Home Oral History Interview - Ngozi Fulani

Oral History Interview - Ngozi Fulani


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Filmed oral history with Ngozi Fulani.

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Ngozi Fulani is a founder of Sistah Space and an Independent Domestic Violence Advisor. She works as a full time volunteer, available round the clock for women experiencing domestic or sexual abuse.

She also works to raise awareness of the challenges and barriers experienced by people of African heritage when accessing mainstream services, and the cultural sensitivities when working with women and girls from these communities.

In this interview she discusses how and why she started Sistah Space.


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Q. Ngozi, can you tell me your full name, where you were born, and when you were born. [00:15]

NF. I can tell you that actually my name is Ngozi. That’s okay, it’s often done. I was born in Harlesden and raised in Kilburn, a few years ago, let’s leave it at that. [laughs] I’m not gonna tell you when. Yeah, I’m slightly over thirty...

Q. How did you come to Hackney? [00:38]

NF. My senior sister, Dr. Sandra Richards, when she was younger, she moved to Hackney, and I came to visit her. And I ended up staying and she ended up leaving, so I’m in Hackney, and she’s gone. But yeah, been in Hackney for a good thirty years now – over thirty years – which is amazing considering I’m not yet thirty!

Q. What were your impressions of the area? [01:13]

NF. We came from a family that we were not allowed out, past a certain time, and everywhere we went, we went with our parents. So at the age of around fifteen, I started to know about clubs – local clubs – the reggae scene. So I think the first time I came to Hackney was to go to a club called ‘All Nations’. ‘Phoebe’s’, ‘Four Aces’, and all those kinda clubs. We used to go in our area Acklam(?) Hall, and Cryptic One, and those kinda clubs.

But we came out of the area, and I remember coming on the Dalston Junction line for the first time, and I was fifteen. It was like I was going to the moon. It was something else, you know? And my sister was up in Pembury Estate, and it was just a different world. A really different world. It was nice, really nice.

Q. What was the role of music in your house growing up? [02:16]

NF. Listen, music is my life. Reggae music, particularly. Although I love African music, you know, authentic African music. But Reggae music is what I was raised on. The way everybody in the house had radio or Rediffusion, we had a sound system. My dad had a sound called 101 Count Senior, I think it was. And my dad sold records, and so most evenings in our house, there was always people there, and they would be playing music, and you’d hear Slim Smith and Jah Woosh and U-Roy and I-Roy and all these great artists coming through the speakers in our house.

That was our house. So our house was very cultural, and outside was very British, because we are one of the – there’s seven of us, I have six brothers and sisters. And most of us are what you would call first generation. Back then, it was called first generation or Black British. We now call it first generation African-heritage. And so the music – we lived at a time where petrol was ten pence a gallon, bus fare was one and a half pence, chips was two and a half pence, and so the economic situation was quite difficult. Mum and dad had seven. But we were really happy. I think we were the only African-heritage family on our road. There was no other black families. But we got along with most people. We didn’t see too much racism as children – or we didn’t notice it. But yeah, we had sound systems and [inaudible] and it was powerful. My dad was powerful, my mother was beautiful – is beautiful. So music played a very big part in our life, and still does today. [04:16]

I was very lucky actually, last Wednesday, to go and meet producer Bunny Lee. The producer Bunny Lee has released a film called ‘The Gorgon’, and I watched that film and it recreated my whole childhood in eighty-nine minutes. The sound system, it’s so authentic to African Caribbean people. For example, I would go to a club, I would have to stand next to a speaker box, which would deafen most people. And the lights are out. You can barely see each other, and that was what we were raised on, that’s how we listened to music. And the time - we’re nocturnal, because I would be getting ready to go to a club around nine, ten, eleven, or twelve in the night. Where I think the Western concept is that they would be coming home at that time, we’d be going out at that time.

But we were also in a time where – you know, the “no blacks, no Irish, no dogs” – so we couldn’t just go anywhere, and there wasn’t so many people who would hire their venues to us, not that we could afford it. So a lot of our dances and our blues were in our own homes. So this is the music culture that I come from, and I miss, and I love so much. [05:35]

When I was maybe about fourteen, my father gave me a record – ‘cos everything was record then. Turntable, none of this CD and disc something. And I never forget, the record was by Fela Kuti and the Africa 70, do you know them? And it was called – it had [inaudible] on one side, and “Lady” on the other. And that was my first introduction to authentic African music, as I know it today.

And that music changed my life, because I got to – not even listen to – but I got to feel Africa. Our music back then – our Reggae music, our African music – told our story, both in the Caribbean and in Africa, but most importantly of the African life here in Britain. And it expressed the things that we were going through, and the feelings that we had. Because it was not like it is today. Things are very different, and most of the time, if there were things going on – racism…

My father - big man. My father was the god force in my house and in our life. But at work, a younger white man could come and tell my father anything. So out on the street, life was different for us. In the house, we could be ourselves.

I think, one of the problems of today is that those who came over in the fifties and sixties, and those of us born of those parents, we were raised to know that, okay, back then, the headmaster was white, the vicar was white, the doctor was white. We never knew about any African-heritage people holding those roles then. So we were almost taught to revere. In our house you had twelve white men around one other white man. [07:55] They called him Jesus, and we had to praise this man. Now, if you can understand, back then, the Caribbean and a lot of Africa was governed by Britain or other European countries, and so we were forced to use that language, and to praise their God, and to praise this Queen Elizabeth.

And so that’s what our parents raised, and some of them tried to pass onto us. Not because they thought it was right, but because they thought it would save us from being in problems. You understand? So when we came here now, we developed our own fight. We saw that it isn’t right. We can’t understand how Asian people praise their own God, white people have to praise their own God, but we, African-heritage people, have to praise everybody else. And this was the pattern through life, and it’s the pattern today. So even though those times were quite bad, they were really quite good.

They had Esso Blue – you’re too young to remember Esso Blue. Paraffin man used to come round in a van and that’s how we used to get our heating. Didn’t have no central heating. Yes, the paraffin man would come round – petrol and paraffin was ten pence a gallon. I don’t care. They had a sweet shop called Maynard’s and they had everything – and for threepence you could buy the biggest bag of sweet ever. Now you have to pay one pound something for the same back of Revels, it’s very upsetting. [laughs] Oh dear. Beautiful times. We never knew we had it so good then. Really, really good times. [09:41]

But as I said, our parents, we never recognised then the struggles. The system today is that you cannot leave your children under fourteen or something on their own. Back in the day, mum and dad had seven of us. They were both working. So when mum was in the day job, dad was in the night job, but sometimes it would overlap and for a few hours, we’d be left on our own, or with the man upstairs, or the woman upstairs, or whoever was at the house at the time. And we had to make do, we looked after each other, you know. Different, different, different times.

But my parents, I’m glad to say, they bought their house, which was unheard of in the sixties and seventies. They end up buying their own house. And my father - very loud, very proud, beautiful, beautiful spirit - and he used to say to us, “This is our house, nobody can tell you what to do in this house. Jump, if you wanna jump, jump.” [pretends to jump, laughs] And he’d make us jump, and we’d be jumping, playing the music, and we’d be jumping. But we only understood as adults, the power of what he was saying. That you couldn’t jump outside the house, you couldn’t be your fullness outside the house, no matter what.

I mean, them times, if you think there’s a problem today with police and black young people particularly, it’s an illusion if you think it wasn’t going on back then – it was. I remember one of my brothers coming home with his face battered, unrecognisable. The police, they did it – they used to beat up young black boys particularly, back then. And there was no comeback. You just had to hold it.

I remember my father as well, one day he went out, and I think two skinheads approached him and asked him for a cigarette, and as I understand it, he didn’t have a cigarette - they put a brick in my father’s … [touches head]. He had that mark in his head til the day he made the transition. So they were…


NF. … going through racism there. But their job was to make sure that we felt okay and we felt safe, so we didn’t really understand the challenges that they were facing then. No idea. We thought we did, but we really didn’t.

Like I said, I thought my dad was God. His voice was so deep, he was so strong, he was so beautiful. But I remember going to his workplace as well. British Rail used to have these beautiful railway parties at Christmas for the children, and members of staff, you’d bring their whole families, and they used to treat us right. And I remember any twenty-one year old could come to my dad, and what we call, “boy him off” – talk to him any way. He held it. He wouldn’t allow people to disrespect him, but he was reserved in the way he responded. And we never understood that until we got older. I mean, the consequences on that would not only be on him, it would be on all of us.

So I have so much respect for those who came before us because they really had the challenge, they really had to fight. I remember our parents doing these quite menial jobs – no disrespect to people who work for London Transport or British Rail – but they came from the Caribbean because they were promised so much, and they were given so little. But they made the promise that seven of us would have the opportunity to do so much with our lives, and all seven of us are forces to be reckoned with.

But we still love the Reggae music because, as I said, that told our story in the UK. “Lovers’ Rock” was more the UK story but then we had our family in Jamaica, and the other Caribbean islands, and we knew we had this connection to Africa. [02:06] My father, as I said, gave me that record, but he let me understand we are Africans. My mother took some convincing, and we’re gonna talk about that, cos not everybody from the Caribbean at that time understood – and some still don’t today – their African-heritage.

And my mother was just a very quiet, four-foot-something, warrior woman. When I say warrior, she was very quiet, but you couldn’t mess with her seven children. You just could not. She was tiny, so if it meant she had to get on a chair and deal with you, she would do it. But my father, he was a powerhouse, and I think I get my love of music and dance, and being able to challenge the world – that came from him. Most definitely. We say Africa in everything we do, yes ma’am, we do.

Q. I’m getting a little emotional. [03:08]

NF. We ain’t even started yet. I’m gonna give you a little something.

Right, we weren’t really allowed out. We had to be in by ten o’clock, and the music is what we had. And I remember they had this tune called ‘John Crow Skank’, you wouldn’t know it, and it was produced by Bunny Lee, who I, again, had the privilege of meeting last week. And we used to make up these dances. Sandra, my older sister, was the lead singer, and me and my twin sister, were the backing dancers. And we’d have our own little show. [sings] Little girl, little one… Our our house was safe, we could be our African authentic selves. We had our own food. The daytime, we would go to the school, and we’d eat chips, mashed potato and the Western side of things. But in the house, it was authentic food. It was soul food. But the music was the fundamental part of our lives.

Reggae music, African music, shaped who I am today. And everything I do says Africa. Even though I’ve qualified as a teacher and a marriage registrar and I’ve done the whole thing, the BA, the Masters, everything. But in my own time, I’m going to the club. I’m gonna get up a midnight, dress myself, and go and listen to John Holt. Everybody. I’m going to listen to every artist that was back there. Some that you haven’t even heard of – you had Max Romeo, oh gosh man. [05:04]

They’re all historians, let me tell you, all Reggae artists are historians, they’re doctors, they’re nurses, cos there’s always a tune to sort you out if you’re feeling any kinda way. So Slim Smith would be the doctor if you’ve been hurt by love. And them times there, we didn’t even know really what love was, we didn’t really start having boyfriends, but he sang it so deep that you knew that whatever pain he was in, you couldn’t wait to get to that stage in your life when you felt that pain and you could sing that song. We did. You’re free to laugh but it was good. With Slim Smith, with words like [sings] You turn me on with untrue kisses … and we would take that line, and we would sing it, didn’t know what he was talking about, until you get the lash of love.

Then you had I-Roy and U-Roy and Prince Jazzbo, and artists who would make the music, and they would challenge each other through music. So they would be quite insulting to each other but it would be all under the roof of music, so it was entertainment. Then you had the Abyssinians and all those great artists who would tell us about Rasta [sings…] and then the history would be like, [sings] … Jah Woosh would talk about, there’s a rumour that Judy went to this place, and she drowned, but she never drowned, so we got all of the talk and what was going on in the Caribbean, and what was going on in America, and everywhere else, who was fighting, who was in love with who, through the music. So that was how we kept our link. [07:03]

So you can imagine that meeting someone like Bunny Lee, and then I also met Sir Lloyd Coxsone Do you know Sir Lloyd Coxsone? Okay, this country has not come to grips with the sound system. Some, yes – a lot, no. The sound system era, which was an era that my dad came from, and the sound system men - mostly men, but also women – are responsible for how much Reggae music has evolved and how it’s shared internationally and outernationally. Where the radio stations wouldn’t play our music, the sound systems, were places where we could go and hear music deafening at two o’clock in the morning with the light off. But you were with your people and there was none of these stresses and strains that the Western world had for us.

So, you know, the sound system culture was powerful. And that also helped Rastafarians get to know more about the culture, and around the ‘70s, almost everybody was Rasta, those times there. And even today, it’s really strange how this country doesn’t recognise Rastafari, it doesn’t. But the music – it is our teacher, it is our healer, it is our history, it is everything. So those artist, many of them who went on to make the transition, penniless – they were really the true heroes of our first coming to this country. They were our heroes, because, like I said, if it wasn’t for producers like Bunny Lee, we wouldn’t have the experience that we have. We wouldn’t know what we know. So even today, if I know that there is going to be a dance – or what we call a session – don’t try look for me, that’s where I’m gonna be. And that’s my medicine. That’s what helps many of us cope with the stuff that we have to cope with today. And we have to cope with some stuff. [09:48]

One of the difficult things is being able to talk our truth, because we’re not permitted to talk our truths unless it fits into the category of what this country or this culture deems appropriate. And that’s a stumbling block for many of us.

I will give you an example. When I present, when I do talks, whenever I go anywhere, and I look like this. Depending on who I’m in front of will determine the reaction I will get. If I’m talking to healthcare professionals, teachers, and the likes, they are kind of entertained by how I present. They recognise that it’s cultural, and some significance, they just don’t understand the details of it. And when I’m actually giving a lecture, it’s almost like I’m performing, because you can see that they’re hung up on what I’m wearing, or how I’m speaking, or the colours. The colours are significant, you know that I say Africa, if you know anything about anything, you will know that I say Africa. So I will speak and they’ll be smiling and you’ll get that particular look.

And then I’ll take off my coat [Removes coat]. And I might be wearing a suit underneath. So what will happen, is that, usually they will clap. Because I am wearing a suit, and the hair gear is off, and I look more Westernised, for want of a better phrase. So they will clap – they’ll start clapping [claps]. And I’ll smile and I’ll wait, and I’ll say “Oh, you like this?”


NF: And they’ll say “Yes.” “Does it make you feel comfortable?” They don’t know how to answer at that point. And then I’ll say, “So I should feel uncomfortable so you can feel comfortable?” And this is a problem that I experience in everything I do.

To explain better, in 1981 or 1982, I had my first experience of seeing an African dance group. And that changed my life. I just saw the authentic clothes - although they were wearing costume, they were authentic clothes to me. And the sound of the drums … this vision of Africa I’ve always had, there it was. I knew then that that was going to be my journey, and I joined that group. And the rest, they say, is history, because I’ve run the African dance group in [?] for over thirty years.

So I’m used to when I go on stage in African costume – and I’ll say costume because if I’m on stage, that is what it is – so I’m used to that response, everybody loves it. The amazing thing is, you don’t even have to perform – you don’t have to dance or drum yet, you just have to come onstage, and everybody’s happy, because they can see that. Where it becomes a problem is where I wear my authentic African clothes – this is not a costume, this is what I wear – and I will get that same reception, whether I’m teaching, or whether I’m lecturing, or whatever I’m doing. If I wear a particular outfit, I get a particular response. It’s a problem. And I’ll give you an example…

[2:13-3:38 – Ngozi removes coat and adjust microphone]

NF. So as you would see, I’ve made a change. I’ve taken off my coat and my hat to reveal that I’m actually wearing a two-piece suit. I always have a representation of Africa on me, regardless of what I’m wearing, but unfortunately it is that more often than not, I have to wear western clothes to make other people feel comfortable, and I’ll qualify that in a minute. I’m a qualified secondary school teacher, I hold a degree in African studies, and I hold a Masters degree in African studies, and that has taken me through the journey of being a teacher. I took a pause and I became a marriage registrar for a few years, and it was necessary then to present a particular way. So I’d always wear suits, and I’d always have the hair done up and always present a particular way. That was a requirement – I understood it. But I always have some elements of Africa on me.

However, now that I’ve become involved in advocacy for African-heritage women and girls affected by domestic abuse, I’ve decided that I want to wear my own clothes – my authentic clothes. Not always, but sometimes, ‘cos sometimes I might wanna put on a suit or dress or a skirt. I’ve got this thing with Marks and Spencer and T K Maxx, okay? So, we work well together. I happen to think that African-heritage people look good in their own clothes, but we sometimes look good in other people’s clothes as well. So I will combine the two. But I find that if I present to places like hospitals and stuff like that I am expected to wear a particular outfit to be taken serious. It’s my experience.


NF. So when I go to give talks in places like hospitals and such, oftentimes people are not expecting that I am actually one of the speakers. I think they have an idea of what a speaker looks like, what she should sound like, how she should present, and oftentimes I don’t fit that category. So one of the times I think it was Homerton Hospital I gave a talk at and I had on the full – I do love my African attire, and this was gifted to me by somebody we supported at Sistah Space, her mum in Ghana…

Look, let me just give you a little heads up here – this is Kente cloth from Ghana, and it’s also red, gold and green. And the significance of both I cannot even explain in the time frame that we have, so just know that I’m in love with this material, and thank those who make sure that I’m able to represent.

Anyway, so I went to this event and I had on a head covering. Just because it was pretty, not because of any other reason. And then I had on a full African outfit and I had a picture of an African-heritage woman on it which my sister, Dr. Richards, had given me. And I came on this stage, and I don’t know what they expected – if I would dance or sing or I didn’t know what they were expecting, it was a lecture. But I got a different response – a beautiful response, but a different one from the other lectures. As I was speaking, I did what I usually do, which is I take off the head wrap, and then I’ll take off the gown, and then underneath the gown I will have on probably a two-piece suit, and as I said, the response is usually to clap. I guess it is a performance, ‘cos if you’re doing that, it is a performance. [02:15]

But what is concerning is that we are expected to speak in a particular way, dress in a particular way, and fit into a culture that isn’t necessarily ours. Now I was born here. I hold a British passport. I in fact have given many their British citizenship, which is strange in itself, it feels strange. Because, don’t forget, I’m coming from a culture where when we was growing up, there was not black head teachers, no black vicar, no bank manager – never. So it took a little while for my mother to understand that yes, mum, I am a marriage registrar, yes mum I do do the marriages, and at that time there were civil partnerships. And yes mum I do present people with their British nationality certificates. She just couldn’t get her head round it, because I have locks.

Like I said, I worked in a school and when I’d been there for three months and still after that time admin who didn’t know me or hadn’t seen me would approach me at the entrance of the building. “Can I help you?” I would of course say “No.” “Are you looking for somebody?” “No, thank you.” “Are you a parent?” “Well yes I am actually but not to children in this school.” “Well then I’m afraid you can’t come past here unless you’re a member of staff. Oh, are you kitchen staff?” “No.” “Are you domestic?” “No.” And then we’ll have this little gap, and then I’ll say, “I’m a teacher. It wouldn’t seem to occur to you that it’s possible for me to be part of the teaching staff.” And this is something that happened in Edmonton in 2002 or 03. [4:47]
I’ve had since that – not on that scale, because I haven’t worked in London schools since, although I went to Essex, and the response was quite similar. But this is something that’s still quite a problem if you don’t present a certain way, and you will have noticed that my accent changes quite regularly, depending on who I am with and what I’m talking about. When I’m talking about back home, or back when I was younger, then there it is, it comes out. But then if I’m talking about my job as a registrar or as a teacher, and I just drop back into this, you then become – without even knowing it, you just adapt to what you have to adapt to. And it’s not only in the teaching profession, I remember when I was still doing the African dance school, I remember Black History Month, we went to Ipswich, we went to a school, there was a lot of young children there and they introduced our group and they said “So they’ve come to do something for Black History Month” so I stood up and said “So children“ - because I also have an African accent and you will hear it – “does anyone know why we are here?” Somebody put their hand up. “It’s Black History Month.” “Good, what does that mean?” “It means…” and they said what it meant. And somebody put up their hand and said “Miss, how far did you come from today? Did you come from Africa?” “Yes, I came from Africa!” Because it was part of the performance. “I just got in this morning.” Another hand went up. “You came from Africa?” “Yes.” “Are you starving?” [pause] This was Ipswich. And at that point I think I’d been doing African dance for about 20 years, it’s not 33 years. And it was one of those very rare moments where I didn’t know what to say. So I actually said, “Yeah I’m quite hungry actually.” [laughs] [06:55] I was able to turn it into the African History Month thing to say no, I’m here because of this. So teachers you need to be aware of this. Why does this young man think that because I said I’m from Africa, that I should be starving? We need to visit that.

So instead of calling us in to do African dance - which is beautiful because that’s what we do - this is African history month, and we’re going to teach you something today. We start to introduce, how many people know how many countries are in the continent? And getting the children to understand that African History Month is not just about dancing or singing, Bob Marley, or the famous people – cos we’ll go to these schools and a lot of them with have Bob Marley, and Marcus Garvey, and the bait ones. But we also teach the children that our own parents and siblings and current day people are also our African heroes and sheroes, because for me, my parents are my heroes because, have mercy(?), what they had to endure, and still come and make sure that our childhood was problem-free, they should be the ones getting the awards and all them kind of things. [08:27]

Q. So you mentioned that you have been an advocate for women and girls in the community that have experienced(?) domestic violence, and we will come to that, but have there been any other ways that you’ve been an advocate in the community or an activist? [09:10]

NF. I think being a community member is so important that you have to be diverse, and you have to go with whatever. So I am involved in whatever is necessary. One of the tragedies is that I keep on finding myself marching or campaigning about the deaths at the hands of the police, or the deaths or serious injuries at the hands of other young people, or these kind of things that are happening in our community. I do think it is necessary that I pray that nothing ever happens to my children or grandchildren but I’m not going to wait until something affects me directly or my family before I get involved. I think we all have a duty to go out there and make sure that the community we live in is one that works for everybody, where everybody can feel comfortable and safe in – everybody, regardless of their gender, their personal views, their colour.
And colour is something that we need to talk about as well, because we’re talking about African history and African-heritage people. But there are also shades of black. And there was a time, and to some extent, still is, where the shade of your skin also determines how you will be treated in life. And if we go back to slavery, and we know that lighter-skinned enslaved people – and notice that I say enslaved, because we do not accept ourselves as slaves – so, those who were enslaved who may be lighter-skinned, nearer white skin, or even children of the [pauses] enslaved owners. And it’s really difficult to know even how to put that. I don’t know how people could even be involved in the slave trade, because even verbalising it is difficult. How can you say that you owned a slave? Or that you owned another human being? But this part of our history, which I must point out, is not where our history


NF. Begin. Our history did not begin with slavery. But we are still affected by this. We are affected by how the shades of our skin were a tool used to divide us as well, turn us against each other. Part of a plan that is still in operation today.
The fact that our ancestors were raped – the men and the women, the boys and the girls. I was looking at a picture this morning, where the picture was with a white man who had a little black boy of about four lying down, and he had his feet on that baby. Bare feet. And there was another little black baby there. And was he drinking or smoking a pipe? He was relaxed in a chair and he had his foot on this baby. And we also know that our babies were used as crocodile bait, and we know there’s a painful part of our history that people don’t like to talk about.

And what happens when we’re not allowed to talk about these things, we become ill, and it affects us. Because when we go to the system, as I like to call it - whether it be to report domestic abuse, to claim benefits, for whatever reason - we are often faced by someone who does not look like us, does not think like us, does not have our history, doesn’t appreciate what we’ve gone through. And oftentimes when we present in front of the person who does not look like us, they feel uncomfortable because we are our full African self. In other words, if I were to present like this, harmless as I think I am, I know that so many people who do not look like me would be very nervous and very uncomfortable. [02:12] So what often happens is that we now have to adjust ourselves to make the person who doesn’t look like us feel more comfortable and less threatened. Therefore, we have to think so many things, we have to consider so many things before we even talk about why we’re in front of that person who doesn’t look like us.

And I’ll pause for a second because I think people really need to understand what that’s like because most of the time – certainly for the Rastafarian community, it is very unlikely that you will see a member of the Rastafarian community present to a police, or to someone who doesn’t look like us, to say “I’m affected by domestic abuse. I’m affected by sexual abuse. I need to claim benefits.” They don’t, because a lot of the people who are Rastafarians or grassroots or what we call “in the know”, we already know what we know. We feel in a particular way. Some of us are feeling angry still, because we’re looking for reparations and it’s not coming. Everybody else is acknowledged for the Holocaust and what’s done to them. We are not acknowledged, and no compensation – financially or otherwise – has been given to us. [03:50]

And on top of that, other cultures are meant to be able to sort out whatever issue we have. For example, you have domestic abuse organisations who understand the issues and needs of particular cultures - whether it be Asian, South American, LGBT community, whatever. There are organisations that understand that this groups needs to be helped by people who understand their background and culture and the issues that they face, and the atrocities that they faced. However, we as African-heritage people, it seems to be okay for us to be able to go to anybody who can help us with our thing. We’re expected that we can just present in front of everybody and anybody, because it’s not recognised that the trauma that we went through still affects us today, and is not understood by the majority of people, and makes the majority of people feel uncomfortable. We’re back with that uncomfortable thing again. So I’ll sit down in front of somebody who doesn’t look like me, and I have to keep saying that, because the truth is also a problem for some people to hear, and it will bring up all kinds of problems. So I will sit in front of somebody – and I’ll use myself as an example, so I don’t bring other people into it – and I will look like this, and as I said, the other person will feel whatever it is they feel - intimidated or whatever. And then I hear things like “I understand because my boyfriend’s black” or “Oh my god, I didn’t know Caribbean people or African people went through domestic abuse. You guys are usually so tough.” And I’ve told you that I’ve heard that from an independent domestic violence advisor, who was in post. Asian heritage. [06:05] I was training to be an independent domestic violence advisor at that point, I am now qualified. She was telling me that she had no idea that African-heritage women and girls go through domestic abuse, and it frightened the shades of Africa out of my skin.

Because I don’t remember what area she was working in, and a lot of the people who are not IDVAs – independent domestic violence advisors – and ISVAs – independent sexual violence advisors – work in all areas, they don’t always work in the areas where it’s multicultural. So the chances are they don’t come across African-heritage people very often, and when they do, they don’t know how to cope, or they feel intimidated, or they don’t understand, and that transfers to the person who is going for help. And more often than not, they will not tell the whole story. This is probably something that may not be understood too well. My senior sister, Dr. Sandra Richards, calls it a difficult conversation. And it is this: how are we supposed to present to people who we feel, who we know, put us in this position in the first place?
Many of us were brought here against our will, through enslavement. Others of us were brought here because we were told this place is the best. Those times, doing the menial jobs that other people didn’t want to do. Clean the streets, work in hospitals, clean the toilets, whatever. But we came here under false pretences thinking we would have equal footing, and we didn’t. And we know, every time we present, we also have a lot to consider, because don’t forget I come from a generation where in our house, in order to stay well out of trouble and survive, you had to be very respectful to European people. [08:21]

And the difficult conversation is as well that the Asian people and the African-heritage people don’t have that common connection that people think that we have. And I feel like it’s so important to say that. We’ll just say that we don’t understand each other, I think that’s the most respectful way to put it. We don’t understand each other. I can speak from our perspective, I cannot speak from any other. I can tell you that my experience, and many of the people I know experience, is we are often misunderstood and even looked down on by a lot of our Asian brothers and sisters. There is a misunderstanding. They do not trust often, and they do not respect us often. And I will say it. Others may argue that it goes both ways, and I do not disagree, but I’m just telling you my experience.

I was very concerned to learn that the Home Office has a website that directs African-heritage people affected by domestic and sexual abuse to get in touch with Southall Black Sisters. It’s a massive concern for me, because Southall Black Sisters, who are doing a wonderful job – this is nothing against them – but they don’t cater for African-heritage people. I know that they may be able to assist on some level with advice about immigration, or… I think that might be it. But here’s a news flash. Not every African-heritage person is subject to immigration. [10:26] Not all of us have language problems. Many of us are British born and British subjects. You’re directing us to organisations who do not understand us, who do not cater for us. And that word “Black” – that often allows many organisations, groups and individuals to access funds that are meant to be put aside for Black organisations. What qualifies or who qualifies as Black? So if it says “Black” you can just send us all in. I wrote to the Home Office and I asked them about this about six months ago. Up to now, no response.

And I remember this conversation ruffled a couple of feathers – quite a fair few feathers, actually – because one of the statements were “How can you say that Asian people don’t understand Black people?” Because it’s true, that’s why I can say it. And although working for Sistah Space means that I’m not funded and I don’t have access to funds at the moment, it does allow me


N: […] the freedom of speaking the truth. You cannot sack me from a job I do not have. And how can we get… how can we move on…how can we improve things? How can we make policies that support all of us if we don’t speak the truth? Why do we, for centuries now, have to keep, keeping our truth to ourselves in case we step on your thumb [?] toe? In case we hurt your feelings? In case we offend you? So always we have to absorb that hurt, that pain and we have to be without so that other people can feel ok. And I am so not gonna do anymore. I’m not doing it anymore. So. The actual truth is the only people that can speak for African-heritage people, with any…feeling, history, and whatever is African-heritage people.
Of course, other people can support us! We get supported by so many people. I’ve to mention Emma Winch, Hackney Museum, and her colleagues. I’ve to. Because the truth of the matter is the situation as we find it now is we don’t get a lot of support from a lot of people and they’re sticking their neck out. Not a lot of people know we exist. I think if they did, I think they would support, but they don’t know.

And we…we’ve not been able to obtain funding because we do not fit the criteria of what the funding bodies want. No. We cannot give you the names and addresses of the people that come to “Sistah Space” because oftentimes the African-heritage women that go, come to “Sistah Space” for help are the ones who have been beaten and, dare I say, raped by the system, manhandled, brutalised, discriminated by the system [1.59].

So if they’re at that stage where they need to talk to us, we’re not gonna betray them. Why do you need to know to…to have your data or whatever? I understand you have to know where the money is, but I, personally, am not for sale. So if that’s the criteria. This is my second year in service to the community without pay and it’s hard, it’s not easy ‘cause there’s a stack of bills that talking about the rent, and rates, and electricity, and the gas, and everything. You know? There’s a beautiful feeling when you can see changes coming, and change is coming.

This is Hackney and I love Hackney; wasn’t born here, came here…some thirty odd years ago. My children all were born here. But Hackney has a community that’s totally invisible to them: the grassroots, Rastafarians, and many of the African-heritage community are invisible in Hackney. I think that we’re the only organization that I know of that caters exclusively for African-heritage women and girls and I have to tell you why that is. And I have to tell you about the inspiration behind “Sistah Space”. And that is a wonderful, beautiful sister called Valerie Ford. And Valerie Ford was one of the most powerful community advocates you could find; a mother. She wore locks, very cultural sister, and…she was having some issues with domestic abuse. [3.54]

And we in the community, we don’t really like to go to the police, you know. We’d rather [long pause] be…held in confinement for twenty-nine days than go to a police station. We don’t really do that. So know that if we ever get to the point where we have to go to the police station you know that is tough enough, that things are really serious. Valerie Ford went to the police station and she told them: “This…person…” - I’m gonna try and keep it clean, yeah? – “…is abusing me and he’s threatened to burn down my house with me and the kids in it.”
She reported that to Hackney police and they recorded that as a “threat to property”. As it was recorded as a “threat to property”, when you make certain…when you record certain incidents, it triggers certain responses. If it had been recorded correctly, it may have triggered off the correct procedures and things may have been put in place, and that might have meant that Valerie’s here today. But they didn’t. Mistakes were made and they have not acknowledged [?] that mistakes were made.

But what happened is, Valerie, being the wonderful woman that she is, she gave him three months to leave, find somewhere else to go, you’re not contributing to the house, you’re not doing anything. She gave him three months to leave. And that came to an end on the March 31, that was the day he was meant to go. She got up, got her daughter ready for work, she got herself ready for work, got her daughter ready, I think, for nursery or babysitter, and she told the guy [emphasis on “guy] that he had to leave and he said he had nowhere to go. But she had an inkling that something wasn’t right so she called her older daughter, who was at work, and left the line open. And one of the things she said was: “He keeps going downstairs, he keeps going back and forth.” [5.58]

The last conversation that her daughter had with her mother is to hear her mother murdered [6.07]

Q: Please, continue. Sorry. [?] [0.04]
N: One of the last things that Valerie’s daughter heard was the sounds her mother made as she was being murdered. This guy had used a machete, screwdriver, and a hammer, and taken Valerie’s life. And then he took the life of his twenty-three-months-old daughter. [long pause]

That changed my life. I’m not one of those people that can hear this kind of things and think: “Oh my God, it’s terrible! I’ve gotta get tea on.” No. This one, and for more than one reason: a) she’s a sister b) [long pause] he killed his own baby, not only the woman he’s got to have children with, he killed a defenceless baby. So the whole thing went to court and he was found guilty. And I attended every day and nobody knew who I was, didn’t know if I was on the guy’s side or whatever ‘cause I just felt a duty to go. And on the last day, that same daughter, who’d heard her mother being murdered, approached me and she said: “Do you remember me?” And I did vaguely. And she said: “[long pause] You was a teacher at Clapton Girls where I used to go to school.” And then I remembered her, and I remembered her mum, and I also…she also told me that her mum was a big fan of the African dance, and the drums, and everything; she loved her culture. And this, this whole thing affected my life so badly that I knew that many of us are dying because we walk into the police station and they’ll say to us we don’t have red marks or bruises. Even today! [1.56]

The police will still say they cannot see evidence, although they’re not supposed to, there’s training involved and everything, and, you know, they’ve come a long way, but they haven’t come far enough by far. So, some of the officers will say: “Where is your evidence?” to a dark skinned person. You could slap [emphasis on “slap”] me with all of your being, it’s not gonna produce a red mark. Also, a lot of us are perceived as [long pause], almost as males. This strong black woman doesn’t allow us to be seen as in need of protection, or that there’s any softness, or anything. So, often, we’re sent back out into…the danger. And this is what happened to Valerie.

So what I did, I campaigned for a venue - this is the space - so that I could support African-heritage women and girls affected by domestic and sexual abuse because the danger, and what’s causing the death is that many of the cultures, other cultures have no clue about what happens in our community, what happens in our house, what happens in our culture. They have no clue. And that’s the danger of sending us to people who don’t look like us, or understand us, or even like [emphasis on “like”] us on some occasions. Because if I was to tell somebody who doesn’t look like me.

He said: “Watch!” So then went down [?] when he said “watch”, and that’s not high risk for most people. For us, that’s the ultimate. It’s languaging. You have to understand the languaging, and a lot of people don’t. [3.57]

For if a brother tells you: “Watch”. It’s not only his language. It’s his demeanour, it’s his tone of voice, it’s his everything that makes you know you’re dead. Or seriously hurt. That cannot be conveyed. That doesn’t come over. Therefore…we need to be advising those who are not only training, the [3 words missing?], we need to make sure that certain material is in these training packages that you deliver. We have to make it clear that only because “Black” is in the title, can anyone represent us.

And I’m gonna go as far as to say even the last few - and I don’t like the word clients so, or victims. So the last few survivors that I’ve worked with, getting them away from the abuser has been the easy part. Getting them supported in the system has been almost impossible. There are some boroughs, and I’m going to name… should I name, probably I won’t, maybe I won’t. It’s not Hackney. Hackney’s not brilliant but there are some other local boroughs [gestures higher up as if to signal North] that are terrible. And it seems like they’ve actually employed people who look like us to be the gatekeeper, if that makes any sense. So they try and encourage what they perceive as strong characters to bar strong characters from accessing support, help, other services. This is something that I’ve had to realise, have to speak about because I can speak about the difficulties we’ve with white people, Asian people, but have to speak also about the difficulties with our own African-heritage people. [6.03]

And one of the major difficulties is that we have organizations who are very good at putting in applications for funding and receiving them. They are then given the role as…lead organization. They have no knowledge of any other members of the other cultures in African-heritage community. They don’t understand the Ghanian [?], or they don’t understand the [pause] Rastafarian, as I spoke, they don’t understand the Jutemen [?] or what’s going on, you know, or the grassroots level, they don’t understand the female genital mutilation. They don’t understand. But because they’ve put in a good application, and they have a long history of being there, the people who are making the decisions about who should get the money have no idea about the African culture. Therefore, you are not in a position to decide who should be doing this. Does that make sense?

The funders, the people who make the decisions are so… not clued up that they’re causing more damage than they think they’re solving because you’re giving money to, as I said, still to this day [long pause] Suffolk [?] black sisters are on the website. To this day. As people we should be referred to. On what grounds? In whose world? In whose universe? Who said so? Who are making these decisions that are affecting our lives? Who? Why is it that us on the ground, doing the work, are almost destitute? I have a stack of bills, that…that’s…for the rent of this place that I have no clue. I think it means that I have to operate out of my own funds. So be it. But why should I have to when there’s so much money around for people who are not doing the work? [8.03]

Why is it that every time I am invited, and I am often invited to speak, that I am told beforehand: “We can cover your train fare but we can’t pay you”? Why? I’m super qualified in everything. Why can’t I get paid? Why are you getting paid and I’m not? Hackney – I love Hackney, it’s diverse – but they’re also guilty of that. When I look at who makes the decisions [she gestures higher up again] about domestic abuse, it’s predominantly white, middle-class men, in Hackney. Why is that? And if I speak, it’s a problem. Why is that? Why do people need to be offended? Why don’t we just get together and make the changes that are necessary? Are we not all working for the greater good? Are we not all on the same page? [long pause]

Another major, major, major, major concern is…if I have to go out, I cannot wash my hair and blow dry in ten minutes. It just won’t work like that. If I have to wash my hair, I have to give myself three days. My locks are down to here, they’re twisted up so they’re acceptable, yeah? To whoever I may have to face. And, you know, it’s kind of more comfortable, but it’s clear that I had to find some way of making my hair acceptable in order to do what I need to do. But if I have to wash it, and unravel it, it goes past my ankles. It takes me three days to wash and dry that thing. Unless I’m in the Caribbean or something where it would take thirty minutes to dry. So if I’m fleeing domestic abuse, I cannot wash and go. [9.55]

And if you put me in a place like…Shrewsbury or whatever that is and there’s not a lot of people that I can see myself reflected, where I can’t get my food which sustains me, and, one of the most fascinating things to the people that I speak to, health professionals included, is when I explain to them African-heritage people, every single African-heritage person has to go for a ritual every day. We have a bath. If we do not cream, or oil, or grease our skin, our skin – and I always leave a dry patch [indicating a point on her hand] just for this occasion – our skin is white. It becomes like…very…I don’t like the word ashy, but it’s…white. Not as in melanin, but, you know, we have to go through this ritual where we oil, grease, and cream our skin because if we don’t, every single African-heritage person outside will know we didn’t do the ritual, we didn’t…we can’t present outside, we cannot present ourselves outside without shea butter or something like that. That’s a given in every African-heritage household. There is no African-heritage person, unless they were brought up in care without access to their culture, everybody knows that. But most caregivers, most domestic abusers, most people outside of our culture and our race is not familiar with that. But it can make the difference between adding to the trauma […] [11.51]


NF. My hair is locks – it’s fine. But if I didn’t have locks and I had comb-able hair, if I’m fleeing domestic abuse, I need my comb and my grease. There’s certain things I need before I can go anywhere. If I don’t have those things, it’s an added trauma. To sit down and have to explain that, time after time after time to people who don’t look like us, sometimes it’s fascinating to them. So you’re telling them you’re going through trauma, and they’re just fascinated by your ritual.

There’s so many things to negotiate, that when you think about it, you just think, you know what I’m not gonna go and report, or I’m not gonna go and seek help. Because I’ve got these hurdles and then I’ve got to make this person feel comfortable and then they’re gonna be looking at me like this. Or, you know what, I don’t wanna bow down to you no more. My parents have been bowing down to the likes of you for fifty years, I don’t wanna do it. And that’s a truth that we need to talk about. As I said, because I’m so outspoken, and because I am my father’s child – he’s very powerful – I know my power, and I embrace my power. And so even if I’m sitting quietly, my energy is evident. And it will sometimes draw people to me, and it will sometimes make people uncomfortable. And the people that are uncomfortable are usually the people that don’t look like me. I don’t know what they think I’m going to do. Truth be told, I have more reason to fear those who don’t look like me than they have to fear of me. For my history never went and took people from their countries, raped… that is not my history. Therefore why are you afraid of me? But I’m not allowed to say those things and I think that’s so unfair. [02:04] [inaudible] but I don’t care. You know you get to a point where to be free is to be able to speak the truth for others. And for other people who can’t say it or won’t say it, I’ll say it for them. I stick by everything I’ve said today. And it isn’t to point blame or to make people feel bad, it’s so we can get from under this weight that we continue to carry.


Q. Can you talk me through the services that you provide in Sistah Space? [00:05]

NF. Sistah Space is unique in that we understand the African-heritage women and girls. We can cater for them in so many ways. We understand what it is like to be an African in Britain or an African in the diaspora. We understand that. So we can have that dialogue as a sisterhood. We won’t be shocked at the things that they tell us. But more importantly, we are not 9-to-5. We are around the clock. Because domestic abuse does not happen 9-to-5 – it happens around the clock. Sometimes I might get a call at midnight, 1 in the morning, 2 in the morning, 4 in the morning, and I will open the Sistah Space.

Now we are not a refuge, and we do not have the facilities to accommodate people, but we can keep you safe until we can get you to somewhere, where A) they can cater for who you are culturally, and your needs. For we know your hair and your skin is as important as your food and your drink. We understand that, and we know that without certain things... So the comfort of knowing that. We also have younger women, middle-aged women, and older women. We will break down what you have been taught not to talk about. Because ours is a culture that says we don’t air our dirty linen in public. But sometimes is necessary for the washing to hang out on the line. [02:01]

Crucially, the domestic abuse ethos here is – that the perpetrator is usually male, which I agree. But most of the centres do not allow men. Sistah Space is different. We sometimes allow men, we don’t allow perpetrators. Cos not all men are perpetrators, not all men are perpetrators. Just like in your house, it is your house, so you say who comes in and who doesn’t, when they come and when they don’t. This is the same as Sistah Space. This is a sister space. So if they decide, we’re having an event, we want the brothers to come through, we’re not gonna stop it. And I’ll tell you why our circumstances are very different from others’. The African-heritage male here is under siege, and dangered. His history is a struggle that we stand side-by-side with. So we don’t condone the behaviour of perpetrators, but we’re not trying to break up the African-heritage family. We already have too many families that don’t have a male role-model or person in the lives of the children. And also our young Black men are children, are boys. Do we exclude them as well? What message are we sending out? So we have to be very careful. Our circumstances are very different. And that’s another thing that’s not understood by mainstream.
Mainstream domestic abuse organisations often have images of white women, Asian women. There is an organisation that I’m reluctant to name, because they are making changes. And this organisation is one that trains the IDVAs and they’re doing a wonderful job. [04:08] I myself was trained as an IDVA by this organisation, as were my colleagues. Unfortunately, when I looked on their website, there is not one member of staff who is not white. Not one. They’re in Bristol, they’re in London. They’re everywhere. Are you really telling me you couldn’t find any… it doesn’t make any sense. And also their material: their material excludes African-heritage people. But what is wonderful is that I was able to have that dialogue with them, and we are working together to make the changes that are necessary, and that is all we ask from other organisations and individuals as well – that listen with an open mind and try and make the changes to your organisation and your policies, that will level off the playing field, and give everyone an opportunity to access services, and support that’s out there. Very important.

Q. So in a normal week, what things are you having to do to help women in your community? [05:24]

NF. In a normal week, I’m the only full time volunteer. I don’t wanna be a volunteer, but [laughs] there’s no money. IDVA and ISVA – independent domestic violence advisor and independent sexual violence advisor – I’m the only one that works with African-heritage people, therefore I find most of my time is getting people out of that situation. Once I’ve got them out of that situation, the trouble begins. [05:53]

Housing is a number one problem. All you ever get from when you are trying to get somebody into safe accommodation, is now having to prove to them that you are a victim. A lot of the housing officers don’t understand the law as it pertains to domestic abuse. The survivor doesn’t have to go to the police and get proof that they are going through domestic abuse. There is a period where you do your enquiries, but until such time, you accommodate, once you’ve done your provisional interview. They’re gonna tell you that there’s no housing. “Can you not stay with your family?”

Last week was one of the most shocking for me. This borough that is neighbouring Hackney, somebody went there for support. This person – she’s willing for me to talk about the case, but obviously for confidentiality I will never say the name or anything that will identify her – but she’s got two children with severe autistic issues. First of all, they sent her away without doing a risk assessment. Then I asked her to go back, and they offered her somewhere in Luton. She’s got children in special needs schools, her very small network is local – just outside of Hackney cos it’s a neighbouring borough. But she was just expected to uproot. And she’s also ill herself with post-traumatic stress disorder and other issues. And they tell her – I listened on the phone – “either you take Luton or you make yourself homeless.” And the man that was speaking to her was so unkind, so unsympathetic, and so horrible, that I had to be calling while I was on the phone listening. I had to use another mobile phone to try to get another member of staff to come down. [08:06] Well as I said, they’ve got the gatekeepers there, and they almost drove this women to … I don’t know. So it started at about 10 in the morning. 7 in the night, I’m still trying to find this woman accommodation. 9.30 at night, the manager who finishes at 5 o’clock rang me because I rang the after hours service. And they sent her to accommodation where it was one room. There’s a woman in there with her two children. But you expected this women with her two autistic children to go in there and share with this stranger and her two children in one room? By this time, it was 10.30 in the night. Once she got there, there was a man in the room. They told her to go back to the abusers – to the house where she was fleeing. Anybody who knows anything about domestic abuse knows that a woman is at the most danger at the time she decides to leave her abusive partner. So you’re now sending her back with her suitcases because you messed up and you couldn’t find her accommodation? The next thing you know, we’re gonna be doing a homicide review again.

So I went there the next day. They had me there from 9 in the morning til 5. I’m an IDVA, I know what you’re supposed to do, and I kept meeting barriers everywhere I went. And I knew it was because A) how I present, they’re just not taking me serious. 2) Sistah Space is not recognised by them. I referred her to children services. They said, it’s not our problem, it’s a housing problem. They give you the run around. This woman was determined. She was so tired, she was going back to the abuser. We had to use our own personal money to pay for a hotel for her to stay for two nights. [10:03] And I keep having to do that. I’m not getting paid. My children are supporting me. There is money out there, but not for us. So I’m using money I don’t have because I couldn’t keep her here. Because of the children’s severe disruptive behaviour, risk assessment would show that in this place they could bring down anything.

But there are occasions where, again, African-heritage women have not been supported, and have been left out on the street. And it’s more than a few times that I’ve had to stay here overnight, so that I could pull out the sofa. This is not accommodation, so I’m not supposed to be doing that. However if I’m here, then they’re here with me. So they sleep, and I have to sit up. It’s crazy.

There is a real problem in who is trained in how to deal with matters of domestic abuse, what the law says about it. A lot of the people who are on the front line don’t know the law, so they’re telling the survivor information which is incorrect and dangerous, basically. It’s a fight, because there’s one of me, and there’s so many… This is happening daily. They tell you that they’ve got “so many people, there’s only a few accommodation.” That is not my problem, I’m here with a survivor. You’re not supposed to be telling us your problems with housing. That’s unprofessional. We don’t need to know that. It doesn’t help us. You need to talk about that with your manager. This borough – which I will not name yet – that sent her to Luton, they sent her to this building, where she found there’s 49 other families


NF. From this same borough, up in Luton. So that’s what they do – ship ‘em out. The risk assessment isn’t done on the children or the adult – these corners are being cut and people aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do. And this is what’s taking lives. And should you bring it up, then you’re just an angry Black woman. You’re not a strong advocate fighting against domestic abuse, you’re an angry Black woman. And so you get this barrier, and so they almost take out their feelings about you on your service users. And it’s ridiculous. I apparently don’t look like I’ve got any qualifications in anything. But that’s not what’s being said – it’s just what I can understand from how I’m being received. I go to the police station: sidelined. I go to housing: sidelined. Unless I wear a suit, high heels, and have my hair up in a particular way, then I’m not to be taken serious. And that is a major problem.

Q. Would you be happy to talk a little bit about the history of the banner behind you? [01:20]

NF. Yes, I’d be more than happy. This banner, “Sistah Space”, has a special significance for me. Valerie Ford – who I explained was a victim of domestic homicide in Hackney in 2014 – her daughter is now one of the management committee members of Sistah Space, and we are so proud of her. And she went on holiday, and she got this made for Sistah Space as a thank you. And it just holds, as I said, so much significance to us, because Valerie and her daughter and her family are the inspiration behind Sistah Space predominantly. Of course, every African-heritage woman and girl, but what happened to Valerie is what kind of got us started. So this says “Sistah Space”, and it’s from the older daughter, and she presented it to us, and it’s priceless.

What I love, if you can see there’s three African-heritage women, shades of black. And remember earlier we spoke about the shades, and how it’s impacting on us even today. One of the tragedies is when I look at African-heritage women and girls, some of us have this culture of bleaching their skin to appear lighter, or wearing make-up to appear lighter, and wearing weaves or hair that doesn’t represent how we are naturally. That isn’t a criticism to them, but it is a worry, because what is it that makes us feel like we have to be lighter skinned, and have particular flowing hair ,and look a particular way to even get by in this world? To me, it’s indicative of a trauma that still continues, that forces us to be everything but ourselves in order to just survive. Our own hair is beautiful. We look so good in our own hair, but unfortunately, if we want to survive, and have a fair opportunity in the workplace, in the world, we find ourselves having to drastically change the way we look, the way we present.

What I say to our sisters – because I came up in the era where extensions were first worn. And in those days, you wore extensions as plaits, so they just looked like an extension of your own hair. They enhanced our African beauty. Now I see people wearing blonde wigs and all kinds of stuff, and if it’s a fashion statement, then fine, because the young people seem to wear it as a fashion statement. If you’re wearing it cos you think it looks good on you and it goes with your outfit, you’re wearing it for the right reasons, fine. But if you’re wearing other people’s hair because you don’t think that yours is good enough, or that you’re too dark, or anything else like that, it’s a concern, it’s a problem. [05:28] We have to look within. We know what it’s about. We can trace it. We can understand it. Why are our African-heritage men attracted to others? Or we must disguise ourselves as others before we become attractive to our own men. This is a conversation that we have to have as well. But it’s all linked. It’s part of what I call systematic bullying – racism, abuse of what makes us fundamentally us.

If we don’t love ourselves – oh, I love myself, and I’m very lucky in that, as I’ve said, I have a senior sister, Dr. Sandra Richards. From a very early age, she kind of had that mother protective spirit of us, and she used to tell us how we’re beautiful as our own authentic self. And she was young. When I think about it I don’t even know how she got to understand that language, but she’s always shown us. And so thankfully, I’ve managed to avoid the pull to be anything other than what I am. Sometimes I think we look so good it scares me. I don’t want to be anybody else. I appreciate other people looking good as their authentic selves. But I know that we are good enough. We are more than good enough. We don’t need to adjust or adapt ourselves to fit everybody else’s idea of what beautiful is. Biggest lie ever told. It’s the sad truth. [07:41]

But I see that there are two sisters – they toured(?) Facebook and they have written this book about black hair. The name of the book escapes me, but I will let you know what it is. And they wear their natural hair, and they are now making sure that the young people coming up appreciate the beauty. And that’s the theme that’s happening now. There’s a generation coming up which is reclaiming. We’re not saying other people are better than us, we are not saying that we are better than anybody else. We’re just taking our place in the world, proudly. And that’s what needs to happen, but there is so much to do, because we exist in a world that does not respect us. We do.

I have grandchildren now: Kia(?) and Ayana(?). And they mean the world to me. They made us come full circle – their father is from Ghana – and I want those two grandchildren of mine to know how beautiful they are. Their mother is amazing, she is amazing. She makes sure that they respect and they know their culture. But I have my part to play, because while they are here, there is everything telling them on the television, the images they see: size 8, 10, blue eyes, blonde hair – that is what you aim for. [09:27]

I have a twin, Maxine Clay(?), and she makes African-heritage dolls that look like us. She actually made one that looks exactly like me – it’s not here, it’s in my house. And that’s what we have to make sure our children see. They have to see themselves reflected everywhere. They have to hear their own songs. They need to hear the drums. They need to know that Tarzan isn’t real and white people don’t always come to Africa and save us from ourselves. This false propaganda, these images – we have to make sure that what goes into our children’s minds is as important as what goes into their bodies. We usually feed our children what we think is good for them. Even the children’s BBC and all those kinds of things, we monitor that. We monitor the images and the messages that are coming through to our children. We have to start to make a change in how we view ourselves.

Q. What’s been pointed out to us in a recent project we’re working on is what a landmark moment it was for some people when Diane Abbott was elected to be a member of the Houses of Parliament. Do you have any memories of this? [11:02]

NF. One of the things I love to say about Diane Abbott is she’s a fantastic woman. She should be given an order of something. They should make a medal just for her. She entered the political arena in the early ‘80s or late ‘70s, at a time where there was nobody of African-heritage in that role, alongside Bernie Grant. And both of them were fighters to make sure that African-heritage people were included, and our rights, and we were seen, and we were able to exist in Britain, where we play a major role. But what people don’t seem to realise is that I would not, for all the drums in Ghana, sit in a room in an empire – because it’s an empire in itself. To exist in that role, for that long, you have to be some kind of superwoman. Because everything she says and everything she did


NF. Because she was the only one, she had to fight, fight, fight, and fight. And she wasn’t only fighting people that didn’t look like her, she was often fighting people that looked like us. I have to really speak out to some particular people, who would come out with nonsense like: “Diane Abbott, yeah, when I had housing problem, she didn’t help me.” She’s one person, and she’s not the most high.

Going to work must have been a challenge for her in itself. You have to exist in a male, middle-class – although she was from that background ultimately, she had humble beginnings in Jamaica, and anyone speaking to Diane Abbott will understand that she come from an authentic Jamaican background with her grandparents and her family that were such an important part of her life. Her heritage is strong. She loves her Jamaican and African-heritage – she loves. She fights for African-heritage people but she also fights for everybody. She’s doing a fantastic job, and I think it’s gonna be one of those times where you missed the water when the well run dry. Only when she is not here – and I hope it’s a long time from now – but it’s only when she is not here, people are gonna realise the value of that woman. She’s a powerful and phenomenal woman, and credit must be given to her, and I stand by her as her sword and shield. I’m telling you. I have so much respect for what she’s done for us and what she’s achieved, that yes, I will always speak up for her. She’s not perfect. [01:59] Tell me anyone that is perfect and I will show you a liar. If people can bring to the table to match what she brings to the table, then I’ll be quiet. And that’s not me – I’m not quiet. I’m just saying I respect her highly and others need to do so. And to those trolls, cowards behind computer screens, and the likes, who like to have a go at her… [gestures “I’m watching you”] We don’t like people troubling her. You’re a coward and a weaker(?) Leave her. We love her.

Q. Thank you so much for your time so far. Is there anything else you’d like to add to the interview that’s going to be added to the museum collections? [02:51]

NF. It’s been an honour and a privilege to be of service to my community, whether it be as a secondary school teacher. I met so many wonderful pupils. I never did get my head around teaching Shakespeare drama – that was tough, but it was part of the curriculum. That was beautiful. As a master dancer and a drummer, doing the African dance, that was an honour and a privilege for me. We’ve done that for thirty-something years, and we’ve covered most of the schools in Hackney, and so many events, and that’s been an honour to me. Being a marriage registrar has been an honour for me, because how great it is to put people together, to be part of that. That’s been beautiful. Even being an IDVA and an ISVA is an honour, because you are supporting people who are fighting, sometimes for their very lives. It’s not easy, it’s hard. There’s been enough tribulation. We get fight(?) against so often.

But one thing I haven’t mentioned is the EAT initiative – Education Africa Teaching. In 2002, I decided that a lot of the problem with the young people here is that the images they have of Africa and the Caribbean are not real. They see it on Tarzan or David Attenborough, or somebody, their vision of Africa. Who feels it knows it. You cannot tell me more about myself than I can tell you about me. So we decided that we are going to take young people from Hackney and sometimes beyond to Africa and the Caribbean to learn about their culture first-hand. 2002 we went to Ghana. 27 young people from Hackney, and a few people from outside. And we took them to Hackney(?). We got 40 hours of footage, and I’ll send the links to you so that people can have a look. [05:06] We went on Emancipation Day. Emancipation Day is August 1st and it’s a significant time in the African-heritage. Life(?). But what we found as in everywhere was that the USA was represented, and the Caribbean was represented, but the UK wasn’t represented. So we went to Ghana. We raised the money ourselves. We did have a little bit of.

[end of recording]