George Alagiah interviews us on the BBC
Monday 10 September 2007
No.s 131, 132 & 133: Kenya, Equatorial Guinea and Jordan
Alex Horne – 10th September 2007
It’s my birthday today. But also, we’ve got six weeks and two days to find 62 people who’ve moved to London from, I suppose, the hardest to find countries in the world. So instead of a relaxing day, wallowing in my new-found twenty-nine-ness, I gratefully accepted a lift into town with Rachel and set off from the BBC at 8am, a whole day ahead of me, determined to make some sort of dent in our monstrous target.
I had several sketchy plans. Unfortunately, the well of people contacting us has now all but dried up, so instead I was following up leads offered by our French photographer Phillippe, a friend of a friend I met at a wedding and my own brief investigation on the internet over the weekend.
But first, a trip to Willesden to chase a man I really should have found several weeks ago when I still lived a mile away from his auto-electrical shop. Back in January the radio on my car finally gave up. Whilst he installed a new (and excellent despite its very reasonable price-tag) model, I asked the engineer (I guess that’s the term) where he was from – presuming, I have to admit, India.
‘I’m from Kenya’, he replied. ‘My family was originally from India but, like a lot of people from Asia, they came to Africa at the beginning of the century…’ ‘Cool’, I said, doing my best to hide my excitement. I had something incredibly important (I expect) that I had to rush off to do so didn’t mention the project just yet. I’d be back.
Of course I wasn’t back until today. I’m not sure why not. I guess we thought we’d stumble across a Kenyan anyway so were fairly relaxed about the country. And anyway, up until Edinburgh in August we felt like we had ages to find everyone.
But we didn’t stumble across anyone from Kenya in the meantime and so at 9am, after what was now a two hour journey from home, I got off the tube at Dollis Hill (Where? Yes! Dollis Hill! It’s next to Willesden Green on the Jubilee Line) and walked round the corner to find Neasdon Electronics… shut.
Mmm. Frustrating. I retreated to a café, ordered a sausage sandwich (it is my birthday) and waited.
Half an hour later I returned. It was open! Wonderful news! I burst in, Iqbal (the manager) sort of remembered me, and just about agreed to be involved. He didn’t have long but explained that he had arrived in London in 1978 and that he very much liked it here. I got excited at the mere mention of 1978 – ‘that’s when I was born!’ I exclaimed, thrilled that he’d been here exactly the same length of time that I’d been alive. Perhaps it actually was exactly the same length of time - perhaps it was his anniversary too, I thought. ‘What month did you arrive?’ I pressed.
‘Oh no’, he replied after a little think. ‘It was 1977. December 1977’. ‘That’s fine!’ I said. ‘Fine. It’s my birthday today. So I guess you arrived here pretty much when I was conceived…’
Yes, it was an odd thing to say and one that signalled the end of our chat. Still, at this stage it’s all about the numbers. And I was more than happy to return to the good old days of ‘in and out’, grab a nationality and move on. So move on I did…
…back down the Jubilee like to Bond Street, out and round the corner to Brook Street, the uber-trendy side of Oxford Street, and the location of Royal Jordanian Airlines’ London office. Or at least that’s what I thought – that’s what I’d scribbled down in my folder after I’d had a brainwave on Saturday, found their website, and generally felt pretty pleased with myself.
Luckily, the phone number I’d scrawled was actually still correct. ‘Oh no, we’ve moved to Hammersmith’, I was told. ‘Fine’, I said. ‘It’s my birthday!’ ‘Happy Birthday’, they said, ‘But we’re still in Hammersmith’. ‘Fine’, I said again, ‘thanks for your help’. Grrr, I thought (a much easier sound to write and think than actually make).
Still, as I kept telling people, it was my birthday so I held my chin up high – well, returned it to its normal height - and pressed on with what I was determined would be a Good Day.
This, of course, worked.
Phillippe, our fellow nationality collector, had given us the address and phone number of a man from Equitorial Guinea called Oscar. He said we had to meet him. Initially, however, we were quite keen to find our people ourselves and not rely on tip-offs, although we were, of course, extremely grateful. But with the year slipping away we couldn’t afford such ambition.
Oscar, Phillippe had told us, worked in Sutton, in a bag-shop, a short walk down the hill from the station. This represented yet another lengthy journey but it was still early and remember, I was determined.
Both sensibly and luckily, I decided to call Oscar first to check he was working that day. He wasn’t. ‘I’m in central London’, he cried (I think he was on a windy street), ‘I can meet you in Westminster at 12 O’Clock!’ ‘Brilliant, see you then!’ I shouted back (thinking he was on a windy street). Things were back on track.
I now had an hour to kill so checked up a couple of other leads on the internet (quick London tip – if you’re in central London and need the internet for a few minutes, try the Apple Store on Regent Street – plenty of computers to ‘test’, all connected to the internet. Not sure how ethical that is, but it’s certainly a useful place to know) then headed back to the Jubilee Line and down to Westminster.
Oscar was waiting for me. ‘Quick’, he said, bustling me along the street, ‘we have to go this way.’ ‘Do we?’ I asked, reasonably enough. ‘Yes, I also have another appointment at 12 O’Clock, with someone else from Equatorial Guinea. I thought you could meet us both!’ ‘Great’ I said, and off we went.
Oscar, I found out as we marched alongside the Houses of Parliament, is 37 years old. In fact, most of what I learned about him and his journey here were gleaned on our five minute walk which unfortunately meant I was desperately trying to remember the facts, whilst asking pertinent questions, whilst wondering where exactly we were going. Still, it was my birthday…
He’s been in London for five years having been born in a tiny village called Mbini and grown up in the capital, Malabo. As well as working in the bag shop in Sutton, a job he hopes to move on from soon, he’s also Secretary of the Equatorial Guinea Community in the UK, a title I would not forget thanks to the colourful card (not of the birthday variety, but still a card) he presented me with as we neared our destination.
‘Are you free on October 12th?’ he asked me. ‘Well, I expect so’, I said (I’m not, it turns out, but Owen is). ‘Well, it’s the thirty ninth anniversary of our country’s independence’, he explained eagerly, ‘and I’m organising the party. There’ll be food and dancing and loads more people from Equatorial Guinea…’ ‘Any other nationalities, do you think, Oscar?’ I lobbied, a little cheekily. ‘Well yes! Our neighbours from Gabon and Sao Tome should be –’ ‘We’ll be there!’ I exclaimed. Good. Anniversaries our good.
By now we were entering the offices of DEFRA, the governmental Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs where Oscar’s friend works. We caught our breath, had a glass of free and, I’m sure, exceptionally clean and organic water, and I jotted down as much as I could remember of our chat so far before asking Oscar why he came to London in the first place.
‘Most people to go Spain’, he said. ‘We speak Spanish so it’s much easier. Those who come to the UK come for more opportunities or to improve their English. That’s why I came here. But also I found it difficult to stay in Spain because there’s a lot of racism. I mean, there’s racism everywhere in the world, but there’s too much in Spain.’
This was an answer I hadn’t expected, but Oscar mentioned it so matter-of-factly that it was apparent it was something he had just come to accept. His father was from Spain and Oscar himself had lived in Barcelona for fifteen years before moving to London; ‘they just don’t know about black people,’ he said, ‘but in London, it’s so mixed, it’s not a problem. Anyone can get any job.’
As if to prove his point, his friend then emerged from the DEFRA lifts and made his way towards us. ‘Do you get to go back to Equatorial Guinea often?’ I asked hurriedly, before his friend arrived – not an easy thing to do with a country as blessed in consonants as Equatorial Guinea. ‘I haven’t been back in twenty years’, he said with what looked like happy resignation. Or melancholy humour. Or something that was both sad and accepting. ‘I want to go back right now’.
The three of us then spent a lot of time shaking hands and taking pictures of each other before promising to see each other again on the twelfth if not before. As the two friends then settled down to talk (‘it’s a business meeting’, they explained a touch mysteriously), I retraced my steps, enjoying my sunny birthday weather and feeling just a tiny bit proud of the majestic parliament buildings now on my right.
An hour later I got off the tube (for the first time in my life) at Upton Park and strolled down a slightly less well-kempt street beneath the shadow of another great British structure – West Ham United’s stadium. I love football grounds – the way they dwarf everything round them; castles, full of promise and potential glory. And on a Monday like today, I love the stillness – like Willy Wonka’s factory the day before re-opening. And this is just West Ham…
I was on my way to a certain house number on a certain street round the corner from the stadium that Phillippe had given us with the instruction: “Solomon Islands: brother Jonas is a franciscan brother or something like that... Upton Park station, go to No.** __________ Avenue.... I think”.
I didn’t really have a choice. I had to go. We’d met neither monks nor Solomon Islanders thus far and our quest wasn’t going to be complete without them.
Unfortunately, therefore, the quest is still not complete.
It was the right address – I was surprised to find St Martin’s Vicarage of the Mission Parish of Plaistow exactly where Phillippe had thought it probably was – but there was no-one in. And, unlike most of the churches I’ve staked out so far, there were no contact details to be found on the walls outside. Desperate not to be thwarted, I wrote a fairly lengthy letter explaining who I was and what I wanted and stuck it through the letter box. We’ll see if anything comes of it.
Having treated myself to a hefty baked potato in one of the many West Ham themed cafes in the area, I staggered back to the tube (District Line this time) for a monstrous twenty five stop east-to-west ride landing me at my final stop, Hammersmith, where the Royal Jordanian Airlines are now located. On the way I nipped into one of Upton Park’s many ‘African Goods’ shop for a bottle of water and instinctively asked the lady behind the counter where she was from – tactfully of course.
‘I’m from Ghana’ she said. ‘Oh’, I said, trying to sound interested rather than disappointed. ‘And how are you finding London?’ ‘I’ve been here thirty eight years’, she replied. ‘I used to love it, but now it has changed so much. And it’s the government’s fault. They make it too easy for people. All these benefits. Like today, they’ve decided to give pregnant mothers money so they can buy healthy food – that’s just stupid. They’ll just spend it on chocolate and cigarettes. And it’s working people like me who have to pay for it. It’s not fair…’ I couldn’t and didn’t argue with her logic. My brief political pride diminished.
An hour later, at around half three, I entered the new and appropriately shiny Royal Jordanian Airlines building and was directed up to the sixth floor by Freddy, a friendly doorman from Grenada (again, I masked my frustration) who had hay-fever.
After my Franciscan Failure I wasn’t particularly hopeful that the busy people of this high-class airline would want or be able to help me, but I needn’t have been so pessimistic. It was my birthday and a lovely lady called Emma was more than happy to help. Intrigued by the idea she insisted we sat on a special sofa and told me, briefly but professionally, how she’d ended up here.
‘My family are Armenian,’ she began – and didn’t get much further before I excitedly told her about Erebuni, by far the best Armenian restaurant in London. She patiently listened then carried on. ‘Back in 1914 there was a genocide in Armenia so my grandmother moved with the remaining community to Jerusalem. She settled there and eventually my father met my mother and because he was working for the Trans Jordan Frontier Force (a British force working in Jordan at the time), they moved to Jordan and that’s where I was born’.
That’s a lot of information in a couple of short sentences and I decided not to interrupt with any more restaurant anecdotes.
‘Soon after, the force was disbanded’, Emma continued, ‘and he ended up working for the British Embassy. When he passed away my mother decided we should move to the UK where there would be more opportunities for the family, so in 1964 we arrived in the UK. And for the last thirty eight years I’ve worked here’.
I couldn’t have asked more a more succinct story. You could have. I realise this is one of the more sprawling entries so far. But it’s my birthday.
We chatted a little about how London has changed since the sixties and she, like nearly everyone we’ve met, stressed how much more cosmopolitan the city has become. If there is a unifying thread to what we’ve been told, it’s got to be this growing cosmopolitanism. Which, apart from anything, is an encouraging thought at this sharp end of the project.
After promising to give Jordan some thought for a future holiday destination (‘people are scared of going because of the geographical location, but there’s no political instability there and there are an awful lot of sites to visit – we’ve got Petra too, the new wonder of the world!’ said Emma, professional as always), I got back in the shiny lift, said goodbye to a wheezing Freddy and took the bus back up to White City, completing an enormous and rewarding irregular hexagon of a journey round London, before meeting my wife and returning to Chesham for a slightly less cosmopolitan (but still lovely) birthday evening outside the big city.