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

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

Things generally improved for me after my first night; the next day I managed to find a room in the hostel that I was supposed to stay in.  I spent one night there because, as luck would have it, I had the opportunity to move to a sister hostel that, without my knowledge, was really close to the only person in London that I had been in any real contact with and who would have a great part to play in my rediscovery of myself. Slowly, despite the weather remaining dismal, I began to get into the grove of living in London.  

I spent the first three months of my stay living in a hostel in Belsize Park, North London, which is a great location as it is a ten minute walk from Regents Park and five minutes from Primrose Hill.  I say that, but it took me at least six weeks to get myself to Primrose Hill and several months to make it to Regents Park, having quickly caught the London tendency of being too busy to actually see the sights of the city.  I suppose I thought I would get time to visit the sights, given I was planning to stay for two years.  I am still telling myself that, having only managed to consciously take in three of the "sights" in almost three years!

I originally thought that the place I had chosen was a youth hostel, for people between 18 and 30 (yes, 30 year olds are considered part of the youth), but it turns out that it was simply a place for anyone coming to live in London who was in need of decent (-ish), safe accommodation.  I discovered my mistake pretty early on, as I waited to sign into my room when I was accosted by the bizarre local octogenarian.  He was an old man who attempted to appear friendly though there was something slightly unnerving about him.  He seemed somewhat unhinged, was apparently retired and changed his previous profession in every conversation and constantly name dropped. 

According to his stories, he knew, and had worked with everyone, including the current Prime Minister. I remember informing him (after prolonged fervent questioning) that I had attended a job interview in Hammersmith, only to have him inform me, straight faced, that he had previously owned the company I was interviewing with and, being the kind man that he was, he would tell them to employ me as I was a lovely girl.  This was highly unlikely, given that the company was a start up. 

He was obviously delusional and seemed harmless to a point; however, he had once broken all the windows in the hostel manager's flat after a disagreement.  I vowed to remain on his good side after I heard that story and managed to do so, by either avoiding him completely or smiling (in what I hoped was an innocent and platonic way), whichever seemed most appropriate.  I suppose it worked, given that I did not have any unpleasant run-ins with him in the time I lived in his vicinity.

The old man was indicative of the sort of eccentric personality that inhabited the hostel, which off course says a lot about me.  Honestly though, the hostel I lived in was a microcosm of London, with groups of people from France, Spain, Italy, Russia and various South America and African countries as well as one or two stray British people. 

The characters were incredibly interesting in themselves and relating my experiences among them would take a whole diary entry, but then that is true of most places that one spends a great deal of time in the vicinity of people other than our most immediate families.  Being an outsider proved to be a blessing of sorts as people felt they could speak to me without feeling that I would sell them out to anyone. It only took one or two of these "intimate" conversations and a few days of observation on my part to work out the social set up of the place. 

The majority of the French people came through the French institute and were serious about learning how to speak English.  Although they were initially cliquey, they did try to mingle once they learned a few words of English.  They socialized with whomever had the time for them, whenever they could, in order to practice their English and have what they perceived as a London experience to relay to their friends and family back home.

Most of the Russians and South Americans were trying for a better life in England.  They were economic immigrants, being ordinary working class people rather than the oligarchs and former despots that have gained fame in the last decade or so by purchasing premier league football clubs or coming for medical treatment paid for with funds stolen from their subjects.  The majority of this group worked as sales assistants or in the hospitality industry while going to night school to study English, or, in the case of the Russians who spoke English relatively well, something that would increase their marketability in Britain.

The Africans were also studying, anything from bachelors degrees to MBA's from universities and colleges of varying heritage.  They were mostly male, East African, and friendly enough. As they all had TV's in their rooms and they were very popular.  As a foodie I did try to take an interest in the life of a Ugandan gentleman who worked in the kitchen of Gordon Ramsay's restaurant at Claridges, hoping to get some inside information about the celebrity chef's cooking techniques. I suppose I was simply trying to connect with someone, anyone at all.  Unfortunately he misconstrued my curiosity as flirtation and made a few unsubtle passes at me before my growing hostility made him realize he was barking up the wrong tree.

There were three African girls, apart from myself.  One was a Nigerian MBA student, and another was a Kenyan girl, who worked as a receptionist at the hostel and had secured her stay in the UK by marrying a rather hen pecked British gentleman of Nigerian extraction, who was a great fan of Liverpool football club. The third African girl moved in just before I left the hostel and was a sweet young Zimbabwean girl, who was having problems with her husband, who was also Zimbabwean.  The breakdown of their relationship seemed to stem from the fact that they had been contemplating breaking up and had only gone ahead with the marriage in order to allow her to remain in the UK.  I was intrigued by them as they appeared to have remained really close, speaking on the phone everyday and visiting each other often (he lived on the coast, near Brighton).  I was all the more mystified as she could not clearly say why their relationship was in trouble.  I did not push the issue, being rather obsessively private about my affairs myself (she says as she writes about her life for all to read!).

The Africans had part time jobs, doing things like postal delivery, waiting tables at fancy parties, providing night time security for various buildings in the City, working as cleaners in hospitals or as mentioned before working in the kitchens at Claridges or on the reception at the hostel.  They were all, bar one, supposedly in relationships, though you could never be really sure from some of their behaviour.  The majority of them were only in London for their education, planning to return to their respective countries when they were done.

The Spanish contingent was supposedly in London to learn English.  However, of the various groups staying in the hostel they were not only the most numerous but also the least willing to associate with "foreigners".  So you can imagine my dismay when I discovered that I was living in a room full of Spanish girls. 

Luckily for me, two of the girls had actually come to London to learn how speak English and were easy enough to get along with. Though the language barrier made conversation tiring for us all, they wanted to practice their English and in those early days, I was simply grateful to have someone pleasant to talk to.

Unfortunate for us all, the third girl in our room was in London to party and make some money for a few months before she went back to her life.  She had several friends, including her cousin and her boyfriend, with whom she had come with from Spain. There were usually about seven or eight of them in total, three couples who were the core of the group and varying numbers of strays that tagged on to them ever so often.

The girls ran the show though; you could see from the way they bullied their boyfriends that they were the real brains behind the operation.  They seemed to consider themselves the popular crew and tried to intimidate anyone that tried to stand up to them. 

The main group had managed to find work in a night club managed by Spaniards and this meant that they came in at 2 or 3 in the morning. For some inexplicable reason they always decided to eat their supper at this time. It seemed to me that they always ate in our room; for some reason this required all the lights in the room being turned on and barely whispered conversations that they had for at least an hour after they came in. 

They spent a considerable amount of time smoking hash and had the most irritating habit of speaking in Spanish even when non Spanish speakers were present, but this off course was probably as a result of their English being so poor.  It was unnerving to be sitting in a room full of people and not understand a word they said; it shattered the feeling of safety and calm that I wanted to create when I was in the room.  I had no prior knowledge of them and we were not getting to know each other, or even getting along. Their behaviour made their presence an uncomfortable feature of my stay in the hostel.

They were taking advantage of the passive nature of myself and my other roommates; our lack of aggression allowed them to disregard us and carry on with their lives. Needless to say I was inspired to move out after a little while, especially as the roommate I had been closest to returned to Spain.

I realized that it was time to stop fighting to stay in the hostel and move out because despite being surrounded by all these people, I was lonely.  I had previously lived away from my family, having been at boarding school in Bristol and at university in Guildford but I still did not expect the emptiness that came on this trip. I was taken aback by the intensity of my feeling of detachment from the other people.

It was clear living in the hostel was not helping me make real friends nor was I mingling with real Londoners, so with the encouragement of the man who was intent on my stay on London helping me to grow, I decided to find a job and move out. To this end I decided to put an advert outlining my abilities on the internet and waited to see if any fish would bite, not realizing that this was the dawn of yet another interesting period in my life.