I wrote about my life growing up as a mixed race girl in the country. It was published by Penguin in 2009 in the decibel prize winning anthology entitled The Map of Me.
The market is in full-swing. Women’s voices buzz over the market noise. The smell of fresh bananas, salty fish and sweet tropical produce infuses the air. The colours dizzy my mind with extreme vibrancy and beauty. I clasp the hand of my aunt and am being pulled through throngs of people. Legs, fat and thin, obscure my view. We’re there to buy; a quick stop before going home. The ground beneath my feet is muddy and wet, my flip-flops stick as I walk, slapping loudly on the soles of my feet as they are suctioned from the ground. For a moment, the world around me pauses; I turn and see my flip-flop disappear in a muddy puddle, lost behind busy folk with baskets of wares piled high above their heads. I am small in their tall and hectic world. I begin to cry.
This remains my earliest and only memory of a life I left behind. Leaving Ghana, aged three, I began my life in England with my mother, father and baby brother. From the markets of Accra we moved to the fields of Somerset. Aged 13, on a trip to Notting Hill Carnival, I was served sugar cane for what I thought was the first time; I was shocked to find the sensation and flavour immediately familiar. My memory had failed, but my senses had retained the sweet, perfumed flavour of the chewy and refreshing cane I had eaten as a child in a country I could barely remember. This defining moment shocked me. My past was always there, buried deep within the person I had become. For reasons complex and despite my Ghanaian heritage, I have never been back.
My mother grew up in the Somerset, she’d gone to boarding school and then onto Cambridge to study biology and zoology. As a child, she’d drawn images of Africa and had longed to go. After university, she enrolled in the Voluntary Services Organisation and arrived in Ghana in the mid-sixties. There, she met my father a taxi-driver and sometime, actor. They married and in 1970, I was born. I arrived in the world four weeks early, a small 4 lbs, 12 oz. Yet, strong and requiring no special care. My jaundice was treated by laying me on a straw mat in our sunny garden, surrounded by shrubs laden with papayas and guavas. The story was that I was delivered by the son of Ghana’s leader of independence, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah. This was my personal connection Africa’s independence from colonial rule. Two years later my first brother was born.
During her time in Ghana, my mother learned to cook Ghanaian food, make cornrow braids and fully immersed herself in the culture. She sewed us exquisite clothes of local cloth and wore traditional Ghanaian headdresses. A world away from the vicar’s daughter from rural Somerset. My father’s family welcomed her with open arms and, like many others, our family was bound by the strong ties of the extended family. My mother worked as a teacher and I was raised by Aunts and my dear grandmother, Maggie. Soon, it was decided that we were to leave Accra, for a life in England.
In 1973, I arrived in Britain from the depths of deepest darkest Ghana (as the Somerset locals believed). My new country imagined I’d lived in mud-huts, walked naked, ran with elephants in the wild and spoken in Swahili (the only African language many could name). Our arrival in the village caused quite a stir. The local vicar’s prodigal daughter had returned bringing her new, rather unusual family with her. For some, my white mother was a source of disdain, a ‘tut-tut’ in the village, with her wild black kids and tall dark afro husband with brightly coloured tie-dye clothes and loud drumming music. Helpful villagers descended upon us bringing gifts of second-hand clothes, used tea pots, plates and appliances. We were the latest show in town and, for many, the first black people they had ever seen. From that day, I always knew that I was different and always felt that I stood out. With my out-of-control wiry hair and my dry, brown, yet ashen, skin, I longed to fit in. My mother was the most beautiful person I had seen, with her pale and delicate face, slim body and long flowing brown hair. My father, too, I believed was the most handsome man in the world. He was tall, proud, stylish and very, very black. They were the epitome of the 1970s ‘right-on’ couple, artistic, intelligent and traveled; with verve for life and a defiance of the ordinary. There I was, their child and to which world was I supposed to belong?
It was something that I gave little thought to playing in the fields, finding fragments of roman pottery in newly ploughed ground or plucking daisies from the grass. I loved the country, our glistening stream floating with miniscule mill-weed, the crooked wooden bridge crossing into the fields full of poppies and tall grass. I loved visiting my grandparents, hiding behind rhubarb leaves with Grandpa, planting flowers in the garden and stealing sweet juicy raspberries from his netted bushes. My father worried what would happen to us when dropping us off at the village school. As it turned out that I was protected by a group of kids, they looked after me and I made my first friend. We played games in the school; I went to her house for tea and marveled at her ponies. My brother and I were like any other local children and we adapted to our new life with ease. Life was good. Until, those moments when someone reminds you that you a nigger and you are different from the others.
By 1975, my second brother was born and we moved to Glastonbury. As I grew older, I become more aware of my dark skin. I always thought that the saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” was absurd. Try telling a child that, nigger, darkie, Paki, chinky, blackie, sambo, chocolate, golliwog, jungle-bunny, are not hurtful. Try explaining to ‘polite’ people who call you ‘coloured’ in an apologetic whisper that this is not the right term. Try telling your school friends that chanting the infamous Jim Davidson saying, ‘OOOOOOOKKAAAAAAAAAAY’, in a fake Jamaican lilt doesn’t make you fit in or make you laugh. As a child our Ghanaian names were a source of deep childhood embarrassment, the class would erupt into fits of giggles as my middle name was called while I crumbled inside. Why, oh why, couldn’t my parents have given me a ‘normal’ name I used to plea? Today my brothers and I have continued the tradition of naming our children with their Ghanaian names; we hope that they are one day proud to say Yaa, Adwoa or Akua as a tribute to their ancestral heritage.
By now, my life in Ghana was a forgotten past. We were British. We joined in the street parties in celebration of the Queen’s silver Jubilee and the wedding of Lady Diana Spencer and Prince Charles. We made our own Union Jack’s at school and I coloured them in with care and pride for patriotic display. These events were marred by our racist neighbours. My romanticised country idyll was also a place of great hurt and fear. We were told to ‘go home’ and get back to Africa. My brother was thrown in a bunch of stinging nettles wearing only his shorts. I watched helpless as the big boys dragged him away and laughed at him silently holding back tears of pain and humiliation. I froze in fear when their Alsatian dog was let loose at me, biting my knee and shredding my favourite party jeans. On our city visits, we were sources of amusement for our black urban acquaintances. Our hair was untamed, as there were no afro hair care products in rural Somerset. Our accents were misplaced, a blend of Queen’s English with a Somerset Twang. Wearing the most fashionable clothes we could find from our country High Street we ventured to the city. We were country-bumpkins in an alien world. We were neither here nor there. I had no idea of beauty, I felt ugly in the country with my wide African nose, dry bushy hair and dark skin. I felt ugly in the city surrounded by beautiful black women with glistening perms or straight, glossy hair. Growing up, we always remained a few of only a handful of black faces in our towns. Several years later my father moved to the city, my mother remarried a white man and my third brother was born. Then some assumed us three black children had been adopted by a kindly white family. But as a mixed heritage family we siblings bonded as any family did, never once seeing our half-brother as only ‘half’ of us, we were all the same. Us three older children never had boyfriends or girlfriends until our late teens. Who would dare to date the only black faces in town? My father had told me to remember that ‘success is the best revenge’. From those days, I became driven and determined. Our childhood remained one of intriguing dichotomies. Innocence and experience; joy and pain; black and white; rural and urban; and, African and British. Yet, out of these contrary states, and identity was forged and a unique personal growth began.
As soon as I was old enough, I left the countryside for a life in the city. I sought out the biggest city I could find. Spending several years in Los Angeles, I found anonymity in a city where many others seek to be noticed. There, I could find my afro hair products, not get followed around in shops and find the diversity I so desired. My friends were white, black, Indian, Korean, Hawaiian, Japanese, Irish and Mexican. There, ironically, I met my white British husband. But, I was always home-sick for Britain. We wanted our children grow up in Britain so we returned; duplicating the scenario my mother had done 30 years prior. This time though, we have returned to a city where my children are one of many ethnic faces in their school.
I now look back on growing up, playing in the fields, living lives of simplicity and joy, as only blemished by experiences of isolation and times of trouble. My story probably isn’t all that different to the other ethnic minorities who grew up in rural Britain. It affects who we are today, how we grew and what we became. It is only now in my late-thirties that I understand how my identity is defined. I have my core identities and a mish-mash of identities that change over time. I thrive on this variety and I long for this diversity of character. I am a mother. I am a British-African (or African-American depending where I live). I am black. I am mixed-heritage. I am a medical student. I am any one of a million things, all of which make me.