INTERVIEW: It is my dream to see more Nigerians in UK Parliament– Patience Bentu
We need your support to produce excellent journalism at all times.
NIGERIAN-BORN Patience Bentu is a graduate of Theatre Arts from the University of Jos, North-Central Nigeria. She has two master’s degrees, one in Drama and Theatre Education from the prestigious Warwick University and the other in International Development from the Swansea University in Wales. Once a victim of racial discrimination as an international student studying in the UK, she shares her journey into the world of social work and tells how she is lending her voice to the demand for racial equality for people of ethnic minority living in Wales, in this exclusive interview with The ICIR.
Can we have some insight into who you are as a person and your migration journey to the UK?
Well, very simply put, Patience Bentu is an everyday woman, an everyday citizen of the world, an everyday Nigerian, just an everyday regular human being, really. I am the community engagement officer and policy lead for Race Council Cymru (RCC). The story of my migration to the UK started not too long ago, as short as eight years ago in 2012 when I came over to the UK to do a PHD in Politics and International Development. That is a story for another day because it did not end up in a PHD. It rather ended up in an MPhil (Master of Philosophy), but I have to point out that the experience was actually the beginning of my journey into the work that I am doing now with racism and Black Lives Matter. So, I will put that aside. In 2012, I came to the UK with my son. I came to do that degree, and the intention was not to live in the UK but to gain my degree and go back to Nigeria where, at that time, I thought the degree would be of better use to me. Unfortunately, as things turned out, I ended up staying in the UK not because of myself, but because my son had fully settled here when I thought it was time to go back to Nigeria. And I felt it would be great injustice to him to just pull him out of an already settled-in private life, to go and start from ground zero again in Nigeria. This is how we have stayed on.
How easy was it for you to adjust to the transition?
Well, it was not difficult for me at all because I was not a stranger to the United Kingdom. It has been a back and forth journey really and I did my master’s here many years ago. So it was not difficult. It was new moving to Wales because prior to coming to live here in 2012, I had only been to Wales once in my life and that first visit was what informed my decision to come here. So, yes, settling down in Swansea was new to us, but settling in the UK generally or finding our way around was not difficult at all.
What about finding a job?
Okay, I have to take you on the journey of my work life, which is quite a tedious and lumpy one. It started with the regular student jobs. Of course, when you’re studying, you’re only allowed to work 20 hours a week, with no recourse to public funds. So, a lot of us students, and I think this is the story of many international students in the United Kingdom, because you are only allowed to work for 20 hours, there is only so much a job that you can do and so much that you can earn in a month. So, work for me through my student years was between care work, working as a support worker for disability department in the university and ending up as a teaching assistant in my department. After that, it was volunteering, which I was also doing whilst a student. I was volunteering with the organisation that I work with now, which is Race Council Cymru, and it is that volunteering that has now evolved into a full-time job.
In your opinion, would you say that there is racial discrimination in the UK and where did your passion to lend your voice to the demand for racial equality stem from?
There has always been racism in the UK. Racism in the UK is as old as it has been in the United States and other parts of the world. It is as old as the days of slavery. It has never gone away, it has taken different dimensions and evolved in different ways, but it has never gone away. Why the discussions are rife at the moment and the campaigns was on the back of, first of all, the Covid-19 pandemic. However, going to the other strand in your question, it was my own lived experience. I told you there is a story behind my coming out here to study and what actually transpired which, for a very long time, I refused to accept. I lived in denial and I refused to accept it as a racial discrimination, only because there is this thing about, specifically, black people – the minute you call out racial discrimination, they say, “Oh they have come again, it is not what you think it is. It is this, it is that.” But the truth of it was, in all that happened to me, there was every colouration of racial discrimination, both overt and covert. I promised myself at the time, not even knowing at the time that I was going to end up working full-time with Race Council, that I would not let what happened to me happen to any other international student of ethnic minority background. So, I will do whatever it takes, in whatever capacity, to ensure that my experience does not happen to anybody else.
Can you share with us some of your lived experiences as it relates to racial discrimination?
I would love to give you the story, but it is going to take the next one week. If we start talking about that, we will be here forever talking about it. Secondly, it is part of what is to become in not too long from now in my book. So, I do not want to give it away before my audience actually get to read it. But the short of it all is that, at the end of the day, it was predicated on what I perceived to be racial discrimination. I think the book would say a lot about it and also give the readers the opportunity to decide if they think it was racial discrimination or not.
Are you in touch with other Nigerians living in Wales and how much assistance has your organization given to them?
We are partnering with the Nigerians in Wales Association, of which, incidentally, I double as the director. We are in formal partnership with Race Council and so Nigerians are very much engaged in the work of Race Council Cymru. Nigerians are not left out of anything that has to do with racial equality and protecting the interest of ethnic minority groups in Wales. From my working relationship with Nigerians in the Wales and the little interactions that I have had with Nigerians in other parts of the UK, I think the challenges are pretty much the same with those of people of other races – we want jobs, we want better quality jobs, better paying jobs. We do not want to be seeing Nigerians only doing low-paid jobs. Often times, you find that these are Nigerians who have attained very high degrees and who have lots of skills in different areas and then they end up in very low paid jobs.
Tell us about the emergence of the Black Lives Matter Wales Campaign.
When we went into lockdown, and I am talking in the context of Wales now, it was not too long before the community groups that we support started contacting us and talking about the challenges that they were facing, both due to Covid-19 for our ethnic minority frontline workers and also the socio-economic challenges. So, there were those who had lost their jobs at the time, those whose working hours had been reduced, those who were in unsuitable accommodation and so on and so forth. There was a great socio-economic disproportionate effect that Covid-19 had on ethnic minority groups in Wales. Then on top of that, while we were still trying to work out what the disproportionate effects were and how to tackle them, George Floyd was killed in America and that sparked off the global Black Lives Matter campaign.
Do you think the Black Lives Matter Wales campaign will be sustained or will it soon dissipate?
We see a very bright future for Black Lives Matter Wales and here is the reason. The discussion around Black Lives Matter and, by extension, the importance of the lives of ethnic minority people in Wales have been going on for so many years- about 400 years- and nothing has changed. Now the feedback we are getting from the communities that we support is that they are tired of talking, they want to see action. They want to see change happen. To be honest with you, in the eight years that I have been involved in community work, I have never seen determination greater than I see now and this is why I say that it is not going to go away until that change happens. We needed the change like 100 years ago and it is in every sector of society. So it is not just about police targeting black people; it is in housing, transport, employment, and just everywhere. So, these young people that make up the Black Lives Matter Wales are determined that they are going to keep going, which is why they came up with a manifesto. They have got all these things they are asking the Welsh government to do and we are very lucky that we live in a part of the UK where the government is very determined as well.
The Welsh government has shown a lot of determination towards improving the lives of ethnic minority people and towards promoting the prescriptions of the Equality Act 2010. On the back of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter campaigns, the Welsh government set up an advisory committee to look into the disproportionate effects of the pandemic on ethnic minorities and on the back of the work of that advisory committee, they have been able to set up another group that is working on a Race Equality Action Plan. So that is the first step towards ensuring that racism. if not completely stamped out, is reduced to the barest minimum while improving the lives of ethnic minority people. So there is a group that is working on a Race Equality Action Plan. They are working in a bottom-top model and consulting with the community groups and feeding a lot of the comments, perspectives and lived experiences of the communities, back into coming up with this Action Plan and there is no stopping until it actually happens.
We see that the U.S. under the new administration is showing strong commitment to racial inclusiveness in government. Do you perceive a similar thing being replicated in the UK?
It is very sad that it is slow in the United Kingdom because it is really a two-way traffic. If we do not push for it, it will not happen. I mean, it is as simple as our basic everyday lives. For everything that you want in life, you have got to go for it. Success does not come, you go for it. So we need to push for it. It really saddens me to see, for instance, when I look at the political arena in the UK, I look at the Parliament and we have got a couple of Ghanaians there. We did manage to have one member of Parliament of Nigerian origin who in the end was recalled. Now, we have not got anybody. So, it is a very slow progress, but there is an increasing number of ethnic minority people getting into the British Parliament. It is my dream to see more Nigerians in Parliament in the United Kingdom. I mean, I am a Nigerian and I want to see more Nigerians in the Assemblies of Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland, but we have got to push for it. We have got to work together and look at the reasons and interrogate those reasons and hold the people in certain positions accountable.
What, in your view, is the road to true equality?
I can only think of one way and that is, there should be political will for change to happen. If the political will is not there, nothing is going to happen and that political will to make change happen has got to come from every government in every country where there is racial inequality; where there is racism. The onus is on the government to make that change. If the government does not move, the people will not move.