A journey to the heart of the Empire

The Sunday Mail

Writing Back
Ranga Mataire

Apologies to dear readers of “Writing Back” for a brief sabbatical. Yours truly had gone on a sojourn to the heart of the Empire.

It was a worthwhile visit that demythologised a lot of sweeping assumptions about the Empire. It is one thing writing something purely from interpretive intuitive standpoint, and quite another to authoring something from hands-on experience.

So here I was in the heart of the Empire. The entry point was Heathrow International Airport. A bastion of cosmopolitan confluence of all nationalities. We were all in a single file, an amazing kaleidoscope of humanity.

I looked around, and not one soul wore a happy expression. Everyone wore a sullen face, fearfully aware their fate lay in the balmy palms of some British mandarin. Clutching dearly to their passport, more than just a document but their human identity itself, they waited to be examined by the not so friendly officials manning this gateway into the Empire.

I was part of a team of seven proud Africans. Proud — because we feared nothing as our mission had been sanctioned by both governments.

We were visitors and not economic refugees. And when our turn came, we were cleared as a group. Well, almost, as one sister had to endure some inconvenient interrogation from a fellow black sister manning the entry point.

Even after producing the relevant supporting documents, the black sister was still determined to prove that she was a diligent servant of Her Majesty.

It took a while before our African sister was cleared.

We were now on the other side. Formally on the Queen’s land, some of those sullen faces we had seen on the other side now suddenly looked molly-pupped and happy to have finally made it on to this patch of land.

What is it about this island country that attracts multitudes? Well, I got my answer immediately.

We needed to change our money into pounds to secure our movements. And right there at the airport, three or four bureaux de change being manned by men and women of Asian origin.

Those that would have expected to be served by the stereotypical English — Caucasian and blonde — would have been disappointed. In his deeply accented English, the Indian man of advanced age summoned all his marketing skills to convince us that this was the best exchange rate.

Our rendezvous was a town called Reading. It is some distance from Heathrow — about 44,7 km away. Like Johnny Comes to Town, I was overly anxious to go sight-seeing in the Queen’s land. I brushed aside my disappointments at the airport and hoped to marvel at this island nation that birthed a man called Cecil John Rhodes, who wreaked havoc in my country as he pursued his gory Cape to Cairo dream of conquest.

Our chauffeur was a fairly young man from Zimbabwe, who seemed very enthusiastic to give us a brief contemporary history of England. Within minutes of our journey, he had briefed us on Brexit, Boris Johnson and the Irish problem. He said he had lived in Northern Ireland for a year and experienced first-hand the negative sentiments the Irish have towards the English.

The affable young man spoke about Anglo-Irish relations and how frosty they have been over the centuries with England’s seventeenth century leader, and ‘Lord Protector’, Oliver Cromwell, featuring as a much loathed figure.

I got to know that there are a few things the Irish hate about the English. These include the fact that they expect everyone else to speak English, binge drinking, football hooliganism, no intention to learn any other language and how England collapses every time it snows as if they didn’t realise it would happen every year.

Of course I laughed at some of the things the Irish detest about the English; the obsession with tea and talking about the weather all the time was most hilarious. In Africa, we don’t talk about the weather that much, save for when we discuss the rains. As we drove towards Reading, I was struck by seemingly large tracks of farmland that appeared abandoned or simply lying fallow.

Yes, the roads and the infrastructure were top-notch, but the farms were disappointing. It was as if the local humans had long abandoned the land. Our young guide was quick to offer an explanation.

These farms are highly mechanised; so you don’t normally see hordes of people working in the fields. I grudgingly accepted his explanation.

If the farms were a shock, then Reading was a complete surprise. The Ibis Hotel, which was to be our home for the next thirteen days, was manned by people from various nationalities.

There was one Chinese young man at the reception. His assistants were a young lady from Lithuania and another from Poland. On some days, there would be a lady from Belarus.

And the room allotted to me was so small that I sometimes feared knocking down the hotel’s essentials. There was barely enough room to do press-ups. The horror was when I looked through the small window from my third floor, hoping to take in the local sights, only to be confronted by row upon row of ancient buildings, chimneys protruding in unison as if in prayer to the heavens to be put out of their misery.

I got to learn that these buildings, which looked like small factories, were in fact houses where locals lived.

As I wondered why civilisation had bypassed these hovels, someone explained that the outside look always betrays the interior. I heard that there were stringent laws on renovations or changing the architecture. The Town Fathers, I was told, are obsessed about maintaining the historical and cultural aspects of these old buildings.

Our programme involved commuting between Reading and Oxford. We reckoned that it would be cheaper to use the train instead of the buses. Much to our pleasant surprise, the African brother who served us at the train station was a certain man — again of advanced age — from Gwanda. You would not have guessed that the brother was from the land of Munhumutapa, given his polished Anglo-Saxon accent. But upon hearing us conversing in the vernacular, the man brightened up and jumped into the conversation excitedly.

At the end of a week of commuting, I was humbled by the efficiency of the transport system. Not 10 minutes passes without getting a bus to the train station or a train to Oxford. Of course, like in many other places in the West, there is barely any inter-personal conversation. It’s not just the weather that is cold in the West. The people are cold too.

There is always that silent acknowledgement of each other’s presence each time one bumps into a fellow African brother or sister.

Lessons learnt.

The Empire’s complexion has drastically changed. From the hotel lobby to the halls of British commerce and power, the hegemony of the white male, who for centuries cast himself as the epitome of England, looks to be in decline. In his place is multiculturalism and colour from around the world.

The Empire has over the years built strong systems that sustain its vast industrial base and commerce.

But at the core, humanity is the same everywhere. We all generally react to some situations the same way. We all love music, sex, beer and resent those in high up places or seem more affluent than us.

Until next week, Adieu!

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