George Alagiah interviews us on the BBC
Wednesday 9 May 2007
From Africa to London via Norway, Holland, La Reunion...
Alex Horne – 9th May 2007
Laureen, our Zimbabwean volunteer, had very efficiently arranged for us to meet at the south side of Piccadilly Tube so I had another chance to circle my favourite station and noted that as well as getting shoes fixed, keys cut and samosas bought on the outer ring of mini-shops, you also can buy a souvenir mug, theatre ticket or squash trophy, have your photo taken by a professional man and make domestic or international calls without any difficulty at all.
She was already waiting for me when I emerged, fairly pleased with my time-keeping, at a few minutes before one. Like most of the countries in this section of our story, she’d got in contact with us having seen the article in the London Paper and had bravely organised a meeting without really thinking it through, let alone telling her boss, friends or family. I tried to reassure her that I wasn’t a bad or dangerous person but now think not mentioning the possibility at all may have been more reassuring.
On the way to a genuinely Italian coffee shop half-way between the Circus and Pall Mall, Laureen quickly established a couple of things. First, like Irina and Borat, she was not going to talk about Mugabe. ‘It’s the first thing people ask me about and I don’t want to say anything I regret’, she told me simply, ‘because I do want to be able to get back into my country’. Fair enough, I said.
Second, it became immediately clear to me that Laureen was extremely well travelled, culturally knowledgeable and a proper businesswoman – all things that I can’t really say I am. All her siblings, she told me when I asked about her name, had English monikers but, ‘I don’t know what book my mother was reading when I was born!’ Her brother, she went on, was called Shannon. ‘Like the river’, I said, pleased to display just a little bit of local-ish knowledge. ‘Yes, the river in Limerick’, she replied. ‘I used to live in Ireland’. ‘Yes, right’, I fumbled, ‘Limerick’, quickly realising that I may well get out of my depth once or twice during the next hour. I shouldn’t have been surprised. In her introductory email to Owen and I, Laureen had written; ‘This project is a great opportunity to create cultural awareness. I have been involved in a project researching the competitive advantages of cultural diversity for London. It would be interesting (if you do the same project in New York) to see which city is more culturally diverse.’ I hoped she wouldn’t be too disappointed by me.
One delicate matter I guess it’s worth mentioning before going any further is that Laureen is black. That might come across as quite a clumsy or unnecessary statement but as this project is partly about race and nationality and we aren’t posting photos of the people we meet I think it’s worth saying, especially when talking about a country like Zimbabwe. I (obviously) didn’t know whether she’d be black or white before we met and now that I’m writing this I am squirming a bit thinking that maybe I don’t need to mention it or that I should at least drop it quite casually into a later paragraph - but for me it feels like an important thing to point out and by meandering around it in this unwieldy and now quite lengthy sentence, I have at least devoted a decent amount of words to the subject. Of course her colour doesn’t matter, but I do think it’s relevant to the story.
And just to counter-balance that awkwardness, here’s an email I received from a friend on the morning of our meeting when I told him I was rushing off to meet someone from Zimbabwe: ‘Make sure you check out the latest travel news… just to make your choice of road easier.’ There. A pun! Everything’s alright again.
So, back to our meeting. Laureen, who’s now 35 years old, first visited the UK in 1993: ‘When I was a student in Harare I came to an International Students Conference put on by AIESEC in Brighton’. AIESEC is an acronym made up of French words which I’ve so far been unable to unearth, but which represents, according to its website, ‘an international platform for young people to discover and develop their potential’ and which certainly seems to have worked for Laureen.
‘I grew up near Brighton!’ I chimed in at this point, glad as always to have found some common ground. ‘It was spring’, continued Laureen, ‘and freezing cold’. Oh yes, sorry about that.
Luckily her stay in Sussex was a success and one that sowed a seed of interest in all things multicultural that eventually led her to emailing us on a whim last week. ‘They’ve been doing these conferences ever since World War II’, she told me. ‘There were people from eighty different countries there and we had parties for a different place each night – American parties, European parties, African parties where everyone had to take off their shoes, Scandinavian parties where everyone drank moonshine and ate bizarre food. It was brilliant!’ It sounds brilliant. If we ever manage to find all 192 countries or when we’ve finally had to admit defeat we’re thinking of organizing an international party for all the people we’ve met. The most cosmopolitan party ever. Shoes off, moonshine and bizarre food all sound like essential ingredients.
After the conference, the young international delegates stayed in touch. ‘We’d visit each other, stay with families and do work exchanges. It was great for people to get experience working abroad as well as cultural exposure. It was like a paid internship. It helped everyone. You got to work in private sector companies, they got to filter a whole bunch of international CVs’. Like I said, Laureen is a proper business woman.
Laureen herself went off to Norway, which, I was glad to hear, was even colder than Brighton (clearly not because I wanted Laureen to have been chilly, but because my pride didn’t want her to have had her worst time in one of my places). ‘I stayed in a little fishing village called Bodo’, which obviously has it’s final ‘o’ crossed out (see Norway) and which you’ll see, if you type it into google local, is right at the top of Norway, pretty much a million miles from Harare. ‘I thought I was prepared, I’d bought lots of warm clothes. But I left the day after Boxing Day so when I got there it was dark literally all the time. There were metres and metres of snow. I think I probably slept for 36 hours when I eventually arrived. I kept waking up but it was still dark so I kept going back to sleep.’
Was it rare for someone to go to Northern Scandinavia from central Zimbabwe, I wondered. ‘Very!’ she laughed. ‘People thought my parents were diplomats. But I wanted to go and managed to get sponsorship – but, oh yes! I forgot!’ – her eyes lit up as she remembered another chapter from her life – ‘I also got a scholarship from the French Embassy and went to stay on La Reunion for a while!’ ‘Yes, La Reunion, now where is that again exactly…?’ ‘Oh, just east of Madagascar, not far from home. But back to Norway, I was working in a refugee office up there, really interesting work…’ Were there many refugees that close to the North Pole (it really is a remote location, further North than Iceland and in line with the sort of Russian wildernesses that google still doesn’t have maps for), I asked? ‘Well, not really’, she replied. ‘But whenever people did come to Norway they tended to send them as far North as possible, so they couldn’t get too comfortable (not dissimilar to this country’s immigration policy, I thought). And around then there were a lot of Bosnians and Serbs escaping from the conflict’. And you were there for a couple of weeks? ‘Oh no, that was for the entire winter’. Right.
After the extremes of the Norwegian Sea and the Indian Ocean, Laureen returned to Zimbabwe to work first for the UN then the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation for the private sector. That’s what I wrote down anyway, even if I didn’t really understand what it meant. Not wanting to waste her time, however, she was also doing part-time study in Business Administration as well as getting an MBA in something else impressively businessy-sounding – ‘It keeps me out of trouble’, she smiled – which meant that for six or so years her life was incredibly busy, especially considering it also featured a year in Amsterdam where she’d managed to get a new job ‘doing various projects – I loved Holland!’
It was soon after this Dutch gap-year that Laureen ended up not far from the river Shannon. ‘A friend of mine said we should go and live in Dublin. So I did. She didn’t in the end. She got married and moved to Australia instead and I found I couldn’t get settled in Ireland but from there I went to the UK’, and here she’s been for the past four years.
So far I’ve tended to be very positive, probably naively so, about nearly all aspects of life in my blogs. I’m quite a simple, cheerful person who doesn’t dwell on the negative or more serous sides of lie too often, but reading Owen’s write-up of Eritrea did remind me that things aren’t always as rosy as I tend to see or say they are. Going into this interview in particular, therefore, I thought I’d have to face some less than happy facts about her country, but while we did briefly touch on Zimbabwe’s troubles, it was London itself that I suddenly saw in a different, darker light.
‘It’s funny, all those years when I was traveling around I always thought I didn’t want to live here. It always seemed a little dull. But now I’m here, I’m happy. Obviously, I could complain – especially after all the other places I’ve lived. I hate the underground, Amsterdam’s transport system is so much better. Everything works there! But it’s the poverty that really shocks me. I’ve never seen so much destitution as here. It’s a first world country but some of the housing estates are horrific. I know I probably shouldn’t say that coming from Zimbabwe, but I’ve never been so conscious of people being deprived.’
Laureen’s brother got married in Buckinghamshire recently and her whole family came over for the occasion. ‘My mother hated it here’, she said. ‘I live near Canary Wharf on the Isle of Dogs in what is now the poorest borough in the city and my mother thought it was awful. ‘This place is horrible’, she said. But you get used to it. I know it’s partly because London isn’t as segregated as cities like Cape Town or Johannesburg and probably it’s a good thing not to hide the poverty away, otherwise there’d be ghettos and no-go areas – but I think there probably are some places like that here too. It took me a year to dare to go to Brixton’.
Laureen used to work in Peckham regularly. ‘I worked for local councils and it was terrifying. I’d walk past the same places every day and everything would seem fine, then you’d come back the next day and hear that someone had been knifed there. Just there on the street. In broad daylight.’
Despite all this, she says that nearly everyone she met all those years ago in Brighton have also come to live in the capital at some time or another. ‘We had a get-together recently and loads of people had made London their home. Lots of them even work in Canary Wharf, just round the corner from me’. It seems that London has a sort of self-perpetuating appeal to curious people around the world. Visitors say it’s an amazing place to live because there are so many different nationalities here which then makes more people from different places move here. Many, like Laureen, however, have no intention of staying for ever having seen a glimpse or two of London’s darker side. ‘I wouldn’t like to bring my children up here’, she said. ‘It just wouldn’t be right’.
So where next? ‘I never consciously think about moving country’, she said. ‘It’s a spur of the moment thing.’ Would you go back home, I ask. ‘It’s difficult to say, because of the politics. We all think about the good all days but I went back when my father passed away last year and it’s not the same.’
Maybe somewhere else in the world. ‘Maybe. But not the US. The US frightens me. This may sound wrong, but to me it’s one big ignorant land mass of people who don’t know anything and don’t care and that’s why they ended up with George Bush’. I frown in agreement but am secretly glad again that she thinks there’s somewhere else in the world with more problems than here. Laureen may well have read my mind. ‘Yes, because of the Commonwealth, London does still feel like I’m coming back to the mothership. The schools in Zimbabwe are very British, maybe even more British than the ones here. We still did O-levels and A-levels that were marked in Cambridge. We learnt about British History.’
By now, I’d almost forgotten about Zimbabwe’s current crisis, talking as we were about almost every country in the world apart from her own. ‘It’s in the Guinness Book of Records now as the most bankrupt country ever’, she told me with a sad smile. We chatted briefly about Harare itself. She told me that despite being rundown, it’s still a lot cleaner than London. She still has family living there and I ask if they’re ok. ‘It’s quite grim’, she told me. ‘But they’ve adjusted psychologically. They make do. I think it’s harder for those of us who’ve been away to come to terms with it all’. We spoke more about the apparently irreparable situation Zimbabwe is in but that’s all I’m going to write about it here. Like I said, Laureen didn’t want to discuss Mugabe. But with the problems she’d highlighted in our own capital, I had more than enough to chew on as I made my way back to the now not quite so jolly-sounding Piccadilly Circus and took the grimy tube back home.