One tepid summer, before long overdue renovations to our home, my family began decluttering. First we planned to tackle the cupboards, repository of broken bits and nicknacks. Then we’d battle the corridors, holding ground of unmarked boxes and bags.
My siblings and I soon realised my mum’s view on disposing things was the same as her view on skipping church: non-negotiable. To the piles of bills, she protested: ‘What if they come in useful?’ To the broken electronics, with their missing plugs and irretrievable manuals, she declared: ”I’ll fix it.” To the Tupperware spilling out of kitchen drawers, she said: ”We’ll find space.”
This marked for me the beginning of a war on a flat too small to be on the frontline. We collected gadgets but rarely disposed of them. We played god with things in disrepair, promising reincarnation. We bought in bulk, swore by BOGOF bins, and stockpiled, our resourcefulness always at risk of tipping over into excess.
When the charge on plastic bags was introduced, Black Twitter erupted with comedic takes on how our households could double up as underground economies if and when they became contraband.
We swapped pictures of bags with logos dating back decades as well as box-fresh carriers from stores the high street had long forgotten. Similar stories re-emerged in early lockdown.
“We have this chest freezer, just chilling underneath the stairs”, Tobi Balogun, 33, a second generation Nigerian like myself, tells me, our laughter chiming crisp and clean to the same beat. My mum has long been preparing for the apocalypse, I reply, as we trade stories of second freezers, obstructing the garage or sitting room and stocked full of assorted meat cuts and stews.
Pop culture is fascinated with hoarding, but television always tilts towards documenting extreme, predominantly white experiences. Take Channel 5’s Hoarders, a show which deals in a sort of horror porn, focused largely on white, older, vulnerable seniors in homes that have become biohazardous and inaccessible, bursting at the seams with rubbish, papers and filth.
The nuances of hoarding habits has a texture that can’t be captured by the flattened format of these TV takes. It’s no surprise to me we’re yet to see a first generation immigrant mother charmed by the gospel of Marie Kondo.
Hearing diasporic children like myself talk of our families’ hoarding habits suggests it’s more than a quirk. Research shows that migration breeds behaviours rooted in trauma. “The migration process is unquestionably linked to major adjustment stressors; the impact of these stressors on mental health are variable and complex,” reports the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry.
“If there’s two or three of something, there will be a time when it could come in useful to us.”
When we first saw supermarket shelves stripped bare during the pandemic, think-pieces began to pick at the edges at of our panic-buying. “In uncertain times, it’s nice to feel like you have control over something,” suggested The Insider. “You know if the worst comes to the worst, you can feed your family.”
If the sudden ‘unknown’ of coronavirus triggered such widespread behaviour, what about the impact of unrelenting uncertainty?
Namale Dembele, 26, a second generation Ivorian, has seen her parents’ constant unease, navigating life and work in London while awaiting legal documentation. “When they first came here, they didn’t have papers so when police cars went by, they would always worry it was for them,” says Dembele.
From a prudence to prepare emerged a sort of economical hibernation. “If there’s two or three of something, there will be a time when it could come in useful to us. They just saw that as being a little more secure.”
The unease can be compounded by a sense of isolation. “There is a perception that coming to London is going to be a sort of safe haven,” says Tobi Balogun. For many immigrants, the shock that severs perception from reality settles marrow deep. Community can map differently in a new country – Balogun’s mum found it not in her neighbourhood but at church.
Growing up in London, they would hunker down till Sunday came around. “In my younger years when we lived on an estate in Kennington, my mum wasn’t keen on us playing with children she didn’t know the parents of, so our home became a sort of fortress where we would only need to leave to go to school, the laundrette, a weekly shop to East Street or church,” he recalls.
Marie Kondo asks that you consider whether an item brings you joy – if not, it must be discarded. But what if the item is only temporarily in your care? The singular act of immigration can bring a multiplying of responsibilities – both to immediate family in the new homeland and extended family in the native country. Clutter amassed is often out of duty to others.
Dembele whose parents moved to the UK in the early 90s, says her parents have always maintained strong connections with family in Ivory Coast. “They always have the intention to support everyone. My family hoard to make sure our extended family has what we have,” she says.
“It’s an easy notion to believe – perhaps even a false one – that people back home will be appreciative for everything you keep.”
Similarly, Sylvia Oykere, 28, a second generation Ghanian whose parents moved to London in the 70s, says her family home becomes the focus of these responsibilities. “My dad ended up becoming a minicab driver mainly for Ghanians and Nigerians and when he’d take them to the airport, a lot of stuff couldn’t travel as it’d be over the weight limit,” she says. “He’d then take care of it till they came back – which often didn’t happen – so we’d usually have a suitcase or chair sitting in the house awaiting collection.”
The prevailing socio-economic narrative for many immigrants also factors in. Balogun describes how his dad, despite having obtained an undergraduate degree in history and a masters in fine art, found himself staring down the barrel of career prospects woefully short of his qualifications.
When you can go, as his parents did, “from doing a professional job back home to cleaning or even doing a couple of jobs at the same time”, it can shatter your sense of worth and capability. Collecting things for extended family in Nigeria gave his dad the socio-economic standing he was otherwise lacking in the UK.
“I think there’s a sense that he believes as a person and man, he has more value in Nigeria than he does here. Or perhaps is more valued there, both by society at large and by close relations,” says Balogun. “It’s an easy notion to believe – perhaps even a false one – that people back home will be appreciative for everything you keep, but collecting things gave him a sense of utility.”
Even beyond the West African community, those with hoarding tendencies often express a deep-rooted distaste for waste. Items can take on a new significance.
Dr Sweta Rajan-Rankin, senior lecturer in social work at the University of Kent, looks at the role everyday objects play in our material lives.
“When looking at the accumulation of objects in diaspora communities, I think it’s about understanding how they can be attached to stories, memories and belonging,” she says.
“It’s that feast and famine mentality. Even though I’m okay now, things might not always be okay.”
Oykere recognises this in her father’s habits. “With a lot of things that he buys, he feels like it’s a luxury to have, it’s something he’s grafted for, so space will be made for it whether we have it or not,” she adds. Conversely, throwing things feels like undermining the hard work done to acquire them in the first place.
Balogun unpacks his mum’s contempt for wastage, something he says can pull her in two opposing directions – there’s a dislike of clutter, but a weariness of throwing things away then struggling to meet a need they could have satisfied.
“It’s that feast and famine mentality where it’s like this thing might become useful to me in the future and even though I’m okay now, things might not always be okay,” he says.
The challenge is finding balance – sometimes the proof is in the prudence. As I’m reminded regularly by my mum, I may have never seen a West African mother on Marie Kondo, but nor did I see her wrestling members of the public for toilet roll and a bag of flour in March.