The real danger of doing a job you love is that it is seriously difficult to take time off—you’re voluntarily and delightfully—‘always on’—constantly utilising your Spikes.
It is a sad fact that I’ve rarely ever taken my full allocation of annual leave—and yet never feel bad about it. Every now and again, it is worthwhile switching off, even from the job that you so love.
Sitting at the beach bar just next to the beautiful fishing village of Tanji, on the stunning Atlantic coast of my beautiful birthplace, The Gambia, life could not have been more tranquil.
However, my peaceful slumber was woken up by voices speaking in the local language, Wolof, but these weren’t Gambians. They were obviously Senegalese, we are the same people sharing the same heritage, culture and language.
But after Vasco da Gama ‘discovered’ Senegal and Gambia in 1497, just as Columbus was discovering America, the British, the French and the Portuguese squabbled and fought over the strategic naval ports of Dakar and Banjul.
As history would have us believe, a British gunboat sailed down the River Gambia and fired a cannon both north and south of the river. The borders offered to the French were within the reach of the British gunboats that patrolled the River Gambia— gunboat diplomacy at its earliest.
The French settled for Senegal, the British took the little fertile bit around the River Gambia and the strategic port of Banjul, leaving the Portuguese to the relatively barren lands of Guinea Bissau. Whilst the cultures have remained very close, the language has moved on. The French vocabulary has hijacked Senegalese Wolof and a lot of English colloquialisms have crept into Gambian Wolof.
The voice was shouting and demanding all the money be paid up front. I stood up to watch what was going on, it was a sickening and gut-wrenching sight. Over 100 men were clambering on to a small wooden and hardly seaworthy vessel, which was going to try and sail for the Spanish Canary Islands.
They had no room for any belongings, the cargo was just a bunch of scared men with their lives literally in the hands of these profiteering gangsters and traffickers, who might even pay with their own lives should the boat go down, most never make it.
Far too many Senegalese and Gambian young men, especially those with new found access to the Internet, feel as though they have no hope in their rural villages, which probably hasn’t changed much over the past 500 years.
Armed only with outrageous hope and usually the collective life savings of most of the people in their village. They use this to pay these peddlers in human tragedy—the price of a one-way trip, usually to oblivion, but on a rare occasion to a refugee camp on the island of Las Palmas in the Canaries… if they are very lucky.
This heart-rending sight is frequently played out on many coasts around Africa. Where the ‘have-nots’ will usually risk their lives in order to rub shoulders with the ‘have-lots’. It made me realise just how strange life can be. I was born in Gambia and who knows it might well have been me clambering aboard one of these wooden pirogues and risking all in order to give my family a chance.
Some 50-odd years ago my parents had a similar, but tellingly different dilemma. Unlike many of these rural villagers my parents grew up in the colonial capital of Bathurst, which on independence in 1964 was renamed Banjul. My parents were married in 1956; my father had a good white collar job working in the meteorological office of The Gambia.
They, by now, had three young children, and soon the stark realisation that the local educational system in The Gambia was already beginning to creak as the British were starting to pack up and leave. They could see little positive in terms of their children’s formal education. There was decent primary education but hardly any secondary schools, and no tertiary education whatsoever.
What was also worrying them was the maybe unintended consequences of British rule. All the British African colonies were forced to comply with the onerous but effective British way of doing things; civil service, judiciary, policing, education—even etiquette and manners were strictly controlled.
There were many advantages (mainly for the British Governors of the day), but the issues that this colonisation would leave as legacies are still playing out miserably today.
In my parents estimation, by far the biggest issue was Gambia had become a nation of acquiescent ‘followers’—by force.
In order to get a decent civil service job, (most of the available white collar work was within the civil service), you needed the bare minimum of a decent secondary school education. Former British Africa is still to this day over obsessed with formal qualifications.
In the new world, if you’re capable—you are qualified!
This desire to work in the rarefied atmosphere of the relatively well paid civil service meant you just had to conform. Anyone who dared to be different was out. Any spark of challenge or maverick behaviour was also quickly ejected.
Progressive organisations have a culture of “challenging up and supporting down”. The British built a culture of the direct and dangerous opposite “support up and challenge down”.
My father recognised that he would not thrive or even survive in this environment. His Spikes would never flourish in a command and control regime.
This culture soon became pervasive across British Africa and this has bred the ‘Big Man’ legacy. As soon as the British had left, the Big Men were quick to replace them due to the acquiescent and benign populations they could easily grab power from—and never have to relinquish it.
My parents were lucky, they were both born into devoutly middle-class, Roman Catholic families and there were a few Catholic schools founded by the missionaries and run by priests and nuns. The Gambia was, by now, nearly 90% Muslim and there were just not enough schools to cater for this fast-growing and young population.
My father had already travelled widely and spoke four to five languages fluently. An opportunity arose for my father to take a diplomatic posting in London. Given his Spikes of being a natural people person, gregarious and an Anglophile, they decided he would boldly go to London. He would make the same journey to Las Palmas that many of these later generation Gambians were risking all to make, but not in a wooden boat at the darkest of night.
There were no scheduled airlines from The Gambia to the UK, but there were a few cargo ships making the trip up along the West Coast of Africa up to the Canary Islands, going on to Casablanca and then on to Spain, Portugal and France before entering into the British port of Southampton. There were usually just a few Spartan cabins available for the very few who could afford it. Times have changed but maybe not that much at all!
My parents made an unbelievably tough decision at that time and my father was going to take one of these cargo ships and see if he could make a go of it in London.
For the travelling Africans it was very different. There were few invitations and most who came (like my father) felt that they were loyal subjects of the Queen, and looked to the mother country for direction and support. As far as my father was concerned, in the early ‘60s, this was a logical but bold move and made complete sense as in his view, there were strong and unbreakable ties between Britain and its colonies.
After an arduous and expensive six week journey, he arrived fresh faced and hugely naïve, but he confidently stepped out towards the exciting and wealthy metropolis that was London.
My father had never been anywhere near poor in Gambian terms, but he was now instantly poor. He had always lived in large houses, there were always maids and hired hands and he usually got whatever he wanted. He’d come with his life savings thinking that he could buy a property and then send for his wife and his children.
In many respects, he was beautifully naïve and that’s just where the beauty ended. Along with some Gambian friends that arrived just before him, they managed to rent rooms in the old and dilapidated parts of the east end of London. At this stage, the Gambian men were lonely without their partners left back home. They all had great plans to send for their loved ones, but they were lonely and isolated and consequently, suffered terribly.
Britain was not yet ready for its colonial friends, and these young men on their own found themselves the targets of ignorance and hatred. They were forced to live and band together, they, whenever possible, travelled together, as at least there was some safety in numbers.
In the new world, if you’re capable–you are qualified!
Many years later, my father and his friends would tell of what London was really like when they first came over. Many were attacked and beaten up by marauding gangs of young ‘Teddy boys’ out for a good laugh. It was brutal and many returned early and broken to Gambia. My father would never give in, it was his dream it was his Britain.
He never shared the horror stories with my mother, and eventually sent for her and the three of us.
We made a similar trip on a French cargo ship, where my mother had a tiny cabin with me and my two sisters. My mother spoke 7 languages including fluent French, which helped as the French sailors would sneak food down to Mum and her three young kids. I remember Mum had no sea legs whatsoever, and was ill every day. For six long weeks all four of us cried constantly for our father.
If only mum knew what she was letting herself in for, all they could eventually afford was a tiny two-bedroom ground floor flat in Church Road in Harlesden, a disadvantaged and run-down district in the North West of London.
Mr and Mrs Wilshire were in their late 60s, a wonderful Welsh couple whose children had grown up, married and moved away. This meant they had two bedrooms to rent with a small kitchen and a lounge on the ground floor. My father ignored the ‘No Blacks’ sign on the window. They were greeted by a polite, proud and well-educated man. They instantly hit it off. They were friendly and always kind to my parents.
Mr Wilshire seemed to have a story for everyone and every occasion. He had fought proudly for Britain in both world wars, and on Sundays would take out his bugle and blow it as hard as his old frame would allow him.
This recognisable screeching blast always coincided with the Boys Brigade band marching in the street outside our house. All the neighbours would line the streets clapping the boys joyfully playing their instruments and as they went past our house, Mr Wilshire would blow his bugle and we would all know it was time to go back into our homes. After my father, he was my hero—yet his only discernible Spikes, were his ability to (just about) blow the bugle, and his wonderfully uplifting stories. However, that one weak blast was all it took, and it fuelled his enthusiasm for another month until the Boys Brigade returned. We loved his Spikes, nearly as much as he clearly did.
I had no idea we were poor. From where I sat, things were more than OK. There were five of us by now—my two brothers were born in London. The five of us shared two single beds in a tiny bedroom. It never felt cramped, it never felt odd, and in fact, we were so much better off than most of our relatives.
By now my father had at last got his dream job at the Gambian High Commission in London, he was massively proud, but probably never realised just how Anglicised he had become. Mum was all and always African, and never really settled in London.
She despaired at the fact that she was a ‘nobody’ with little resources, no network and zero influence in this monstrous and unforgiving city of London. Dad playing to his Spikes was gregarious and massively inclusive and he made friends of every colour, race and religion—he was made for London.
Every summer, Mr and Mrs Wilshire would rent out the spare room upstairs and they would place a badly written sign in the window, which would say ‘Room to Let—No Jews, No Blacks, No Irish, No dogs!’
It would make my father’s blood boil, but he grew up in a colonial Africa that was totally deferential if not subservient. He could never totally break free of being institutionalised into believing that it was not his place to argue, he had been taught to avoid conflict and confrontation and, like far too many Africans of that era, they were far too accepting of the status quo.
One summer when the stupid sign was up again, I was coming home from school and I saw mum pleading with my father not to say or do anything stupid. I had never seen him so angry—he was shaking with rage and dad was one of those men who never ever lost his temper. I was sent inside while mum coaxed dad back into the lounge. He sat down with a tear in his eye and the glass he had in his hand broke as he gripped it far too tightly and angrily.
Something inside of me changed that day forever—that was never going to happen to me. Without really knowing it at the time—I just wasn’t going to be deferential or subservient and never have been.
It was my first day at school and mum was a genius with the very tight housekeeping budget —the most crucial and vital of Spikes to have in these most punishing of times. She could make the most exciting dishes from the most frugal of ingredients. Because we couldn’t afford expensive uniforms—my mum made mine.
She had to buy the cap and the blazer, but she’d knitted my jumper and sewed my shirt and shorts. I knew no better, but as far as I was concerned I looked the part. With a satchel that my sister had outgrown, I could not have been more excited about going to school.
Where we lived in run-down Harlesden, over 50% of the population was non-white, the housing was decrepit, the schools were not the best and there was very little investment in any sort of infrastructure and the big brands on the high street were already leaving.
As I was about to leave the house with my older sister who was all of 7 years old, (we all used to walk to school in those far off days, quite safely without a care in the world), mum gave me the usual lecture that I know many well-meaning immigrant mothers gave their children before they left for school. “You be twice as good as that white boy sitting next to you”. I wasn’t sure quite what mum meant but I was far too excited about school anyway.
My sister and I skipped off to school and I remember her just leaving me at the gate and running off with her friends, I was very quiet until shown into the compact classroom. There were over 40 of us in the class and I sat silently, loving every moment of it.
Then suddenly I remembered what mum had said—something about being “twice as good as the white boy sitting next to me”. I froze for a moment and then stared around the classroom —there were NO white boys in the classroom.
Perhaps this was just as well, as my well-intentioned mother was in danger of giving me an inferiority complex, and perhaps planting the first seeds of victimhood in my unprepared mind.
This was tremendous learning for me, as from now on, no one was ever going to get me to be who I didn’t want to be. From this moment, I realised I had choices and no matter what the disadvantage, I became determined to make it an advantage. I was to experience many appointments and many disappointments, but now that I was beginning to understand the total sacrifice my parents had made for us, I was never going to be denied.
I went in search of anything that would give me a competitive advantage—without knowing it, the search for my Spikes had started.
”If you’re bold you might fail. If you’re not bold, you will fail.”