
When the Windrush stopped in Jamaica to pick up servicemen who were on leave from their units, many of their former comrades decided to make the trip in order to rejoin the RAF. More adventurous spirits, mostly young men, who had heard about the voyage and simply fancied coming to see England, ‘the mother country’, doubled their numbers.
June 22nd 1948, the day that the Windrush discharged its passengers at Tilbury, has become an important landmark in the history of modern Britain; and the image of the Caribbeans filing off its gangplank has come to symbolise many of the changes which have taken place here. Caribbean migrants have become a vital part of British society and, in the process, transformed important aspects of British life.
In 1948, Britain was just beginning to recover from the ravages of war. Housing was a huge problem and stayed that way for the next two decades. There was plenty of work, but the Caribbeans first clashed with the natives over the issue of accommodation. But alongside the conflicts and the discrimination, another process was taking place.
Excluded from much of the social and economic life around them, they began to adjust the institutions they brought with them – the churches, and a co-operative method of saving called the ‘pardner’ system. At the same time, Caribbeans began to participate in institutions to which they did have access: trade unions, local councils, and professional and staff associations.
The following is a list of some Black British Firsts:
John Archer (1863 to 1932), Britain’s First Black Mayor
Lord Leary Constantine (1902 to 1971), Britain’s First Black Peer
Bernie Grant (1944 to 1998), Britain’s First Black Councillor and one of the country’s first Black MPs
Paul Boateng, Britain’s First Black Cabinet Minister and one of the country’s first Black MPs
Diane Abbott, Britain’s First Black Woman MP
Baroness Valerie Amos, Britain’s First Black Woman Peer
Arthur Wharton (1865 to 1930), Britain’s First Black Footballer
Vic Anderson, Britian’s First Black Footballer to represent England
Mike Fuller, Britain’s First Black Chief Constable
Bishop Wilfred Wood, Britain’s First Black Bishop of the Church of England
100 Great Black Britons Website
Black History Month UK Website
Norfolk Black History Month Website
Oral history of passengers on the Windrush from the BBC Website
blackhistory4schools is the leading website in the UK dedicated to the promotion of Black and Asian British history in schools.Since its inception in 2006 more than 120,000 people have used the website.The resources are freely available and cover topics ranging from the Romans to the Windrush
Black Presence: Asian and Black History in Britain 1500 to 1850 Website
Moving Here Website: Caribbean Migration Histories
Untold London Website
Second-Class Citizen by Buchi Emecheta, Flamingo 1989
Buchi Emecheta is one of Nigeria’s most well-known writers. She managed to raise her five children on her own, go to university, eventually achieving a Ph.D from the University of London, and write over 20 novels, plays, and short stories. She was honoured with the Order of the British Empire in 2005.
Emecheta was born on July 21, 1944 in Lagos, Nigeria. Her parents were Ibos who had left the Ibo town of Ibusa (Igbuzo in Ibo) located in what is now called Delta State. She moved to London, England to join her husband in 1962. Second-Class Citizen (1974), her first published novel, is semi-autobiographical, based on her childhood in Lagos and early life in London with her husband before she divorced him.
Adah, the character based on Buchi, is smart and determined to study despite the fact that there is not much means or will to have her educated particularly after her father dies. Adah eventually marries Francis and together they move to London, England in the early sixties. Life is hard. Not only is there racism which makes it difficult to find accommodations, but Francis himself becomes Adah’s greatest obstacle.
Adah is the primary breadwinner for the young and growing family with her job as a librarian. Francis becomes physically abusive towards Adah and cheats on her. Although Francis is definitely portrayed to be an obnoxious bully it is clear that Adah doesn’t entirely hate him. She understands why he’s ended up this way: “Francis was not a bad man, just a man who could no longer cope with the over-demanding society he found himself in. (p. 110)” This is sadly probably true for many immigrant men or any man who does not have the ability to cope with failure and the setbacks and challenges of life. But why do men often need to feel power over someone in order to feel better about themselves? Where does this need come from?
Adah is a survivor and this novel is the story of her survival. It is also a fascinating portrait of Black immigrant life in sixties London. Despite what could be quite depressing subject matter, Second Class Citizen is actually an easy read and more often than not quite funny. I have actually reread Second Class Citizen several times and I never stop finding great character portraits and home truths.
Interesting Passages from the novel:
Adah is a Christian but her husband is a Jehovah’s Witness. But he wasn’t always a Jehovah’s Witness. While at the maternity ward Adah meets a women who waited 17 years to have her first child. Adah wonders what Francis would have done if it had taken 17 years for her to give him a son:
Suppose she had had to wait seventeen years for all that? She would have either died of psychological pressures or another wife would have been bought for Francis. He would have declared himself a Moslem, for he was once a Moslem when he was younger. Francis was like the Vicar of Bray. He changed his religion to suit his whims. When he realized that equipping Adah with birth-control gear would release her from the bondage of child-bearing, Francis went Catholic. When he started failing his examinations and was feeling very inferior to his fellow Nigerians, he became a Jehovah’s Witness. (p. 122)
Adah befriends Janet, a young Cockney girl who is the wife of a Muslim Nigerian, Mr. Babalola. He is hardly an endearing character. In the following passage, one of the sources of the conflict between Southerners (predominantly Christian) and Northerners (predominantly Muslim) is outlined, of course with a Southern Ibo bias.
Mr. Babalola had come to England, just like Francis and Adah, to study. But, unlike Adah and Francis, he had been single, and had a Northern Nigerian Scholarship. This meant that he had more money to spend, because the Northerners, unlike the over-educated Southerners, would do anything to encourage the men to really get educated so that they could come home and obtain the jobs in the North which were then going to the Southerners. Mr. Babalola was, therefore, a very rich student.
Rumour had it that he had a glossy flat and was always entertaining. This was no surprise to anyone who knew the Northerners. They liked to spend their money, to really enjoy what they had, and to them what they had was theirs only today, not tomorrow or the day after. Allah would take care of the future. That was certainly Babalola’s philosophy of life. (p. 52-53)
Janet, who gets pregnant at sixteen by a West Indian, gets kicked out by her parents because she refuses to give up her baby. Babalola ends up taking her in and using her as a party favour for his friends. As Emecheta writes: “…Janet was being offered to any black man who wanted to know how a white woman looked undressed. Most of Adah’s neighbours had had their sexual adventures with Janet.”
However, this all changes when a broke Babalola (His Northern Nigerian Scholarship is inexplicably revoked) realizes that Janet can receive enough social assistance for herself and her baby to pay his rent. Babalola decides to keep Janet all to himself and she bears him a child. Babalola, like Francis, seems content to depend on women financially, while still treating these women like servants.
Adah reflects on being the child of Ibos from Ibuza living in Lagos:
Well, Adah thought she was eight at the time when her mother and all the other society women were busying themselves to welcome the very first lawyer to their town Ibuza. Whenever Adah was told that Ibuza was her own, she found it difficult to understand. Her parents, she was told, came from Ibuza, and so did many of her aunts and uncles. Ibuza, she was told, was a beautiful town. She had been taught at an early age that the people of Ibuza were friendly, that the food there was fresh, the spring water was pure and the air was clean. The virtues of Ibuza were praised so much that Adah came to regard being born in a God=forsaken place like Lagos as a misfortune. Her parents said that Lagos was a bad place, bad for bringing up children because here they picked up the Yoruba-Ngbati accent.(p 7-8)
Adah reflects on her social isolation in England and how this relates to domestic abuse:
In England, she couldn’t go to her neighbour and babble out troubles as she would have done in Lagos, she had learned not to talk about her unhappiness to those with whom she worked, for this was a society where nobody was interested in the problems of others. If you could not bear your problems any more, you could always do away with yourself. That was allowed, too. Attempted suicide was not regarded as a sin. It was a way of attracting attention to one’s unfortunate situation. And whose attention do you attract? The attention of paid listeners. Listeners who make you feel that you are an object to be studied, diagnosed, charted and tabulated. Listeners who refer to you as ‘a case’. You don’t have the old woman next door who, on hearing an argument going on between a wife and husband, would come in to slap the husband, telling him off and all that, knowing that her words would be respected because she was old and experienced. (p. 72-73)
Adah reflects on the role of religion in her life in England:
There was no time to go to church and pray. Not in England. It took her years to erase the image of the Nigerian church which usually had a festive air. In England, especially in London, ‘church’ was a big grey building with stained-glass windows, high ornamental ceilings, very cold, full of rows and rows of empty chairs, with the voice of the vicar droning from the distant pulpit, crying like the voice of John the Baptist lost in the wilderness. In London, churches were cheerless.
She could not go to any of them because it made her cry to see such beautiful places of worship empty when, in Nigeria, you could hardly get a seat if you came late. You had to stand outside and follow the service through a microphone. But you were happy through it all, you were encouraged to bellow out the songs-that bellowing took away some of your sorrows. Because most of the hymns seem to be written by psychologists. One was always sure of singing or hearing something that would come near to the problem you had in mind before coming to church. In England you were robbed of such comfort.
London, having thus killed Adah’s congregational God, created instead a personal God who loomed large and really alive. She did not have to go to church to see this One. (p. 164-165)