The atmosphere was absolutely buzzing when I stepped out of Seven Sisters Underground station. Standing at the entrance, on top of the stairs that lead into the station, a man with an unshaven beard was selling the ‘Big Issue’ magazine to passersby. A huge crowd gathered at the bus stop immediately outside the station, three red double Decker London buses in a rugged row boarding passengers to Edmonton Green, Ponders End and as far afield as Waltham Cross. It reminded me of my early morning runs when my daughter started secondary school in 2002, we made a short walk from our old home on Avenue Road, off West Green Road to get bus no 41 and get to this ever crowded bus stop. I had to make sure she got on the bus no 279 to Waltham Cross. This bus passed by her school, a routine which lasted about two years until she was confident enough to make the journey by herself, push through the crowds and get on the right bus. It seemed long ago now but the bus stop hasn’t changed all these years. A lady dressed in a bright pink frock, her full lips covered in red lipstick and her hair tied in a long pony tail, was trying to get off a bus with a push chair and a toddler holding on to her dress amidst a crowd of rowdy teenagers. “Please may I get through? She asked loudly.
On the next bus in the row an elderly pale faced lady wearing a green and white tartan skirt, and short sleeved white blouse dragging a shopping trolley, was trying to get on being helped by a young well built man with dreadlocks. “She must be coming from Tesco”, I thought to myself. I glanced at the large red bricked Tesco’s supermarket, the land mark of the Seven Sister’s junction, with its head sign “Tesco” in bright red and blue dazzling against the clear blue skyline. Its large windows facing me like extra large spectacles. I could see the busy cashiers and shop floor displays at a distance through them. I smiled to myself as I thought of the stone just as you enter Tesco it reads; ‘This Tesco store was opened in 1981.The Royal Wedding’ cited among the list of significant events that took place in 1981’
The first time I saw this stone I was very amused. On this day I watched the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana on a black and white television stuck up high on the dining room wall, at Gayaza High School for the occasion. It was in the middle of Uganda National Certificate of Education mock exams(UCE/GCSE). The English Head teacher, Sheelagh Warren rearranged our exam timetable and gave a day off school to enable the girls to watch the Royal Wedding. At 17 years old I was just happy to have a rare chance at an African boarding school to be part of a world historical day, a history that I now experience when I shop at Tesco Seven Sisters. I didn’t realise what it meant to Miss Warren, even when she proudly announced the birth of Prince William in 1982 in our school Assembly. It was about ‘home’.
It was a bright hot sunny day with a clear blue sky. On the pavement besides West Green Road, the African women in their multi coloured kitengi fabric some of them with matching hair bands stood out from the crowds. They were crossing in and out of shops near the junction; the hair products, wigs, braids, black skin products, the fish market, exotic foods supermarket, vegetables and fruits. The elderly women were gently swaying their shopping trolleys through the pedestrian traffic and heading towards Tesco. A group of young looking girls were looking at the display of hair wigs in the hair shop window. Just as I approached the junction at the start of West Green road, the traffic lights turned red interrupting the flow of the traffic. A big black four wheel top of the range BMW stopped in front of the traffic lights. Its windows were blackened out and I couldn’t work out the occupants, but from inside came gushing out very loud Reggae music. A less familiar sight these days, since I moved into Tottenham just five years after the Broad Water Farm riots. It reminded me of how much the population landscape of West Green Road has changed over the years. You are more likely to hear a person speaking Luganda, Lingala, Polish, Turkish or Somali among pedestrians these days than loud music playing in blacked out window cars unlike the early 1990s.
From a white van packed on a double yellow line was a medium built Asian looking man off loading food stuffs, looking around every few seconds in case a traffic warden turns up, to issue him a packing fine. Just next to the van was a short plump woman, with a pale skin and dark blue eyes. Her head was covered by a blue scarf, and her long dress gave a glimpse of worn out red sandals .She was pushing a baby in a pram and stretching out her arm to passersby. I looked at the baby peaceful and sound asleep, an innocent soul, oblivious to all of what was going on around. As I passed her, she asked me for 50p to buy milk for her baby. I quickly looked away as I thought it was rather strange she could have no money at all.
I then saw one of the Somali men who own the internet cafe, and phone booths near the zebra crossing towards the end of the shops, walking towards me in long rhythmical strides. Tall, slim, a rather small head and stretched neck. The Nilo-Hamitic features, and long pointed nose made him look like a giraffe about to reach green leaves on top of a tree. He had seen my encounter with the woman. He knew me as I usually go to the cafe to buy international phone cards or make phone calls to Uganda. With a concerned expression on his face he said to me in Luganda “mwegendereze” be careful about her. I nodded my head in agreement and smiled back at him.
I had a few errands to do on West Green Road before I made my way home. First I entered the world food supermarket to get some spices. Whilst inside I drew some money from a public cash machine and exchanged a silent nod with the Asian girl dressed in a blue Sari at the cash till cashier when I paid for my goods, a silent ‘thank you’. As I headed for the bus 41 stop on the right hand side of the road, a slim built man was standing at the entrance of the hair products shop, waving a bunch of bandanas and scarves at me, to buy. I said “No thank you” as I passed him, to get to the next shop and to pick some matooke (green banana) from the outside vegetable and fruit display.
I waited patiently for my turn, as there were two women in-front of me excited to see matooke. One was pointing to the matooke fingers loosely placed in a light brown box and the other looking on, her beaming smile revealing a set of unequal white teeth. The women were quite tanned, wearing ankle length dresses, their long brown hair tied loosely behind their necks. I couldn’t work out what language they were speaking but looked on in amusement and with pride as another population in the UK seemed to be fascinated by what I assumed was a Ugandan staple food. This was flattering I thought, “I have bought matooke in this shop for over 15 years, I had never met anyone outside the Ugandan community near these boxes”. A mixture of excitement and confusion overcame me as I looked at the box where the matooke was to confirm the label; ‘Produce Of Uganda’. Eventually, I lost patience with myself and asked them “Where are you from?” “Colombia” they answered in unison. I nodded in satisfaction unable to proceed with further questions due to the language barrier .They continued to debate about the matooke .I stood there motionless, and in amazement, visualising in mind where Colombia was on the world map. I then realised it is in South America and part of the Equator belt, it shares a climate and food with Uganda.
My thoughts drifted onto my own Uganda Equator crossing at Nabusanke on the Kampala-Masaka highway, the two white circles and the imaginary line across the road that marked the middle of the Earth. I wondered how the one in Colombia was land marked. What was matooke called in Columbia? The individual matooke names my grandmother taught me as a little girl came flooding in my mind; muvubo, nakitembe, nakinyika,nakabululu. I always admired her for differentiating what was just ‘green banana’ to me. Many times in the boxes at this shop I had tried to name them. Muvubo, the longest or tallest type finger is the only one I could identify from the box although nakabululu on the other end of the scale, short and plump is familiar. Where these women trying to work out the different types of matooke as they knew them in Colombia? I wondered.
As the women disappeared inside the shop, to pay for their pick, still standing in the same spot outside and stunned by what I had just seen. I recalled how enthralled I and my housemates were when we discovered frozen cassava; ‘Produce of Costa Rica’ which tasted like that of Uganda, and Tilapia frozen fish like that from Lake Victoria, ‘Produce of Sri Lanka’ in shops on West Green Road in 1991.This was long before Ugandan food was sold in shops in the UK. Uganda food started appearing in shops on West Green Road in the mid 1990’s as local shopkeepers in certain areas of London became aware of a local Ugandan population. Ugandan traders first opened grocery shops in East London. We used to travel to Upton Park to buy matooke. Prior to that, in 1991 rumour spread in the community that the green banana from the Caribbean tasted like Matooke. However, it was not as soft and had to be eaten soon after cooking otherwise it would harden further. While trying to buy the Caribbean green banana to improvise for Matooke on West Green Road, we discovered packed frozen cassava, we took a leap of faith and bought it. We could not believe our luck after boiling it, it tasted like that of home. If some Costa Ricans had been watching like I watched the Columbian women, it must have been embarrassing.
My eyes opened to the fact that very different populations in the world had been brought together by food on West Green Road.
Juliet Lubega (unpublished 2013)