I have spent most of my life believing that spring was the time for most beginnings in life. However, for me, they all seem to happen in autumn. It was therefore not surprising that when I arrived in Norfolk four years ago, I was welcomed by rows of colorful leaves being blown around and explicitly informing or reminding me that there are more changes to come.
When I got that final call while in Cardiff confirming I have been offered a position based in an incompletely unknown village to me called Swaffham, wondering how I was going to cope was one of my least worries since my determination and desperation to make it into the energy and sustainability sector wherever was utmost in my mind. However, on arrival in a new city you discover you need to make new friends.
Let me be clear about one thing: even though I have spent most of my adult life in Eastern Europe and in fact hold a Latvian passport (yes, call me an unusual, demonized, job grabbing Eastern European), and have mostly befriended and interacted with white Europeans, there is something inside me (and I assume inside everyone of us) to find your likes in the hope that cultural familiarity will quickly create a bond. Norfolk does not afford you such so easily. In fact, I later met a Nigerian who boasted of being the first to arrive in Norwich about 15 years ago even though this is very doubtful.
Naturally, my first real encounter was with my colleagues who were really magnanimous in making me feel at home. My colleagues, being mostly university educated, have had genuine interaction with Africans. And actually, the University of East Anglia (UEA), as you would expect, is the place to find the highest accumulation of Africans in the county. One of my colleagues was even born in Nigeria where his father was working for the then colonial government. There is a common joke that people do not come to Norfolk by chance as it does lead to anywhere in particular. So it is not uncommon to be asked how you ended up in Norfolk.
I reckoned that the easiest way to meet people was to join a local church. My first random attempt was shocking. Shocking not for me, but for the church congregation. It seemed I had chosen a church specifically attended by the elderly in the nearby care home, so the priest spent quite some time interrogating whether I had not lost my way. In the end, he publicly welcomed me, Christopher from Nigeria, to the cheer of the congregation. I really felt exotic there. The next Sunday, I tried another church where the priest this time cast doubt on whether I would enjoy the traditional style of worship in use. He did suggest another more modern service which I ended up sticking with. Other attempts to meet people included joining a reading club in the library. Yet, no sight of any other African.
Interestingly, my first real encounter with another African was in a Chinese restaurant. We exchanged contacts; he invited me to his church and promised to pick me up. The church, the Redeemed Christian Church of God, was naturally run by a Nigerian, had less than a dozen other Nigerians in attendance and played some old favorite Nigerian gospel songs. It felt like home. However, after attending a couple of more times, there were several things about it that I started to dislike and that made me feel uncomfortable. One of them was this idea of living in a foreign land and building a fort around you that does not allow for any interactions with your hosts. The other is the extreme/militant and narrow interpretation of the scriptures. Like blaming the earthquake in Haiti then on witches and voodoo worship. Maybe it’s just me. In the end, I quit.
One of the consequences of having lived most of my adult life outside of Africa is slight confusion and dilemma. Well, actually that’s already two consequences. On the one hand, I aim to integrate very quickly. On the other hand, I am scared to lose who/what I am. One area that is uncompromising though is my love for African food. There is just one place you can find African food like garri, yam, eguisi, etc in Norwich. It is Indian run.
Later there were chance encounters with other Africans on the streets, at courses and events, but it was difficult to find more that three Africans in one place. That’s until I got to know about the Norfolk Black History Month team. Despite their number, this group has proven to be very powerful and influential. Maybe it’s down to the individuals involved. Abraham, the chairman, could easily be the city Major. The wide range of events during the month of October ranging from films, talks, music and exhibitions is impressive. But then, it’s not all down to the Africans there. The participation of other locals is equally impressive. In fact, apart from country community events and the launch/opening, you struggle to see any Africans at talks and lectures that form part of the month.
As Murphy’s Law would have it, it’s only when I was about to leave a place that I began to meet more and more people mostly through the Black History Month events. Interesting to observe that all the characters you could find in a typical novel were all present in the African community in Norfolk. There is the Chief Conspiracy Theorist who knew what is behind every western government policy and who was actually behind every terrorist attack. There is the Mama Africa, a very influential woman who was there at most events to coordinate and provide all the required support. There is the Dreadlocked Dress-As I-Like Rastafarian woman ready to challenge the societal gender and behavior status quo. And in terms of professions, there were of course lawyers, doctors, accountants, pilots, musicians, care assistants, and of course housewives. And there is so much to learn from every single one of them about life. But it seems not everyone is excited about the idea of pan African events and community.
Perhaps, my very best encounter in Norwich was attending a concert by South African superstar Vusi Mahlasela a part of the Norwich & Norfolk Festival of Culture. I have always loved his music since I discovered him. I could listen to him all day. So it was a real treat that he was at Theatre Royal, Norwich. He did not disappoint at all. He literately carried the audience with him. Interestingly, he was only there to warm up the crowd for another Niger Republic musician, Bambino, who was less known to me. He was equally impressive!
As I leave Norwich to London to answer yet another professional call, I seem to be accompanied by the same autumn leaves that welcomed me to Norwich.