In August of 2002, I took my father to Waterloo station. He was catching the train to his sister's in South-West London, and the flight to Harare the next day. It was then he made it clear that the idea of my returning to Zimbabwe was to be abandoned. I was in enough trouble as it was and would only create more for not only myself, but many of my relatives. "Besides," he pointed out, "England is better for your career. Stay here, make something of yourself." As he entered the train, I knew I would never see him again.
In the ChiShona language, we have a saying: Mwana waMambo muranda kumwe. The king's son (here) is a bondservant somewhere else. In Zimbabwe, I had contacts, relatives in high places, the equivalent of the British old schoolboy connection to facilitate an easy career, if only I could cut my hair. In England, I was starting from the ground. And that is what I did.
The first thing I noticed about navigating the UK was that, apart from other Zimbabweans and most Black people, particularly of the evangelical and pentecostal persuasion, no one really cared that I was a Rastafarian. But, I was still Black. Moreover, I was born and raised in Africa. People here have very daft ideas about people born and raised in Africa.
I had several relatives already living in England. However, none of them was in the creative industries, or had the faintest how I could go about forging a career as a writer. So, I had to learn all over again how to sell myself. It is that feeling of having to learn everything all over again, of finding ground after being displaced that I revisit in Herbert Wants To Come Home. In fact, this too was how I thought of my inspiration for the character Herbert, Count Dracula, as he tried to establish himself in England.
I read more books, and re-read the ones I had loved as a child. It was remarkable how my interpretation of the old classics differed now that I was older and in a new environment. For example, Bram Stoker’s Dracula reflected the debate about immigration I saw going on about me. I have also had the chance to see for myself the places mentioned in some of these books, Dickens’ East London, Brontë’s Yorkshire Moors, the Brixton of the African Writers Series and Pacesetters. A fellow writer and friend, John Chadwick, took me to the Seven Stories National Centre for Children’s Books, where I beheld Enid Blyton’s manuscripts.
I was hanging around Soho and Leicester Square, where film companies were clustered. There were several websites where you could look for jobs in film. I came across people who were hoping to get screenplays written for free, in return for building a new writer's credits. Fair enough, but some of these never even made the films! But I did get to work on The Importance of Home Garden Maintenance by two talented (then) student directors from Venezuela and Italy. I make mention of this because it was my first time to work on a production that used 35mm film. It had all been video in Zimbabwe, although we learnt about 35mm at film school.
I finally met some guy who claimed he was connected and knew someone who had worked on The Madness of King George. I handed him my screenplay, a thriller about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. When we met a few weeks later, he seemed genuinely excited about it. There was just one problem; everyone he had showed it to did not believe that it was written by a Black African, especially someone who had been born and raised in Africa. His advice was that I should change my name if I hoped to get past the door. I decided not to take his advice. Looking back, I think that he exagerrated considerably the extent of racial prejudice in the creative industry for his own ends; he hoped to be my gatekeeper.
Looking back, these were the days before social media, the tool with which writers could propel themselves from obscurity to the attention of the whole world. I was still writing and sending out my work, but there were other things happening in my life. With digital publishing still in its infancy, I was pursuing my career the traditional way; sending manuscripts to literary agents and publishers from the Writer's Yearbook listings etc.
By 2006, I was beginning to find my bearings again. I discovered blogging. I published a short story, The Village Idiot, in a Zimbabwean magazine, Trends. The editor asked for more (but said nothing about payment). However, the magazine went under, a victim of the worsening political and consequent economic crisis engulfing the country. Later that year, I published The Man Who Turned Into A Rastafarian, a collection of short stories I had written about a decade prior. In 2009, I published the first of the Dread Eye Detective Agency novels, Uriah's Vengeance. Suddenly, it seemed the hours I had put in between slaving away were beginning to pay off. I was learning all about digital publishing, social media had become a reality. With The Man Who Turned Into A Rastafarian, I got more royalties from ebook sales than from the print edition. Many Rastafarians praised me for creating positive Rastafarian characters, especially the female private detective, Miss Chenai "Ce-Ce" Chisango of the Dread Eye Detective Agency.
However, the two small presses that had published these two works closed down. Once again, it seemed as if I was going to be left in the wilderness. But I was no longer the same person I had been when I arrived in England. I was older, bolder, more skilled. Moreover, with all my siblings also setting out in to the world, I could afford to focus on myself and my needs and aspirations. Looking back, it took a long time to get to that stage. That period would have been so much shorter if it had occurred to me that I wasn’t just here for “three or four years, everything will be better back home.” This was the thinking of many of us Zimbas at the time.
I applied for asylum. As a condition of the asylum process, I was relocated to the North East England town of Midlesbrough, a place I had never heard of before. The next day after I arrived in Middlesbrough, my Immigration Status Document came through the post. I could live and work in Britain. For some reason, I did not feel like going back to London, so I decided to stay in Middlesbrough. It is a decision that I am yet to regret.
R2 or Rese-Rese ("anything", as we described the jobs many of us Zimbas found ourselves doing in England). I have worked as a street sweeper, shelf-stacker, refuse collector, groundsman, leaflet-distributor etc.
Spotted. Collecting rubbish had its moments, such as the day I spotted the Osburnes in Finchley and snapped them with my mobile phone.
This might well be my very first selfie.....
Relocating to the UK allowed me to meet a wider cross-section of people than I would have expected to come across had I remained in Zimbabwe, such as Priest Tesfa of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.