Nigerian and Ghanaian Londoners -

Bolaji and Iris Johnson with daughter, Anjola

Date of photography: 16th July 2017

The British Empire encompassed large parts of Africa, it is therefore unsurprising that many Londoners originated from there;  indeed, African migrants settled here from the 16th century onwards.   The 2011 Census indicated that over one hundred thousand Nigerians were living in the capital.   One of these is Bolaji Johnson;  his wife, Iris is Ghanaian, a first-generation immigrant, and they are both highly-skilled professionals.   Well-settled in London, both Bolaji and Iris work in the NHS.   The Referendum of 2016 had no direct bearing upon immigration from outside the EU, yet subsequently, Bolaji and Iris have discerned a change in the attitudes of white Londoners.   Most ethnic Africans live in London in harmony with their fellow residents, but daily reports of thousands of Africans crossing the Sahara and the Mediterranean, in a desperate attempt to get to Europe, create tensions that reverberate throughout African communities here.   London has always been enriched by migration;  people from all over the world have settled here, coexisted and contributed towards making it the extraordinarily successful city it is.   However, we seem, occasionally, to go through stormy periods, periods of irrational nationalism - we are in one now - so it is to be hoped that Bolaji and Iris are right in their optimism about their daughter’s future in this great city of ours.

The full story:

When I arrived to photograph and interview Bolaji Johnson and his wife, Iris Johnson, together with their delightful five-year old daughter, Anjola, they were in the process of changing for the shoot.   ‘Sunday best’ for many African-born Londoners is often their colourful and exquisitely-tailored traditional dress and, adorned with this attire, they add great splashes of colour to London’s drab streets.   It was my aim to capture their images in these handsome garments, photographing them in their own, beautifully-kept apartment in the East End of London, not far from the shadows of the great towers that now rise up from the Isle of Dogs.   I was there with the Johnson family to tell something of the story of the Nigerians and Ghanaians who have made their home in London and who have, in so doing, helped to influence its current character - this story is told through Bolaji’s and Iris’s own experience of settling in London.

From the 2011 Census, it is estimated that there are well over one hundred thousand Nigerians living in the capital.   London’s southern boroughs, especially Peckham, have become home to the largest expatriate Nigerian community in the UK, and possibly the world.   Accordingly, Peckham has sometimes been nicknamed, Little Lagos or Yorubatown.   As one consequence of the transatlantic slave trade, Nigerians have been a component of the London population for over 200 years, but with many more arriving to work and study both prior to and after Nigeria’s independence from the UK, in 1960.

Ghanaians form the largest African population in London after Nigerians.   Though Ghana gained independence from British imperial rule in 1957, emigrants from Ghana had been living and working in London since the mid-16th century;  indeed, some of them were known to have been employed in the Tudor royal court.  

I asked Bolaji how he came to live in London:  “Actually, I was born in London;  my parents studied here and when I was two years old, they returned back home.   Our family has been associated with Great Britain for several generations:  many of my forebears studied here or learned their trades here, so our family was by no means the exception.   It was our parents’ aspiration that all their children should go to university.   My father had studied in London himself, becoming a chemical engineer, and my mother had qualified here as a teacher.   I have two brothers and a sister so, being the eldest of four siblings, by tradition, I was expected to behave as the senior. There were great expectations of me from the very outset and, being the first born child of my family and the first grand child of both my parents’ families, responsibilities were placed on my shoulders.   I was expected to lead by example, to be a model for my brothers and my sister to emulate, for they invariably looked up to me.  

I therefore always felt under pressure to be the best I could be, to set a good example, and always to be honest.   I must say, there were times when I could’ve done without these onerous responsibilities.”

“Having returned to Nigeria as a toddler, I received my primary and secondary education there, but it was always on the cards that I would come back to London to take my university degree.   As it turned out, I wasn't all that exceptional at school, although my mother, a teacher herself, always had high expectations of my achieving good grades and doing really well.   I am 40 now and I returned to London when I was 18, as was expected of me.   I enrolled on a Business and Finance course at the University of London but that didn't go too well - initially, I had thought this was the right choice for me but it proved not to be the case.  

I tried hard to make a success of it, but I failed;  my heart simply wasn’t in it.   And having failed, I felt disappointed with myself.”  

“Not knowing what to do next, I decided to take some time out and to consider my options.   For a period of time, I worked in the field of personal care and, after a number of years of invaluable experience, when I did return to university, I chose to study Psychology, and this time, I graduated successfully.   After doing Psychology, I went back to do a post-graduate degree in mental health nursing.   Getting the right job was not easy but, combining my work experience in the care industry and my degree studies,  I was successful in securing a post as a mental health nurse within the NHS, where I am to this day.   I find the work tremendously rewarding and I have every hope of progressing further in my chosen career.”  

I asked Bolaji if he would share with me something of his experience of discrimination, as a black man in London.   “Having been born in London, I came back as a young man, naively thinking that I was returning to the country of my birth, only to discover that, in reality, Britain was a completely foreign country.   From the very outset, I was treated first as an alien.   Growing up in Nigeria, I had genuinely not seen myself as a ‘black man’ and I only became fully aware of the colour of my skin after I arrived to a city that was mostly populated with white people.   From quite early on, it was made clear to me that I certainly was different, and I found this difficult to accept.   Of course, as you would expect, I spoke English with a pronounced foreign accent and that was always noticed too.   For the first time in my life, I realised what it meant to be a member of an ethnic minority.   Maybe people were not exactly scared of me but I remember clearly feeling that they paid too much attention to me, making me feel uneasy every time I walked into a shop or stood in a public area, like a bus stop or a lift;  I seemed to see white women holding their bags or their other belongings a lot closer.”  

“These sorts of reactions made me feel very sad.   I often felt depressed and angry, and my self-confidence took quite a few knocks.   Whilst I felt secure within myself, I knew who I was, it was other people who perceived me to be so fundamentally different.   I also came to realise that I was completely powerless to change this situation, because it was not a problem with me, it was a problem with other people.   Unfortunately, there really was nothing I could do to change these negative perceptions of me.   With maturity, I have learned how to cope with these reactions, but it still remains something of a daily irritation.   However, what is even more painful is that, from time to time, fellow black people, from other parts of the world, express racist views towards me.   Discrimination from these quarters is also sometimes much more unpleasant;  Caribbeans, for example, often choose not to see themselves essentially as Africans and they look on those of us who are as inferior.   I could almost excuse white people for the discrimination they display, but when I get the same treatment from fellow blacks, that is much harder to bear - it is so dispiriting to witness one oppressed minority rubbishing another.”

I asked Bolaji how he had reacted to the Brexit vote.   He responded instantly:  “Milan, I felt very uneasy about the outcome of the referendum and the reactions of people that were associated with it.   I strongly suspected that the underlying and the most potent motive for many of those who voted to leave the EU was xenophobia.   While Brexit is not, theoretically, about us Africans who live in Britain, it could so easily be about me, my family, and my future here in the UK.   Immigrants from the EU have latterly become the nation’s new undesirables and, however temporarily, the Indians, Pakistanis, West Indians and Africans have gone somewhat out of focus.   To be fair, no-one has attacked me so far, asking to know when I’m going back to my own country, but I can feel that something about London has changed since the referendum.   What is happening to East Europeans today could so easily happen to the rest of us tomorrow.   Tomorrow, all immigrants could be equally unwelcome.”

After some hesitation, and with evident sadness, Bolaji adds in a quiet voice:  “I don't always experience discrimination, no, and I don’t suffer abuse every day, but I cannot honestly say that I feel totally comfortable living here in London either.   Questions about where you really come from, which are not all that infrequent, are deeply disturbing.   I am British, I have British citizenship, but I am not English, of course, and I never can be;  I am Nigerian and as a Nigerian, I will always remain as an outsider.   I follow football passionately and when England plays against any other team, whoever it is, I support England, but when the jingoistic chanting from the terraces gets louder and louder, something changes inside me;  I can’t feel part of that and it makes me uneasy and fearful.”

“Milan, without wishing to sound arrogant, I am really happy with who I am, but it is painful to me to know that others are unwilling or unable to accept me for who I am.   But I have learned to live with it.   I am proud to be Yoruba;  I am proud to be Nigerian;  and I am proud to be British.   I am a proud husband and father too,  but I don’t permit any of these different identities to enslave me;  all together, they just make up who I am.   Excising any one of these parts, in order to fit in better, would make me less of a whole person.   I celebrate the fact that I am different but detest having to suffer discrimination because of  it.   I feel angry that my being different is perceived almost as a threat and I do very much resent the fact that the only time blacks are seen on TV is when knife crime and criminality are being discussed;  that genuinely hurts.”  

“I have now lived in Poplar for four years but I still like to go back to Kennington and the Walworth Road periodically;  that’s where we lived originally and where there is a very diverse mixture of people from a host of different backgrounds, including white people, but there’s a great concentration of Nigerians too.  There I feel good simply because it is always reassuring to be surrounded by your own people and to feel fully accepted.   I remember on one occasion, during Halloween, a couple a white kids came to my door, trick or treating.  

I explained that I didn't have any sweets as I had just finished cooking dinner - an African meal.   They could smell the food and asked me what I was cooking:  ''Is it fufu?’’ they asked.   I said, “No, it’s jollof,” and I smiled because I was really quite impressed with their knowledge and interest.   I guess this is why I still go back even today as people there just seem to get along.”  

“In the past, I used to get angry frequently and that anger was eating away at my soul, so at some point I had to let it go - that was the point when, though nothing changed, arguably everything changed.   Despite what I’ve said earlier, I still feel mostly optimistic.   My daughter is growing up together with children from an enormous range of different backgrounds and they all seem to get on with one another perfectly well;  there is no fuss, they just appear to accept one another.   She will be second generation African but she is British first and, for her sake, I must hope that she will be accepted for the person she is.   The colour of her skin will always mark her as different from the white majority but let us hope that, in her lifetime, this difference will have ceased to be a stumbling block.”

Bolaji is completely right, of course;  every parent hopes that their children’s future will be brighter, easier, and strewn with fewer obstacles than their own - it is a facet of the indomitable spirit that carries humanity forward.

Having concluded my interview with Bolaji, I asked Iris, a smart, confident but modest woman, to tell me something about herself:  “I was born in Accra, the capital of Ghana.   Because my father was employed by the army, we lived in the military compound and I attended the primary school there too.   My father qualified as a lawyer and subsequently rose to the position of high court judge.   My mother was a businesswoman and she was successful too.   You could say that our family was in the middle class.   My parents had five children, and these children, all adults now, of course, are scattered across the globe.   I went to one of the private schools for my primary education initially and then, as my parents were keen that I should reconnect with my own tribe, the Èwé (Eʋeawó) who lived along the Volta River, they sent me to boarding school there, giving me the opportunity to learn the eʋegbe language.”

“When I’d finished school, I qualified to work in the Administrative and Secretarial professions,

possibly with the intention of joining and perhaps, in due course, taking over my mother’s business. I was a professional, independent woman from the early age of 18, though this was typical in our region where traditions are deeply rooted and respected.   I worked in a number of different jobs, including the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation (GBC) ;  I also had jobs in Customer Services, in Marketing, and in Hotel Management and Hospitality.   Then, in 2000, I came to London on holiday and I decided to do some temporary work here before returning home.   In the company where I was working, I met Bolaji;  one thing led to another, he became my husband, and here I am, 17 years later, living in London permanently.”

“I had visited other European capitals but this was my first contact with England.   Living in such a diverse capital, as a young woman of 25, felt really good;  I felt free from traditional family constraints, though I did have to address all those problems that all newcomers have to face to start with.   Once I’d met Bolaji, things started to change for both of us.   What also became clear to me was that there is a fundamental difference between coming to London as a tourist and trying to make a living here.   Finding a decent, well-paid job proved difficult but I now work full-time for the NHS as an Imaging Assistant in the Radiology Department of a London hospital.”

I asked Iris about any discrimination she felt she had suffered as a black woman and as a foreigner in the UK:  “Yes, of course, just like my husband, I have experienced different forms of discrimination, and many times too, over all these years - first, because of the colour of my skin, and second, because of the West African accent I still have.   I lived in Hertfordshire for a period of time and the discrimination there seemed to me more intense and almost constantly present.   In particular, I felt that there was evident discrimination during job interviews;  I learned to recognise immediately those occasions where I stood no chance at all, despite being well-qualified for the post.   I'm now almost philosophical about these things and I take each day as it comes.   I still feel like an outsider and I suspect I always will, simply because I’m black.   I see patients and families every day and I still get funny remarks from some of them, like they can’t understand me, or can I repeat what I’ve said, or could I get someone else to explain;  this really causes me pain.   Some patients actually refuse my attention altogether and demand to be seen by another colleague.   One simply has to accept it and move on.   Thankfully, I must say that I have never been subjected to any discrimination from my colleagues in the hospital.   I am proud of my background;  I know who I am and I know that, in my work, I do good;  I am very professional and I work hard.   I do my best to respect others and I have simply learned to recognise that rejection is a part of life;  one has to be strong enough to accept it, and to see it for what it is.   Life would be unbearable otherwise.”

“I still maintain close contact with Ghana and with members of my family who are now living elsewhere.   Though I am a British Citizen, if you asked me if I feel I belong here, the only thing I could honestly say is, ‘No, I just live here!’”

Iris feels that the only way she could ever see herself fully integrated in the UK would be to become white, to change her accent, and to erase, or never to refer to, her background and her past - in other words, she would have to erase everything that makes her herself.   Even if Iris were somehow able to do this, she wouldn’t be willing to.   “Nothing in the world would make me do such a thing.   I am happy with who I am.   I have always done my best and I intend to continue to be a good, hardworking, responsible citizen, even though I have to accept that to some British people, I will always be a black woman, and be seen as an alien.   We moved to this flat four years ago and last year, on the very day when the EU referendum was taking place, I was parking my car close to our home, when some local white youths shouted at me, “When are you going home then?   Go back to your own country!   What are you doing here?”   I got really scared.   Brexit has clearly released lots of suppressed anger and poison towards all foreigners, not just Europeans.”

I asked Iris how optimistic she was about what the future had in store for her daughter.   “Milan, I am optimistic, I have to be.   I do have the hope that time will bring about change and that people will begin to see beyond skin colour and then black people will be accepted for who they are.   I cannot afford to give up such hope for the future.”

Over the years, Nigerians and Ghanaians have come to figure amongst London’s prominent minorities.   They are now politicians, businessmen and women, entrepreneurs, bankers, artists, sportsmen and women;  many of them work in key public services, including the NHS.   Like most minorities, they tend to gravitate towards certain areas in London favoured by their fellow countryfolk, but no-one could argue that they are not a vital part of the wonderfully rich and colourful tapestry that is London.  

Regrettably, not all is well, however:  Africa’s political instabilities, tribal conflicts, growing inequality, climate change, and the merciless persecution of homosexuals are driving thousands of desperate Africans to cross the Sahara and to gamble all they have by putting their lives in the hands of people-smugglers in a desperate attempt to enter Europe in search of safety and a better life.   Ever-growing numbers of Nigerians and Ghanaians are amongst this desperate tide of humanity, some of whose quests will end with drowning in the Mediterranean.   As the number of desperate migrants grows, so hostility towards new immigrants and asylum seekers intensifies, both in Europe and in Great Britain.   Xenophobia is on the rise and its bellicose rhetoric has a noxious effect on all those immigrants who have long been settled here.

It is, perhaps, not so difficult to comprehend the strong feelings, anger even, that emanate from Brits who feel themselves underprivileged, deprived and ignored, those who are sometimes described as the ‘left behind’, particularly when seen in the context of the inflammatory rhetoric against immigrants that is being generated by some unprincipled politicians, and others who are part of the establishment.   During the very week that I enjoyed Family Johnson’s kind hospitality, Viscount St Davids, undoubtedly a ‘pillar of the establishment’, was in Westminster Magistrates’ Court, trying to defend comments he had made about Gina Miller, whom he suggested someone might like to ‘accidentally’ run over, describing her online as a “bloody troublesome first generation immigrant … a boat jumper.”   Continuing in the same vein, his lordship went on:  “Please will someone smoke this ghastly insult to this country, why should I pay tax to feed these monkeys?”   He suggested sending the likes of Ms Miller “back to their stinking jungles.”   Not inappropriately, he received a custodial sentence for this appallingly offensive outburst but one fears that if these are the sentiments of a senior member of the aristocracy, by how many more members of the Establishment are they shared?

London has always been a city rich in immigrants, where people from all over the world have settled, coexisted and contributed to making our capital the extraordinarily successful city it is - almost everyone can manage to find a place here.   From time to time, both London and the UK as a whole go through stormy periods, periods of irrational nationalism - we are in one now - yet I feel that Anjola’s parents are justly optimistic about what the future holds for her in this great city of ours.  

Text edited:  3rd August 2017


Page modified: 17th March 2019