I went to school in the 1980’s and 1990’s in rural Warwickshire. In those days, it was unbelievably white, and mine and my brother’s names stood out. Many black people lost their names and language through enslavement and colonialism; having an African name should be a source of connection to your roots.
My maiden name is obviously Nigerian and it was anglicised before I was born by my dad. I was born with the surname Okoroafor and my full first name is Ginika. Most people couldn’t pronounce or spell either name correctly, so it was anglicised by dropping the middle ‘o’ and my father added an apostrophe between the ‘O’ and ‘k’, to make it look more Irish perhaps! Being a doctor and practising medicine would have magnified his otherness. In those days many Nigerians tried to find coping strategies.
I now live in a tiny village in rural West Devon, but grew up in a town between Birmingham and Stratford upon Avon. My mum preferred us to go to school in Warwickshire rather than in Birmingham; that’s how we ended up being the first and only black children in our school. Other black parents followed my mum in sending their children there. It was a wonderful place and I once hoped to send my own children there!
My mum is Jamaican and my father Nigerian. Perhaps an unlikely mixture, but I can see some similarities in the cultures – in pride in themselves and temperament. Even though I am proud of my parentage, every pore of me relates to being British too. I feel ethnicity is more than nature and genetics, it is where home is, and England is home for me.
I was born in Liverpool. My parents were medics at Liverpool Maternity Hospital. Being born in England made me feel more British than anything else. You carry your parents’ legacy because of your visible blackness, though, and we have often been asked ‘where are you really from?’ Everyone knows what that question is really pertaining to.
My maternal grandmother was a pioneer who bravely came to England from Jamaica and settled in Manchester in the early 1960’s. My mother followed her parents to come and train as a nurse. She was in the unusual position (for Jamaican immigrants) of having her married parents here and living together near to where she trained.
My dad had quite a journey – he had obtained a scholarship as a young man to leave Nigeria and train as a doctor in Moscow. He then came to London and had to do his training again. It was commonplace for African doctors not to have their training recognised under the British system. I now have become more acquainted with my dad’s side of the family. They are high-achieving people – one young cousin has just got into Oxford. I am immensely proud of my dad’s family and if I have one regret, it’s that I did not visit Nigeria as a child or know them growing up. That sense of a powerful African identity would have done my self-esteem a world of good when I was a teenager.
As a child, I enjoyed the countryside. Our primary school in Warwickshire was opposite a farm and the ancestral home of the Throckmortons (where Guy Fawkes plotted the Gunpowder Plot). It was idyllic. Our car journey to school was through country lanes and it felt as if we were travelling to an even more remote place than where we lived.
At senior school I initially had a hard time; on reflection I was bullied by being excluded, and did not have the peer support an adolescent girl needed. I eventually moved schools. My escape was books and studying.
After completing my A-Levels, I hoped to live in a more diverse part of the country, so I applied solely to London universities. Going to Goldsmiths meant I got my wish to live in London, make more black friends and not be ‘the only one’. Following my first degree, I continued to live in London, then moved back to the Midlands. My desire to escape my negative teenage experience led to me live in towns and cities. Most diverse areas contain people that do not integrate. On the whole, people are usually comfortable with those who look like them, speak their language and can reference the same country as home. This has made it very isolating; it magnified my sense of not belonging to any particular cultural group. When I married my husband, who’s from Devon, in 2017, I made the difficult decision of moving to live with him in the Devon countryside and it has been challenging and life-changing.
It’s interesting how comfortable I feel living in a rural landscape again. Generally in Devon people are friendly, but not used to seeing black people; it is how I imagine England was in the 1960’s. I’ve experienced overt racism such as snide comments, people staring in the street and asking how long I am visiting from ‘up country’ for, and more.
Someone recently asked, soon after they’d met me, if I managed to get English and Maths GCSE. I have them plus more, and A-Levels too! (At the time I was about to begin my fourth degree). This offended more than anything else! Before they had got to know me, it was as if they equated blackness with a lack of education or intelligence.
I get regular comments about my hair, and the occasional brave person tries to touch it. This highlighting of my otherness is more than curiosity. To maintain a sense of perspective, I often make a mental note that today I have not seen another black person either and maybe this is why people are looking twice, although I can’t really believe it’s happening in our globalised world in 2019. It is also problematic how people communicate – they can be blatantly rude and not ‘get’ my dry-humoured response, which is how I deal with adversity.
I regularly question why I live where I live and whether I can develop the emotional resilience to handle it. I think I can; it’s about developing strategies of which I have a few. The sense of cultural belonging, community and identity is not present in rural locations as it is in urban ones. In Birmingham and Leicester, for example, there was a large music and arts scene which I was a part of through my work and socially.
As a ‘minority’ in the area I live, I am easily recognisable. When I first moved here I found that absurd, but now it makes me feel welcome when people nod and smile at me in the street. Occasionally peoples’ guard slips and they talk about taboo issues, such as the time an elderly lady spoke with me about her golliwog collection – she obviously thought I reminded her of her dolls! What can you say to an octogenarian in that scenario?! I will challenge blatant racism however, and have found that most people respect you for it.
People enjoy visiting Devon because of pursuits such as walking, swimming in the sea and enjoying Dartmoor. Since I’ve moved here I’ve seen more people from non-white cultural backgrounds staying in the region. I regularly went swimming when I was growing up but because I am black, people often assume I can’t swim or dislike it. I love being on the beach on a cold, dramatic day. I understand why people might be surprised to see me, because you rarely see black people on local beaches in the winter. I think it’s because black people mainly live in cities, away from the natural environment, rather than having an aversion to enjoying it. I have started to do more walking in all weathers! I enjoy unwinding in the fresh air and changing seasons.
Going forward, I hope to connect with others who read my story and feel it resonates with them. Reading Louisa Adjoa Parker’s story, and the other stories featured here, has helped me cope with the reality of living in rural Devon. It helps to know there are others out there going through the same thing. I hope more of us are able to tell our stories.
This piece was written by Nika, in response to questions sent by Louisa Adjoa Parker, and cut down/edited by Louisa.