Monday, October 07, 2019

Ode to Betty Brown

She overheard the name in Waitrose as she picked up the groceries. Betty Brown. She liked it; she adopted it. It was as simple as that. Betty Brown. The name said something, and there was a nice sound about it. After the attacks, what we read in the obituaries were those other names, those legal names, those names that had been quickly discarded in that moment at the store. Well, Betty Brown was how some of us first came to know her. And she was named in Waitrose, next to the row of tinned tomatoes.

Names were important where she came from so this wasn't a light step. It is a brave Ghanaian woman that discards the protection of the names given at her outdooring. The new name was a touch of whimsy - like a Betty Blue or even a Betty Boop, and it fitted her laugh. Call it the reinvention aesthetic. And cathartic too. It was something to hold onto as the hard knocks kept coming, for, truth be told, there was much to forget in her past.

That whimsical name was the detail I returned to when she died on that Seventh of July, blown up on the Number 30 bus in Tavistock Square. And here I should pause a little and try to forget that awful day, for my aim is not for a lament, rather I need to conjure an ode.

Betty had an uproarious laugh, so infectious that you wanted to hear it all over again, and yet, try as you might, you could never photograph her wearing a smile. It was quite a puzzle how this elemental laugh would magically stop as the camera lens swung towards her face. It was uncanny, that unerring instinct for the approaching window onto the soul.

That aspect of her spirit was, thus, only experienced in the flesh - powerful and endearing at once, and guarded and resolute at the other. She was ever encouraging and optimistic to her friends and family - a source of a one-way flow of unrequited positivity. Try as one might, it was hard to be jaded in the presence of Betty Brown, her laughter and love overcame all obstacles.

A pause in our narrative, a return to that moment in that grocery store. We should contemplate a newborn woman, newly outdoored and newly named. Two musical words, Betty Brown, ringing in her ears as she voiced them in the air for the first time. Music, and magic too perhaps. Welcome magic, for she had entered at a low point, her employers having refused to return her passport. Your garden variety tale of abusive domestic servitude perhaps, the ordinary cruelties suffered by house girls. An announcer came up on the store intercom. "There's a special on cakes and pies, treat yourself to some ice cream too". Betty knew what to do: vanilla ice cream and some apple crumble to celebrate her name. She returned to the house, her spirit fortified. The Madam couldn't quite understand the aura of sunshine from someone she thought she had long since broken.

Months later, she overheard them in that same store, walking through the aisles speaking Ewe; her country people. She gambled, grabbed her opportunity, and accosted M and D. Haltingly, she explained her plight, conveying her desperation. It all came out quickly once she started speaking. Their concern was apparent as the words poured forth and her saga of woe unfolded. She'd never told her story before, not to anyone, not even to herself in the mirror and certainly never in this way.

After those long years in Ghana, they had brought her to London when the boy needed medical care. First they wanted to discard her, then The Madam said they should keep her, but they wouldn't pay her or give her passport. This was the first time they had let her out in two weeks. She told everything - even the most humiliating details, the beatings, the forced labour, no holidays, the virtual slave thing and so forth. Saying the words out loud made her realize just how close she'd come to the abyss. She could see the mounting alarm in their eyes as she talked, but she carried on, the story had to be told. They listened, first warily, then concernedly, and then carefully as if all of this testimony should be committed to memory. Finally they asked her name. She laughed, "Call me Betty Brown, but I'm also known as [redacted]". She laughed again. It was the laugh and that melodious name that did it and drew them into her comfort suite.

"Pleased to meet you Sister Betty. God-willing we'll get through all this."
"Betty Brown. That's a powerful name."

They offered their help and she took the opportunity. They agreed to meet later, the family still needed her do the groceries, so she was sure she'd be able to get out. The shadows lifted.

And so, M and D were the ones who took her in. In the Hackney home, the dining room became her bedroom. Later she would insist that they let her rent a room, pay her way. Her story was whispered throughout the community and not just because it confirmed every prejudice we had against 'those Lebanese', 'those Saudis' and they way they treated us back home, and even here in London. K stepped in later to help with the confiscated passport, to give his customary legal advice, to give comfort above all.

So, she had come from nothing, had been the lowliest of servants, and had been brought even lower. That first morning when she woke up at 5am, she realized that all she had were the clothes she had on and the few belongings she had been able to smuggle out. Well, it was a temporary inconvenience; she simply got to work, cleaning and tidying up.

But she didn't dwell on the past. Rock bottom is always a matter of perspective and she always put the hard days behind her. Looking forward and disdaining pity, she simply wondered what the next day of work would be. And it was work that was her lot. She aimed to please. Self-esteem was not simply an afterthought, it was a never-thought. Throughout her life, she knew only work.

And there was violence undoubtedly, she had been treated most brutally by them, and had the scars to prove it, scars that were occasionally glimpsed in that matter-fact manner in which she moved her body. Some would have her be the woman who walked into doors. That was a facile characterization, after all a hard life is not all about violence. Her reality, as those closer to her knew, was rather life as the empress of the splendid season. She wasn't content to be a cautionary tale or an object of concern: she lived, she worked - that's all.

Poverty is always relative yet her hometown, Avenui-Awudome, was poor even in a poor part of a poor country. It was a spec of a hamlet, not quite a village like Taviefe. It wasn't even worthy of the prospect of an advance guard of the E.P. Church seeking out forlorn souls in the Volta Region. The tale is told of that boy from Awudome who managed to get a scholarship to Mawuli School, the first to even make it to secondary school in the environs and that was 1959. The family was so poor that the whole village had to take up a collection to buy him proper shoes so that he could walk to the school. Well, that older boy was the lucky one in the clan. By the time Betty came of age to go to secondary school, the options, and the goodwill, had long since dwindled. The money simply wasn't there. And so she began, or rather continued, that trajectory of burden that had been hers from birth. Sleep to work to sleep. Not that there was any choice, for there were other children coming up behind her.

As it turned out, farm work suited her, she never minded following Papa into the forest to their little plot. As the forest diminished, and the farms suffered, it became harder and harder to make do. The family's farm barely provided enough yams and cassava to eat, let alone sell. They had had to push in deeper into the thinning forest to eke out something to harvest. They ran through all the various vegetables they could think of; nothing seemed to work anymore. So she was loaned out to work in nearby villages and then sent to Ho.

Hard-working was the constant refrain about Betty on the construction sites. The cement blocks, she was able to carry without complaint. Fetching water and carrying had always come easily to her. When even work in Ho dwindled, it naturally followed that she should try her luck in Accra. She became a kayayei in the city. The slums of Nima were her proving ground. Sleeping rough, hustling, carrying and fighting ferociously for the slightest coin or banknote. She first found work carrying for the market women. And then it was construction sites again - less drama, although the physical toll was punishing. The years went by and she faithfully sent her contribution home for the younger ones - every cedi made a difference in Awudome. Eventually she was recommended to the Lebanese family as a housegirl for she had a way with cooking. On the streets, she was known for being able to manufacture a tasty dish from even the most wretched garden eggs or leaves of nkontomire.

Street girl to house girl; she'd taken care of the boy happily and cheerfully. When he fell ill after five years, she followed them from Accra to Riyadh, and then to London as they sought hospital treatment. It hurt that they took out their frustration on her as his health worsened for, certainly, no one cared for him, nor knew him, as well as she did. Perhaps it was jealousy too, for he loved her songs and stories and would only sleep at night if he knew she was close. One wonders if they even know what happened to her after they were done with her...

At length, she regularized her situation in London and even found love in the community. Her architect. Her man. Others would complain and suggest that he wasn't pulling his weight - after all there he was with all his degrees working as a security guard, if indeed he could be found to work. She dismissed those concerns. It wasn't easy. She knew it wasn't easy to be an immigrant, to have your qualifications nullified for lack of a stamp in some passport, to be condescended to at best, and to face everyday invisibility. She was clear-eyed even as she heard the exasperation in friends' voices. "You're being taking advantage of. Do something for yourself, not for others". And that day at the outdooring, that long disappearance, stepping out to pick up drinks at the off-license. All those last straws. All that drama. All that hand wringing from the naysayers counted for naught. None of that mattered. She didn't make excuses. She simply loved. She saw the light in his soul. She kept the faith. She would work additional jobs to make it work.

And well, she did. She made it work. For almost 18 years, she would effectively be the sole breadwinner even as they raised themselves up from the margins. She raised the children in faith and moved mountains to spare them any taste of deprivation. She had finally brought something worthy into the world and would do anything for them. She loved unconditionally, she loved unreservedly, she loved wholly.

I can see her on that bus, that morning, catching her breath after the all-night shift at the cleaning job at University College. She was on her way to Shoreditch for that housing management college course - self improvement. Then that afternoon, she would pass by the African Development Agencies in Hackney to volunteer as was her wont - there were others coming up behind her, and they needed help, before yet another job that evening. I see Betty, stout and middle-aged, part of that immigrant unseen, a member of the tribe that gathers at the crack of dawn, those who clean with no benefits, those who give definition to that phrase, menial labour. Well she worked, she was a worker, she was a cleaner. She got on with it.

Later, I saw the picture of the children and her husband standing with the President. It must have been when he passed by their home in Essex after the attacks on his way back to Ghana, official solace in their hour of grief. Their red eyes were those of the walking wounded. It broke my heart. It breaks my heart. The absence of her flesh and blood, it was all too much. A grievous loss, a soul snatched away arbitrarily.

They took her body home to Ghana for the funeral. Thousands came to pay their respects, Ghanaians don't need prompting to attend funerals but who could resist that of their countrywoman who died in Babylon at the hands of Al Qaeda.

Her blurry photo stares at me from the news websites. Smudged pixels that haunt me. It doesn't reveal much of her. She didn't have many photos of herself in any case, preferring to look outwards. That fugitive glimpse of her in the stories was fitting. Yes, that was Betty Brown, self-effacing even in her obituary. The words would reveal more about those who survived her than about her complicated story full of twists and turns. Well, her story deserves to be told, even if in these refracted fragments, a journey of pathos, ultimately distilled into tragedy.

Complaining was not her style. She put up with more setbacks than anyone this side of Job and that Count of Monte Christo fellow, and yet she gave new meaning to the term resilience. This is an elegy rather than a lament, for such thoughts never crossed her mind. This is an ode for a woman in full, a spirit heaven-sent.

I often think of Betty in those quiet moments in the autumn of life, when the cleaners walk by with their carts at the office - humming, when the nannies gather their charges in the park, back home with those street girls hustling in the Adabraka traffic instead of going to school. I hear her voice, her infectious patter, her tics, and her teasing manner, the way she always affected to be absent-minded to draw you in. And the laugh. The heart aches. I think of her, not as a stray or as a victim, but as a force of nature. Some of us stepped in when we could, worried about her, but we couldn't save her; it really wasn't up to us, rather she saved herself. And she stood strong. She fought, God knows she fought. And now she's gone.

catford sidewalk painting

This is the final part of a trilogy on Ghanaian connections to the London bombings of 2005, in this instance, the eponymous casualty. The first piece, Identity Theft, dealt with collateral damage on the periphery, an immigrant's stolen identity. The second note, Of No Fixed Abode, concerned the "fourth man": the fifth bomber.

An entry in the Things Fall Apart Series.

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