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

Series: Diary of A Reluctant Immigrant: Part V
By Muntu Chikondi

Having found a job, the next steps in establishing myself as a Londoner were the opening of a bank account and finding alternative accommodation. The first proved surprisingly difficult and the latter surprisingly easy.

I have been a banker.  Thus I know that since the terrible events of September 11, 2001, the opening of a bank account has been increasingly complicated as banks (and most other service companies) have developed the most intricate "Know Your Customer" procedures. I know this because I was the person making it harder for other people to open bank accounts.

I am a finance person by experience and most definitely at heart so I was lucky enough to understand what was happening to me as I tried to open an account in London.  My natural interest in the process meant that I spent many a week mentally documenting and contrasting the different institution's procedures before I realised I did not have a bank account to get paid my first salary into.

So I decided to attempt to use my inside information to open a bank account. I wanted the most basic account and having formed the boundaries for the basic account for the bank that I had worked for forever, I assumed I could easily meet the parameters to get an account, any account.

I was, off course, wrong.  I could not open a current account because I had not been in the UK for a year; I lived in a hostel so I could not provide utility bills to verify my address and having been away for six years I had no credit history for anyone to check. During this period I went to several banks, waited around for what appeared to be an eon, only to be told that I did not meet their criteria.  One bank's member of staff made me feel as though I had told her I had a highly contagious disease when I explained my situation; she recoiled, telling me that they could not help me, guided me to the entrance and particularly pushed me out of the door.  I felt like a criminal and I have never set foot in a branch of that particular bank; I even refuse to use their cash machines if I can help it (though I have been forced to use them in Spain, on occasion).

After numerous experiences like this I realised I would have to use other means to open an account.  So I decide to go and visit the bank that I had had an account with before I left the UK. I visited their dormant accounts department, informing them that I had previously had an account with them and wished to reactivate it.  They looked for my former account for a week then, having not found it, they offered me another. They gave me the most basic of accounts, it did not even come with a debit card; I think it was Karmic payback, the bad energy from my treatment of my former customers coming back to haunt me.

Having been on the other end of this transaction I had given many a person the same account as I was given, the leper account. The account they give you as a non resident African; well actually it's not so much a problem if you are South African and I am not an authority on how North Africans fair. The account allows someone to pay money into it at the end of the month; you could not withdraw a decent amount of money a day, I could not withdraw enough cash at one go to pay my rent once I had left the hostel, nor could I take money out of an automated teller machine that did not belong to my bank.  This account was the equivalent of the account I would have given to marketers in Zambia, so I was convinced that this was pay back.

I treated my retail customers as a distraction, people to be endured rather than pandered to; hopefully to my credit, I did this unconsciously. However, having analysed my own behaviour towards the people my training had told me were high risk but who had wanted accounts I realised I deserved this. I took the account and decided to not complain about it too much; actually, honestly, I was determined to just take the account and not to speak to anyone about it, ever.

Having somewhat deviously opened an account (my preference would have been to have been accepted without the drama of pretending I thought my dormant account was still active) my next move was to leave the hostel.  I would never have been able to do this without a little help from my friends. 

The first friend was, off course, Mr. Doright, who introduced me to a friend of his, Silverback, who worked as a bar manager at the best bar in London (this bar, and Silverback, have been there for me from the point Doright decided I was his girl). My frequent journeys to the bar, which for me is a little bit like the bar in cheers (everyone knows my name, even though they may not be able to pronounce it), led to my meeting Bolivar, who would introduce me to my soon to be landlord.  The gentleman in question was from Turkey and had a friend who had a house in Whitechapel near Bricklane where one of the residents had recently left. 

The other friends were girlfriends from university who assisted me financially, so I could pay my deposit for the room, and get bed linen, a travel card and other such essentials.  A room was what it was, barely fitting a bed, desk and wardrobe; it was smaller than both my room at boarding school or university and its environs were far noisier (though my parents would argue it was also far cheaper).  However, I did not mind much as it was in the middle of the city and out of the hostel.

The other residents lied to me when I was viewing the room, telling me the house was in Shoreditch, though even if they had told me where it really was it would not have meant anything to me, as I was so unfamiliar with London.  Despite this deceit I moved in to what I quickly realised I was in the land down the rabbit hole.

There were three other people living in the house.  One was the Turkish gentleman who I mentioned earlier. He was a thirty four year old traditional Muslim man who felt women should be subservient, often arguing that women should get married the minute they hit puberty as this is what his mother did, (and hey her life had worked out great!). In his mind he was always right, on top of which he lacked self perception to the point of not realising the other people in the house greatly disliked him.  He thought they were all intimate friends, not realising that his backward viewpoint had rubbed these liberal Western women the wrong way.

There were two other people in the house. The first was a thirty seven year old Australian chef, who had apparently once been hot but who after reputedly frequently taking several hard drugs and drinking to excess during her twenties and early thirties had been left on the wrong side of sexy and very bitter about it. The last person I found there was an English woman, who could be called bohemian if one was feeling kind or sluttish if you were the Australian chef.

The two girls hated the Turkish landlord and spent most of the nights I was in telling me why.  I spent most of these nights ignoring their vitriol and trying to keep my distance.  They were simply not like me, being for the most part a great deal stiffer and more bitter than I was.  In the end they did not really matter as I spent most nights at Mr. Dorights, using my room for storage and whenever he needed space (I rarely needed space in the beginning, being lonely and more emotionally deprived than I would have been at home).

I could not say I had a great time when I lived in the house, nor could I say it was hell as I was barely there to form an opinion.  I could however say it was a waste of money, being my shelter of last resort.  I was not about to move out yet though, before that I had new job, and trips to the hairdresser and the Czech Republic to come my way.