There is no greater feeling than returning home to the sweet smell of plantains being fried, chicken stew being cooked and okra being grilled in a home surrounded with African decor. Or in a home cluttered with ornaments, images of a generation that grew up in a continent far different to our time and fabrics telling a story of a tribe somewhere in a village.
For many generations before me, home was in that photographed village. With the influence of the diverse city life, it would’ve been easy to diminish the family traditions to fit in. But many took it upon themselves to open restaurants like Aunt Dee’s Bakery in Enfield that teleport you to an island in Jamaica with the aroma of spices. Or to clothing shops in Forest Gate filled with African fabrics, and tailors designing traditional garments where women of both African and Jamaican descent unite to laugh, converse and enjoy the company of strong black women.Being half Zimbabwean was always something I took pride in, but was this due to my Mum’s strict beliefs of ensuring I inherited every part of my culture. From the soothing sounds of our native language Shona, to Oliver Mtukudzi and our traditional dish Sadza too.
As I get older I realise the challenges many Black British people have had to face to connect with their heritage and yet still embrace the multi-cultural city we live in. A city which can have one street that has a variety of different countries represented in it with shops from India, China, Jamaica, Greece, Turkey, Nigeria and Britain.
It can be easy to become native to the surroundings and forget about your culture. So that’s why when I visited three African and Caribbean mothers and fathers with homes that invited me into a time capsule of history, culture and a lingering scent of spices that filled my soul. I wanted to explore how they kept their identity and passed it onto their children.
Akua Bempah is a 66 year old business saleswoman, she worked in textiles and is a seamstress. Having grown up in the small town of Kumasi in Ghana, her number one goal was to make sure her son Nana absorbed the history and traditions of Ghana. From keeping the strong dialect of Twi and remaining disciplined. “I wanted to make sure Nana can look after himself when I am not around,” she told us.Akua understood the affect that Britain could’ve had on her children, as a result of this she ensured that in her house she only chose to people their main dialect. “I chose to only speak Twi to the family so they never lost sight of their roots. Discipline in the UK is way more lenient than that of Ghana.”
The difference in status is definitely a huge contrast for Bempah and her children as in Ghana her family are considered royalty. “In Ghana, my family are royals. We have everything we need and more.” Although her family have wealth in Kumasi, in Britain she works hard juggling three different occupations to keep her family looked after. The weather is definitely something Akua has never been able to adjust to. “I cannot stand the UK cold, my African self needs sunshine all the time.”
Despite growing up as ‘royalty’ in Ghana and being surrounded by a tropical climate, the opportunities in Britain invited her here to pursue her passion in the textiles industry. “Britain was my destination to expand my business, it was less problematic with crime and more free and enjoyable. People may have been happier when I first moved though during that time rather than now.”Ester’s son Nana definitely felt the impact of his mother’s cultural teachings throughout his childhood and feels the culture strengthened his manhood. “I feel like the culture has helped mould my mentality which is, you want something you get it, don’t let anyone shoot you down,” says the 20 year-old.
Even though in Ghana his family were elite, he remained humble in school and avoided discussing his upbringing with his friends. “In school, I never really explained my culture to those outside of my friendship group because my family are royals and I was always taught to be wary.”
The trips to Ghana influenced Nana’s connection to somewhere he essentially calls home. “The history of Ghana, Africa in general really excites me and how it came to be such a great fortress to the world.” Nana described the impact of the slave castles in Cape Coast and how they made him proud to be Ghanian. He makes sure he returns on every visit and although he remembers each fact the guide gives him, he always ends up feeling emotional seeing what his ancestors went through.
Nana keeps the strong beliefs his Mum educated him with but he wants his children to be free with learning through their own experiences. “I will teach my kids what I can, but I’d rather let experience teach them.”Although 44 year old Ester Temenu has Nigerian and British nationality, she was born in London, and thinks the influence of the culture at the time definitely impacted how she raised her son. “I wouldn’t say Britain affected how I raised by son but I’d definitely say London did.” says Temenu. “Culturally, well London most specifically, affected the way I brought up my child because of the influences of the area in which we lived. I had to put certain restrictions in place, and certain things I made sure he saw out of London.”
During Ester’s youth, her experiences growing up were quite different to her son Darnell’s. “My own personal experience, it was great but my siblings didn’t enjoy it because London was quite racist and divided and when they went to school there was racism. I was quite lucky growing up in the 1980s. Funny enough, there were only two black families in my school but I didn’t really experience racism. I didn’t even realise I was black until secondary school, so for me it was good.”Despite his busy lifestyle surrounded by celebrity culture, Daren Dixon, who once worked closely with Destiny’s Child, never let the Hollywood lifestyle diminish his roots. His home was a breath of fresh air welcoming me into a space of achievements with signed posters framed on the wall from celebrities like Beyonce and Solange Knowles and family photos in the tropics.
He describes that his love for his family came from his Caribbean culture. “My family are from Guyana, South America but our culture is Caribbean as we are the only English speaking part of South America. Guyanese people are very family orientated and I’ve grown up with amazing memories.” says the father of one.
His daughter, who is bi-racial, has already visited the Caribbean as Daren makes a conscious effort to show his daughter the beauty of his family’s roots. “It’s vitally important to me that Autumn knows her Guyanese history. She’s only one year old at the moment but the first music she’s danced to was Soca and she’s got the moves already.
“I will take her to the Caribbean as much as possible. She recently came away with us to visit my Mum, her Grandmother in Barbados and we will go to Guyana in a few months, something that’s taken me my whole lifetime to do,” he told us.
“Soca music is in my blood. For many years I’ve witnessed my Grandmother gather generations of people together from family and friends into her home and party. It wouldn’t even have to a special occasion it was about music and being together. Every house party is a carnival and celebration of living life. My Grandparents have instilled that in us and I will never forget the endless house parties.”The music isn’t the only thing Daren wants his daughter to embrace. “It’s important to me that she loves food like plantain, roti and all the other mouth-watering dishes. I don’t want her to be to westernised and it’s important to me that she can speak articulately about where her family are from. I picked her Godparents carefully so that our family morals and traditions will be reinforced by them as well.
“Although I am getting older, the traditions have always remained the same since I was a little child. At Christmas Guyanese families have a dish called pepper pot which I swear is from the heavens. When you hear a Guyanese person speak about Christmas the conversation always heads in the direction of pepper pot.
“You have to love the passionate manner in which my fellow Caribbean people speak about this lovely meat stew, most Guyanese serve it on Christmas morning with a thick slice of their traditional plait bread. The tender pieces of meat falling of the bones and the rich gravy. Yum that rich gravy! You’d rip a piece of the bread and dunk in into that sauce spiced with cinnamon, herbs and cassareep (a thick molasses like reduction made from cassava). It’s heavenly! I’ve had to make a slightly different version now that I’m a pescatarian.”Like Ester, Daren didn’t face much racism growing up in Britain. “To be honest I grew up all my life wanting to be American. I grew up trying to sing the US anthem but it was simply because I saw people who looked like me over there succeeding and I took inspiration from that.”
His family made the decision to move him to Shirley in Surrey to go to a great school in a safe area. “I suffered a little racism at times but because I was very good at football I was more accepted and less racism came my way. My parents encouraged me to be fearless and to embrace being Black and British an always emphasised to me how lucky I was as the same opportunities which were not in Guyana. So they helped me fall in love with London.”
Daren describes his youth in Surrey as multicultural. “lI grew up with a kaleidoscope of friends that were a multicultural bunch. I’m so thankful of that as it’s served me well in the workplace, travelling and relationships as an adult. It’s a nice feeling to look back and feel like I had the best teenage years.”
With social media providing an open space for people to discuss race and raise awareness for racism or sexism. Daren feels as if we are so focused on race as opposed to people. “I think we’ve gone backwards and we are less tolerant of one another. We talk about race and not people… all the time!”With the recent death of his close friend and top model Harry Uzoka, Daren took some time to re-evaluate the use of social media. “We now look at people via our phones. There are less of the house party type events in our lives and it just feels that in some ways we’re living a very Truman Show existence. We observe the lives of others we don’t know or may never meet perhaps more than the true family and friends around us. I think this has positives too but sometimes it’s takes a conscious effort to break out of that cycle. I travel up North, out of London or cities where things are smaller, don’t move so fast and day to day life is more about interaction with locals and discussion. I find this way of live in the Caribbean also, where I can feel ‘real life’ again. It’s better sometimes to be less connected as it helps you to appreciate the things around you more.”Due to his job of always being connected to pixels, Dixon readjusted his use of social media. “I use social media and embrace it so much in my life but I think it’s maybe ruining society as there is no mystery to life anymore as we are all wired now. When I grew up we didn’t have that we just had our friends, your own experiences and adventures. I love my own time and would never change it for anything and I will try and ensure my daughter feels about life in the same way.”
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Featured image by Darnell Temenu.