A magazine for Africans and friends of Africa...Our Voices, Our Vision, Our Culture

Series: Diary of A Reluctant Immigrant, Part 1
By Muntu Chikondi

For me, the strangest thing about being an immigrant is that it was never my intention to leave my country permanently.  My trip to England was simply an opportunity to take a break from my life, to do something different for a few years.  I had a great life in my home country.  I had a decent career, was in the vicinity of my parents, and a better quality of life than the one I knew I was coming to. 

So why did I leave? Well, due to my own actions (very mysterious, but more on this later), my life had taken an unexpected turn and I needed time to regroup and find myself again. This added to the fact that I was tired of the small town, nosey, suffocating, mentality that had permeated my life and thinking.  It had began to drive me slowly crazy, leading to the decision to take a two year "career break".  I choose to come to a country with which I am familiar and take the opportunity to reconnect with my real life, from a distance.  I am, thus, the reluctant immigrant.

I arrived on a cold March evening, after the official end of winter, but no one told the weather that.  It was freezing, (by my standard at least, I have been told I feel the cold more than most people), and pouring down with rain.  I had no jacket, (I hadn’t needed one for the past five years!) and a 32kg suitcase carrying my entire life which, at Paddington, I had to lug from the Heathrow Express to the Underground.  My previous experiences in England led me not to expect any help with my luggage. 

For the sake of creating a picture, I am 5 foot nothing and I had overestimated my own strength and struggled ungracefully with the suitcase.  I was however, determined to get to the tube and to my hostel before 8 O’clock, as the reception closed then.  I concentrated on that fact and tried to visualize a bed at the end of this journey as I dragged the suitcase across Paddington Station.

At the bottom of the first set of stairs, I was so shocked by a man’s offer to carry my suitcase that I just had to warn him that it was very heavy. He looked at me and smiled, his look telling me he thought he was definitely stronger than a girl and was unlikely to have a problem with the case. He tried to lift the case with one hand and immediately regretted his presumption. As he heaved the case down the stairs, huffing and puffing, I think he wished he had never offered.   He waited with me for the train and put the case in the nearest carriage before making a run for it into the next one, presumably to ensure he did not have to lug it off the train, wherever I got off.

I got off at Gloucester Road, a tube station I never had the occasion to visit before despite it being near the Natural History Museum.  I attempted to carry the bag upstairs and instantly missed the conveniences of Zambia.  I had not realized what 32kg felt like because I had not lifted the case myself until I reached Heathrow.  At my previous home it was put into the car for me and at the airport it disembarked onto a trolley and through the check-in without my assistance. 

I also didn’t realize how heavy the rain was until I reached the outside of the station.  I dragged the case back under the shelter of the Underground station and began to think about the best way forward.  As I was contemplating my next move a man sidled up to me.  He was White and middle-aged so I did not even entertain any thoughts that he may have been trying to make a move on me, something I discovered later was not a reason for me to come to that conclusion; nor did I think he may be planning anything sinister as the station was brightly lit.  As it turns out he was doing the latter in some form as he was attempting to part me from my money. He proceeded to inform me that he was a South African national and to ask me if we were country people.  I told him we were not, informing him with pride I was actually Zambian (Zambians are, in terms of numbers actually quite rare, there are 10 million of us in the whole world, though we pop up in the strangest places). I was naively thinking/hoping he may be attempting to assist me with my case. 

He was actually looking for "assistance" himself, requiring, as he asked me for 30 pounds (British pounds not Egyptian), to travel back to Essex (he assumed I had no idea how much it cost to take public transport from West London to East London, and he was right).  I had never encountered this before, a well dressed white man asking a rain drenched Black girl for money.  However, I am not only an African, which makes me suspicious of White beggars anyway; I am an accountant by personality if not as yet by qualification.  I would never give anyone (colour and girth aside) money without having them quote a charity registration number (which I will duly check before I disburse funds or else I will buy your "Big Issue" off you, which I justify because in my mind you are at least making an effort to do something with your time).  With my shock and disgust only slightly concealed in my voice (as Chris Rock has been heard to say, "There is no need for that!"), I very calmly told him I had just arrived and thus hadn’t retrieved any funds from my bank, thus I could not help him.  I am not saying White people can not be poor enough to ask me for money but dude, do it in your country! Besides the guy was fat, he was better fed than I was.  I have to be honest - in Africa people who approach you  for money tend to look like they need it so my philosophy is if you are going to ask of me, Black, Asian or White, at least look like you are suffering!  Was that a little too un-PC...perhaps, but you know you think that when you see fat beggars.

I decided to leave the station to escape the shock of another overfed person asking me for money.  I was going to try to find the hostel that I had booked into but I realized that I was really unfamiliar with the area.  I decided to find a Black cab (they are trustworthy aren’t they?) Five drove past me with their lights on; I was soaked before one stopped to pick me up.  I got in giving the driver the hostel’s address, telling him I knew it was near by but I did not want to drag my suitcase that far.  It took him 30 minutes and cost me GBP10 to find the hostel. By the time I had paid him and he had hauled my case up the front stairs, the reception was closed.  No one could help me find a member of staff, most of them could not understand me, being unable to speak English. I later learned that the group of hostels I booked myself into were mostly inhabited by young Spanish people who had no interest in learning the English language and French exchange students.

A group of helpful young men carried my suitcase to back the main road (they too looked as though they regretted their offer), where I could find another cab.  I took the first that stopped for me and the driver suggested going to Sussex Gardens near Paddington to find a room for the night.  I was so tired, I agreed.  I listened as he told me he was actually not going in my direction and spoke about his family life in Essex. I did not question him when he stopped to get directions on Park Lane (but left the metre running) and paid him £22 (yes it is extortionate, but I was about to find out that is just the cost of living in London!), when we got the first hotel that had a vacancy. In the back of my mind I knew that he was taking advantage but by that time I wanted to get to sleep so badly, I had stopped caring.  We got to Sussex Gardens and I soon found myself settled into a £26 room smaller than the pantry in the house I had left at home.  I showered and got into bed, hoping like most immigrants, for a better tomorrow.