West Africans in Southwark
'From the day we're born till the day we die, it's the church'
theguardian.com, Friday 21 January 2005
Posh Daddy is the manager of the Big Choice barbers on Peckham High Street, a mirrored box of rumbling dancehall and clipper-buzz. There's a Jamaican flag on the counter and plenty of booty on the wall: it's as Caribbean a setting as one might hope to find in London. Posh, however, is Nigerian.
Posh is easy to pick out from his colleagues; he has the word "PO$H" spelled out in silver and jewels on a medallion around his neck. His mother made it for him when he was 14, he says. It must have looked huge on him at the time. Wherever one finds machismo, it seems, a loving mother is never far away.
According to 2001 census figures, the number of black Africans in London (378,933) has now overtaken the number of black Caribbeans (343,567). The two halves of the black community often live close together, sharing shops, schools and history, and yet they have acquired a reputation for not getting along - nowhere more famously than in Peckham, the most mythologised of London's inner cities, which was once home to another Nigerian, Oluwadamilola Taylor.
"When I first came to Peckham we just wanted to be accepted by the West Indian community," says Posh - an acronym constructed from Paul Olufunbi Shokoya (his name) and Harrison (his mother's). He is remembering 1988, when a young Nigerian student of child psychology came to London on holiday, got a girl pregnant, and decided to stay to look after her. "I used to have a lot of problems back then," he continues, leading the way down into the Big Choice basement. What kind of problems? "Very violent problems. If you go into one of their pubs and you check one of their girls, you are in trouble if they know you are African. They'd go bumbaclot and all that." (Bumbaclot, the acme of Jamaican swearing, translates literally as "arsewipe". Its real meaning is more like a slow, surprised "motherfucker".)
In 16 years, Southwark, and particularly Peckham, has been transformed into London's west-African or "Nigerian" capital - the term is often wrongly applied to all west Africans. In fact, the patois that fills Rye Lane every Saturday afternoon is mostly Sierra Leonean, the language of a community that numbers 15,000 in Southwark alone.
But not everything has changed in that time, and tensions between the communities still exist. "It comes down to personality difference," says councillor Columba Blango, himself a Sierra Leonean and former mayor of Southwark. "Even though the west Africans and Jamaicans share things in common, where the difference comes is in their method and attitude. West Africans, we have a more subtle, and perhaps a more gliding approach to things."
Posh Daddy agrees, and offers a colourful example. "If a Jamaican man says to you, 'Go suck your mama', you would get angry. It got me angry for many years until about six months ago, because I don't like nobody cussing my mum. But it's like with the English guy who says 'piss off ' - he doesn't really mean that. You just have to know the culture."
The Big Choice feels like a community centre. At a table nearby, one of Posh's friends is teaching two small children to read. The front room was all men, mostly Jamaican; the back room, with its own front door, full of women; and the scattered toys around Posh's feet suggest that this is the kids' room. There must be almost 50 people in this small building, each taking time off from husbands and girlfriends, mothers and sons.
"It is getting better," Posh says, shooing away a pair of boisterous toddlers. "Now, most of my brothers up there in the barbers, they are all eating African food like me. We don't eat with a fork and a knife, we eat with our hand. Before, they said it was disgusting, but now they are doing the same thing like us." West Africans have a reputation as keen churchgoers, too. Is this true? "From the day we're born till we die, it's the church," pronounces Posh with some majesty, "except for people like me who pull ourselves out of it." With that, he excuses himself and rejoins the Friday-night rush.
At 11am on Sunday, the South London Temple, based in what look like converted offices on Rye Lane, has nearly 300 people in it. Rarely among English churches, it filled up from the front rows backwards. The congregation is about 80% west-African, by the estimate of Pastor John - mostly Ghanaian, it seems. Suits are popular, but there is also plenty of denim and African dress, as well as one mountain-chested woman's "Mind the Bump" T-shirt.
London, the cynical capital of the unbelieving English, must be one of the least religious places in the world. Of those who chose to answer the census question, 1,130,616 Londoners (15.8% of the total) said they had "no religion". Yet, as the city continues to be Africanised, so it is being evangelised. Charismatic and Pentecostal churches like this one do things differently, and they have flourished.
Everyone has been singing and dancing for an hour by the time the main attraction, Dr Shadrach Ofosuware, takes the stage, but he thinks we're still not warm enough. "Give someone next to you a high five and say, 'liberty'," he cries. "Liberty!" "Now give them a higher five and say, 'Libertay!'" "LiberTAY!" Surfing the wave, Dr Ofosuware begins his sermon - 90 minutes of high-energy religious standup, complete with audience participation, sweat patches and jokes about Ghanaian fishermen (an old staple, no doubt). Ofosuware weaves a theme of respect and moderation, meticulously referenced with quotes from the Bible, and his flock keeps track in their own study editions. Finally, a large money basket is placed at the front of the hall, and collection envelopes are distributed. A man nearby discreetly folds in three tenners before joining the queue. His family has had value for money.