Life

'Born Under Siege' – Growing Up Ghanaian-British in 70s England

Being bilingual in English and Ga gave me the tools I needed to survive.
October 18, 2021, 8:45am
Nii Ayikwei Parkes childhood photos
Right to left: The author dressed for Kensington Avenue Primary School and in the middle, with his parents and a family friend in a South London park. Photo: courtesy of author

I was born under siege, but I was given the tools for resistance before I knew what they were. Speaking both Ga (a language of the Ga-Dangbe people of what is now Ghana) and English from birth, I had no idea how much of a shield another language would become for me.

James Baldwin observes in The Fire Next Time, “since I had been born in a Christian nation, I accepted this Deity [the Christian God] as the only one”. For the colonised of Africa, Asia and the Caribbean in the UK, England was the mother country, the English language was God, and we supposed that English was synonymous with fairness. Anything “unfair” that happened to you was “not meant” to happen, because that would be quite unlike the civilised English folk, so we were effectively victimised by a catalogue of things not meant to be discriminatory.

Let me share a couple of examples of non-discriminatory things relevant to a child – like me – born to Ghanaians in the early to mid 70s

My highly religious mother walks into a Methodist Church in leafy Bexleyheath, Kent on a Sunday with her Sierra Leonean friend, two elegant women with neat Afros, and they sit side-by-side on a half-filled pew. Everyone else on the pew rises, just “to join other friends”, the priest will explain, leaving two West African women amputated from the church family. My mother goes again, and the paler parishioners – again – join other friends. My mother never returns to church after that.

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Soon after, at a party, she meets my father, and before long they take note of a London flat-renting caveat that is even more common than the storied “No Blacks, No Irish” – “No Kids”. A couple with family in Essex or Somerset or Cleethorpes is hardly likely to feel the same level of panic as a couple from West Africa, for whom a new pregnancy equalled nine months from homelessness. This is how so many Ghanaian, Sierra Leonean and Nigerian couples ended up “farming” their children out to English foster parents, rather than face eviction. My parents, noting this, saved like crazy, got a mortgage and bought a house.

A young Nii Ayikwei Parkes with his mother

In front of our house on Grange Road with my mother. Photo: Courtesy of author

I was born under siege, irreligious, to parents who owned a house. I was born beyond the scope of church, because, for Ghanaians, English was not the only God; we still largely worshipped at the altars of our own languages. I was told “kaa fo amε daa” (“don’t mind them”) when offensive phrases were thrown our way, learning by osmosis that I could disconnect from this hostile language at will. I clearly knew I was under siege, because once, in a supermarket, at the age of three, an English woman crouched down to compliment me and I responded with incongruous forthrightness, “nice little piccaninnies grow to be big bad niggers, don’t they?”, leaving her astounded. When I called my mother to fact-check this story, she got almost tearful telling me how English folk could just stop and shower “compliments” on Black kids all the time, and how their parents had to grin and bear it. I really don’t know in what world “wog” is supposed to be a compliment, but in 70s England, it was part of what it was to be Ghanaian-British.

I was born under siege, but I had language as my first shield. My second was South London: where English folk were scared to go to Brixton or Balham, those are the areas where we felt safe. My parents’ house was in Thornton Heath, in a neighbourhood that had almost no Black people. In the school I went to, Kensington Avenue (which is also the alma mater of another much younger Ghanaian-British creative, Stormzy) my older brother and I were the only Black kids in 1978. There were so few children of colour that my brother still remembers the name of his Indian classmate, 43 years later. 

Living in such a place, we needed our Brixtons, we needed our house parties, overflowing with chatter and suya, fried fish and pepper and jollof, and kenkey smuggled in by a cousin. It is no accident that I choose to live in South London now, close to Deptford Market, where I can get all the ingredients for the kind of house party that raised me. Where I can walk my kids to get their hair braided by women who chatter in Ga and Twi behind them. Where my butcher is Gambian. Where my barber gossips in Fantsi. Where I’m never more than 20 minutes away from good kenkey. Where I feel safe in my geographies of language, food and place.

Perhaps the best metaphor for what it is to be Ghanaian-British is the road in Thornton Heath (now ironically with one of London’s largest Black populations), where my parents owned a house. Grange Road has both a London postcode (SE25) and a Croydon postcode (CR7); we always had a choice of which one to use.

@bluebirdtail