WELCOME TO LONDONWOOD

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London can be a very cold city.

You’d be forgiven if you visit from the first time and you think – does the sun ever shine here? Actually it does. Especially in winter! But don’t be fooled by London sun. I know of several JJCs to London in wintertime who saw the sun and went out with their Ankara outfit thinking sun in London means heat.

Poor cows!!

As I mentioned above, everyone comes to London – for whatever. Work, a better life, education, holidays, even love.

I came as a returning citizen almost 30 years ago for a 2 year Masters Degree…. but I fell in love and gave up the idea of my MBA. I didn’t tell my parents until well after my second kid – who is now 20!

London of the past 20 or so years is extremely different from the London of today. Many who like me, came for just a short stay or to continue their education have got sucked into the system and are now in their 25th year with spouses, kids, a mortgage, credit cards, hefty debts and loans. Many have finally admitted to themselves that this is now home. Naija is now a Christmas or Ileya holiday destination for many London folks and the idea of returning home to settle is fast becoming a fantasy.

For these reasons, many have made a life adjustment and made London their alternative Lagos or Ibadan, or Egba or Warri. The social life of Naija Londoners has made a complete turnaround from what it used to be. While we can’t yet match the multi million earning and spending power of our friends and family back home, people no longer save to have their weddings or birthdays in Nigeria.  Even at the expense of ruining their already fragile credit report, many take out thousands of pounds of loans or max out their credit card to fund that oh so important 40th or 50th Birthday party. Complete with assorted dishes and drinks, 3 – 4 outfit change, Aso Ebi, 3 tier cake and Dele Achiever, Solek, Wale Salters, Sunny Melody or Feyisara on the bandstand!

Many Community Centres and Asian Banquet Hall owners have made millions from Naija’s living in London. Two major party centres in East London and South East London have at least 3 halls that are ALWAYS packed with Nigerian events from Friday to Sunday – every week

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When I first returned to the UK in the 80s, our parties including Wedding Receptions were held in our tiny Hackney, Wembley or Peckham flats with up to 200 Nigerians cramped into the small living room, kitchen, 6 foot balcony, stairs and even bedrooms. We drank from plastic cups and ate from paper plates. And music was from a pre, often badly-recorded tape. If you are lucky enough, you probably had a friend mind the stereo system for you to ensure musical entertainment! Very few people bothered to employvthe services of DJs in those days and forget about MCs.

Many living room parties had the habit of spilling out onto the streets to the utter dismay of oyinbo neighbours who always resorted to calling the police on us.

In those days, you were frowned upon like Omo-ale (bastard) if you had a mortgage. Like “Eleyi o fe k’ore oko dele ni? (he wants to return home empty handed?).The only folks who had credit cards are those who knew what to do with them – and that wasn’t always legal or honourable! But just let’s say those are the richest folks who could afford to travel (if they had the papers) buy the biggest rides and wear the latest clothes. And those also were more often than ever on the run ever hiding from “Ojo” (cops)

In those days, places like Woolwich, Abbeywood and Thamesmead were considered “Outside London” And if you lived there, only those that really really loved you would visit. My first visit to Woolwich in 1991 took me almost 3 hours from Harrow where I used to live. Buses were very very few and I had to wait almost 1 hour for the bus to Elephant and Castle. Nowadays – Woolwich and Thamesmead are the new Brixton and Peckham. Those areas were given makeovers in the early 2000s and all the illegal tenants and squatters were chased out. As a fairly new and untouched area, it was extremely easy to get Council accommodation with the very least documentation or identification so thousands of Brixton and Peckham evictees flooded Woolwich and the area hasn’t been the same again. Someone once said, if you’re looking for a long lost friend, simply come to Woolwich Centre and you’d probably find them!

A new visitor to London nowadays, will almost forget they’ve just been on a 5 hour flight from Lagos. I remember returning from a 3 year career break to Nigeria in 2005 – and I could not believe the transformation in the South East!!! On any given occasion, over 70% of people on a bus will be black folks. And 99% of those will be Nigerian – mostly Yoruba! You should hear some of the mobile phone conversations one has to listen to sometimes. I sat through on very long one on my way to work one day and I swear, if I was criminally minded, all I needed to do was place a call to Naija and get one of my bros to visit this woman’s parents house and check on top of the wardrobe in her mums bedroom for the key to her own room and simply pick up her jewellery case with the cash in it from the suitcase under her bed. That was the extent of the details she was giving out – very loudly on public transport!!! This habit sadly is rather very common. Some major bus stops in Lewisham, Elepant and Castle or Stratford during peak hours are like Panseke, Ojuelegba or Oshodi. With a loud cacophony of – you get it – Yoruba and Pidgin speaking folks!

The new Naija-in-London life has also resulted in the transformation of the London High street. There is hardly any area of London that you won’t see a RCCG, Winners Chapel or Mountain of Fire Church – sometimes one of each within the same Business or Industrial Park. Sunday afternoons are always a headache for road users and residents in any “lucky” area.

There is 805, Mama Africa, Mama Calabar, Tasty Restaurant, Tomis Kitchen, Wazobia, Agege Bread etc in most areas of London. In fact every High street in London is a proud boaster of many Nigerian establishments – be it hair dressers, restaurants, barbers, African food stores and Cab offices, The likes of Ades Foods, OluOlu and John & Abiola have become major in food outlets in London, patronised by many other nationalities including white Britons. Visit any Tasty’s restaurant at lunchtime and you’d see queues all the eay to the street.

And there is the Social life. I remember when the highlight of any month was just any of those crammed-in-a London-council-flat parties we attended in the 80s and early 90s. Nowadays, you would have to be an alien Nigerian from outer space if you didn’t have at least 2 events you’ve been invited to – every weekend – even in winter!!! In those days, our headaches used to be about where to go or what to do when the weekends came. But nowadays, its about which of the events I’ve been invited to in different ends of London should I attend?!

Folks do not even wait for Summer time any more before beginning the party season. And as long as anyone can get a few hundred pounds together, there will be an “Event”. Awards ceremonies have replaced weddings. And as soon as 1 person comes up with an idea or initiative, 5 similar ones spring up immediately. And you can have your choice of event to attend. Movie premiere, Birthday, Anniversary or naming. Award Dinner, Empowerment evening, networking evening, women empowerment evening, children empowerment evening, husbands empowerment evening, business networking empowerment, confidence building and empowerment, charity fund raisers, charity dinners, charity balls, charity tea parties, breakfast parties, after parties …….the list is endless!! Even churches and mosques have their own empowerment events.

London is not without its own scandals and tales of shame. If you have your ears to the ground, you will hear of many salacious stories such as that of the married guy in the South East who got three other women pregnant at the same time; the lady who didn’t know that her husbands constant “night shifts” were actually because he had set up home with another family and only found out when the “other wife” kicked him out and dumped his belongings on her doorstep!! Or the woman who took in her husband’s pregnant “senior sister” and her daughter from Nigeria. Only a chance bumping into a mutual friend at a party who greeted the “auntie” as madam revealed the secret that she was hubby’s wife and the pregnancy and daughter were his kids. For months she had been playing sister in law to her husband’s first and legal wife! Of course, these are just tips of the salacious icebergs. Some stories will turn your Brazilian hair white!!!

However, we have a new generation of Nigerians who are making their ways slowly but surely into the corridors of power and national policy making in Westminster and Borough Town Halls. We have the likes of Chuka Ummuna who is a 37year old Member of Parliament and Whitney Iheanacho who is the youngest Councillor in the UK. Nigeria can boast of at least 10 former Mayors and some such as the Mayor of Lambeth, Adedamola Aminu, still serving. And at least 1 police Chief Superintendent Victor Olisa.

There are hundreds of Nigerians in London who are serving in Senior Management posts in the Civil Service and in many other sectors of the Economy, and many who have been awarded OBEs & MBEs by her Majesty, the Queen.

Records show that the number of Nigerians living in London are almost 10 times the number of other African nationalities put together. Which means that the Nigerian community in London is like a small nation made up of different groups, cliques and networks. There is hardly any Nigerian family that doesn’t have at least 1 of their family members living in London. Almost all of the folks I grew up with in Housing Estate, Ibara ,  Abeokuta are living in London. Some events and places you will visit and see the same folks each time. Others you will be surrounded by nothing but strangers.

With these statistics and everything else going on within the London-Nigerian community, there is a huge lot of stories and reports on events and occurrences waiting to be told that even Nollywood cannot even begin to imagine.

 London Digest by BaronessJ

Feb 2015

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