Outsiders in London
All photographs: copyright © Milan Svanderlik - London - UK
BENEDICT IGHOTU AGBAIMONI (# 07)
Benedict Ighotu Agbaimoni
Born in London, England
Father & Mother both born in Nigeria
Ethnic heritage / Father & Mother: Urhobo
Born in Camberwell to Nigerian Parents – his father had come to Britain primarily to study but had always intended to return home and his mother had come to work - Ben went to the local primary school, John Ruskin, and then on to secondary school in Lambeth North. Some years later, with Ben a little over 16, it was decided that most of the family would go back to Nigeria.
After so many years away, Ben’s parents seemed to have formed a somewhat romantic view of life ‘back home’ and for him, the reality proved to be something else entirely. For a young man who was, to all intents and purposes, a city-dweller, a Londoner, arriving to the land of his parents’ dreams proved a terrible shock - he had never been to Nigeria previously, not even for a holiday. He found the infrastructure to be completely different and in some parts rudimentary - some of the shops were no more than sheds made out of sheets of corrugated iron - and the environment was full of contrasts. “I was shaken to the very core,” says Ben.
He lived with his family in Lagos for five years, until his father’s tragic and untimely death in a traffic accident. He had decided to retake some O Levels. Some of his daily interactions were a major challenge, given that he did not speak Urhobo or Yoruba. How did he fit in to the land of his fathers? “I sort of coped”, Ben says, “with days when I wished that I was not there but with others when I enjoyed the way of life; it seemed much more laid back.” He went on to do a teacher training degree at what was then called the College of Education, Abraka, a college affiliated to the University of Benin, and obtained a degree-level teaching qualification in Fine and Applied Art from Bendel State University. His first teaching post was in a federal school in a different part of Nigeria, which he found an enriching experience as he had the opportunity to teach youngsters who came from all over Nigeria.
Then, at the age of 26, Ben decided to return to London, the place where he was born. “English was my first language,” Ben observes, “and I thought that if I returned to London, I could fit in better there - after all, that’s where I spent my childhood. Of course, 10 years had elapsed and it was fascinating to observe the changes (particularly technological) that had taken place during my time in Nigeria. Even the money looked different! So, once more, I had to try to adjust and to establish a new home, though I was still questioning where I thought my home actually was. (I seemed to be at home both in London and in Nigeria, yet at the same time I felt like an outsider in both places.) On balance, I felt more in tune with the place where I had been born and had spent my formative years; I thought I understood what made London tick. Though somewhat changed, London was familiar and I could still relate to many of the things around me, connect to the system, and feel comfortable. I got married; I have two sons and a step daughter; and I now teach at the Early Years Children’s Centre in Bloomsbury.”
Growing up as a black boy and youth in Camberwell was not without its difficulties. While some of the racism and discrimination was very much “in your face”, some of it was more subtle but no less deeply hurtful for that. “Yes, I grew up in London clearly as an outsider. If not being picked on, I sometimes seemed to be almost invisible, deliberately overlooked and ignored by the majority. At that stage, Nigerians and other black people were still a small minority in my part of London, though being black clearly made us a very visible minority.”
“Having arrived with my parents to Nigeria when I was a teenager, without being able to speak Urhobo or Yoruba, and having brought with me the attitudes of a typical London teenager, I stood out there too, of course, an outsider once again, but this time in the mother country of my parents. Gradually, I learned to speak a sort of local pidgin English, a derivative of spoken English blended with some local colloquialisms. Even then I was perceived by others first as a European, because of my habits, values and attitudes, not to mention my expectations, and only second as a Nigerian, or should I say an Urhobo.”
When asked about the perceived disadvantages of being an outsider, Ben says: “Well, being black proved to be a significant hindrance during my early years in London but not speaking one of the native languages of Nigeria meant that life there was not all that simple either. I am now heading towards 50 and have learned to ignore racial prejudice or to challenge it when needed but I can’t help noticing, even now, that when I travel on a crowded bus, the last seat to remain vacant is always the seat next to me. It is all very subtle but it still happens, even in multicultural London. And recently, on a family visit to the Lake district, I couldn’t help but notice that people would still stop and stare. For me personally, the main disadvantage of being an outsider is the feeling of being excluded.”
“On the other hand,” says Ben, “being an outsider enables you to see the world around you from two different viewpoints, to have two perspectives on the same thing. Having lived in Nigeria, I have learned that different systems and different ways of living can produce an equally good quality of life.
Being an outsider has taught me to be more tolerant of others, and their ways of doing things, and has given me the awareness that lots of things don’t really matter that much; it has given me strength, perhaps even wisdom. Having lived only 10 years in Nigeria, I returned back enriched; I had learned to recognise the many similarities between ‘outsiders’ and ‘us’.”
If given the choice not to be an outsider, Benedict says he would refuse: “I wouldn’t then be the person I am now,” he says. “Being an outsider has helped me to understand who I really am; otherwise, I fear that I might have been quite narrow-minded, less tolerant, even arrogant perhaps.”
Ben clearly felt himself an outsider both in Nigeria and in London but, after lengthy experience of both, and with much soul-searching, he came to the conclusion that London felt like ‘home’; this was his personal decision and points to the truth that where we feel ourselves ‘outsiders‘ and where we feel ourselves ‘at home‘ is very much a matter of individual experience, perception and feeling - “home is where the heart is and it is here for now”, says Ben.
Interview Date: 19th May 2013
Updated: 4th June 2013
Growing up as a black youngster in Camberwell was difficult: some of the racism was very much ‘in your face’, some of it was more subtle but no less hurtful. Benedict grew up in London clearly as an outsider. He returned to Nigeria with his parents, when he was a teenager but, unable to speak Urhobo or Yoruba, and having brought with him the attitudes of a typical London youngster, he stood out there too, of course, an outsider yet again. Because of his habits, values and attitudes, not to mention his expectations, even when he used the local pidgin English, he was seen as a European first and a Nigerian second. Back in London once more, Benedict feels that this is where his home is, the place where he belongs.
Photography: London 19th May 2013