“All I have left of my parents are these letters and one photograph in which they are together. It was taken in the spring of 1961 in Joe’s Cafe, perhaps that’s where they met. But the cafe is long gone by now and so are my parents, so it’s too late to ask them.”
When Phil Okwedy, 60, was clearing out his birth mother’s house after she passed away ten years ago, he found a stack of letters in the attic which were addressed to her. These letters were from his Nigerian father and almost all of them had been sent by airmail to Wales from Nigeria. Not knowing what to do with them, he packed them away into a cupboard and waited. Working as a primary teacher at the time, it was not until a decade later when he decided to use them for his work as a storyteller.
Wanting to blend his family story with mythology, Phil said he struggled to find stories that resonated. “I think because I’ve always stood, if not on the outside, but beside the culture that I’ve grown up in. Welsh but not Welsh, Nigerian but not Nigerian,” said Phil, who grew up in rural Pembrokeshire.
Phil was born in Cardiff before he was fostered as a baby and lived with his long-term foster mother, but he always knew his birth mother, who stayed in touch. You can get more news and other story updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletters here.
On life in rural Wales in the 1960s and 70s and going to school in Pembroke Dock, Phil said: “My experience of growing up as a black child in a completely white community and what that was like and growing awareness – I was maybe five before it really dawned on me. You’re labelled by other people and they let you know that they’re different. Meeting racism, my secondary experience was pretty rough.”
“I experienced some name-calling at primary-age but it was always fleeting and it usually passed really quickly. But then when I went to secondary school I was met with racism – people I never met calling me names. I couldn’t get my head around it and I rebelled quite a lot because I just didn’t understand. My foster mother was great and I was very lucky to have her but she didn’t understand, she wasn’t equipped to have any of those conversations.”
Phil did not meet his father, who lived in Nigeria, until he was in his 40s and said it was not until two black men came to visit his family when he was young that he saw anyone who looked like him. As someone who was fostered as an infant, he did not know the full story of how exactly his parents met but the letters and one photo he had of them started to paint a picture of two people with a deep desire to be together against all odds.
“They’ve never lived together and I’ve never lived with either of them. I found the letters and took them out and put them in a cupboard because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with them. I knew I wanted to do something, I didn’t just want to read them.” The letters date back to 1961 and continue until 1974, every letter is from his Nigerian father and is addressed to Phil’s Welsh mother Mary.
His father visited Wales to study and was already married with children but Phil believed that his mother, who was a member of the Labour Party, must have met him at a Labour Party event put on for people to engage with different communities such as migrants. “I’m guessing that’s how they met, at a dance or a meeting. That’s what I imagine, it’s very much storytelling!,” he said.
“The arc of the letters, all the way through them is the idea that they might somehow be together. My father came over here to study but he was already married, already had two children. And my mother knew this. And reading through these letters, all the time they were playing around and bantering with this idea that they might still be together.
“So the first letter is 1961 and by 1964 my father is back in Nigeria. Most of them are airmail coming from Nigeria but for the next ten years these letters – sometimes it’s colder, sometimes it’s hotter, sometimes it’s my mum and sometimes it’s him – have this idea that somehow they might be together. In the face of everything and the continents between them.”
On whether things had changed since growing up in rural Pembrokeshire in the 60s and 70s, Phil said that, although things appeared on the surface to have changed, he thought people still faced the same confusion, prejudice and racism growing up that he did decades ago. “I grew up and remember Enoch Powell making his Rivers of Blood speech and being told to ‘go home’. Then 50 years later, you still have a hostile environment and the Windrush Scandal- that ‘go home’ thing turned out to be an actual experience. They’d lived here for 50 years and found themselves deported.”
With his show, The Gods Are All Here, Phil has been touring across Wales and sharing the story of the letters which he tells using real-life experiences mixed with myth, song, folktales and legends from the African diaspora. Phil has been mentored as a storyteller by Welsh poets Eric Ngalle Charle s and Daniel Morden and the show, which was produced by Adverse Camber Productions, covers themes of equality, freedom and family. He hopes that by sharing his experiences, his story will resonate with others and stories like his will be listened to.