Of race, prejudice and stereotype in London


Of race, prejudice and stereotype in London
They were only eleven in her class and because the course work was heavy on shared assignments, they had inevitably developed strong bonds beyond the class.
Of the eleven, seven were girls. The Kenyan was the only black and African among the ten nationalities.
It was the first time for several of her classmates to interact with an African and she would recall with laughter how puzzled some were that she could speak English or operate a laptop.
She tried not to take offense when her Serbian classmate wondered if it was not true after all that Africa was all about wildlife, diseases, corruption and nude dancers.
But it was her Canon D40 camera that dazzled them most. Her background was TV journalism, but her passion in still photography had gifted her skills that could rival the best photojournalist.
 She had deployed these to an impressive effect in an assignment requiring creative shooting. It left her lecturer praising her work with the profuseness of Robert Mugabe thanking the Chinese for loaning Zimbabwe more money without reminding him of his age.
Egged on by envy and curiosity, the girls conspired to treat her to lunch. Officially, it was to celebrate her topping the class in the particular assignment. But theirs was also a strategic investment. They had noted her natural intelligence and scholarly disposition and appreciated the wisdom in counting her among their close friends. It would also be a good chance to satiate curiosity and to reality-check more of their myths on Africa and its people.
The Italian in the group thought she knew of the perfect venue. It was a chic Italian restaurant in upmarket London famous for its pasta. She had been there a twice with her boyfriend, and she loved it. And because it was popular and she didn’t want disappointments, she booked online a table for eight.
When the girls arrived chatty and hungry and dressed the part, their table was waiting.
After lunch, they planned to take a lazy open-bus ride around the city and wind down the day with some dancing later in the evening.  But after ten minutes of waiting, no one had approached their table. They found this strange as every other table was being served.
Twenty, thirty, forty minutes and there was still no service. By now, they had noticed that the waiters were deliberately avoiding their table and ignoring their summons.
So the girl who had done the booking went to inquire what was happening. She was directed to a lady manager who, in a thick Italian accented English advised her to ‘tie your dog outside like others!’ The manager had accompanied her advise with a finger pointing at a tree outside the restaurant. Under the shade were two chained dogs!
The Italian girl took time to register the insult. But the Kenyan quickly understood it was about her. She had read about racism still being rampant in parts of Britain and tied this to the fact that she was the only black in the restaurant.
Fighting tears, she picked her bag and walked out of the hotel. Her classmates followed her out in solidarity.
When she told me about it, my first reaction was to wonder why they did not record the scene. It would have been good to name and shame the racists. But I was left reflecting on her ordeal the other day when a white woman started ranting about blacks around me.
What began as a barely audible monologue steadily graduated into a foul-mouthed rant about immigrants in general and black men in particular.
She had arrived at the Victoria Bus station some minutes after midnight on a cold, rainy Monday night. Even without my heightened alertness honed by loneliness and anxieties of a long journey ahead, her oddity would have been difficult to miss.
First, she was dressed rather light for the winter weather. A black V-shaped flimsy sweater that was not even buttoned up over a low neckline floral top that was loose enough to reveal a cupid tattoo on the left side of her chest was all she wore above a three-quarter jeans shorts and ballerina shoes.
Secondly, she had arrived carrying a big, yellow paper bag that had the calendar of 2015 printed on one of its side. Now, the kind of bags familiar in Wakulima or Gikomba open air markets stand out in these parts of the world like a winter jacket in Mombasa. That and the fact that the paper bag was also old and dirty marked her for attention.
She must have been beautiful in her earlier years. But that now felt like a century ago judging by her prematurely wrinkled face and sunken eyes that had the pale-yellow hue typical with drug addicts.
She had tried to gather the remnants of her beauty with bluish eye shadow, fake, dark eyelashes and screaming red gloss on her uniquely thin lips.
But the make-up was a clumsy exercise that skipped the lower side of the right eye and a left a smudge of the lip-gloss on the tip of her nose.It made her look like a naughty but careless child that leaves evidence of raiding the honey pot all over its face.
When she looked up at the travel update board while spewing out expletives, and with her unkempt silver hair all over her face, the quick flicker of her eyes gave her an uncanny resemblance to Lucinda the Witch.
She sat directly opposite me and on one end of a row she shared with two rotund Rastafarians in signature Jamaican scarfs and flowing Rasta hair.
The pair was apparently a mother and son judging by their physical similarities and age differences. Besides, the woman was busy scolding the man in a way that only a mother or a wife could.

It must have been something to do with a mix up in the travel tickets judging by the way the woman kept on pointing angrily at the departing buses and the ticket in her hand. Apparently frustrated with a conviction that the ‘son’ was not doing enough to sort it out, she turned over to him, and with great effort, raised her right leg and pushed him off his seat in a get-up-and-go gesture to the laughter of fellow passengers.

So when the paper bag woman started cursing, I thought that she too, was getting hot under the collar over a delayed journey or ticketing mess up. But as her voice grew louder, I picked out swear words about ‘goddam n****r’, ‘parasitic immigrants’ and something about dark hearts in black skins.

For a moment, I was sure I was the target of her anger. True, she was looking almost in all directions as the cursing grew louder. But I thought I had seen her eyes linger around me for a while.

I felt the surge of the warm blood of anger in my veins. It was a moment I had been dreading but that I had practiced for. If it happened, I had promised myself, I would never take it lying down.

Now, she was shouting. Even in a society that is generally liberal with swear words, the profanity was too much.

A security steward tried to calm her down by invoking the presence of many children around her. But the woman went wild especially because the officer was black. How dare he touch her, she thundered, when he was just like Jim?

Then she started crying; the bitter tears of broken love amid a sob story. She had apparently fallen in love in Africa and brought the guy home. But she had caught him cheating on her with her best friend.

When she turned to me and asked me if all Africans are like that, I did not know whether to consider it an insult or feel sorry for her!

 

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Story By Jeeh Wanjura
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