Photograph of Abduhl Sheikh

Abduhl Sheikh

Born: 10th March 1942

Nairobi, Kenya

Date of interview: 24th May 2006

Map showing where Abduhl Sheikh came from

Can you tell me what your earliest memories are as a very young child?

Well basically living in an area where we had about three houses, one immediately next to us, no two next to us, one about 500 yards away, the next house was about a mile and a half and the other houses were towards the ... river, come stream, I would say, during summer time it would of sort of become a stream and during rainy season, short rains and long rains, it used to become a river.

Apart from that it was, I would say just plain wilderness, not forested wilderness. I mean Nairobi is not built on where there are forests. You get maybe some odd trees, and lots of game which occasionally used to pop into our yard and eat up any flowers or vegetables that we had grown, I mean no sort of wild animals like lions. We used to get the odd hyena but mostly gazelles, birds, guinea fowl ... an animal we used to call, we still call actually, Yellow Necks, resembles a partridge, smaller than a partridge though with a yellow patch underneath its neck. Very tasty bird, extremely tasty, size of a capon, more or less.

I mean in those days we were not, as you can imagine yourself, rich or something and there's no entertainment apart from once or twice a week the dancers used to come in dressed in the native costumes like, I wouldn't call them grass skirts, but skirts made out of either reeds, grass and with feathers around the waist and the headdress was that of a ... I can't recall the name of the bird, black bird about a foot long and the tail itself was about eighteen inches long, beautiful tail and they used to have a lot of those.

Radios came in later but only to those people who could afford them. Our family was one of them which was able to afford a radio and I've still got that radio it's a very old Bosch valve model, still works, that's right yes, it still works, in excellent condition. The programmes in our own languages used to come in the evenings for about an hour or half an hour with songs and news, brief news, the world news and people used to gather outside in our courtyard and we used to listen to the radio.

The kids played, not English games ... It's a game called gulli danda, it's a Punjabi sort of word. Basically it's a bit of a round stick which is about inch and a half this which is tapered towards both ends and a long three foot, four foot handle or a stick, ordinary stick, round stick. What you do is you dig a hole, a slight hole and then you sort of put your rod underneath it and you chuck it as far as you can. The idea of the opposing team is to catch it, if they catch it you're out and the next one takes over. If you don't catch it then it's up to you to go as far as possible.

Could you spell the name of that game?

Well it's Punjabi word ... gulli, pronounced as goolly not gully and danda which is a rod, is danda. I mean there was another game which is played, I mean in mostly the Asian countries and you can see from the television sometimes even now it's call Kabaddi. If you imagine yourself in ... a small version of a tennis court with a line drawn in the middle and then you have two teams, I think there about six in each side. The idea is ... one team, the first team to take a deep breath, hold the breath in and speaking the words 'kabaddi, kabaddi, kabaddi' continuously, go to the opposing side, touch somebody and then come back in to your side. If you succeed in doing that whoever you've touched is dead so he has to leave the area and sit on the side lines and if your team succeeds in getting everybody out, kill everybody you've won. The opposing team one person only, not all of them, whoever you touch, tries to hold you back so you have to breathe in. Now if you break your breath and you breathe in you are dead.

In the evening you listened to the radio, where would that be broadcast from?

In those days the station used to be called Cable and Wireless, in the western side of Nairobi. I'm trying to remember the names now. They are Swahili names you see and called, it used to be just after the Westland area, is still known as Westlands just after that there used to be an army base and next to it, because they used to have the armed forces radio and attached to it was the normal civilian radio. It used to be the English early in the morning then in the afternoons, and then in the evenings they used to split, the Asians used to get about an hour between six and eight I think. As time progressed, they split and we had our own station, English had their own and there was also a Swahili station as well but that was quite a while afterwards.

So going back, tell me, you were born in Nairobi, when did your parents come to that place and why?

... I can't tell you the exact year my parents came but I would imagine that they arrived there in mid-thirties. Reason of course being the problems in what was India at the time. They used to live in Lahore, the actual - you know where Lahore Fort is, the old city, my grandfather used to have a house over there and I think basically it was to, sort of get away from family problems. He got in touch with my wife's grandfather who used to live in the same area, and they then invited him, and they also helped him out in getting him a mechanics job. A company known as OMT, it was very, very famous in Kenya, a motor trading company, very well known. Eventually he opened up his own business, a garage in partnership with another man who used to work in the same company and that was very successful as well.

So tell me about you going to school. What was that like?

It was basically three hours, reading writing arithmetic, geography and all that, you know there was no calculators. We were not allowed anything. You must learn by heart. All the tables you had to learn by heart at least up to twelve. You had to learn about history, the English history, Kenyan history and as well as the Asian side of history. Basically, generally speaking, the world history you had to learn.

Who were the teachers there?

Mixed. The higher you went the more mixed you became, but in primary basically there were the Asians because they could understand the languages and if somebody didn't, English was of course the official language. You had to learn, you had no choice in the matter and then you had a choice you could either go for your native language, either Gujerati, Punjabi, Hindustani or Urdu. It used to be known as vernacular. So you had to choose which one to go for when you, just before you went into the secondary education which is your GCE or in those days it used to be known as the O Levels or Cambridge, examinations, you know the University of Cambridge used to control the secondary education over there and the criteria and curriculum used to come from this country.

You said you had to pay for the schooling.

Yes.

So do you know how much that was?

I think the primary education used to be five shillings a month. A hell of a lot of money in those days ... and of course you had to buy your own books, You know the exercise books. The textbooks used to be supplied by the school and if you damaged it you had to replace it. That's about the only thing the school used to supply and when you got into the secondary education they used to supply you with ink. Powdered ink and you had to mix it with water. I've still got a small tin left upstairs. I'll show it to you later on. You just mix it with a little bit in there, it's blue-black ink. You had to use either a pen, with a nib and a holder, we used to call it nib holder or a fountain pen and in those days there used to tubes in it and a little lever. So you press the lever out and you would dip your pen into the inkpot and you would press the lever back and it sucked it up. Those were the things we were allowed to use. No Biros, pencils ... yes, coloured pencil, yes.

What about the rest of your family. You were there with your mother and father, brothers and sisters?

Yes, I have five brothers and one sister in total and it's only recently that I've learnt that, I knew that a child elder to me, older than I was died in its infancy and I think it was only this year that I learnt that the first born child was a sister and she died as well. I've no idea how, what her name was.

So how would you describe your childhood?

... Nice. Very good memories, some sad, but ... I would describe it as free, no restriction, no sense of danger, no fear of anything, secure and safe. Family life I would describe as very turbulent but most family lives are, you know, amongst the brothers and sisters. There were quite a few, sort of, I wouldn't call them fights, among us and of course most of us got a few clouts around the ears, you know, 'shut up' and all that, you know, children are there to be seen and not heard that sort of attitude, 'go out and play' but it came down to occasions the kids were there and whether you liked it or not you had to be there and the reason given that if you don't sit with us and listen to what's happening you will not learn what life is about so 'shut up, sit down, look and listen.' My father used to say a very wise word 'God has given every person two eyes, two ears and one mouth and the reason for it is to listen more, see more and talk less.' Very sound advice.

When you left school when would that be?

I was, I think, about eighteen. Fifty-three. I think it was either 1953 that I passed my GCE or the O Level, Cambridge. It used to be called the Cambridge exam with three or four O Levels and went straight into the civil service. Joined the Police Force and the fun started then of course.

What sort of things were you involved in?

Mostly it was ... just general patrol in the car. We were armed of course in those days with 38 revolvers, very strict rules, extremely strict rules of when to use. In fact if there was a riot or something the first thing I did was to take the bullet out of the gun just in case somebody else acquired it, very strict rules. Robberies, but basically it was drunks burglars, people like that I mean in those days crime there was not crime like in this country.

How long were you with the police force?

Until I got the order of the boot. Got kicked out.

So how old would you be then?

Twenty-seven, twenty-eight. Around that time. 1970. September. First of September I think it was. Sometimes in September, I can't really say.

And what happened then?

Well we had six months to get out and of course in those days there was lot of problems in this country. This was the only country I could come to. No other country would have me. It wasn't my choice, I'll be honest with you, to come to this country. But because this was a British colony and I had a British passport I had no choice. Had to wait for a voucher system. I've still got that passport with me. One of the good or bad habits is that I tend not to destroy paperwork. I must have a clearout one of these days. I've still got that voucher business. My daughter, myself and wife, we came here in September.

So when did you get married?

'63. No we got, Kenya got independence in '63 ... Yeah, yes '63.
Kenya got independence, I got married just after independence actually, in August 21st.

This was in Nairobi?

In, well the wife was in Mombassa and I was in Nairobi so we travelled over there, hired a house and of course our weddings are rather elaborate and took place over the weekend and then came back and that was it, I mean.

Was this an arranged marriage?

Well it depends on what you call arranged. I know my wife before we were married. Although there was no interaction as it is in this country, but the culture is such that in our sort of society we don't take liberties. We respect each other. But it was, the marriage was in agreement with me, I had to agree and I agreed and she had to agree and she agreed. We know each other. It just happened.

So then moving on to, you were saying you had to leave. How did this come about?

After independence, the Kenyan government decided in conjunction with advice from the British government that the civil service would be, what they called 'africanised'. It was run by ... The people from this country, the local Asians who were born and bred there and Africans. And all of a sudden Jomo Kenyatta decided that everybody must be replaced and everything must be taken over by the African. When I say African, I mean black in colour. Those were, I consider myself, being born over there, I considered myself as an African as well, but a lighter shade of pale so to speak. But in their eyes I was an Asian. So the British government gave assistance to all the whites who were there. They were called expatriates. So they got their compensation for losing their job and all that. They got assistance. They went straight back very, very quickly. because of the international pressure that the British government said enough is enough. As a result of this Africanisation programme and because nobody advised me at the time that I should, had to apply for a citizenship, a Kenyan citizenship. One would assume automatically that if you're born there you're automatically a citizen. My wife is still citizen of Kenya. I wasn't. Why, nobody can explain to me. Nobody told me. So one day I received a letter saying that you're not a Kenya citizenship, you are given six months notice to wind up and go and that was it. No use fighting or doing anything.

And how did you travel here?

Flew. Oh they allow you enough money to fly. And there's £300 of your money the rest is mine. That's the attitude, so literally came in here with two suitcases, three bags, three boxes and it's only recently that those three boxes I sort of chucked out. I still had them up there. I don't know why. Just a sort of reminder, you know. One contained a sewing machine, she's still got her. One contained my trophies, animals that I had shot. I used to be a good hunter there as well. Not for pleasure, for eating. I think there were four or five trophies. Some animal skins. I've still got them and one was crockery that had been given to us as our wedding present. Still got that. Three boxed, two suitcases, £300. That's all I had. No friends. Strange county. Cold miserable weather.

So you land at Heathrow. [yeah] And what did you do?

My father's partner had a cousin living in London, used to be a bus driver and fortunately he was there to pick us up from there. No we landed at Gatwick actually not at Heathrow. He picked us up and we stayed I think with him for a while. We tried to find a job. The police wouldn't have me. Nobody would have me with job. Got no money at all. £300 did go quite far in those days actually ... I applied literally every day. Got no help from the government or the social security, absolutely nothing ... Then I applied for the prison service. Sent in the application. I remember it was Birmingham. I went to Birmingham prison to attend the test and all that, passed the test, I was accepted and they said we'll let you know what happens next and then the bloody post office went on strike for three months, I remember that. No letters, no nothing and I was really, you know. I used to go round the local Pakistani shops over there. Clean their windows, clean their cars so I could earn something because that money was running, you know, running out. I could have bought a bloody house with that £300 if I had a job here, straight away, but one had to. She managed too because she likes sewing, she's a seamstress. She still does a lot of sewing. She managed to find an old sweatshop where she went down to sew anoraks for Marks and Spencer's so there was about £3 to £4 a week coming from there. No more than that. I managed to make about, what two or three pounds a week. Which is just about enough to pay for the weekly rent and to keep us in food and me in cigarettes.

How did you feel at this stage?

Awful. Depressed. That was the first time I'd come upon the racial prejudice that was in this country and the pressure was immense. People used to spit at you. People talk of racial tension here now. They know nothing of racism. Absolutely nothing to what I had to face. I got attacked. Spat at. Couldn't go into a shop, people wouldn't serve me ... there were times when I should pick somebody up and kill somebody. Dogs used to be set against us and I couldn't understand why the people called me Paki. I'm not a Paki. Why do they call me? I'm not black. Why do they call me black? Are they colour blind? I can't describe the feeling. I mean you've got to suffer this sort of harassment day in day out. Even kids used to come down and kick you. You couldn't do a thing about it. We go to the police. They threaten you. So what do you do. No friends. No nothing. It was something which I won't forget, but I learned a hell of a lot from that experience. I'm a person, if I decide to do something I will do it and I will prove that I'm better than you. This is the reason that I was the first prison governor, Asian prison governor in this country. The first one. Because somebody gave me a challenge as well, but we can speak about that later. But that time was tough and then of course, came the news after the strike was over and this letter came and would you report to Wakefield, er ... prison training school with a travel warrant, instructions and everything and what to carry what not to carry. So I spent three months there being trained.

Where was your wife?

She was in Birmingham. She stayed, and that is the only person whom I still consider as a very, very good friend. No relationship, but he offered her sanctuary and he still remains good friend and I don't forget people who help me. I never do and never will. That's something that stays with me till I die.
I used to get salary and every month we used to be allowed, you know, three days back home. So I used to bring my cash salary with me and say here you are life's a bit easier for you. So things started to get easy. Even during the training, it was quite obvious that the instructors, apart from one or two who, sort of, took interest in me. It was a strange phenomenon, you know, different culture person coming in to join the prison service. Something new. I was the first trainee Asian prison officer, to join the prison service. Something unique, if you know what I mean and there was a lot of prejudice, a hell of a lot of prejudice amongst the students. There was some good ones there who became good friends, but I would say about ninety percent didn't want to know, didn't want to associate.

I passed with quite high numbers actually and I remember my tutor telling me that he was extremely surprised that I'd passed. He was very surprised I'd passed and I got posted to a prison called Coldingley in Bisley in Surrey. At that time it was the showpiece of the country. All electronic. Electronic open doors. Cells opened electronic.

Where did you live then?

In the quarters. We were not allowed to buy house in those days. You must live in the quarter next to the prison in case there's a riot. They had a big alarm in the quarters and if that rang you went. You know, in those days, very bad experiences in there, initially. Especially with the neighbours, with people coming down and threatening my wife when I was at work and things like that. It was tough days. But there were some very good people here as well. We made friends with one particular family. The wife met her. He was a prison officer as well. Brook, Len Brook, very nice man. The wife met his wife because she used to take the daughter to school and became friends and there was another person called Harry Drain, Dennis Johns, George Wayne. I wonder if they're alive. Some very nice people there as well, who eventually, you know, started to make me, as they grew to know me, they trusted me more.

So you're at Bisley and then how long were you there?

Eight years. But this is where I got my first challenge. A person, RC, I remember that bastard, sorry about the word. Came in from Wormwood Scrubs, one of the worst prisons in this country even now. He came in as a principal officer, and he became a training officer. He was the biggest racist I've ever met ... we were supposed to pass an examination, the principal officer's examination before you could apply for promotion. So I said I'll go and attend training classes. He said 'I'm not having you in my classes and as long as I'm in here I'll make certain you never ever go above the rank of an officer.' So I told him, I said 'Listen Mr C, I will pass the examination without your help and I will get promotion without your help and then I'll come and see you.' And do you know, of the fifteen people that he's supposed to have trained, not a single one passed and I passed and I was second in the country with my marks.
Two years later I got promotion without his help. I became a senior officer. I was posted to Brixton. Didn't have much else choice, didn't want to go there, which is again one of the worst prisons, still is to a certain extent although it's better than Wormwood Scrubs. Ten years there and what I learnt in Brixton was good and by the time I left there wasn't a single person who didn't respect me and I was the first senior officer Asian in there. Got promoted in Brixton.

From Brixton, because of the overcrowding, the Ashford Remand Centre or Ashford, now was it a remand centre at the time? It was young persons prison near Heathrow, Middlesex. It was closed down so I was given the task together with the number one governor of reopening it manning it, to take the overcrowding our, because its hell of a lot of money, and closing it down. Those three years that I spent at Ashford was the best in the prison service, as far as I am concerned. They were excellent, I'll never forget them and neither will the staff. They still occasionally drop me a note saying thank you because the staff were brand spanking new from the school.

When did you actually move to Reading?

... '87, I think.

And where were you working then?

I was at Ashford so it was easier for me to sort of commute from here. About half an hour to Ashford in Middlesex, near Feltham.

So when did you finish at your prison service? What year was that?

Do you know, can't really remember. I think about three years ago. I know I was, I'm 64 now. It's more than three years ago, I retired when I was 60.

Your own children, we didn't talk about them. You have one daughter?

Just one daughter, yeah. She's a civil servant in the Ministry of Agriculture or something. Again, perhaps it's within in my bloodline or something, she was the first Asian female to be an executive officer in the civil service. She's part-time now. Her choice. Comes every Friday with the grandchildren. Always look forward to that.

How many grandchildren do you have?

Three.

How do you see the future for them here in Reading?

Bleak. Worrying, extremely worrying. The laws of this country bend backward to encourage criminality, lawlessness, disobedience. What happened to the religious values or Christian values? That is what's worrying me and indeed it worries my daughter, sometimes she does, sort of, talk to us about this and I said well, you keep reminding them of good and bad and then trust your maker. That's all you can do in this country. Future is not very bright for us people and I'll be honest with you, if I didn't have any family, if I didn't have any daughter, I wouldn't be living in this country. The minute I retired, I probably would have gone somewhere in North Africa. Bought a house over there and spent the rest of my life over there.

You said before you felt you were African, so do you still feel that way.

Yes, I still do and that will never go away. I've lived in a sort of cosmopolitan society. I've been brought up in society where you've got every religion, every creed, every type of person that is in the world in that country. While I was in Kenya, never ever did I feel that I'd been discriminated against. I'll be honest with you, been here since 1970, that's about thirty-six years now, never once have I ever been made to feel that this is my country. In fact, every time you switch the television on you get a message, a subtle message that this is not your country. So how do you reconcile that with the fact that the legal requirement as well as the moral requirement of this country is that you should be allowed in this country. How can you be loyal to this country that it's telling you openly, covertly, we don't want you. 'Specially after the invasion of Iraq and all that. It all got worse. If any country wants its people to be loyal then it should treat them as its people.

I mean, have no doubts, if there were say an emergency outside now, a house fell down or a flood came in I'll be first one to be out and helping out. In fact I do go and help out in various charities. Only last week and in this weather I was up in Reading park making up baskets, free baskets they sell for East Reading and all that and I had a lot of excess spare plants that I didn't want to throw away from my garden. We sold them over there for charity, still do. There's no need for me to do it, why should I? But I still do it. That's because it helps other human beings.

I agree "Abby" about Ashford being the best three years, I'm there today as an area training PO teaching Hostage Negotiator course. You always inspired me and thanks for the past time together

John Marshall, 12 June 2007

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