Ngozi Fulani on Fighting for her Own Space and Sistah Space’s.
Space has to be fought for harder by some – this reality has never stopped Ngozi Fulani. Beyond a personal presence that could imbue any room, she is determined to continue providing the only safe space in the UK for women of African heritage who are survivors of domestic violence via Sistah Space, the organisation she founded in 2015.
Ngozi explained: “I’ve seen what happens to black women – I’ve seen domestic abuse everywhere, but I’ve seen it mixed with racism. Every time someone understands that there is an organisation that looks like them, speaks like them, understands them, then of course they’re going to come and talk to us. They need their own space.”
But Sistah Space was recently evicted from its premises by Hackney Council. Ngozi remarked: “They’re saying, basically, not for you. That’s a term I always use, because that’s what I’ve learned from when I was younger.” The eviction occurred after the consequences of the pandemic had resulted in a 500% increase in the need for Sistah Space’s services. These include everything from advice and support in a safe and confidential environment, to practical help in the form of hygiene products, to encouraging community integration.
Despite the “shield and sword” Ngozi often finds herself requiring in situations such as these, she is open and warm – fearless, even in what she is prepared to share. Nearing 60 and a drama teacher for years, she is charismatic, and her speech is commanding – she sees the power in “telling you my truth”. We have a brief phone conversation before she sets up her video call, and already she is speaking passionately about her PhD on discrimination in the Violence Against Women and Girls sector.
“The epidemic of domestic and sexual abuse within the African, Caribbean and greater grassroots community that is hardly spoken about” is the reason Ngozi set up Sistah Space
“The epidemic of domestic and sexual abuse within the African, Caribbean and greater grassroots community that is hardly spoken about” is the reason Ngozi set up Sistah Space, while the “catalyst” was the brutal murder of Valerie Forde and her baby daughter by Forde’s ex-partner in 2014: “The police put it down as a threat to property. Property over black lives. Nothing has changed.”
Ngozi spoke at a Hackney Council meeting on 27 January regarding the long-running dispute over Sistah Space’s premises: “You fight us with every corporate tool at your disposal … Our only crime, it seems, was asking for safety … Asking you to convert a space so that we can use it to save lives. Black lives. Black DV lives. Will you do that?”
Hackney Council responded that they could not: “The Council has supported you as much as it can while being fair to all voluntary commercial enterprises to get the best value for Hackney residents. The Council is the largest provider of domestic violence services within the borough and works collaboratively with the voluntary sector to provide as full a service as possible.”
Sistah Space launched two petitions that have now gained over 24,000 signatures and protests were attended by hundreds outside Hackney Town Hall in June. On 3rd February, Sistah Space tweeted that they have finally managed to secure a new home in Hackney at a reduced rent: “Not ideal, but it beats being on the streets.”
"Sistah Space launched two petitions that have now gained over 24,000 signatures and protests were attended by hundreds outside Hackney Town Hall in June."
Ngozi’s realism is reflected in this statement – she is not a cynic. When I asked about her experiences after the killing of George Floyd in May 2020, she replied: “It was trauma for all of us. Every single time my son goes out the door, my heart is in my mouth. My brother once came home with his face busted up by the police, because we grew up when black bashing was a national sport.” But she also noted that the Black Lives Matter movement sparked by Floyd’s death “really lifted us up, because I now know there are more people who hate racism than there are racists”.
Her regular use of the word “us” conveys the value Ngozi places on community and family. A mother of three, grandmother to four and one of seven siblings with whom she grew up in Kilburn, North London, in the 60s, she also has a fraternal twin who she calls “my heartstrings”. At aged seven, they were denied entry to the house where their friends were playing: “My mum took us on an excursion to have corned beef sandwiches, crisps and Coca Cola – not knowing then that she was trying to compensate us for what she clearly knew was racism.” The bittersweetness of this story was poignant: despite the impossibility that this mother could protect her children against society’s entrenched racism, she did what she could – and here her daughter was, over 50 years later, fondly recalling her mother’s efforts in detail.
Ngozi messaged me after in gratitude for “the chance to go back in time”. She also told me about an incident at school aged 11: “I spoke about it a few weeks ago for the first time ever. I was fascinated by this teacher, and I remember to this day she shrieked, ‘Get away from me, get away from me!’ So, I looked around thinking there’s a rat or a spider, and then I realised she was talking about me. I can still see the look of disgust on her face.”
"Sistah Space’s women are very afraid of reporting domestic abuse because they’re still fearful of deportation”
Throughout these recollections, a strength and determination emanate from Ngozi. She attributes the principles of Rastafarianism as important in her healing: “It’s like embracing our country, our culture, our music. Reggae music helped me through everything.” She proudly tells me: “My daughter Stushie is the current Miss Reggae Gold” – and when Ngozi puts on her song Hashtag, Stushie herself comes in to say a friendly hello. “I got a tune for every moment of my life and Lioness on the Rise by Queen Ifrica speaks to my situation right now” – Ngozi closes her eyes and sings along to pieces of the song, and it is viscerally moving.
There is cruel irony in Ngozi’s previous work signing over citizenship to people as a registrar while her community continue to live in constant fear of deportation. Her parents were born in Barbados and are among the Windrush generation – “my brother-in-law was one of the first to get deported and is now drifting in no man’s land, and Sistah Space’s women are very afraid of reporting domestic abuse because they’re still fearful of deportation”.
But towards the end of our conversation, she almost whispered: “I wonder if I should let you into a little secret – I’m thinking about having a Sistah Space boat in remembrance of the Windrush generation.” Unsurprisingly, Ngozi is channelling her sense of injustice into activism once again.
Article By Tara Cobham
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