Pioneer Tales Revisted

Page 1

Photographs by Sagar Kharecha Edited by Poppy Hollman

First published 2024 from original material © Living Archive Milton Keynes Milton Keynes Museum McConnell Drive Wolverton Milton Keynes MK12 5EL Page 2 photographs © Jane Turner & Bob Jardine Front cover photographs (as featured throughout the book) © Sagar Kharecha All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilised in any form or by electronic, mechanical or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without the permission in writing from the Publisher.


Contents Page Introduction


Albert Bernard – Ex Police Officer


Anouar Kassim MBE – Founding Director, Milton Keynes Islamic Arts and Culture


Baldip Sahota – Fencing and Para-fencing coach


Dr Mylvaganam Veeravahu and Dr Ratneswary Veeravahu – Leaders in the development of Neath Hill Murugan Temple


Fola Komolafe – Business and Charity Leader


Gamiel Yafai – Diversity Leader


Hannah Olarewaju – Founder, themusicroom (tmr)


Kurshida Mirza BEM – Interfaith champion and charity founder


Louis Francis – Stone carver


Maria Affah – Founder of ‘Making Good Better’, Fishermead


Nana Oguntola – Filmmaker and Founder of Junior Filmmakers


Naseem Khan – Restaurant owner and Charity leader


Ophelia Cole – Founder of ‘Action Speaks’, Fishermead


Precious Zumbika-Lwanga – Construction and Business Professional


Urja Desai Thakore – Founder, Pagrav Dance Company


Zainab Manji – Teacher and volunteer



Photos from the original 1985 book ‘Pioneer Tales’



Introduction This book accompanies the exhibition ‘Pioneer Tales Revisited’ which features the stories of 16 individuals who have been pioneers in their own communities or professional lives in Milton Keynes. It celebrates their stories and the work they have done to enhance the lives of others in the city and beyond. The project was inspired by the seminal 1985 project ‘Pioneer Tales’ by Jane Turner and Bob Jardine, which captured the first generation of incomers to our new city. A selection of photographs from the original project is included here.

You can hear excerpts from the pioneers’ interviews on Living Archive's website: item/pioneer-tales-revisited

The portraits of our new pioneers have been produced by Sagar Kharecha, Living Archive’s Photographer in Residence.

Living Archive collects, preserves and shares the stories of Milton Keynes. We aim to create connections and a sense of place, using old memories to create new ones by bringing communities together. We believe that ‘everybody has a story to tell’ and we want to tell the stories of every community in the city. We have a wealth of material in our diverse archive, covering many years of Milton Keynes history. In 2024 we are celebrating our 40th anniversary. Living Archive is always keen to connect with individuals or community groups who would like to record or share their stories. We also invite writers, musicians, artists and other creatives from across the city to use our archive as a source of inspiration. Contact:

Pioneer Tales Revisited is made possible with The National Lottery Heritage Fund, thanks to National Lottery players.



Albert Bernard Ex Police Officer Albert moved to the Lakes Estate in Bletchley from London at the age of seven. When he joined Thames Valley Police in 1984 he was the first black police officer in Reading. He returned to Milton Keynes in 1994 to lead a Neighbourhood Policing team on the Lakes Estate. He retired in 2014. I remember the first time I heard the words ‘Milton Keynes’. My parents sat us down and said, ‘Look, we’re moving’. I remember feeling sad about leaving London but also quite excited. Because I thought it was by the sea. So I’m thinking I can go to the beach every day! The Lakes Estate was a new estate. New families, with new journeys and new experiences. Everybody looked after each other. My father was one of many who were working at the London Brick Company. There was a large community of black and West Indian, Caribbean households. A lot of my father’s friends were Italian who also worked in the brickworks. The idea of becoming a police officer was sown at quite an early age. I had visions and ambitions of becoming the first black astronaut, the first black Prime Minister, the first black England footballer. But I’m quite happy to be one of Milton Keynes’ first black police officers. When I started work in Reading, I knew that I was gonna have a mixed reaction from certain sections of the community, in particular from the black community. They’d never seen a black police officer before. It was only a year or so since the riots in Brixton. And I was joining a predominantly white organisation. I remember going on my very first tour of duty, which happened to be nights, ten in the evening ‘til six in the morning. The Town Hall opened up and what appeared to be most of Reading’s young black youth came out and they saw Reading’s first black police officer. The abuse that I got. My tutor constable said to me, ‘Just stand there and take it’. I stood there and took it thinking, ‘What am I doing here?’ But then I thought, ‘Okay then, it’s down to me. There’s nobody else. I’ve got no other black faces I can turn to. So I picked myself up, dusted myself down, went back to work the following day,

experienced the same again from the same community. And I thought, ‘They’re not going to beat me. I’m going to be resilient in all of this and I’ll persevere’. And I did. It kind of paved the way for other officers of colour to come into the police service. Because if they could see that PC Bernard was doing it – then if he can do it, perhaps I can do it. And I’m pleased to say, just before I left Reading ten years after that, we had a large influx of officers of colour, both male and female. When I was actually policing the Lakes Estate, some of the children who would be brought to the attention of the police, inevitably, I’d know who their parents were. Not only did I know their parents, I knew their grandparents. So I’d knock on the door and, and little Bobby, little Johnny, whoever it was, was, was in trouble. I’d explain what was going on and it was a case of, ‘How would you like us to deal with this Albert?’ ‘Entirely up to you’. Fairness, discretion; I think that’s good policing. Identifying the issues and dealing with them in a sensitive, constructive, sustainable way. I was fortunate enough to become ‘Bobby of the Year’ for Milton Keynes in 2006. For me, it’s all about the individual. It’s not about the uniform. The uniform helps to a certain extent because it just solidifies certain things that you have to do: you have to obey the law; you have to – it’s black and white, there’s no grey areas in there; it’s either ‘yes’ or ‘no’, ‘up’ or ‘down, ‘in’ or ‘out’. So, but it’s, it’s the individual that makes the service, it’s not the service that makes the individual.

Police Training Centre, Ashford, Kent



Anouar Kassim MBE Founding Director, Milton Keynes Islamic Arts and Culture MKIAC has been operating in Milton Keynes for over two decades. Anouar was awarded an MBE for his work in building community cohesion and understanding of Islamic Arts, Heritage and Culture. MKIAC has recently been given National Portfolio status and funding from Arts Council England. I was born in a town called Mombasa in Kenya but our family roots are in Zanzibar. I was a toddler when I arrived here, in Bolton. There were quite a few families who had settled from Zanzibar and Mombasa particularly, so there was that language connection, speaking Swahili. I moved to Milton Keynes twenty-five years ago. It was just me and my partner. I was always part of education environments; I was teaching at Milton Keynes college. 9/11 was the catalyst in what has become a journey for many of us. It was a dark day in Milton Keynes. For many young people, women, young girls, if they were wearing headscarves they were bullied. In Bletchley, a Somalian woman was kicked and she lost her baby. The team that I had around me said ‘You know there are some positive things, we need to talk about Islamic civilisation and what it has contributed to Western education and civilisation’. Because Islamic civilisation has rich art and culture. We started to work in schools, developing schools programmes within Buckinghamshire, Luton, Bedford. It came from grass roots level, artists and community; the Islamic diaspora is so diverse. Each society is rich in its own way in its culture, its art, its creativity. And that’s where the common shared values came about so strongly. Education was the main focus until we developed the Art in the Park festival fourteen years later. And now we have over twenty thousand people attending each year. Our second festival started in

Anouar meeting King Charles at Christ the Cornerstone

2019, it is called City of Codes and Light Festival. It is uses visual technology and STEM activities combined together and shows how Islamic civilisation has played a part in technology and science and mathematics. Milton Keynes has shaped MKIAC in a tremendous way, with all its diverse enrichment. It created hope for the pioneers who’d been before me, for their grandchildren to link to a sense of belonging. The young people can see creativity and culture and heritage through their own eyes; being part of Milton Keynes themselves they can take it forward and flourish in a different way.

An MKIAC mural

Anouar receiving his MBE from Her Majesty The Queen



Baldip Sahota Fencing and Para-fencing coach Baldip represented Great Britain in Fencing as a teenager, competing in numerous international tournaments. After training as a pharmacist he moved to Milton Keynes, where he later became a fencing coach. He has coached medal-winning para-fencing athletes, notably for the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Olympics. I was born in Kenya, in Nairobi, back in 1958. And I think at the age of about six or eight – I can’t remember exactly – we moved to the UK. I went on to school at Forest Gate Comprehensive, in a real East End of London community. It was a really, really tough time for us, especially being Indian. I’m a Sikh, so I had long hair and my hair was tied into plaits. But I actually enjoyed school because I had two brothers there; if I had any problems they’d sort me out. So that was quite good. And my two brothers took up fencing at school. At that time, it was very, very unusual for a comprehensive school in the East End of London to have a Fencing Master. At that time fencing was absolutely the remit of public schools. I wasn’t very good at doing ball-sport or any other sport. And I just followed their footsteps and, before you knew it, the three of us were really getting into fencing. School competitions, local competitions, national competitions. I never won anything because they all used to beat me and it was really frustrating. My oldest brother gave up because he went off to university. But my other brother and I got selected by the GB Under-20 squad. I was 16 by then. We were the first Indians ever to be selected for a British team. It was a massive honour for us. My family and parents and relatives were superproud. I went to study pharmacy in Sunderland. I met my wife at university. She was one part of our fencing group. I originally got my job as a pharmacist in Milton Keynes, on the Lakes Estate in Bletchley. And I eventually ended up in Stony Stratford, working for Jardine’s. I wanted to come back into fencing, so I found a club at Wavendon School. We started fencing there and I suddenly thought, ‘Oh, brilliant, I’ve enjoyed this. Now I remember why I used to do it’. So we got back into it, doing more coaching than actual fencing. In late 1999, there was a group of fencers that I was coaching. I said, ‘Do you know what, it would be lovely if I had my own club’. And they all turned round and said, ‘Well, why don’t you do it?’ In January of 2000, my wife and I set up Touché Fencing Club at Towcester Leisure Centre. And 23 years later, we’re still there. From a small club we’ve had three people represent GB. We’ve trained people up from scratch to become international fencers. The Performance Director for GB Para-Fencing

Baldip with Paralympic Fencer Gabi Down at London 2012

came to us and said, ‘Right, we've got a young girl, Gabi Down, she's an amputee. Can you coach her how to fence because we’ve got London Paralympics coming up’. I said, ‘What does that mean? I don’t know anything about it.’ Once we started in para-fencing there was lot of learning. Lot of awareness of, you know, ‘Wow, wait a minute, this person can’t actually get up to get into the chair. How do I help them?’ After having done it for now nearly 13 years, it’s second nature to us. The fencer moves backwards and forwards using the body movements to get into distance and get out of distance. So it’s very, very dynamic. The best thing I’ve ever done is to go to London. Oh my God, what an experience. I mean, words will never describe it. But, can you imagine, the main arena and the Opening Ceremony. 600 athletes from GB, all in our lovely gear. 80,000 people yelling and screaming when we walked into the stadium or pushed into the stadium. So, in the 18 months, or two years in the run-up to Rio we were more or less fully funded, which means that we had money to go to competitions, we had money for training, I got paid for what I was doing. Piers Gilliver ended-up with a Silver Medal at Rio. Even now after 13 years, every time my fencer is against a top competitor, my heart rate is going at treble what it should be, I’ve got sweaty palms – and I can’t show any of this. I have to sit there as completely neutral as possible and encourage them. Milton Keynes is a place where, if you want to do something you can find somebody who will help you do it. You want to go skydiving? You want to go skiing? I mean, what isn’t there to do in Milton Keynes? So, for me, it’s an ideal town.


Dr Mylvaganam Veeravahu and Dr Ratneswary Veeravahu Leaders in the development of Neath Hill Murugan Temple Dr Mylvaganam Veeravahu and his wife Dr Ratneswary Veeravahu were born in different areas of Northern Sri Lanka, where they both studied and practised medicine before moving to the UK in 1975. Since 2008 they have worked with other community volunteers to establish the Murugan Temple in Neath Hill. MV: Growing up in Sri Lanka was a multicultural experience; although I was born a Hindu, I grew up in a Buddhist area and I studied in Catholic schools. I had friends from all the religions. It was a very happy experience. The sisters would offer great inspiration to me. One of the sisters used to tell me, ‘You will become a doctor.’ In my childhood, I used to go to the temple there every Friday and also during any special festival days. RV: I also studied in a Catholic-school convent for a few years and then in a Hindu school. So we respect other religions.


MV: A friend of mine was working in Warrington and he called me and said, ‘There is a vacancy coming up in the A&E department.’ So I started working in Warrington Infirmary. We came to Bedford in 2005. I was appointed as a consultant at Bedford hospital. We were looking for places of worship. We used to go to London most of the time, then we heard there was a prayer group in Milton Keynes. RV: Every Tuesday we used to have a prayer meeting. Some Gujarati people and North Indian Hindi speaking people also came. It was a multiracial group and we enjoyed coming. MV: After we retired we moved to Milton Keynes. It is a very beautifully arranged city. A multi-ethnic city. So we loved it. We were very happy. It took a long time to develop plans for the Neath Hill Murugan Temple. In 2008, we formed a Trust and in 2013 we were registered with the Charity Commission. In 2014, we were given a piece of land by the Milton Keynes Community Foundation. We were working almost full-time to get the planning approval. It was a very good, coordinated team effort. Phase One opened on the 15th of September 2019. RV: Even after coming to Milton Keynes, we had to have a lot of patience and also faith , to help us to get the piece of land. Involving the community around us, getting everybody together. MV: In Milton Keynes now there are 14,000-odd Hindus. Ideally, we should have a temple which is open every day and that is our aim. And we have now finished the building part of Phase Two. I feel that it is a great achievement for our community.



Fola Komolafe Business and Charity Leader Fola was born in Lewisham in London but went to school and university in Nigeria. She returned to the UK to work and study computer science at postgraduate level. She has held leadership roles in finance and banking and has been involved with the MK Food Bank since 2006. She is a member of the MK Ethnic Business Community, on the board of MK Community Foundation and was appointed Deputy Lieutenant for Buckinghamshire in 2015. I was raised by my mum; there were 5 of us. My dad passed away when I was 13; there were moments that were sad, but I remember my childhood as quite happy: family oriented, a lot of culture, a lot of tradition, discipline. The first time we came to Milton Keynes it was pouring with rain. We saw no houses. We thought there was nobody living here! We drove straight back to London. We came back later, in 1999, during the daytime. We thought, wow! There is a city, there are people. We saw civilisation behind the trees and it was a joy. I have always looked for opportunities where I could serve, whether that was community, people or organisations. My mum is 86 and she still feeds the homeless. It brings you fulfilment and it brings you a sense of having more in life. I have been a Christian for as long as I can remember and my faith is integral to everything I do. Its drives me, it motivates me, it sustains me, it lifts me up. In 2006, the Food Bank was a single little container in the car park at Milton Keynes Christian Centre. Now, in Kiln Farm, it is serving 1 in 25 households in Milton Keynes. This year we are serving 50% more households than last year.

Fola becomes CEO of World Vision UK

We see poverty, which is real, but we also see generosity. Everybody is doing a little bit to help one another. My dream is that we shut down the food bank because everybody is able to sustain themself. I am one of the founding members of the Milton Keynes Ethnic Business Community (MKEBC). A lot is written about barriers for people of ethnic backgrounds in business. Why is it more difficult for somebody of an ethnic background to get access to things? Is it education, is it awareness, is it access to funding or mentoring support? Somehow there is a disconnect. I think MKEBC is trying to close that disconnect and has been successful. But we need more of it. There are a lot of people in Milton Keynes who have dreams and aspirations for the city. I just love the can-do spirit.

Fola at the ‘Women Leaders’ awards ceremony



Gamiel Yafai Diversity Leader Gamiel is Founder and CEO of Diversity Marketplace, which supports its clients To embed diversity, equity and inclusion and create inclusive cultures. The organisation has won Global Diversity and Inclusion Awards and in 2023 won Business of the Year at Milton Keynes Business Achievement Awards. Gamiel has been chair of the Milton Keynes Homeless Partnership and a trustee of the Parks Trust, Community Action MK and Women Leaders UK. He is a Fellow of MK College and a member of the Milton Keynes Ethnic Business Committee. I was born in Birmingham, in Balsall Heath. We were next door to a Pakistani family, an African family, a Jamaican family, an Irish family; the whole Crescent was just full of diversity. My father was from Yemen and he came over in round about 1952, met my mum. My mum was mixed heritage, born in Glasgow with an Indian father. My father was Muslim, my mother was Christian Protestant. I started getting into trouble at the age of nine or ten. My dad decided that I needed six weeks in Yemen. Two and a half years later I came back to the UK. So I didn’t see my mum for two and a half years. But I loved the experience of being in a village where you had no gas, no electricity, no water. I got to explore Yemen; the people and the culture, the religion, the traditions. When I came back I was fourteen and a half. I was given my CSE options ... ‘You are doing Biology, English, Maths, Geography.’ Sadly, I failed every single exam. I ended up going to night school for five years. I didn’t feel quite brown enough when I was in Yemen but when I was over here I didn’t feel quite white enough. However, I have had many Sponsors throughout my life who have helped me see those lived experiences as a way to navigate different cultures, traditions, religions, through different workplace cultures. Being part of multiple cultures has led to my ability to operate in different traditions, different religions, different backgrounds.

Gamiel with family in Yemen

I spent fifteen years working in Publishing at United News and Media, getting involved in diversity and inclusion at the end of my time there. I was headhunted by an organisation called Job Opportunities to become Diversity Director and that’s what brought me to Milton Keynes, where I set up Diversity Marketplace in 2005. In 1991, Milton Keynes had 6% black and minority ethnicity. In 2001, when I arrived, it had 13%. We are now at 38%. Creating equity is key to becoming inclusive; we need to be more culturally intelligent in how we communicate, how we engage, how we bring people together. Everything we do needs to be collaborative. Milton Keynes is like a huge jigsaw puzzle that’s been chucked up in the air. Everything’s landed everywhere. Every piece is the diversity. Not just ethnicity but sexual orientation, neuro diversity, etc. The inclusion is when we start bringing it all together and when we start to collaborate and make sure that those pieces fit into the right places. Not shoehorned somewhere where they shouldn’t be. As my legacy I would like to be somebody that’s helped Milton Keynes become the most inclusive city in the UK.

Gamiel with members of the MKEBC, including fellow pioneers



Hannah Olarewaju Founder, themusicroom (tmr) The Music Room (tmr) is a platform for live music, arts and for cultural experiences. It has become a focal point for creatives in the city over the past five years, through its live events and networking sessions. I had a fun childhood growing up in the community that I did, very tight knit Nigerian community in South London. I'm very Nigerian Yoruba in my work ethic, in the way I see the world. You know, as a young Nigerian child you are filled with, ‘You can do anything you want in this world’. And my parents are both entrepreneurs. So, from very young I've had the attitude of, ‘Anything I want I can have’ and that's very much my Yoruba culture, a 100 percent. I came to Milton Keynes from London when I was twelve. It was a culture shock coming from a predominantly black community, small, tight-knit, always doing things together, to really being isolated and Hannah at a tmr event excluded, at least for the first couple of of calmful city vibe. It’s like a blank sheet of paper. years when we were in Milton Keynes. There And we can colour in a little corner or a little wasn't a lot of visible diversity when we first square. moved here. Our number one problem is the fact that we But I genuinely enjoyed the quiet. It wasn't like are a driving city as opposed to a walking city. So hustle-hustle, like London is. You can focus on our communities are quite split up by those grids, being you instead of trying to fit in with everybody which is of course no fault of Milton Keynes. One else. Milton Keynes has its own aesthetic and it way of us getting better is embracing and has its own flair and it has its own flow. And I think encouraging communication across the estates. to come to Milton Keynes is to experience that kind Putting marketing billboards digital screens in places so that we can spread the news about what's going on in other communities. I definitely think we need that because we tend to stay in our bubbles a lot. My career in the music industry started as a journalist. But what really got me was live music. I loved being sent to go and review a live show or go to a festival and review the festival. And then I started thinking, ‘Wow, wow, I'm really travelling two, three hours to go and see these musicians, when am I going to be able to travel five minutes or ten minutes or 20 minutes?’ And then it just kind of sparked in my brain that I don't see these types of musicians in Milton Keynes. So let’s see what I can do about that. tmr has emerged into a community now, as opposed to just being an entertainment platform. I see it when I open the doors and I see people stepping in. They start talking to one another. You can see the diversity grow. Creativity is part of the culture of Milton Keynes. We are the colour that is needed in Milton Keynes. And we're going to keep on pushing forward.

Hannah as a child



Kurshida Mirza BEM Interfaith champion and charity founder Kurshida was born in India and came to the UK as a child. Her background in community work focussed on different social issues within communities. She founded Trubys Garden Tea Room, an interfaith café, in 2014. She founded the Great Get Together Iftaar MK in 2017; it brings people from all faiths and the wider community to join Muslims to break the fast during Ramadan. She is also Chair of MK Community Foundation. I was only seven when I came to the UK so my memories of India are kind of rose-tinted. I was born in Uttar Pradesh. The little village I lived in was beautiful and green; my grandparents were farmers. There were a lot of connections between different faiths. I arrived in Birmingham and saw the rows and rows of houses with chimneys. There was a lot of racism at that time, but also the Asian and the Black communities were much more insular. I started to notice people defined themselves as Muslims or Sikhs or Hindus. To my seven-year-old self in India you were just Indian and that was it. I worked in the Civil Service. I always had portfolios that would bring me closer to my community: housing for vulnerable and older people, homelessness, community engagement. Trubys Garden Tea Room was an idea in my head for a very long time but it didn’t come out until 9/11. On that day I saw all my colleagues congregating at work, and they looked at me differently. I felt I was being treated and seen as different. And I thought ‘I’m still Kurshida, I’m not the person that did this atrocity.’ I wanted to do something which brought Muslims and the wider community together. If you put food in front of people they relax and are open to having conversations. It was about helping people to recognise their similarities and, even when there are differences, to positively celebrate

Kurshida receiving BA Hons in Psyc hology

that difference. It’s also about celebrating us as Muslim women; our Islamic and British heritage. We have the interfaith cafe every two months at Christ the Cornerstone church. We generate some income which then gets ploughed back into the community. My mum is the biggest inspiration in my life. When I was a young teenager, I had this lovely coat which was the height of fashion. She was helping a woman who was escaping domestic violence. It was a cold winter day and the woman only had the clothes she was wearing. She said, ‘Kurshida, go upstairs and get your coat’. I had to give her my beautiful coat. That’s the kind of woman she was. There’s a beautiful chapter in the Quran – Surah Ar Rahman, which means ‘mercy’ and Allah says ‘Shall the reward of good be anything but good’. So if you do good, only good comes out.

Meeting King Charles, as head of MKCF



Louis Francis Stone carver Louis has a studio at Westbury Arts Centre. He is a specialist stone carver who undertakes a wide variety of commissions for different clients. He is also a mentor, featuring on the BBC Programme ‘Make it at Market’. Louis is profoundly deaf and attended a Deaf school in Newbury as a child, before studying at Central St. Martin’s College of Art. I always knew I wanted to do art. At Central St. Martins I was sculpting, using clay, but I wanted to push myself. Someone said ‘Maybe you should think about stone carving’. I thought, ‘Ohh, that's a very interesting subject’. The rest is history. We've got lots of different local artists at Westbury Arts Centre. People come here for events. They'll come into my workshop to say ‘Hi.’ It's a lovely community in Milton Keynes. Carving can be noisy and dusty. I take my hearing aids off and it's very, very peaceful and that helps with my focus. I've got so much passion in my carving. When I'm carving, I'm in the zone. I'm in my element. This is my world and it absorbs me. At the end when I’ve completed it, I stand back and think ‘wow’! Then OK, back to reality. When I get a commission for a headstone, I don't feel sad. I feel truly honoured to be asked to do something at that time. It's important to work closely with the family from start to finish, throughout the whole process. When the client is really amazed with the beautiful work, that makes me proud. My vision is actually in stone. My proudest achievement was a commission for Windsor Castle. My client was the Queen. It was a cobra snake for the top of Windsor Castle. All the Royal Family can see it, walking through. I think I'm probably the first deaf person to put a sculpture on Windsor Castle. I achieved this at a young age, my early 20s. That's something I can tell my children and my grandchildren. That a deaf person could achieve this. Every day I face barriers. But I never give up. I break through them and I believe in myself till the end.

Louis at college



Maria Affah Founder of ‘Making Good Better’, Fishermead Maria grew up in Ghana and lived in Holland for 12 years before moving to Milton Keynes in 2017. She works actively for the community in Fishermead and set up the community organisation ‘Making Good Better’. We have free education here in the UK. Back in Ghana if a parent cannot afford to pay the school fees, children stay at home. So, immediately you come back from school, you take off your clothes, you go and give your parents support. I went straight to the market - sometimes I didn’t even take off my school uniform. I would buy garri and sugar from the sellers, pack them into small plastic bags. I’d be standing there calling, ‘Come and buy my garri, come and buy my sugar’. I was able to gather some money to support the younger Maria at a visit from the BBC ones, to support my mum and mingle with them. In Milton Keynes, the first thing I my dad as well. really liked was the environment. And the people There was a language barrier when I moved to they are very friendly. Holland. When you cannot communicate with Making Good Better (MGB) was born after I neighbours you worry they think you don’t want to started talking to a group of ladies in my home; counselling them. Life was not at all easy with them. Having something within you is a slow killer if you can’t voice it out. But being all women together they were able to talk. Listening and hearing from other women they could see: ‘Oh, I’m not the only person going through this’. A lot of them are now standing on their feet. At the Trinity Centre, nothing was going on. MGB stepped in to open a breakfast club. It is for no profits, there’s no funding. When we started fresh, nothing was there; the equipment, everything was bought from my own pockets for the first year. And today, at this breakfast club, people are so happy, it is overwhelming. We have three days: Mondays for breakfast, Tuesday and Wednesday for lunch. We organise events and bring people together to socialize. I know their troubles will never be forgotten, but it helps a lot when people come together. I am a Christian and it says in the Bible that ‘God loves a cheerful giver’. I would love to see no one on the street begging. I would love to make this kitchen bigger; have non-stop breakfast, nonstop lunch, people just come and eat and live good. And you’d be able to talk to them and they would listen, to let them know that they have something good in them.



Nana Oguntola Filmmaker and Founder of Junior Filmmakers Nana was born in Ghana and raised in The Gambia. She came to England to study Drama, Television and Film in 1992. After her degree she returned to The Gambia where she established the first independent film production company. After marrying a British man she returned to the UK in 2007. She established Junior Filmmakers in 2013 to teach filmmaking skills to children inside and outside school. She has also been very involved with Black History Month events in Milton Keynes. I was born in Ghana but I grew up in The Gambia. My mother was Gambian; she was a single mother in the seventies so it wasn’t very easy for her but she worked hard. We were brought up not just by our mum; there was a whole community of aunts who were always there to support her and take care of us. I have three identities. One is from being born in Ghana; my grandfather there was a king, he was a knight, he was a legislator. He put that fire in me; I always want to leave a mark wherever I go. Then Gambia, which was the place that nurtured me, gave me my outlook, my confidence, my strength. I had all these women around me who allowed me to say, ‘I can be whatever I want to be’. And then I’m English. It took me a long time until I felt British. England is where the diamond has gone into the fire. I’ve grown, I’ve been changed, I’ve been forced to confront myself, I’ve been forced to become who I should become. I’m making a difference; I belong here. I came to England to study in 1992. then I left England after my first degree but then I got married to a British man and we cam back here in 2007. I’ve always loved literature. Shakespeare, Chaucer. I was in Ghana at the time of the Ethiopian and Somalian famine. All the screens were showing people with flies on their faces, starving. One day a Somalian woman turned up; she was tall and articulate. She worked for the UN and it was a moment of cognitive dissonance. I thought, she doesn’t look like those people on TV. And I thought, this is about storytelling. I want to tell stories that are different. I was head of youth and children’s television and drama at the first TV station in The Gambia. A military government that took over in 1994. I didn’t want to become a mouthpiece for the government. I wanted to tell stories that were true, so I resigned. I set up the country’s first independent production company. That was a challenge, because I was female and young, in a very nonfemale, non-youth society. There were so many negative stories about Africa from the West. We, as Gambians, saw ourselves in that negative light. So I created ‘Gambia Beat’. It featured uplifting stories. On

Nana at 'Hidden Stories' exhibition

female leadership, entrepreneurs, Gambian music, Gambian art. When we came to Milton Keynes I came from a situation where I was at the top of the tree. I was the only film company, I was the expert. And I came to England and I wasn’t. Nobody knew me here. It was a complete mind explosion. It was hard to break into the sector. I started Junior Filmmakers in the meantime, whilst I pursued my film making. But then Junior Filmmakers took off. It just kept growing; continues to grow. We’ve been going for ten years now and we’re setting up the Film Academy in Milton Keynes, where we offer accredited training. We started to do a Black History Month exhibition. You hear this cry: “We are black all year round, we don’t need a month to tell us that.” I’m black 24/7, I know that, but you have a platform, all eyes are on you. I think we take that platform, we take that mic. Amplify your voice, call for attention and hopefully what you’ve called for reverberates throughout the year and makes a difference. My dream for Milton Keynes is to create a film industry here. Our junior filmmakers go to university and there is nothing to draw them back here. I like to make films about people who have left their footprints in time. I’m very conscious of making sure that when I leave this earth, I leave something behind.



Naseem Khan Restaurant owner and Charity leader Naseem was born in Kenya and studied in London before moving to Milton Keynes. As well as her Namji restaurants in Wolverton and Xscape, she has opened Namji’s Desi Kitchen at MK Community Foundation. She runs a charity called ‘Give Back to UK’. She has won several awards for her food, including the Trip Advisor Traveller’s Choice award, the Best Curry House in Milton Keynes and the Queen of Curry award. I was born in Kenya. We lived in a huge extended family, around 30-35 people, which was good but also bad because there were lots of arguments. From a very young age, I used to love going with my Dad to his business. My mum was this amazing strong warrior who was very educated but had no choice but to be a housewife. The skills she had; she managed the whole family; mother-in-law, father-in-law, sisters and brothers in law and all the others. Cooking every day for 30-35 people, managing with the money my Dad gave her. Education is not free in Kenya but we were taught in the best schools. Naseem in Namji restaurant with her husband Malik Coming to Milton Keynes has really very basic English. Every woman came with a given me what I wanted. The independence, the different story and it was more about mentoring rights as a woman. I saw the different cultures, the them. we started doing things like CV building, so local people in Milton Keynes who are so I used to sit with them, talk to them about how a welcoming. I have never felt like an outsider. CV’s made, interview skills. All they needed was At first when I was here I was living off the right environment and right guidance. And McDonald's, burgers and chips. So every time I they felt safe. went to Kenya, my mum would teach me a couple There's been a lot of harassment. Because of dishes. I would call her over the phone, ‘now I how can a woman be powerful enough to run a want to try this’. That’s where I learned my love of business? But you know, I deal with it. I have this cooking. amazing community in Milton Keynes and Early on I was made to feel that a woman's Wolverton who support me. And Malik, my place is to live by the rules of the man. And that's husband. And my son. not me. I've always been rebellious. So while I was In Covid, we started providing meals for working a nine to five job and being a single people. We did more than 50,000 meals for the parent as well, I wanted to make a difference to community: hospitals, families, care homes. While women. I decided to open a charity called Give the whole country was struggling, people were Back to UK. I wanted to give back to the there; they were buying food so that I could community that gave so much to me, my continue the work that I was doing. Now we've independence and my identity. Because I could moved from COVID to the cost of living crisis. live on my own in Milton Keynes quite safely with a People have been very generous. Giving me sacks very, very young child. I wanted to support women of onions, sacks of potatoes. The market guy gave with further education and further skills. me a lot of vegetables for at least a year. A very So I opened the doors for Namji in Wolverton. elderly lady in Wolverton regularly gives me a Partly, it was about a legacy for my mum. The couple of peppers or some tomatoes from her whole idea was to get local women of different garden. People would put £10 in my charity ethnic backgrounds, who have never worked account. It was just absolutely astonishing. before. Most of them have spent years here but I want anybody who's hungry, you know, who never spoken English. 20 years some of them. It struggles, to just come and have a hot meal. So started with one woman; I brought her in, trained my dream really is to end the hunger, at least in her as a sous chef. She started earning money, Milton Keynes, if not in the world, that would be paying tax for the first time. Word got around more amazing. women started coming through and then I set up a group where I started teaching them English - just



Ophelia Cole Founder of ‘Action Speaks’, Fishermead Ophelia was born in the UK but grew up in Freetown in Sierra Leone. She returned to the UK in her twenties, living in London before coming to Milton Keynes with her young family. She worked in business management before moving into adult social care. She founded ‘Action Speaks’ to support residents of Fishermead. She is also secretary of the MK Sierra Leone Community Organisation. Growing up in Freetown the phrase ‘It takes a village’ became embodied; that has possibly influenced the way that I am today. In London we were living in a top floor flat and we didn’t have a garden. In Milton Keynes my children were able to play outside and there was a lot of green space. We were living in Bletchley and the residents clubbed together on a bank holiday and had a bouncy castle, paddling pools; the children were having fun. That sense of community just resonates. In adult social care I worked with clients who had learning disabilities. I worked in a care home. I also went to people’s houses to support them. I did not realise how many people are at home on their own. You’d hear people say, ‘You are the first person we have seen all day’. That really shocked me. I was housed by the Council in Fishermead. During Lockdown it really brought it home that I didn’t know the people around me. I wanted to work with children, to support and motivate them. My first thought was to do this back in Sierre Leone; but then it occurred to me. ‘Hang on, you want to go away? What about the people in the community here who you don’t even know?’ I started coming to church at the Trinity Centre. The Reverend got me involved in the management of the Trinity Centre. I started realising that there are a lot of vulnerable people in Fishermead. I became a Councillor because if you want to do

Ophelia at the Trinity Centre, Fishermead

something for people you have to be in a position where you can speak on their behalf. Action Speaks helps people to develop, supports them. We do Home Book Club and Youth Club on Fridays. We help those who are struggling. What is out there in the press about Fishermead is not right. The problem is that people don’t understand each other, so opening up an understanding and appreciation for the different cultures in Fishermead is one of the big things that I want to do. I have learnt so much about different communities, different cultures and different people. I have come to realise that we are not that different. I would like to see more people standing up for themselves, embracing each other’s culture, embracing differences, working together.

Ophelia with Sierra Leone Community MK (Photo © david P Stewart)



Precious Zumbika-Lwanga Construction and Business Professional Precious was born in Zimbabwe and trained as a Quantity Surveyor in South Africa before coming to work in the UK. As well as running her own business, she is a founding member of the Milton Keynes Ethnic Business Community. She is on the boards of the Milton Keynes Community Foundation and the Milton Keynes University Hospital Foundation Trust. I grew up in the southern part of Zimbabwe, a town called Bulawayo. I was in the same school right from primary school until I finished secondary at eighteen. My undergraduate degree was a Bachelor’s in Quantity Surveying, in South Africa. I had always had this fascination with buildings. And I lived in the most beautiful city in the world, Cape Town. It was never on the radar for me to move to the United Kingdom. My parents had no idea that I’ve actually gone for the interview for and I then blurted out that, ‘Oh actually, I think I’ve just landed a job in the United Kingdom’. I remember coming to Milton Keynes and thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, what a beautiful city, quite different to the rest of the United Kingdom’. I already knew that I was going to face barriers. The construction industry is predominantly male. On site, the only other woman was the receptionist. Being the only woman of colour on the site. I remember the banter in the office – but you take it on your chin. I’m the type of person that would probably tell them, ‘This is out of order’. But it was hard, it almost like felt like you have a load on your shoulders to carry, to constantly recalibrate conversations. Around a design team table it would be predominantly white-male. I had to allow myself to really find my voice and amplify it around that table. I remember having a conversation with myself and saying, ‘Right, this is either a sink-orswim situation’. And I thought, ‘I’m gonna try and read this room now’. And I started reading the room and anybody that leaned in when I spoke. The only way to amplify my voice, to build my confidence first, was to align myself with those that were leaning in when I was speaking’. There’s been a shift in the construction industry in terms of addressing some of those

little micro-aggressions. But there’s still work to do. There are still members of this community who feel they’re on the periphery. If we’re business leaders, if we’re community leaders, what do we need to bring those people in? Allow them to find their voices. I went and trained to be Chair for the Assessor Panels for the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors. Female aspiring quantity surveyors came into the room and they almost fell backwards because a black woman is sitting there and she’s part of the panels. When I talk about legacy, it’s really about creating those spaces. Creating those opportunities. Milton Keynes has completely shaped what I do. In the last seven years I started making a conscious effort to say, ‘What can I do in this city? What contributions can I, can I bring into the city – other than being a resident? I’ve been fortunate to be on the founding committee for Milton Keynes Ethnic Business Community. I sit on the Milton Keynes Community Foundation Board. I also sit on the Milton Keynes Foundation Trust, Hospital Foundation Trust Board. For minority ethnic communities there are a lot of barriers that exist and I can be a voice, even around that Board table, to shine a lens on some of those nuances that happen within the community. What I’m really proud of is being a businessowner in Milton Keynes. I’m the founder of Carus Advisory Services; it’s a construction advisory business, a management consultancy business. Stepping out and actually setting up my own business in Milton Keynes highlighted those barriers that I’ve been talking about. Legacy really is about creating a platform for those that are also in the community to look up and say, ‘D’you know what, it’s possible’.



Urja Desai Thakore Founder, Pagrav Dance Company Urja teaches traditional Kathak Dance from her studio in Bletchley and also in London. Pagrav Dance Company has recently received significant funding from the Arts Council to expand its work. I was born in Ahmedabad in India, in 1976. I came to Milton Keynes in 2003. When I came here, I didn’t know anyone. I never wanted to leave Ahmedabad. But then I fell in love with this man and we got married. We have something called Janmabhoomi and Karmabhoomi. Janmabhoomi is where you're born, the place of birth, and Karmabhoomi is where your fate and your acts take you. I genuinely feel that the UK is my Karmabhoomi. I'm supposed to be here, and I'm supposed to do work here. I teach, choreograph and perform an Indian classical dance form called Kathak. Kathak has its own language, not just the body language, but even in the way it is spoken. Pagrav means ‘sound of feet’. I want everyone to enjoy dance. It is a space where I want to tell my stories on my terms. The drive comes from a desire to bring a change in whatever I'm doing: to disturb the pattern. You go into a state of meditation, but with complete awareness of what is going on around you, because you need to be aware of what is what is happening. It just becomes like second nature. Coming to this country with absolutely nothing, to build what I have in 20 years; I am really blessed. I always say that I am really content but

my ambition has not got any less. I don't feel that I've arrived, but I feel as if I'm happy. And at the same time my ambition has just got bigger and higher.



Zainab Manji Teacher and volunteer Zainab was born in Uganda but arrived in the UK as a refugee while just a small child. She did a teaching degree and has taught in schools, colleges and at the Zainabiya Sunday School in Granby. She is also a committee member of the Milton Keynes Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education. She is a volunteer for Milton Keynes Hospital and she won a MK Local Heroes award for her voluntary work for Welcome MK during the Afghan Refugee crisis in 2021. She supported the refugees for 2 years in a variety of ways whilst they stayed in temporary accommodation at hotels in MK. She teaches English in the ESOL department at MK College and is cochair of the Abrahamic women’s group MK. In 1972, the Ugandan President, Idi Amin, asked all Asians with British passports to leave within ninety days. Obviously with the move and the trauma for my parents, it was a very difficult time. We originally went to a refugee camp in Wales and then we moved to Peterborough where I went to nursery. My primary school years were in Leeds. I had a very loving family and had fun with my brother and two sisters growing up. But there was racism in the seventies. My sister and I were the only non-white pupils in the whole school. Another girl moved to the school and her father opened a corner shop; we were walking home from school one day and there were some boys across the road saying ‘Oi, P*kis go home’. She hadn’t been exposed to this before; I was just ignoring them. She shouted, ‘get your geography right, we’re Indian, not Pakistani!’. My teenage years in London were more comfortable – London was so much more of a melting pot. I studied Education for my degree; my father really wanted us to have an education and make sure that we were independent. When we moved to Milton Keynes, I started teaching at Zainabiya which is the mosque we go to. I thought the best way to get to know the city and meet people was by volunteering and I knew the hospital were looking for volunteers, so I contacted them. They put me down in the children’s ward, which was really enjoyable. My background is in teaching, so doing activities with the children, reading stories, it was great. When Covid hit they had a huge shortage of volunteers because most of their volunteers are retired, elderly or vulnerable. They didn’t allow any volunteers on the wards because of the risk. I was asked to be on reception and collect any parcels or items that friends and families delivered for Zainab at Milton Keynes hospital delivering parcels during Covid patients.

A young Zainab at a play center in Wales

When the refugees from Afghanistan arrived in 2021, my mosque sent out an e-mail to all its members saying that Newport Pagnell Baptist church had contacted them. They were looking for volunteers to help with the refugees that had arrived. Welcome MK asked me if I would be the co-ordinator at one of the hotels. I’d go into one of the hotels five times a week. I’d help with things like registering them for GP’s or NHS dentists; making sure that they had enough clothing for themselves and their children or just chat with them. I’ve always been interested in inter faith. The volunteers with Welcome MK are of all faiths and no faith. We have a saying from Imam Ali that a person is either your brother or sister in faith or your equal in humanity. In the Abrahamic Women’s group we have events where we talk things which are of importance in all three faiths; in Islam, Judaism and Christianity. I feel strongly about that; we should be focusing on similarities rather than differences. Milton Keynes has in itself been such an inspiration. I would encourage people to anywhere where they can to volunteer. Whether it’s at the weekend or a little bit in the week, it’s so rewarding.


This book accompanies the exhibition ‘Pioneer Tales Revisited’ which features the stories of 16 individuals who have been pioneers in their own communities or professional lives in Milton Keynes. It celebrates their stories and the work they have done to enhance the lives of others in the city and beyond.

Living Archive Milton Keynes Milton Keynes Museum McConnell Drive Wolverton Milton Keynes MK12 5EL Tel: 01908 322568 Email: Website:

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