Photograph of Shabana Sheikh

Shabana Sheikh

Born: 1950

Pakistan, India

Date of interview: 11th May 2006

Map showing where Shabana Sheikh came from

We moved to Africa because my dad was in the army, the British Army, in the second world war, and he was in Burma and I think when the war finished he was retired in Kenya. He came to Pakistan, got married had two children and he went back, and we stayed there with our mum till he was ready to call us.

What were your earliest memories of your life in Africa?

When we got there, like, my dad, when he started with the army, he started working for railways, East African Railways and he was a stationmaster. He had a job in Kajado it was called, it was about fifty or sixty kilometres from Nairobi and it's a jungle absolutely jungle with all the lions and giraffes running around you know. Our memories are, getting in a big Land Rover sitting with dad and with his few friends and just going for hunting and we used to scream 'Oh there's a lion coming' that's all our memories and we used to really enjoy that, and Mum used to be sitting home waiting, she never used to like going she used to say I don't like this killing.

How old were you then?

I think we were like five and six but because we, that's all we saw as soon as we came to him and that was his lifestyle. When he used to do the hunting, the deer he used to bring it home and the servant used to clean it up and they used to barbeque with it. We just grew up like that and there was no schools there nothing, the shops used to be very, very far and it was just like the girls running around in the fields

It seems as if you had a lot of freedom?

Oh yes it was.

Did you feel a sense of danger with these quite large animals?

No, not at all because I think as soon as we got there that's what first we saw and like you know when children grow up with the dogs in the house or cats you just get used to it. We were there for a few years and then my dad moved to another place called Athi River and that was right next to the Kenya National Park. We would go running to the river and you could see big crocodiles coming out. One day we were playing with this sand you know, they take the sand out of the river and they make big mountains of the sands, and we were jumping one day and we just saw a crocodile outside by the river. It was a big green, dark green, you know dark with green lines on it and when we saw it crawling further we ran from there.

Tell me about the rest of your family

Well we stayed there in Athi River there was no schools nothing. There were three sisters and three brothers, the problem was there, it was no schools and my dad used to make us sit and study at home. I think I was about must be about eight or nine and I started to go to school on the train, the main train from Mombassa to Nairobi it used to stop there in the station, and I used to go on the train to Nairobi.

We had to wait till half past six to catch the next train and we used to sit at the station do our homework there and just wait for the train and sometimes fall asleep. Everybody knew my dad because, one he was in the same job he was in the railways and we used to get free passes to travel as well, anywhere we could go on the train and secondly he was a wrestler as well he used to do wrestling and everybody knew him. My dad, they never call him by his name, they always used to call him wrestler, and 'Whose daughter are you?' and then they'd say 'Oh the wrestler'. It was a good time, and that's how it went on and on and then my brothers started school, and by the time, my sister got married she was very young and she had to get married.

Was this your older sister?

Older sister, yes, she was a year and a half older than me. We knew the family, and well they thought she got married very young so they came with propose for me and I said no I still want to study I don't want to get married too young but one of those things happened, so I got married very young, I was only fourteen when I got married, and I moved to Nairobi then and stayed with my in-laws.

How did you meet your husband?

Well it was arranged, I knew them before because they were friends of my grandma, and his sister used to go to school with me and his sister, his older sister was our teacher in school.

You told me quite a bit about your father and his wrestling, was that in competitions?

Oh yes, in Nairobi he used to do and he was very, very popular you know.

Was he a very strong man?

He was physically very strong man, yes.

And tell me about your mum

My mum was a very simple lady you know very happy and go with the flow you know if somebody said anything she'd say 'Oh forget it, doesn't matter, leave it at that carry on, don't stop there,' she was a very easy going person and the opposition, my dad was very strong person and mum was very easy going and I think it was quite a balance in the house and Dad would do anything what we would say you know like she used to say 'Oh you've got your dad round your fingers' you know and I think all my grandparents they lived in Pakistan so he was the only one in Africa.

Tell me about when you went, when you were married and went to Nairobi, what was that like?

I got married, I got married in 1965, I was fourteen, went to Nairobi, moved there, lived with my in-laws and my sister in-law, Masooda, she was our teacher and meantime she wanted to go for pilgrims to Mecca and I think I was married only about twenty days, and she went for pilgrimage and from there she came to, came to England.

My husband, my father-in-law we were staying in Nairobi, the main thing was, is I didn't know how to cook, I didn't even know how to make a cup of tea, because we used to go to school on the train early morning, come home that evening, do the homework that evening, there was no time for cooking or learning how to cook and then dad had servants at home.

My mum told them that she can't cook, she can't do nothing so they said it's okay she'll learn herself and when they were gone the next day I had to cook, you know, my husband went to work in the morning and he says he'd be home for lunch and I thought, Oh my God! I said to my youngest sister in-law 'What shall I do?' She said 'It's your husband, you think about it, you know', I thought 'Oh no', I said 'I've got an idea what mum used to do, I'll just do that', so I put meat and onions and garlic everything in the Prestige Cooker, I didn't put no water in there, nothing and I put it on the steam. I just sat inside listening to the music, you know only fourteen years old. I could smell something and my father-in-law came and said, 'Something is burning.' So I went in the kitchen and I thought I'd better open and check, I went a bit nearer and I thought, it does smell, so I switch it off and checked it quickly, put it under the water to open it quick and the meat was black, it was all burnt, he says, 'What have you done?' I said 'I don't know, this is how they cook and this is what I did.' He just went off downstairs, he came back upstairs and said, 'I'd better go and get some more meat' and I said, 'Yes dad you have to because I don't know what to do,' I just sat there crying thinking Oh God you know I've burned the meat and I can't even cook, what shall I do?

So tell me about your journey to England then?

We just wrote to my sister in-law that, my father in-law did that oh they were thinking of coming and as soon as the baby, my daughter was about six weeks old in March '66 we came to England. They didn't have a car then so we travelled by bus from, I think from Heathrow to Cemetery Junction and I remember there were trolley busses then. We took another bus to Wokingham Road, we were living in Melrose Avenue. There were three rooms rented there and we came here, it was freezing.

What time of year was that?

Well it was in late March, it was freezing, I was so cold and you know when you are young you don't think it's cold, we wore open shoes and you know, no jumpers, you know sleeveless and all that, it was really cold, but I didn't mind because I thought you know we are here on holidays, make the most of it.

My mother-in-law said 'Oh try to find a job here and I don't want you to go back and your dad can come here as well.' My husband said 'No I don't like, it's too cold you know and I don't think I will be able to stay here I want to go back.' Then my sister-in-law explained him you know that is Kenya you know we don't know what the future is going to be there and it will be better for you to have your children here and they can go to better schools and you can have a better job and you try to find a job here.

So it was winter time and he couldn't get a job. He kept looking for one then he found a job in London somewhere and he went for the interview and he managed to go on the train and he got a job there and he had to stay there because he couldn't travel back every day, so he said 'Okay we'll find a room there and so we can move there.' He worked there for a week, he came home weekend and then he went back he did another week he left the job and came he didn't even give them a notice anything he didn't collect his wages he says 'I can't stay there I'm not staying there' he says, 'I'm going back,' he says 'Mum I'm packing and I'm going back I can't live here.'

What was the job?

The same this refrigeration and I said to him 'Try you know you might got a nice job,' so he got a job in Thames Ready Refrigeration in the Oxford Road and he loved that, they gave him a company car, a good job where he used to go to service the fridges. I said to my mother-in-law 'You know I think I should start working as well,' she said 'No you stay home look after your baby' so I said 'No you can look after it mum, I'll go to work you know I can help him and you know we can get a place quicker.'

So I started looking, you know for a job and there was a job in Frame Clothing and that was on Friar, no Station Road do you know where the Bus Depot is? You know the Top Rank and the Bus Depot it was there it used to be called Frame Clothing and it was a machinists job. There was no problem speaking English because we used to speak English in school and our dad used to speak a lot of English with us, he was more speaking English than Punjabi at home. The job was just keep stitching, doing the collars.

What year was it when you came here?

1966. Frame Clothing moved after a year to Basingstoke Road, Bennett Road so that got tough that's when the bus used to stop in Bayliss' then we had to catch another bus from there to the Butts Centre from there it was like running every morning.

Then I got pregnant again you know and I was expecting my son and you had to stop working, it was maternity leave and all that. I had my son and then I didn't go to work for a couple of months and then I said to my mother 'Is it alright if I go back to work?' She said 'Yeah if you want to' and then I thought I'm not going back to you know to sewing and I went to these agencies they have and I thought I will do this temp job. They said 'Oh there's a job in Racal Instruments in Bennett Road and as a clerk if you want to go' and so I said 'Okay, you know I don't mind you know' and I thought my English wasn't bad and I can read and write a little bit and as you do you know increase it so I went to Racal that was just for two weeks and I went there as a temp two weeks as a clerk and I stayed on there and they said 'Stay on' you know, so I stayed there till they moved to Bracknell.

I've finished that work and I went to was another Royal Guardian you know, Insurance in Caversham Bridge House I worked there for a couple of weeks and then that was like temping. I used to like doing that in that it's nice different places. It must be about three and a half years I was doing that temping job everywhere and my husband went to Kenya with his dad and after a year his dad and brother they all came to England. When he came back he couldn't get his job again, they said come in March or April because it's not the season and he thought he can't sit home and he joined the Post Office for a year about a year, two years until 1970. There was a big strike in Post Office and there was no work, everybody had to stop and he didn't know what to do and his friend, they just thought, why not drive a taxi.

He had a big car you know a Volvo Estate. He went and sold that and got two other cars and we just started doing taxi work. We got cards printed and we used to sit there a whole day and only one phone used to ring or there was days when there was no phone ringing at all. His older brother had a shop that was in Southampton Street and the front room we rented out from him. We made into a taxi office and I would sit and answer the phones and he would go and drive. Anybody passing you know we put the stickers in the window, and all that, one or two drunk people would come and he would take them home and he started building up like that and giving the cards out. It was very, very hard work. He used to sleep there at the office, he had a chair there he used to sleep in the chair and I used to go home and because I had two kids at home you know I had to go home.

So it started picking up, and then there was this really nice person and he used to pass from there every day, he had a room a rented room up the Southampton Street somewhere and he just came in one day and he says 'I'm a lorry driver' and his name was Geoff and he was a very nice person and he said 'I want a weekend job.' So he started working weekends with us. He was like a family he was like my brother he was so good and he was so nice. At weekend he used to tell my husband 'I'll sleep here at the office I'll stay here you go home get changed and dress up you know get ready wash up and then come back.'

Then slowly we had a few drivers coming in and slowly, slowly it took us a few months, six months even to pick up. The drivers were very nice but the public round, oh it was so tough, they would hit the stones on the windows and they would just scream 'Paki's just go back!' I said to my husband 'What's this behaviour we can't work here, close this office we can't do it' he says 'No I am going to do it, I'm not begging for the money I'm working for it so you don't want to come to the office you can stay home.' I thought he's just saying that in anger. I thought I have to do it with him so I said 'No, we carry on' and that used to be very often. We were for about twenty years, it kept on and on, scratching the cars, they would break the aerials of the cars and if they were passing they would just hit a stone on the window. One day we had this lady driver, they just called for a taxi she went, and she will remember, they hit such a big brick in the back window of the car broke and ambushed her.

Did you have many lady drivers?

No I was the first lady driver then we had another two lady drivers as well because there used to be a lot of people asking for lady drivers. It was in the seventies I remember the dates, there was Michelle Booth, she was thrown from the train. I used to take her to school and she would not go with anybody else except me. That poor girl she couldn't walk or nothing, she was scared of men, she didn't want no men coming near her. There was another lady she just wanted me to take her for lunch, you know, to the pub, sit with her, and if I said I didn't want any lunch she would get really upset she used to say 'No don't have any lunch, when you come have lunch with me' so sometimes you know I used to feel bad you know I'm charging her for the job and she is feeding me. She was very lonely person and there were a lot of people like this I used to carry.

These were regular customers?

Yeah they were my regular customers and they would just say 'Can you send Shabana' you know and I would take them.

You talked earlier about the racism that you suffered there with them throwing stones damaging the vehicles did you experience this in your life generally or was this just at the business where this happened?

It was just the business, I mean it wasn't like this happened this month and you forget about, it was all the time all the time we had that.

Did you know who this was? Was it certain people or was this kind of general? Did you know that somebody had a grudge in particular?

No I didn't know because we were, my husband was so good. At the Irish Club, my husband was the only person who would go in there and pick the drunk person up take him home and the manager of that club would give him the money 'Here is the money Sheik take him home' it was such a good relation with our customers.

And have you been back to Kenya recently?

Yes I went to Kenya seven years ago after about what was it thirty-four years, thirty years.

Why did you?

Because we still got our family house there and my youngest brother-in-law he was here in England he came for studies he lived here and he did his BSc then he went back and he's a teacher there now and he married a local girl there.

And what about going back to Pakistan have you ever been back there?

Pakistan I go like every year or every two years because all my relations my cousins are there. Only two weeks ago I took all my grandkids and my daughter-in-law and my son, we all went together because I wanted to know the roots mainly because of their behaviour and the attitude of children, they must know it is different, polite, how to be polite with your teachers with older people. You have to take them round and show them the world, look how people are living. We wanted to show kids, this it started, with my children and touch wood they are well behaved children never had any complaint from school and never had any complaint from the public. You feel proud you know when you know your children are good. I don't tell them but you know I know I'm very grateful to God and I want to do the same with my grandkids.

What do you feel? Do you feel you are Pakistani? What do you feel your nationality is how do you identify your ... ?

If you ask me who you are I would say I'm just a human being right? And if you are Pakistani or you're English or you're European or Hindu or you're Sikh, any language, any caste, end of the day it's all one, it's all one God and the same manners for everyone, same attitude for everyone. We say, I am from Kenya, I don't know Pakistan because I was only three years old I'm brought up in Kenya and then left Kenya came to England. I've been in England more than anywhere. I've been forty years in England and I say am I English? No people don't say I'm English they say 'Oh you're a Paki' when they talk to you but I say I am a human being even if I'm Pakistani, but my parents are not Pakistanis they are from Kashmir, my grandparents are from Kashmir. So we are not from Pakistan, we are from Kashmir but it's all one. So to me I've never actually bothered me saying who I am, we just want to be good human beings and good people and teach good manners to the children and live in a good atmosphere, work hard work for your living I think. The attitude we always had but I don't know if I'm wrong or right but I have succeeded in that.

dats my grandma

faaria sheikh, 30 October 2007

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