Home Matters include oral histories, biographies and stories about notions of ‘home’ and the meaning of journeys among the Congolese/African diaspora. Here we are exploring how memory can travel across national and ‘material’ borders. While the notion of transmission is key, we also reflect on the life of members of the Congolese diaspora, their social and cultural ‘location’ in London and their sense of self in new multicultural settings. Therefore ‘Home Matters’ discuss the memories of integration and settlement in often difficult times and also represents opportunities to trace changes in London and beyond. The research focuses on links between past and present and the fieldwork benefitted from the assistance of young volunteers trained in various research methods.
Excerpts from the project’s oral histories and interviews on the theme of journey, home and ‘integration’ in new settings:
British Congolese male, 37
I think it was around Christmas time when I arrived. I saw quite a lot of white people there, when you came out the airport I saw, well we got into the vehicle now driving up, I saw the trees with the lights on it which was a Christmas tree and actually a real tree, but they put the light bulbs and stuff like that, in the vehicle I thought: ‘oh my God in Europe even the trees got lights!’ I was remembering mango trees and mango coming out so I thought like that’s these trees bearing the lights as well! Yes that’s one of the things I can never ever forget here in Europe.
British Congolese male, 32
First and foremost we come from a French speaking African country so coming to Britain that’s already one disadvantage compared to our Ghanaian and Nigerian people. So we’ve already got, we start from that language barrier and then a lot to do with names as well, our African names. At first these were things that you could get teased about, you had to go through these, if I could say name discrimination basically, where you’re in a classroom and then your surname gets called out and all your friends are laughing because your name sounds different. So we did grow up with quite a lot of discrimination. Quite a few of us used to be called ‘Frenchies’, because we came from African, French African backgrounds. So coming to Britain, learning English and all that, yes there was quite a lot of discrimination but growing up you learn to deal with it and it kind of fizzles out once you mix with the culture, once you mix yourself with the culture. My own personal experience is I could say, being stopped by police from like the age of 14 and being told by police, I’ve been asked by police ‘where’re you from?’ – ‘Congo’. ‘You’re going to be back on the first effing plane back to Congo’, or ‘we don’t want your kind round here causing trouble’… You know, I’ve had a lot of racist remarks, especially, if you’re hearing it from people that, people like police who’s supposed to be protecting you, no that just gives you a scope of what normal people could be saying because these people are obliged to look after you and protect you, if they’re thinking like that, it kind of puts in your mind of what about the people that’s just normal civilians don’t have these obligations…It kind of puts these perspectives in your mind and apart from that I have seen racism in school, being called a nigger or you know it does happen. I’ve seen in my own eyes, I’ve got my own experiences and friends, hearing friends experiences, it kind of makes you feel like, it is a problem, it’s not just me it is a problem, when you hear other people say it as well.
British Congolese man, 64
When I finished my study in Belgium I went to work in Congo, and I worked there for 15 years, and before that it was in 1999 in September I think that I came here but my family moved from Cameroon into the UK in 1992 for my wife and in 1993 the children joined their mother here. It means we were separated for 7 years, and I just came here to visit them. I didn’t have in my mind to stay in this country for two reasons. First of all, because I was used to work with colleagues, doctors, who studied here in the UK. They had never found employment here, even with their good English! This is the reason why I didn’t have in my mind, I didn’t think at all to come to work here. For me, it was just a visit. I came to visit my family here. But I fell sick. It was very serious and the only thing I could do… was to stay with my family here, reason why I stayed here.
British Congolese female, 28
I remember, it’s funny enough…I did not come straight away, I went through Belgium! I got to Belgium we jumped on a boat and we came by boat and from Dover we drove to the house…not remembering Dover… because we came at night… To be honest, I have travelled so much in my life, like, so it was nothing like ‘wow!’ Funny enough, we even went through Germany. We went to London: ‘are we home yet?’ – ‘Yeah!’ … So it was not a ‘wow’ thing to me, but I was happy that I was going to see my family and everybody else but nothing else was so exciting. But obviously when you are thinking like an African…you used to believe that Europe was amazing, you drink milk, you eat the best bread and you think: ‘Great! This is it! I’m going to have it, I’m going to drink it!’ When you get here and when you see then you just think it’s normal. There’s nothing different in having milk in the Congo [laughs] or milk in Uganda or milk in Belgium! There’s nothing different, it’s just the conception that you see on TV and the way they portray it. So it makes you think that it is better than this but it’s not. That is how I see it now.
British Congolese male, 32
If you could just imagine coming from a very hot country – because we landed in Britain in February, early February, and as everyone knows early February is one of the coldest months in the calendar year – so coming from a very hot country, just 24 hours before I was sweating, I was proper baking hot sweating, and then to land in a country where it was, in the winter in 91 was really cold, it was very snowy. It was just a shock to the system basically! I can remember stepping out the plane and freezing and I couldn’t believe people actually live in that type of environment, how can they survive! I didn’t know, because all I knew was that’s what Europe was like and there’s no hot weather, it was just, they lived like that, it was cold and you had to put up with it so it was a shock to the system! I can remember stepping out the plane thinking: ‘oh my God, I don’t know if I can!’, but at the same time, I was excited, at the same time, being young and seeing this different environment, when you’re young… just everything’s an adventure to you. I was so excited- wow! – seeing snow for the first time, so yes I remember that day!
British Congolese female, 26
The first first time I arrived in London…The airport. I had my mum who came, hugged me, cried because… I wouldn’t say I’m the spitting image of her. I look like my uncle that passed away, that raised me and that was their last born of siblings and he was like a memory of seeing me and obviously I was like his first born and all the memories come back, it was all tears. When I got home they introduced me to all the siblings here and what I remember when they used to speak English, because obviously I was a ‘freshie’, I spoke only French and Lingala, and when they used to speak English it’s like I used to say to my mum’s boyfriend at the time, used to be like I’ve got a headache and he said it’s only because you don’t understand what they say! I’ve always missed my uncle. The person who took over him after he passed away was my auntie now she’s here, I missed him, I missed the space I had to play. I missed the freedom of just playing outside.
French Congolese female, 39
I remember being at the airport and I had to climb the escalator and I ran off, because I was scared! That’s the only memory I could recollect from that time! Initially it was quite difficult, I couldn’t get used to the UK lifestyle at all, I was mostly returning to France every weekend because I wasn’t getting it at all here. 18 years after, yes I am now, I can say it took me maybe more than 15 years to really get used to the UK lifestyle! Because I remember all the 15 years I was going mostly every month to France to do my shopping and to do everything because I was more familiar with France than UK, but now for the last 2, 3 years I haven’t been going and I know my way about in the UK and I’m starting to get used to the UK lifestyle and food actually.
British Congolese female, 24
I came to London with my parents. I came in 1992, my mum came a bit earlier but then she sent for us, me and my two brothers. And when we came, it was a very small community of Congolese people but I think over the years more and more started coming. So I met more family members. We were the first in my family that came to the UK, well my mum was but now I have lots of uncles, lots of aunties and extended family. So that was 1992 when we first came.