Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

Coming to grips with life in Britain

By Ngozi Agbo Chigbo

Natives and foreigners who live in the United Kingdom have different views on what makes the country tick. This article looks at the life of foreigners in the UK.
Occasionally, I get requests from relatives and friends in my home country asking me to buy them one thing or the other. Such requests are made with the notion that the cost of living in Britain is much, much lower than wherever they are.

It is therefore not surprising that Britain has been described by many as not only a land of enormous knowledge, but also a land of milk and honey. And given the chance, such people would want to come and live here, at least for a greater part of their lives.

For those of us who have had the opportunity of being in Britain, our opinions about life here vary from person to person. To some, it is a matter of survival. Others believe that life is not an easy-going affair. While a few see life as normal.

Some Africans and West Indians resident here do not contemplate going back to their roots. Their sufferings and struggles to survive notwithstanding, they prefer living in Britain to their home countries for a variety of reasons. Many of them are, for instance, ashamed to go back to their countries because they have failed to achieve success for their period of stay in Britain.

Many residents here refuse to open up to the realities of life, and have always given their fellow men and women in their home countries the impression that they have achieved the Golden Fleece, and therefore have no problem settling here comfortably. They would want the high opinions created about them to remain untarnished.

But it is not true that life is an easy- going affair for the large population of Blacks and Asians in this country. Ask those of them who have spent donkey years hatching and raising families. Contact the students who for years have spent large sums of money acquiring degrees and diplomas, some of which have no end. Chat with those who reside forgotten in the inner communities, confused about their future.

The bitter truth is that Britain is a desolate place for any African or Asian. On the doors of every house in Britain there is a look of solitude and absolute loneliness, such that one is bound to sit down for a while and rethink the reasons for being here.

There is a feeling of nostalgia. The European culture of individualism and exclusivism is totally alien to those of us who are Africans. At home, we were always together with our extended families sharing problems. Over here, we find ourselves occupying empty rooms with no one to talk to or play with. Our nearest companions in Britain are books, television and radio. But one cannot be reading, watching television or listening to the radio all the time. We occasionally need the company of parents, brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends. To substitute for the above, some find themselves in vulnerable positions which often ruin their future.

On arrival in the United Kingdom, its beautifully cold weather slaps the cheeks and bids one good-day as one moves through its cities. As in any other country, problems abound - unemployment, in- flation, accommodation, racism, travel fares, boredom and desperation to be a better human being. But among all these problems is the problem of a "stay permit" by the Almighty Home Office.

Yearly, residents, especially students, battle to be qualified for an extension of stay in Britain. Qualification entails a letter from college as a full-time student, and sufficient evidence of funds. Or a work permit and a fat statement of one's bank account.

Being in this country has opened my eyes to the riches of knowledge. One can acquire much by just watching and listening. You do not need a four-walled block to achieve that. By merely looking, creation flows. By sheer attention one's thinking process is nourished.

It is obvious in Britain that everyone must work hard to eat. For example, some of my friends at college did all types of skilled jobs- dressmaking, typing, hairdressing, book-keeping and cookery. It does not necessarily require a paper in Britain is basic working experience. qualification to get such jobs.

One must learn to keep busy in Britain as time is big money. And the hunger for survival produces a very clear exposition of response to all types of work.

It is pertinent to say that provisions must be made by every resident for an income to go into one's account, no matter how small the amount. Otherwise before one realises it, one is sent packing by destitution to one's roots.

Foreign exchange problems have resulted in many students becoming drop- outs. They therefore choose to register in crime. a mushroom institution of higher learning where they can pay their fees by instalments as they fight their way to success.

Yes, you meet them in the early- morning trains and bus stops shivering in the cold on their way to their various offices in the West End. They serve as cleaners and security guards. They scrub lavatories and work in old people's homes. They wash dishes in restaurants and prepare meals in cafeterias. They serve as chamber-maids and waitresses in hotels and nightclubs. Also, they study full time or part time.

Even though it is illegal for them to do any type of paid job without a work permit granted them by the Home Office, they still take the bull by the horns.

Nigerians, Ghanaians and Asians have become expert drivers in Britain. They know the shortest routes to the inner cities. Some of them drive without a full British driving licence, which is against the law.

At Heathrow Airport every morning and evening, especially over the week- ends, they rush down to collect passengers on arrival in Britain. They disguise themselves as if they have come to receive guests, for fear of being caught by the police.

Outside the cab offices, they can collect several passengers going in different directions at a time. And charge them differently. Their fares are much lower than the normal fare by cab. They know they are breaking the law, yet they do it because they have no other choice if they wish to survive.

It is important to note that paper qualification is no guarantee of a job in Britain, unlike in a country such as Nigeria. The major qualification for a job in Britain is basic work experience

It is observed also that the cheap jobs with mean pay are done mostly by blacks who have better paper qualifications that could fetch them better jobs than their white counterparts. Such jobs they could not have done were they in their home countries, because they would have been over-qualified to do them.

In business, Asians are the best traders in Britain. Africans and West Indians do the toughest jobs in factories. And for those whose future remains a chronic confusion, they resort to all types of crime.

Britain is a home of creativity. Whoever is determined to succeed in Britain would definitely do so notwithstanding its thorny paths.

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