A bit of Africa in the heart of London

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A few weeks ago here in East Dulwich, I found myself in need of some Ibuprofen and feminine hygiene products. As in the states, these products are more expensive in the local shops, so I needed to find a Boots or Superdrug…the U.K. versions of Walgreens or CVS. So I used Google to find the ones closest to me. There was one of each about a 15 minute walk towards an area of town I had only ever heard of because one of the bus lines I often used terminated there- Peckham.

The city of London is divided in to two sections, north of the Thames, and south of it. The north is considered much more upscale…home to Hampstead Heath, Kensington, Chelsea, Belgravia…all the well known posh neighborhoods. There you will find Buckingham Palace, Hyde Park, Harrod’s, Parliament, the British Museum, Westminster Abbey..etc. Most tourists keep to North/Central London, with the exception being the South Bank of the Thames, home of the Globe, The National, Tate Modern, London Eye and cheesy tourist attractions. The South Bank also happens to be my favorite place in the city. Well, it was…

As you head further south, you run into the lesser known hamlets of London.  The towns your average tourist has never heard of. Clapham, Dulwich, Streatham, Brixton, Croydon…and Peckham. Each one has its own energy and flavor. Some more flavorful than others.

So I headed toward Peckham. After walking a few blocks, I came to a crossing, went through it and continued walking in the same direction, down Rye Lane. The street took a curve to the left….and when I strolled around the corner, I entered into a whole different world. It was so sudden, like walking into a wardrobe and finding yourself in Narnia.

Colors, sounds and smells hit my senses full on. As I walked further down the street, they became even more intense. There were people everywhere! Women, men and children in brightly colored African garb. Strange smells coming from the food shops, which while selling the usual display of fruit and veg also had on hand bowls of exotic spices, dried fish, chickens hanging from the ceiling, and bits of what I assumed was meat but couldn’t tell you from *what* if my life depended on it. Loud haggling coming from inside the shops, often accompanied by music and laughter. The demographic had switched from mostly white to predominantly black and southeast Asian.

There was a palpable energy…an exciting vibrancy to the streets. I know I must have looked like an idiot as I stared about me, trying to see everything at once. I almost missed the drug store I had gone there to find in the first place! On my walk back, as I neared East Dulwich again, and turned back around that corner, the noise disappeared, as if muffled by a blanket.

About a week later, I was having dinner with a new friend Vicky and mentioned my brief trip to Peckham and Rye Lane, and the impact it had had on me. And to my great surprise and pleasure, she felt the same way! Having grown up in Africa as an ex-pat, she has spent quite a bit of time on Rye Lane, and offered to take me on a tour. Needless to say, I was thrilled.

So, this past Saturday, Vicky and I headed back to Peckham, and this time I took the opportunity to explore. We entered stores with names like “Peckham Afro Foods Ltd” , and strolled up and down the aisles. Vicky showed me some of the spices and foods she used to eat during her childhood in Zambia. I stared, interested and yet slightly grossed out by the offerings at the meat counter- cow feet, goats feet, lungs, tripe, brains, hearts, and an entire goats head! Whole chickens hanging from the ceiling, their beaks swinging only inches away from the men who were working behind the counter. One counterman saw my obvious interest and confusion, and shared with me some of the ways in which these items are used in traditional African cuisine. We saw stacks of “chewing sticks”, which have a peppery flavor and are used to clean your teeth. Most of the shopkeepers were happy to explain the uses of the various items, and at no point did we encounter anyone hostile or unfriendly. They allowed me to take photographs, which I was grateful for as Vicky explained that some shopkeepers might be concerned that we were inspectors. I saw every kind of dried fish you could imagine, sometimes just the heads. There were refrigerators full of African malt beers and sodas…leafy greens I had never heard of and rows and rows of grains tied up in plastic bags.

We entered a fabric store, and I couldn’t help but touch the richly colored satins, cottons, lace, brocades and beads. We passed hair salons, where right there on the street women were getting hair weaves and their eyebrows threaded. Street vendors selling prepared food, sneakers, fruit and veg, jewelry and African clothing.

Music came from all different directions- rap, tribal, Asian, religious chants and gospel. We ate lunch in a Middle Eastern shop called Persepolis, which had originally only sold traditional Middle Eastern groceries but had expanded to include a bakery and café called “Snackistan”.

Vicky knew of a roof top bar called Franks, which was on top of the Peckhamplex, an independent cinema. To get there, you had to walk up ten flights through a Pepto Bismol pink stairwell, to end up on what was basically the top floor of a car park. (The view is spectacular, you can see all of Central London) The bar stands at the far end, and has picnic tables in the center and a crude wooden ledge that runs around the edges so you can set down your drink and take in the view. There is no roof, only a retractable shade over the top to keep out the elements. The loo is nothing but a series of wooden outhouses set along the rear of the building with gaps between the slats wide enough to take in the view whilst relieving yourself. (I made the mistake of peering down the hole in the toilet. Should not have done that….)

We came across the smallest shop I have ever seen…only three or four feet wide and ten feet deep. It sold African clothing, and if you peered in the back, you could just see the middle aged black woman who minded the store seated in a chair. She also let me take her picture, and seemed very amused at my interest in her and the shop.

As we were leaving, Vicky explained to me that neighborhoods like Peckham are in danger of extinction as gentrification slowly makes its way through the south of London. What an unholy shame it would be to lose such a unique and vibrant community. I hope to return to Peckham when I eventually find myself back in London, and speak more to the residents and hear their stories.

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