“You can come to Ipswich from London with your pregnancy, and I will find someone who will be your birth partner on Christmas Day,” said Lara Uzokwe.

A bold claim though it may seem, Mrs Uzokwe believes these words are absolutely true. Mrs Uzokwe is the founder of Karibu, a support group for African women she founded back in 2005. 

Now, the flourishing group has become a home from home for people in Ipswich seeking to celebrate and share their culture, especially this month, with October being Black History Month. 

Mrs Uzokwe arrived in Ipswich to join her husband in 2001.

“At that time, you would rarely see a black face,” she remembered. Her son, too, found he was the only black student in his year at school.  

It was lonely at times, and she found it was difficult to find the foods that reminded her of Nigeria. 

“When you are 3,000 miles away from your country, you need people to support you,” explained Mrs Uzokwe.

Determined to build a community where African people could come together, she founded Karibu. 

Ipswich Star: L-R: Zibah Gad, Oben Ndipbesong, Karibu's founder Lara Uzokwe, Maria Mamabolo and Jackie Ellis. Image: Newsquest L-R: Zibah Gad, Oben Ndipbesong, Karibu's founder Lara Uzokwe, Maria Mamabolo and Jackie Ellis. Image: Newsquest (Image: Newsquest)

Oben Ndipbesong from Cameroon got to know the group 13 years ago, when her daughter was 12. 

“I wanted her to see the things I did at home, and to understand that I’m not the only one behaving differently from English parents,” she explained. “We talk differently, we act differently and we cook different meals.  

She especially wanted her daughter to feel connected to African dance and traditional dress. 

“When she was growing up, she really hated it,” said Oben. “She didn’t see many people wearing African dresses, except me. But now, she loves it, because she has seen other children wearing it and she can see that it looks beautiful. 

“Being together has given her that perspective, that this is where she comes from, and this is her culture.” 

Maria Mamabolo, originally from South Africa, came to Ipswich from London in 2004.

“I didn’t like London; it reminded me of Johannesburg,” Maria explained. 

“I think we are more grounded in Ipswich with our family-orientated culture. We don’t want to forget our roots – our language, our food, how we speak. Sometimes, I get worried when people say that I’m losing my accent.  

“I say, no, I’m African – that's my identity, I want to hold on to that. Karibu gave us that platform to express ourselves.” 

Another Karibu member is singer-songwriter Zibah Gad, this year’s reigning champion of this year’s contest to find the best jollof rice in town, a dish that the women said brings people from all African countries together. 

Ipswich Star: Karibu's founder Lara Uzokwe preparing jollof rice. Image: Charlotte BondKaribu's founder Lara Uzokwe preparing jollof rice. Image: Charlotte Bond (Image: Newsquest)Ipswich Star: Jollof rice is a popular west African dish, which is often made with long-grain rice, tomatoes, onions, spices, vegetables and meat. Image: Charlotte BondJollof rice is a popular west African dish, which is often made with long-grain rice, tomatoes, onions, spices, vegetables and meat. Image: Charlotte Bond (Image: Charlotte Bond)

“The beautiful thing about that day was that when the food was displayed, nobody knew if the dish was from Sierra Leone, Nigeria or Gambia,” said Zibah, who was representing Ghana.  

“Interestingly, we also had English people come – and boy, were they into the jollof!” 

Zibah, who is also a caterer, had brought her homemade shito, a fish and shrimp-based hot sauce. 

“You’d think that this is not something they were used to, but the welcome was beautiful,” she said. 

Ipswich Star: Karibu volunteer Sola Ojo and manager Lara Uzokwe sitting in front of a mural honouring Karibu members who have lost their lives to Covid. Image: Charlotte BondKaribu volunteer Sola Ojo and manager Lara Uzokwe sitting in front of a mural honouring Karibu members who have lost their lives to Covid. Image: Charlotte Bond (Image: Charlotte Bond)

Jackie Ellis got to know the group before she became a mother herself.  

“I was a young girl, busy with life. I thought it wasn’t a place for me,” she explained. “That was likely not true.  

“I come from Tanzania, and we don’t have a big community here, so it’s very hard to find people from my own culture. 

“When I come here, I feel African.” 

After having her own children, she enrolled them into Karibu’s Saturday school, where as well as English and maths, they learn life skills such as cooking and budgeting. 

This also gives the parents a chance to form bonds. Here, all the women were in agreement. 

“We’re all family and we look out for each other,” said Jackie.