Through my fieldwork, I initially discovered that elderly Nepalese men and women often sit on benches in open spaces such as Winn’s Common at Plumstead and General Gordon Square at Woolwich. The Nepalese have settled in this part of London largely due to the historic connection with the army barracks. Most of them are fairly recent migrants, and find it hard to make connections with other local people, mainly due to language barriers.
We conducted photography workshops with the elderly Nepalese to find out what was important to them about hanging around in these places. So through community based research practice, we wanted to raise their voice through photography and find out more about the joys and challenges of their life in Woolwich.
The photography workshops helped me discover how important Winn’s Common and General Gordon Square are for the elderly Nepalese. They like to walk around the huge plain fields at Winn’s Common and believe that walking in the fresh air is good for them. They stated that most of them have high blood pressure and/or diabetes and are advised to do a bit of exercise. They see walking around at Winn’s Common as beneficial to their health. They also like spending time at the Winn’s Common playground, which they refer to as ‘Khalta’. Khalta means ‘hole’, but they simply call the playground khalta because it is enclosed circularly at a lower gradient. It’s certainly not the most attractive part of the Common, but there are large number of benches, so it’s possible for many of them to meet up, in groups sizes of up to thirty at a time.
They use the benches and space in the playground at Winn’s Common to spend time with other elderly Nepalese. Winn’s Common is a place where they can bond with others who have similar backgrounds and relatable experiences. They also use the space to share information, talk about good and bad memories, and especially for the elderly Nepalese women, Winn’s Common has become a place where they can cherish their sisterhood. Some of the elderly Nepalese women talked about how they feel closer to their friends at Winn’s Common than some of their own family members. Prior to their sisterhood, loneliness was a constant lingering feeling. Ganga Devi recalled her memory of being at Winn’s Common for the first time. It had only been a few days since she had come to the UK. She remembered sitting on one of the benches and having a smoke all alone and thinking to herself ‘where have I come?’.
Devi Rana recalled sitting on one of the benches at Winn’s Common and thinking about her old days. She said sitting on a bench at Winn’s Common helps her think and recall memories – good and bad. For CK Thapa, a tree at the playground reminded her of her childhood. She recalled the feeling of joy she felt while sitting on the branch of a tree in her hometown and being blown by the wind from side to side. An open space such as Winn’s Common has formed an important part of the elderly Nepalese’s lives and some of them stated how they will take photos of Winn’s Common and show it to their extended family members in Nepal.
General Gordon Square is another open space where some elderly Nepalese spend long periods of time. It is a place where they usually meet and discuss about their plans for the day or the week ahead. They also like to sit in large groups and talk to each other and watch the news on the ‘big telly’. The fact that bus stops, different shops/markets and public toilets surround the square also influences their decision to spend time in this location. CK Thapa talked about how General Gordon Square provides her the opportunity to distract herself from all her worries. She also said that ‘seeing a thousand faces a day is good for you’ and that she enjoys seeing different people here. Till Rana stated how lonely and restless she feels sitting alone at home and that being in the square helps her feel relaxed and at peace.
In one of the photography workshops, we covered the topic of home life where the elderly Nepalese shared a lot of their memories of back home and their lifestyle in Nepal. Bilkumari Gurung went into extensive detail about her agrarian lifestyle and told us how she could not even afford to spend a minute doing nothing in her hometown. She said that she always had something to do whether it was crafting, farming or home chores. However, in the UK, it is completely different. The elderly Nepalese cannot lead the same lifestyle because of their age, and it will not be wrong to say that most of their skills have become obsolete. Hence, they have a lot of time to spare. Open spaces like General Gordon Square have become a place where they can ‘pass time’.
Through the findings, it is apparent that being able to use open spaces has a positive effect in the lives of the elderly Nepalese. A few factors are important. They spend long periods of time outside so being able to sit on benches is vital. Because they like to socialise in large groups, being able to use long benches, or benches clustered together, is more important than a beautiful view. The need for safety: they appreciate the town wardens in General Gordon Square, and on the common they generally walk around in groups after some bad experiences. In common with most elderly people, they need nearby toilets, and the lack of public toilets in Winn Common was frequently mentioned as a problem. They appreciate planting and contact with nature, even in the designed precincts of General Gordon Square. This helps them feel at home and peaceful and gives them a sense of delight.