Bostall Gardens. It took me over an hour and a half to get there- 40 minutes on the tube, 30 minutes on the train and another 15 on a bus. To be honest even when I got there, I had no idea where there was. Or what to expect. My work takes me to some pretty obscure and out of the way places and often it's in these places that I get to meet the most extraordinary people and hear some of the most inspirational stories.
A few days prior to my expedition, I'd received an email asking if I could go along to take a few photographs and to cover a story. The Mayor of Greenwich Cllr Angela Cornforth was paying a visit to the gardens to show her support for the thriving community gardening project and meet some of the people involved, many of whom were part of a Nepalese group.
When I got to Bostall Gardens, a sleepy and rather unassuming little park in Abbey Wood, I tried to call my colleague to find out where the group was, but alas she wasn't picking up, and so I paced up the main pathway all the while silently praying I was in the right place. As I paced I noticed a figure in the distance, an old women pushing a wheelbarrow. I decided my best bet would be to follow her and so I did. I followed her to the back of the park, through a gated area and straight into a secret garden. I was in awe at what I found. In a green space in a relatively unknown suburban area of south east London, on a sunny day I was met with a group of women dressed in ten thousand colours, with beautiful weathered faces, digging and planting and laughing together. In the background was a glorious, almost otherworldly polytunnel. I felt at that moment as though I'd stepped into a different country.
I spotted a few colleagues as I entered, and walked over to them and after a few quick introductions, I began, eagerly, to explore the space. I began trying to gather enough information for the story. However, more than finding out about the project, I was (from the very beginning) interested in finding about the women. And so I floated, smiling, slightly unsure of myself, DSLR in hand and as I floated, I overheard a few words that I recognised. To my surprise and delight I very quickly came to realise that a lot of the Nepalese women spoke Hindi. I could communicate with them! I was overjoyed. As a photographer (and as a photographer on duty) I was happy that I could direct photographs of these stunning women who had recently migrated to the UK.
More than that I was happy that I could speak to them, ask them questions, find out their stories. I was happy that they could speak to me and ask me questions and find out my stories. And we did talk, we talked about home, we talked about life, we talked about gardening and South Asia. To me, by the end of that visit, the story was a lot less about the Mayor's visit and more about the women, their journey's, their spirits and their life stories and how they came to be part of this very special gardening group.
Of all the women, there were two that I really connected with, Toku Maya Gurun and Hira, our friendship grew over the months as the project developed.
I remember the first time I met Toku, she wearing a baseball cap with a weed leaf sewn on, she had a strong face, charisma and brilliant sense of humour. I was drawn to her. And so were all her friends. She called me bhaji (sister) and told me of how gardening was a nice way to pass time, and how she was living alone in England, and that Bostall Gardens reminded her of home, it gave her the chance to spend time with her friends. I was inspired by her. I wanted to learn more. And I was very inspired by Hira too- by her humility and sweet nature. When I was filming in the garden she said to me in the most endearing manner, 'I am old woman.' I'll never forget that. And I'll never forget our first conversation, it ended with her telling me to stay away from 'baadmashes' (gangsters) who take drugs. I felt privileged to be able to communicate with them. As a Londoner whose parents are originally from South Asia, and belonging to two different worlds, I felt like I could almost bridge that gap. I felt like I understood these women, more than that, I felt like they understood me- the dualism of my life, my heart, my soul and my home.
By the end of the day I left Bostall Gardens feeling very blessed and happy to have met the women and to have stumbled across their secret world. I felt like I still had so much more to learn and they had so much more to teach me (personally). When I returned to the office with my photos, I wrote (an almost dry story) about the Mayor visit adding a few quotes from Hira and Toku that I had translated into English. I then put the photo's on Groundwork London's Facebook page, and emailed them around to my friends before publishing on my personal blog. A lot of friends, upon seeing them, asked me if I had been abroad. They asked me who the incredible looking women were and when I told them I met them in south London they were more than a little surprised.
This is when I decided to pitch a very vague idea for a film which would seek to get a little deeper in sharing their stories. It was during this time I was approached by my colleague Clare, she told me of how she was creating an women in migration oral history project with another colleague Nicky and asked if I wanted to make a film that could document this project. Of course I said yes and after a few sessions of brain storming, we decided that we had a clear(ish) idea of what we wanted the film to be about and who we wanted to involve. We wanted it to be about song and craft as a means of connecting to each other. Further, as this was part of a wider project to integrate third country nations, it was open to people from other nationalities. And so over the next few months I met and connected with more incredible women, from Brazil to Morrocco.
Over the next two months, Clare, Nicky and I spent time conducting interviews with women of Bostall Gardens on song and craft. I filmed all these interviews. We then spent a subsequent three weeks at Woolwich Community Centre, where I filmed workshops on singing and craft. The craft sessions were run by Women of Cloth member Carol Grantham and the singing workshops, by Osnat Schmool of Filament Theatre. This project, the Women in Migration project was part of a wider project entitled Cultivating Communities which sought to facilitate the integration of third country nationals. Though to me personally, the project was about the integration of UK nationals to people from other countries. Because integration isn't a one way stream, it works and only works both ways, and to be able to integrate, to connect with others, is a gift and a blessing and something we should cherish. It is only through understanding others that we may come to better understand ourselves. This was true, at least for me.
The women involved in this project are all so strong and interesting and have so much to offer- and through song and craft they have shared some of their beautiful stories with us. Filming was the easy part, what was really difficult was making a short 7 minutes film from more than 8 hours of footage, and to do this all within a week- the gap between the final session and film screening at Woolwich Community Centre. My friend Raquhel helped me a lot on in process in putting it all together, we stayed up till 2am everyday for 7 days to get it done, and despite all the technical hiccups and challenges, we were pleased to get it up for the deadline!
At the end of it, it was incredible and humbling to see Woolwich Community Centre packed out, and to see many of those which were involved! I was really happy that the film was well received. I learned a lot from these women, migrants have a so much to offer- as well as sharing with us a whole new way of seeing, they share with us their culture, soul and spirit. This small and humble project shows how a group of dissimilar women came together through song and craft.