Whitehaven, UK

“My first culture shock when I moved to the UK was the whole accent thing and till now, I haven’t got over it. No matter how I speak; it’s either people don’t hear me clearly or they understand me but they deliberately act like I am not saying it right so they can correct me. It is bad – very bad. It is bad because we have the Chinese on the UK too and no matter how many times you correct the Chinese his accent will still be Chinese. But for us Africans, no.

And there’s the Nigerian English thing too. They make it so obvious to you that you’re not speaking their language the way they want you to speak it. Instead for them to show some appreciation that you are even speaking it at all in the first place. For example, I sent an email to my supervisor that I’d be coming to Manchester and that I wanted to know if he’d “be on seat”. In Nigeria, “on seat” means “be in the office”. He then replied saying: “I will be on seat”; he put the ‘on seat’ in quotation marks so I sensed something was off. I went on google and when I searched, it showed ‘on seat’ as West African English. That was when I knew for the first time that ‘on seat’ was not English proper.

You know the word nylon? Ok. I went to a Chinese restaurant one day in Manchester and after I had got everything I wanted to buy, I asked for a nylon. The attendant kept saying: ‘sorry, what?’ Meanwhile, there was a queue of people who wanted to get their meals and move on with their lives behind me already. I kept saying, ‘Nylon! Nylon!’ and she said they didn’t have.

Then someone suggested that perhaps I meant ‘plastic bag’. That was the first time I was hearing plastic bag so I was afraid she was going to hand me a bucket to carry my food. It turned out plastic bag was our own Nigerian nylon. I was so embarrassed that day but I learnt. Now, I have adjusted. If I return to Nigeria, I will continue to call it plastic bag – at least let me confuse people here too. I’ll be like, ‘e jo e fun mi ni plastic bag nibeyen’ (laughs).

We like to think white folks don’t give birth to many children, well maybe not in London; but in White Haven they give birth to lots of children. I remember when my wife gave birth and we were in the taxi to the hospital, the taxi man got into a conversation about raising children and he said he had ten children! I was not even surprised because here you see children, lots of them gather together.  People gather according to their age-grades to socialize and so you see ‘em chaves, that’s what we call them – they hangout together in their jackets and joggers socializing. That’s the way they socialize here.

And then, there’s the pub culture here in the UK. This is for the adults. Every Friday night, the pubs are filled up.  The pub is like a beer parlour and it is believed that every Friday evening, a busy week should be laid to rest in a pub. So Friday nights, Saturday nights, the pubs are always filled with people drinking beer and having fun. It’s the way they have been brought up and that’s their culture. They go in groups – hopping from one pub to the other – just having fun. During the last world cup, when it was looking like England was going to win the World Cup, 50 people could walk into a pub and watch a match and when the game is over, they are screaming: “it’s coming home!!! Of course, in the end, nothing came home.”

In Manchester, because it is a busy city, the bus system works well. The public transport system is so easy and efficient that you don’t have to have a car to move around. You could even ride a bicycle to work. If you look at people’s car or means of transport to judge whether they are rich or not, then you may just come to all the wrong conclusion. Buying a car is easy. There’s something called finance deals – you don’t have to pay at once when you buy a car. You go to a car dealer and buy a car and then you pay every month for the car and if you’re tired of the car, you can take it back to the company and get a newer version; if may just upgrade your contract or something; so you see, it is easy to own a car. So, you can see people driving flashy cars but it doesn’t mean they are wealthy. That’s why you can’t judge who’s wealthy or not based on things like that

Yes, the right-hand driving thing is another shock I had when I got to the UK. It wasn’t my first time seeing cars with the steering wheel being on the right but still, it took a while to get adjusting to.

As for being a muslim in the UK, this is how I’d put it: when I was in Manchester for one year of my Masters, it was easy. Manchester is a place where you can easily openly practice your religion because it is a global city – it has people from all over the world, including people from the Middle East and so that exposure makes the people more receptive of every man’s faith. When I was in Manchester for my masters, it was easy to go to mosques for prayers.

However, I moved to Whitehaven – a predominately white community – and things became quite different. The residents of Whitehaven are folks who are displeased about how places like London have become very cosmopolitan and they always want to preserve their white cultures. So, in Whitehaven you wouldn’t find many Middle Easterners or Africans; what you find majorly are the whites. And many of them are atheists.

In the whole of Whitehaven, there’s only one mosque and that mosque is a small room. So, people travel down to the mosque from whichever corner of Whitehaven they are to pray there. Luckily for me, I live not too far from the mosque. When my wife eventually moved with me to Whitehaven, she’d come along for jumat and whenever she climbed to the upper floor where the women should pray, she’d be the only one there. She’d ask me why and I’d explain that the people from the Middle East don’t encourage their women to go out hence the dearth of female worshippers at the mosque.

Given the above insight, you understand why it is a rare sight to see a woman in hijab, moving around. My wife once taught in a high school and she covered her hair with the hijab. Her students asked her why she was covering her hair – what she was hiding etc. She had to explain to them, ‘I cover my hair because I am Muslim.” Then the students replied and said, ‘I thought you were African?!’ My wife had to go on to explain to the class that one could both be African and Muslim too. Still, her students didn’t understand why she had to dress like an Arab. For them, the hijab is not an Islamic thing, it is just an Arab style of fashion.

The biggest assumption people make about coming to the UK is that if they can just move to the UK, their lives would be better off. Maybe this is true but one fact is – the UK has a way of taking back every quid you earn. You know why those in the UK find it difficult to send money home, because they’ve spent a huge chunk of it paying bill and taxes. The UK will make sure that you spend all your money in the UK.

Good thing is that if you work really hard, you will get well paid; unlike Nigeria where you may work so hard and yet be paid peanuts. For example, bricklayers in the UK are being paid like the oil workers in Nigeria are. They get paid £40/hour and that’s because the system recognizes that they are using so much physical energy. The funny thing is because they get paid so much, their taxes are higher. So what happens when government takes 40% of your income, you have very little left. Secondly, as a bricklayer your clothes will always be dirty and so it will never show that you’re rich. So do you want a job that pays you much but you won’t look rich because you’re working in overalls most days, doing dirty jobs OR do you want a job that pays you reasonably okay and you can have a regular life and spend time with your family? That’s the case here.

Missing home is a tricky thing, depending on how you see it. The food made me miss home at first, then I got used to foreign foods. But then, I got married and my wife encouraged me to go to Manchester to get Nigerian foodstuff. Only that now, my house sometimes smells like egusi and white people are very sensitive to strange smell. lol.

For example, there was this one time, I boiled chicken with curry and thyme which is normal but the English people, they use spices sparingly. Someone came to my house and first thing, he asked: “did you use curry in here?” To think that I had sprayed air freshener and all sorts to diffuse the smell. So, whenever my wife is cooking egusi, I go like, “yo, open the windows, don’t let this whole place start smelling of egusi.”

(Whitehaven, UK)


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