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Louise Owusu-Kwarteng

This is an autobiographical account of Louise Owusu-Kwarteng’s parents’ migrational and settlement experiences in the United Kingdom, with reference to Buchi Emecheta’s novel Second Class Citizens.

In a Ted talk in 2009, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, highlighted the “danger of a single story”, as it assumes that a person’s identity is one dimensional, and thus negates any other aspects. I agree with this perspective – we are multifaceted individuals with many different issues, experiences that shape us. Having said this, sometimes one person’s story can tell that of many others, which I suggest is the case with Buchi Emecheta’s semi-autobiographical novel Second Class Citizen (1994). Through the “fictional character of Adah Obi”, Adah/Buchi tells of her migration and settlement experiences in the United Kingdom (UK) during the 1960s. It highlights issues of racist marginalisation and how this manifested in day to day experiences, including seeking accommodation. For instance signs with no dogs, Blacks or Irish, or to have a phone conversation with a prospective landlord only to be told on arrival that “the room had gone” – when in reality, they did not intend to rent the room to Black people. This is a story that so many Black migrants settling in the UK, especially during that era will tell.

This novel also tells us the story of Black West African migrants, whose “distinctive culture [was] little appreciated in Britain....” and “who [were] often confused with West Indians….” (Ellis 1978:1). Buchi’s work examines issues that were specific to this group. For instance, many, including Adah/Buchi’s husband Francis and my own parents who came from Ghana, were highly aspirant students rather than workers, who faced issues in terms of juggling employment, studies and childcare, and often had to make some crucial (and sometimes heart rending) decisions about how best to deal with them.

Buchi’s account reflects my parents in other ways. Firstly, they arrived in Britain at approximately the same time (the early 1960s). My mother and Adah/Buchi were also similar ages when they migrated (my mother was 17 and Adah/Buchi was 18).  Both women married and had children in their teens.  In all cases, there are similar stories of struggle, survival and success in a deeply racist context. To that end, this paper is an autobiographical reflection of my parents’ migrational and settlement experiences in the UK, and in so doing, it draws on the aforementioned novel by Emecheta, and charts similarities and differences between them. Themes addressed include those of racism (especially when seeking accommodation) navigating life in deprived neighbourhoods (in my parents’ case, Bayswater and Saint Ann’s), and fostering as an approach to childcare. It also explores how these issues shaped their identity and sense of “being” and, how, despite the manifold struggles, they succeeded in their endeavours.

A difficult journey will make you daring and harden your will (African Proverb) Origins, Migrational journeys and settlement in the UK

Adah’s/Buchi’s journey began in Yaba, Lagos, Nigeria whereas my parents’ began about 300 miles (about 480 kilometres) further west in Ghana. My father was born during the early 1930s in Konongo, a gold mining town in the Ashanti Axim region. He resided there until my grandfather Nana Baafi sent him to school in Accra. My mother, Dora was also born in Konongo in 1945. However, she moved to Adumasa, a village not far from Konongo, where my maternal grandmother, Nana Adjoa Beyie was from.

In many non-Western spaces, including those in which Buchi/my parents were raised, education was and remains central to social/economic progression. Yet educating females was not always considered a priority, partly because it was expected that they would be married at an early age. It was a result of such attitudes that Adah was forced to take matters into her own hands, so she could obtain some schooling. This entailed sneaking to the school where her neighbour taught. Her actions led to her mother being punished by the police for “child neglect” (Emecheta 1994:12)

Compared to Adah/Buchi, however, my mother was lucky, since my grandmother, Adjoa, recognised the importance of educating females. Adjoa herself was denied an education due to her sex. However she was concerned about the persistent illiteracy that had affected previous generations of our family, so she wanted to see that these issues ended in my mother’s generation. My maternal grandfather Kofi Adunah thankfully, agreed, which was unusual because it was often the case that men of that generation were not in favour of female education. Kofi’s reputation in the area, however prevented anyone from challenging his decision. My grandparents also maintained that their children should be educated to the best possible standard. Thus, my mother and her siblings were sent to good schools in Konongo and Kumasi. 

During the 1950s, Ghana was changing. The economy was stable, even booming, with promise of further progress from the newly elected president Kwame Nkrumah after he brought the country to independence. Thus, people, including my parents sought to take advantage of these developments. My grandmother wanted my mother to have a career, although both were unclear of what it would be (my mother eventually decided to become a nurse/midwife).   My father joined the Ghanaian army in the 1950s after finishing his education, then went to work for the Cocoa Board. He described this position as “comfortable”, as it came with several benefits, including good pay etc.

Around the same time, my parents became reacquainted with each other, began a relationship and later married. They also decided to move to England for further opportunities, because despite Nkrumah’s declarations at independence, in the 1960s, the Ghanaian economy took a downturn, and unemployment rates increased significantly.

Moving to the UK was regarded by many Africans as “seeking the golden fleece”, a term used to achieve educational and career goals in a Western context. As Muir Groothes and Goody (1972:157) commented in their study of West Africans arriving in Britain during the 1960s, many felt that coming to the UK or other parts of the West for their education held “some sort of virtue”.   In Second Class Citizen, Adah/Buchi, also expressed her longstanding desire to come to Britain, for similar reasons. She was also insistent that her had an English education and was willing to accept the fact that the country was not welcoming, as long as this goal was achieved. The belief in the “virtue” and “superiority” of a Western education is rooted in the colonial era where Western cultures and traditions were positioned above non Western ones. Moreover, seemingly, those in positions of authority during the colonial era had a British education. This therefore explains why Africans had similar aspirations, for “progression” at this point in time.

After independence, and on acquiring their British education, the plan for many West Africans was to return to their countries in the hope that they would be prioritised for senior positions in the civil service. Despite the situation in Ghana, this was also the intention of my parents, as their aim was to be in the UK until the late 1960s, then return “home”. However, this did not happen for a number of reasons, which I discuss shortly. To that end, however, Stuart Hall’s article entitled Minimal Selves (1987) is relevant when considering the experiences of migrants like my parents and others of their generation.

Hall discusses how immigrants (himself included) continually spoke/speak about their intent to return “home” to their countries of origin. However, when asked exactly when this would happen, answers were not always forthcoming.  Muhammad Anwar (1979), in his analysis of similar issues in relation to Pakistani immigrants, refers to this as “the myth of return”. Hall, explains that for these people, migration is effectively a “one way trip”, because in reality “circumstances” would prevent them from going home. “Circumstances”, for many West African migrants included racism, difficulties in combining childcare, work and study, adapting to a new education system, and problems obtaining accommodation. These issues often intersected with each other, and impeded their likelihood of educational/professional success. The “shame” of their perceived “failure” frequently prevented them from returning home.  For the purpose of this paper, I will focus on the “circumstances” I have just outlined, as these were issues my parents faced, and themes identified in Second Class citizen. 

Coming here was easy, finding somewhere proper to live…not so much” Settlement and Accommodation experiences for African migrants

My father arrived in London in the very early 1960s and he stayed with his uncle in Bayswater. The neighbourhood in which he resided was not nearly as affluent as it is now, rather it was a poor, run down area, which had not been regenerated after the war. Many Blacks and other ethnic minority groups had no choice but to settle in places like Bayswater and/or Kentish Town, where Adah/Buchi and her husband Francis lived, partly due to poor finances, and because racism prevented acceptance into other more affluent areas. On settling in these neighbourhoods, they could also expect to live in poorly maintained multiple occupancy houses. Francis encapsulates the housing situation for many migrants at that time in the following statement:

“Everybody is coming to London. The West Indians, the Pakistanis and even Indians, so that African students are often grouped together with them. We are all Blacks, all coloureds and the only houses we can get are horrors like these” (Emecheta 1994:35).

Limited access to decent accommodation, as suggested, was largely a result of overt racism prevalent in the UK at the time. In conversations with my father and other members of his generation there were recollections of how he often saw signs on doors in public places indicating that no dogs, Blacks or Irish were welcome. This anti-immigrant sentiment was (and continued to be) legitimated at structural levels, including by the government and in politics. Take, for example, the blatantly racist manifesto for the Smethwick By-election of 1964 as an example. The slogan read: “if you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour.” (

In the early 1960s, no anti-discrimination acts existed. If anything, the laws were primarily focused on preventing more immigrants from coming to the UK. In 1965, there was a half-hearted attempt to legislate against “discrimination on the grounds of race, ethnic or national origins” ( Yet this did not extend to pubs or accommodation. The fear of not finding somewhere to live drove immigrants to take drastic measures. Sometimes, this entailed downplaying aspects of their African identities, for instance by “over anglicising” their accents, something Adah/Buchi felt obliged to do when seeking accommodation in Queens Crescent:

“She knew that any White would recognise the voice of an African woman on the phone. So to eradicate that, she pressed her nostrils together as If to keep out a nasty smell. She practised and practised her voice in the loo, and was satisfied with the result. The landlady would definitely not mistake her for a woman from Birmingham or London, yet she could be Irish, Scot or an English speaking Italian. At least all those people were White…” (Emecheta 1994:74)

June Ellis (1978), a social worker/academic who worked with West African migrants during the late 1960s/70s, also observed that this was a strategy commonly adopted, and more so by those with English surnames. In some ways, this was a form of “disidentification”, which is a term/strategy coined by Erving Goffman (1959), a sociologist who specialised in analysing the impressions we give to those we interact with.  “Disidentification” is whereby individuals/groups distance themselves from what are regarded as undesired attributes/situations.

Thus although the migrants were proud of their cultural identities, their representation in British society, and responses to them by Whites, may have resulted in the sense that aspects of their “selfhood” (e.g. accents, cultural practices etc.) became undesired attributes. Thus, for some, in order to “survive” it was necessary to temporarily “disidentify” from their African culture/language and feign/identify with Englishness/Whiteness (e.g. by anglicising their accents). This did not always work when seeking accommodation, because on arrival at the tenancy, when landlords discovered that the prospective tenants were Black, it was highly likely that they would be rejected, as Adah/Buchi found when she and Francis reached the house in Hawley Street.   

Mother flew into London in late June 1962. Her “welcome” to London, however, was not dissimilar to Adah’s in terms of the shocking living conditions. Unlike Francis’, however, my father did warn my mother of the situation, but stipulated that it would be a temporary stop gap while they trained. Yet like Adah, nothing could have prepared my mother for the fact that three people would be living a room in a run-down area such as Bayswater. As was the case for Adah/Buchi, my mother was not used to living in cramped spaces, since “back home” it was not like this.  Understandably she was not happy about it, but she adopted a similar stoic approach to that of Adah/Buchi. Yet, my mother was adamant that they would not stay there for too long partly due to the state of the accommodation, but also because she and my father did not want to further inconvenience my great uncle.

As the months passed, my parents came to the realisation that London was not conducive to their needs. The accommodation was below par, rent and living costs were too high, plus a couple sharing a limited living space was an untenable situation. Thus, they decided to move to Nottingham, which was cheaper and where some of my father’s extended family lived.

On arriving in Nottingham they settled at Westville Street, Saint Ann’s. Saint Ann’s was originally built for the working poor, and was, in short, a slum area, consisting largely of back to back Victorian terraced houses Just half the population had access to hot water, and like in Adah’s tenancy in Ashdown Street, residents shared toilets located in the back yard. Effectively the area and type of housing my parents had was more or less the same as in Bayswater or in Kentish Town. In Saint Ann’s, however, my parents were “lucky” enough to have their own slightly larger room than in Bayswater.

A few Blacks who had been in the UK for some time were able to invest in property and become landlords. In Second Class Citizen, an example was Pa Noble, who had his house in Willes Road, Kentish Town. Pa Noble’s house was cheap but “…the roof of the house leaked, the stairs were cold and they creaked… the walls were damp and the windows were cracked….” (Emecheta 1994:87) which was not dissimilar to housing in Saint Ann’s.

Nevertheless, Black people tended to gravitate towards Black owned tenancies due to “White on Black” racism and its implications for obtaining housing. Having a Black landlord, however, sometimes brought about their own difficulties, because of, “intra ethnic tensions” between Black groups. In a discussion with my late uncle, about his experience of living in Saint Ann’s, he reported how this issue arose on several occasions.  He recalled verbal and sometimes physical confrontations between African Caribbean and African tenants and landlords.  Often these were a result of competing for scarce socio-economic resources, space and social status.

Humphrey Mwakigale (2007:83), who researched similar issues, agrees with this, and noted how there were “negative stereotypes to describe each other, thus affecting the extent to which they can co-exist in particular context”, including shared accommodation. Adah /Buchi’s experience, also shows that these intra ethnic tensions were not specific to African and African Caribbean people – it occurred between people from the same country – for instance inter-tribal conflicts between Igbos and Yorubas originating in Nigeria. Nevertheless, Adah/Buchi engages in insightful reflection on these conflicts:

“Thinking about her first year in Britain, Adah could not help wondering whether the real discrimination, if one could call it that, that she experienced was not more the work of her fellow countrymen than of Whites. Maybe if the Blacks could learn to live harmoniously with one another, maybe if a West Indian landlord could learn not to look down on an African, and the African learn not to boast of his country’s natural wealth there would be fewer inferiority feelings amongst the Blacks….”  (Emecheta 1994:70).

I agree with Adah/Buchi’s thoughts on the futility of intra-ethnic inter-tribal conflicts. Yet, the role of broader societal racism played in fomenting the situation for Black and minority ethnic groups cannot be ignored. They were denied opportunities/resources on many levels, resulting in tensions and competition for what is available (Owusu-Kwarteng 2017). As discussed, the law also failed to protect them against racist practices.  Moreover, negative media images about Black groups were, and continue to be propagated. For instance, in the late 1960s/70s Black people were labelled as muggers, and were depicted as uncivilised in films and TV programmes (Hall 2013). With this in mind, it is unsurprising that other ethnic groups sought to “disassociate” themselves from Blacks who were deemed as having undesirable characteristics, as many Blacks were.


As discussed, West Africans held a British education in high esteem, because of the status and socio-economic opportunities they perceived it would afford them. However, it was often the case that the educational experience was not what they had anticipated. Firstly, it seemed that institutions placed greater emphasis on building up student numbers, than their learning/teaching experiences – more specifically how they adapted to UK approaches to learning.  As Joan Stapleton (1978:72) pointed out, the educational background of West African students:

“Will almost have placed a great deal of emphasis on rote learning and their studies will have been carefully directed so that the more independent approach they will find in Britain can be very confusing”.

In the novel, Adah/Buchi recounted how Francis failed his accountancy examination several times, and while a range of factors that obviously contributed to this (some of which were his own doing), perhaps one aspect was a lack of support in adapting to the new styles of learning. My father, and other family members and friends had similar issues in relation to their own education. In my father’s case, he was very intelligent, though more academic support and guidance would have facilitated his success. This, together with balancing work with studies posed difficulties for my father and many others. Financial hardship resulting from inadequate savings and no grants available from the British or Ghanaian governments, forced my father to work long hours in a factory which significantly reduced the amount of time available for his academic pursuits.


Sometimes migrants had children while they were in the UK, or brought them from their respective countries. This was the case for Adah. Moreover, she had to balance the care of her children, all of whom were below the age of five, with her work at the library, which must have been very difficult, but was the case for many females then, and now.  Children, however, were not necessarily welcome in some of the migrants’ accommodation, which further compounded their problems. To that end, Adah/Buchi recounted that “you see, accommodation is very short in London especially for Black people with children” (Emecheta 1994:35). She also found that even if children were initially allowed to live in the occupancies, sometimes other residents would make their displeasure known. Taken together, these factors often meant that couples were forced to leave the accommodation. Given how difficult it was to find it in the first place, this presented another major problem.

Sending West African children to foster homes was an approach adopted by the migrants as a way of dealing with these issues, and was common practice in the 1960s. While fostering has its origins “back home” whereby kinship fostering was a much used method of childcare provision, in the UK the absence of extended family networks to provide childcare, and limited numbers of available nursery places, meant that West African migrants often sought White-British foster homes for their children while they studied and worked. Fostering enabled migrants to avoid the hassle of taking children to childminders on a daily basis and was cheaper. It had become such accepted practice that as Adah/Buchi noted African/Nigerian parents came to believe that

“Nigerian [African] children have two sets of mothers – the natal mother and the “social” mother. As soon as a Nigerian Housewife in England realised that she was expecting a child, instead of shopping for prams, and knitting little bootees, she would advertise for a foster mother” (Emecheta 1994:44).

Furthermore, migrants often expressed a preference for White foster mothers. As Adah/Buchi observed, “the concept of Whiteness could cover a multitude of sins” (ibid) which refers to the preference of “Whiteness” to hide the perceived “inferiority” of their own cultures. Nevertheless, West Africans maintained that sending their children to live with English families would facilitate their social integration and English language skills, both of which are necessary for later academic and social success and enhanced status. However, given the racism prevalent in society especially in the 1960s and 70s, the reality was that achieving enhanced social status for many Black people was an uphill battle.

The debate about fostering took place at Adah’s house. Interestingly, however, before Adah and Francis were forced to leave their house, their landlord took it upon himself to seek foster care for their children. “Fostering” was also supported by Francis who was becoming somewhat resentful towards the children and having to look after them while Adah worked. As he said,

“Everybody laughs at us in this place. No African child lives with his parents. It is not convenient; it is not possible. There is no accommodation for it. Moreover they won’t learn good English. They are much, much better off with an English woman” (Emecheta 1994:35).

Francis had also been influenced by their neighbours, who were jealous of the fact that he and Adah had children. Despite this Adah was insistent that her children would be raised with her, so refused to foster them, which was commendable, in view of the disapproval she faced from many quarters.

In contrast to Adah/Buchi, my parents and several other family members and friends did decide on fostering as a means of childcare, once they had settled in Nottingham. In many ways, that particular generation felt that there were few options but to foster their children, in order to manage their studies/training and other responsibilities. Although several family members and friends were in the city at the time, they were all in a similar situation, as they were also attempting to balance childcare and training. Moreover, unlike in West Africa, there were no other relatives who could care for the toddlers.

Although some parents in this situation sent their children “back home” to be raised with their grandparents or other members of the extended family, my parents wanted their children to remain in Britain for several reasons. Firstly, it would have been difficult to visit Ghana on a regular basis, since they were still in training and did not have the time and financial means. At least with foster parents, this would not be an issue, as they could select people who lived in or near the city. Secondly, the views of my parents, their relatives and friends, echoed Adah/Buchi’s in that they wanted us to benefit from the free and “high quality” education that was available to us in England.

Fostering children was a decision that could not have been taken lightly and it is completely understandable as to why Adah/Buchi was resolute in her decision not to do so. Although parents often thought they were doing the best for their children, these actions often had problematic ramifications. While fostering was/is part of life in West African culture and separation from biological parents was/is regarded as having few lasting socio-emotional effects upon children arguably, this perception may be due to less importance attached to Western psychological approaches to children’s wellbeing. Conversely, in the UK and other parts of the West, children’s psychological and emotional outcomes are considered important. Therefore the separation of children from their parents during their formative years is often viewed as detrimental to their future psychological health.  

Further to this, for the children of West African migrants who were fostered to White British parents, there were issues in terms of where they fit “culturally”, “given that there were few others that they could identify with” (Owusu-Kwarteng 2011: 133) in that sense. Some may have tried to culturally align themselves with their White families, although in reality, this was not possible. Yet they often did not feel able to fully engage with their Black African families, especially if they had not lived with them for long periods of time (Owusu-Kwarteng 2011). This was very much the case for some participants in my doctoral thesis, which explored parent/child relationships and impacts on educational attainment for British Ghanaians. Some also spoke of the psychological problems they experienced as a result.

As indicated, my mother trained as a nurse. She completed her Registered Mental Health (RGN) in the late 1960s and continued on to specialise in midwifery. This was all completed by 1970, by which time she was 25 years old. Completion at such an early age with two young children was no mean feat. That said, industriousness is an inherent trait of many West African women, as is evident in the case of my mother, her own mother and many other women in the family.  Clearly, Adah/Buchi who went on to study, attain a BA in Sociology and latterly a PhD, and then continued to become a world acclaimed author, despite being a single parent, possessed this attribute in extremely large measure.

My father abandoned his study and went to work instead – sometimes in jobs, which did not reflect his high levels of intelligence. Nevertheless, the aim for my parents was to survive, move forwards and do the best for their children. Their hard work combined meant that they were able to buy a house. Although the house was on a council estate, much like “Pussy Cat Mansions”, where Adah later moved to after she divorced Francis, and is the focus of her novel In the Ditch (1972) my parents were the only ones to have bought their house, which was a major achievement. I was born and spent some of my “toddler” years in that house, alongside my siblings who had by then, come home from their foster parents. I suspect that they were concerned about the environment that they were living in, and the impacts that it would have on us. So we moved to a different/more affluent neighbourhood and a larger house. They also sought Catholic schools with “positive” reputations, thus illustrating their belief in a good education for us.

Maya Angelou’s expression “Still I rise” seems relevant in encapsulating the stories of migrants like Adah/Buchi, my parents and others. As indicated throughout this paper, many members of this generation faced a struggle for survival in those difficult times. Longjam Bedana and Sangeeta Laishram (2014), also observed that, for Black people claiming their identity against the backdrop of racism and marginalisation, life was difficult. For Adah/Buchi, her problems were compounded by the fact that she was forced to divorce her husband in light of his maltreatment of her. She also found herself living as a single mother in another area/sink estate with her five children.

Moreover, she had no choice but to accept charity, though like many West African women who are self-reliant, and prefer to provide for themselves and their families, she did not feel comfortable with this. Nevertheless, Adah/Buchi still “rose” and achieved to a phenomenal level, and which would be impossible for most people. She certainly kept her head above water and as she said in her autobiography, also entitled Head Above Water (1986):

“As for my survival for the past 20 years in England from when I was a little over 20, dragging 4 cold and dripping wet babies with me and pregnant with a fifth one – that is a miracle….  And if for any reason you do not believe in miracles, please start believing, because keeping my head above water in this indifferent a miracle.”

And it truly is.


* Dr. Louise Owusu-Kwarteng is senior lecturer and programme leader in Sociology at the University of Greenwich, United Kingdom.


* This paper was presented at the “Celebrating Buchi Emecheta Conference” at the School or Oriental and African Studies on 3 February 2018




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