My Best Polish Friend; AN Accidental Or Unwitting Racist?

It is my home borough since I  arrived in London 20 – odd – years ago//CRIMSON TAZVINZWA/

A place I call home away from home. I bought my first ever house here. Imagine.

I’m talking about Walthamstow;  a shopping centre in the borough of Waltham Forest – North East London; and is the final stop by Victoria Line Underground train from Brixton in the South of the city. If this helps geographically. By the way Walthamstow is a proud home to the longest flea market in Europe – ‘The Walthamstow Market’.

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Walthamstow Market, London: longest outdoor market in Europe

And this is where I met the first Polish person in London who I consider to be one of my best friends. Really? Yes she is. Gonia Tishchenko. She is gorgeous; charming, funny, humorous, kind, considerate, caring but as direct as a ‘German’ who shoots from the hip; I mean verbally of course. This is not bad at all for I tend to prefer when people are clear with me from word go. We are both married with kids. She has two. A boy in his 20s who happens to be a computer witch. And a girl, 14; one year older than my one and only little boy. Most weekends we do things together such as running errands  and looking after each other’s little ones. Of course we do frequent dinners; and barbecues especially during summers. I very much love polish food. Think about; Baranina – roasted or grilled mutton, Bigos – a stew of sauerkraut and meat, mainly kiełbasa, including cabbage, Gołąbki – cabbage leaves stuffed with spiced minced meat and rice or with mushrooms and rice and Golonka – stewed pork knuckle or hock.

We also take turns with school runs; and help with school homework for the kids.

But there is a problem. I’m not so sure but I think my friend Gonia is an unwitting racist. Eisch!

How did I get to this.

It just so happened that one day at a mutual friend’s barbecue she just blurted out: “I don’t like this area that much.” And one guest asked: Why is that?” Considering the convenience of shopping, transport, good schools, local church where my son was Christianed. We all walk to work. How nice!

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Our Lady & St. Georges Catholic Church Walthamstow

She answered: “Because there are too many foreigners.” Aah! You should have seen the face of Tony Murphy an Irish friend and colleague of mine. His face went red; and almost choked on his Craigies cider. It felt like the lights went off. Mind you; Gonia is a Polish immigrant as good as I’m the African one among the lot. I quickly did a head count only to find, out of 12 people at that barbecue there were only three or so English people. Everyone else was an immigrant –  including Gonia.

Up to this day my friends and I can’t make out whether Gonia’s statement was an ‘accidental racist’ or not, or whether she is racist which I would struggle with. We all ruled out ‘slip-of-the-tongue’ thingy. We wondered then whether she had watched too much of U.S. President Donald Trump or it was the Russian Vodka ‘talking’; to be fair, we had had a fair amount that evening.

The best thing that came out of that bizarre conversation is that I’m now very aware how multi-ethnic Walthamstow is; how closely-knit and although most times one has to guess or estimate the meaning of conversations you hear on the train as it trundles along  the tunnel towards Victoria Station.

The top five languages spoken locally in Walthamstow other than English are UrduPolish,RomanianTurkish and Lithuanian.

About 6% of borough’s residents (around 14,300 people) said that they don’t speak English well or at all. The top five languages spoken locally other than English are PolishUrduRomanianTurkish and Lithuanian.

Waltham Forest has a diverse population due to historically high levels of migration in and out of the borough. Around 10% of the population is moving in and out the borough each year so as well as growth there is a significant churning in and out.

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Walthamstow food market

Over the last decade the population growth has been driven by the international migration along with high birth rates, while the net domestic migration has been negative since 2001 with more people moving to other areas of the UK than other way around every year.

The 2011 Census showed that nearly 100,000 residents (37%) were born outside the UK. The largest migrant groups at the time were from Pakistan, Poland and Romania. Waltham Forest had the second largest proportion of Central and Eastern European residents of all London boroughs (9% of total population). This was twice as high as the London average and substantially higher than in England and Wales as a whole (2%).

Waltham Forest is a multi-faith community reflecting the diverse population of the borough. According to the 2011 Census, Christianity remains the main religion, with 48% of residents identifying as Christian. Although this proportion has decreased from 57% in 2001, this was mostly due to increases in other groups as the absolute number of Christians has remained static.

Almost a quarter of residents (22%) identified themselves as Muslims (compared to
5% nationally), an increase from 15% in 2001. There has also been a small increase in the
proportion of people who identify themselves as secular (15% to 18%).

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Muslim worshippers at the Masjid-e-Umer Mosque in Walthamstow, North London. Photo shows men handing out leaflets condemning terrorism and suicide bombing.

What about Gonia Tishchenko? My friend. Nothing about our friendship has changed except we all have resorted to calling her Ms Foreigner which she fondly accepts. She also now calls me Mr. African. And no qualms!

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