Five women

These pages feature so-called ordinary women - all of them mothers, some who work, none who can exactly be described as having it easy. They come from every part of the world, and their children all attend Primrose Hill Primary School in north London. Here, to mark International Women's Day, we present their daily lives. By Rose Shepherd. Photographs by Magda Segal and Debbie Humphry.
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Woman no cry

Janet Eweka lives with her daughter Bonita, eight, in a rented flat. She is separated from her Nigerian husband, who now lives in Sydenham but remains in contact with Bonita. Janet's parents are originally from Jamaica. She has a degree in social sciences and works part-time as a clerical officer with the network support team at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

I work part-time only because, since I graduated in 1994, I haven't been able to find a full-time position. I'd like to do some kind of housing or community advice work. I'm always applying for things, but after three years I'm thinking, "God what is it? What am I writing wrong? What am I saying wrong? Is it the desperation in my face? Please give me that job."

Maybe if I was more laid-back, I'd be successful. I've had so many interviews. I've been to careers advice about it and they said, "Well, you're doing something absolutely right because you're getting the interview. Try to stop looking at the ceiling." I'm very, very nervous. I'm not making eye- contact. So we're working on that.

I come from a very close family, but my mum and dad and my two brothers all live in Gloucestershire, so I find I'm tremendously unsupported at the moment. I came up to London because my partner got a job here. I was nursing at the time. I did my RMN [Registered Mental Nurse], which is all sort of psyche stuff, and I think I burnt out. Also, the work has changed. It's more in the community now - you don't get the support of other nurses, other departments, you're just on your own. So I don't want to go back to nursing.

Primrose Hill Primary is a brilliant school! It's such a mixture of cultures, it's wonderful. Bonita is doing very, very well there. I'm glad to see her thriving. I must be doing something right.

She and I do talk, that's the fantastic thing. It has taken away a little bit of her childhood, I suppose, to discuss everything that's going on, but she understands what's happening with her dad. He'll have her for weekends sometimes, and I'll sit in the house like a zombie, trying to get it into my head that she's not here. It takes me a day to get into single mode, to realise it's OK to get on with things. Then she comes back and it's mayhem.

When you've lost your partner and you're not working, and everything seems to be going wrong, you can turn inwards, but I've got this lovely little smiley face all the time to cheer me up. Of course, I do get a bit down sometimes. I don't think there's a single mum who doesn't. We're not hot favourites at the moment. Things are very tight. I live from one wage packet to the next and I'm not on a great deal.

I do the home-making things because they have to be done, but I think I'm more of a career-minded person. Bonita likes to eat rubbish. We have these battles ... well, not so much battles, but I have to make these huge speeches to explain to her that it's not really the worst thing in the world to eat something green.

Our favourite haunt is the cinema. We're terrible addicts. We sit there and talk all through the film, annoying people. I try not to watch a lot of television, because I don't think it's a good thing, but if we do get in while children's TV's on, we'll watch a bit of that until she glazes over.

On Wednesday nights, I do salsa classes, and that's for me, that's my night for having a life outside Bonita's. I think, when you haven't got that other person to share the burden of a child, when there's no one to support you emotionally and financially, you take things on yourself a lot more. You want this child to do well, to have the best, but it's all on you. I find it tremendously different from when I was with my partner.

Man about the house

Marijke Good was born in Holland and lives with her husband Bill and sons Nicholas and Anthony (who will be 14 and 22, respectively, on 27 March) in a house bought by Bill. She works for the BBC World Service, and Bill is an artist and house-husband.

Bill and I met in Belgium. He was working as creative director of Young and Rubicam there. I was with Young and Rubicam, too, and was transferred to Belgium, and that was it.

He had just bought a house when we met, so we came back and forth to do it up. It's the bottom two floors of a whole house. We had the children in Belgium, came to the UK, then went to Mexico, then to the UK again, and to Belgium, and to Portugal, then back here in 1991.

Bill then retired and I started work. That was what we always planned. He did some etchings at art school. He always wanted to be an artist, and didn't want to wait till he was 65 and decrepit.

I had my first job for years in February 1992. I felt like an alien. I'd never seen a fax machine, although I'd done a computer course. I was a receptionist for four months, then a PA in a company that went down the drain. After that, I got a job in the BBC, with the World Service. I'm only an admin person, but it's got such a nice atmosphere. I'm involved with BBC MPM (Marshall Plan for the Mind), making programmes for Russia, introducing them to Western thought, business, democracy.

Sometimes I feel I miss out slightly with the boys' schooling and everything. We came back when they were eight and five because we weren't too confident of the system in Portugal and you want to give them the best chance. When I went to work, it was probably better for them to have their dad there. They were at an age when they would relate more to a father. It's not that I always wanted to be a career woman. I did find it hard starting at the bottom again. What would be ideal would be for both of us to work part-time, though I shouldn't like both of us to sit at home: you wouldn't get much outside influence, you'd get sort of island-ish.

I never get homesick, although when we go to Holland I feel I would like to be there more often.We had all our television programmes from England, anyway, with subtitles; that's where we learn our English. I know almost as much about English television as the English. I loved The Onedin Line and The Forsyte Saga. That's how far I go back.

I can't complain. I've got two healthy kids, a wonderful husband who does absolutely everything.I don't even know how the washing-machine works. If I want anything washed, I can stick it in there, then say "Can you please put it on?" And when I cook, all the boring bits like peeling potatoes and stuff are taken away from me.

My eventual ambition is to get any sort of job with cooking. I'd love to get into cookery writing, and I'm doing a course in food and consumer studies. I used to play a lot of tennis in Portugal, and Bill and I still play in the summer. But someone introduced me to squash years ago, and it's a brilliant sport.

I must admit, it's an easy life compared with most. At one point, he did a bit of freelance, he went away for a number of weeks, and I thought: "Oh, I can do this. Other people do it." But it was awful, I hated it.

Wife and magistrate

Shelley Choudhary works as a race and health manager with Lambeth Health Care Trust, and is also a magistrate at Thames Magistrates Court in Bow. She and her self-employed husband, Kibria, live with their daughters Fatima, Tahmina and Tazlina in the house they have bought in Camden.

I'm a kind of work maniac. I enjoy my job, and I enjoy running the home and being a mother; that's my other life. Time is crucial. I try to use it to be with my girls at home, getting involved in their lives, as well as carrying on with my work, and not to waste it.

I came here in 1969 when I was four, at the end of December, and I distinctly remember waking up, seeing snow for the first time, and being gobsmacked.

My parents were cautiously ambitious for me, but they didn't go overboard. My father died when I was 10 or 11, which left a big gap in my life. I went to university, I sort of persevered, and then I got married. My vision at the time, after my rebellious teenage-hood, was to turn myself into the perfect Asian-type housewife, and I guess having children was a part of that.

All of us do our bit around the house. I do most of the cooking. I seriously enjoy that, and seriously enjoy entertaining. For household things, I just take the car to Safeway's or Sainsbury's once a week and stock up. Kibria does his own ironing. It was one thing we negotiated when we got married, that I would not do the ironing for him, so he does it for himself, and sometimes for the girls, too.

I'm ambitious for my children, in the sense that I hope they will achieve their best in whatever careers they choose, and that we will be there to support them in achieving that. Their time for watching television is before I get home, and I get in at about 6-6.30. After that, if there's anything particular that they want to watch, I'll probably watch it with them. If not, then it's usually games or books, doing kind of family things together. I hope we have a strong family relationship. They might hate my guts for all I know, but there we are.

I think they're enjoying school. They go off happily in the morning. I've never had to bully them. And they get very good reports. I want to bring them up with an appreciation of both English and Bengali culture. They're totally bilingual and go to Saturday school at the Hopscotch Asian Women's Centre in Camden. I've taken the girls back to visit the country so that they know where their heritage is.

Everyone has a vision of where they were born as being nice and idealistic, but when I go back, Britain to me seems nice and idealistic. I think people who're born in one country and brought up in another will never actually belong 100 per cent anywhere. You have to recognise that and then you can perhaps become comfortable with it.

Being a magistrate is very flexible. We operate on a rota system, and are required to sit 12 times a year, so I guess it's roughly every month. It's very demanding emotionally, and time-consuming for those who are actually chairing the bench, but I prefer to remain a "winger". I couldn't cope with having a full-time job and having children, and then also being a chair. I know other people in the Asian community who are magistrates, and, inevitably, they are men. I applied to do it, to prove to people that Asian women can be magistrates, and because I hope I can bring to it a wide understanding of the realities of life. It can be heart-rending at times.

My ambition for myself? To make enough money so that when the children go off to live independent lives, I can get into my four-wheel drive - if I ever manage to buy it - and hit the road, travel the world.

Brave heart

Karen Wellburn lives in a rented flat with her daughters Kayleigh, eight, and Alex, six. The girls' father left her when Alex was a baby. Kayleigh was born with papillomas (wart-like tumours) in her throat, and had to have a tracheotomy. She speaks with the aid of a voice synthesiser and has to go once a fortnight for laser treatment to the Hospital for Sick Children in Great Ormond Street, London.

I have just this week started work, having finished at college. I did a course in information technology. The job is part-time - administration, secretarial - just within school hours. I'm like a headless chicken trying to get everything sorted out, but I'm very happy.

I had Kayleigh at 18. She was born prematurely. I was working in Chigwell as a nanny, went home for Christmas to my parents in Peterborough, and gave birth to her there. Obviously, I couldn't go back to work. I uprooted myself to London, to be close to Great Ormond Street.

The girls are much easier to look after at this age than they were when they were babies. I love their company, especially now I'm doing more with my life. For eight years, I did nothing but stay at home. I was very lonely, very isolated. Or I'd have to go into school because Kayleigh needs a carer with her, and, if her carer was ill, I'd get a phone call in the morning saying: "You've got to come in". Since she's been at Primrose Hill, I haven't had that problem.

She's had a funny life, bless her! She was in hospital for the first two years. It was lovely to get her home, but she was always being rushed back in. She seems to be a bit better now she's getting older. She hates going to the hospital, but she's so good, so resilient. The disease knocks her down. She's so little.

Alex found it difficult to settle in at school because it's so big, but Kayleigh settled in with absolutely no problem. I'm very proud of her. A bit of support would have been nice in their early years, because I didn't have any friends, I didn't have a support network, but I've met people through college and have another interest, at last, apart from home and children.

Money has been very tight. It still is. I was getting a disability allowance for Kayleigh, which sort of topped it up, but I'm finding it hard now that I've gone back to work. In fact, it's worse because they've taken some of the allowance and I'm liable to pay some of my rent and some of my council tax. There is absolutely no financial incentive to work, but I don't want to spend the rest of their childhood being indoors doing nothing.

The girls either love each other or hate each other. We do all the normal things together. At the weekend, we go to the park, the cinema, ice-skating. At home, we get a video out or do jigsaws, painting, the usual stuff. When I've got time, I'll read them a story, but they're more into reading to me at the moment.

I loathe cooking. I do a weekly shop and I cook grudgingly. The girls like things like nuggets, fish fingers, sausages, the usual rubbish. They have those probably two or three times a week. Otherwise, it's pasta or whatever. My freezer broke down last year and I can't afford to buy a new one, so I'm forced to cook every day.

Where would I like to be in five years' time? Not here! I'd hope to be married by then to my boyfriend, Thaya. He's from Sri Lanka, and we've been going out together for two-and-a-half years. We'll probably move to outer London.

Of course, if Kayleigh were healthy, I'd be much happier. They always said that she'd never get to her first birthday, never get to her second, and it's gone on since then. She's still here, and we keep hoping.

War babies

Fowsiye Aden lives with her six children, aged from six to16, in a house which they have rented for the past two-and-a-half years. She fled the war in Somalia six years ago, and has been in Britain for three-and-a- half years. Her husband remains in Mogadishu.

When the war started, I flew away with the children from Somalia to Kenya, but Kenya wasn't a nice place to stay, so we came here. I'd been to England before. My eldest son has learning difficulties, and also a heart problem, and he was operated on here in 1988 when he was about seven. We didn't come out of Mogadishu with anything except the clothes we were wearing. It was awful, but we are alive! We are very grateful to the British government for what they have done for us, because they have given us new hope.

I was a teacher in my country, and, when I came here, I didn't just sit, I went to college. I did an English course, an access course for teaching, but when I looked at the time I was spending on my education, I thought I should spend it with my children instead. I told myself it was their time. Like every mother, I want my children to be someone.

It's strange how very quickly they've got used to it. When they're answering me back, they speak to me in English. I speak to them in Somali so they will remember. Also, in school there is a Somali language class one afternoon every week, so they're learning to read and write Somali.

They're enjoying life here. I had a problem with the teenager for a time, but the others were very, very young when they came out of Somalia. They don't know anything about the country - they only know what I tell them. It is just a story for them. I think in their minds it's just like Snow White.

I don't allow them to watch too much television. I teach them to read and write and catch up their education. My second son, Osob, is 10. He's doing very well. The eldest one goes to a school in Barnet. When I look at him, I am sometimes happy that we came out of Somalia because what he is getting here he would never get there. I help at his school two days a week. There is one little Somali girl with a very severe disability. She came here three months ago, and I'm helping her teacher to see if she can understand my language, because she's not talking at all.

Being in London, I think we're lucky because we can have everything we want from the market. I go to the Indian shops, because we have more or less the same culture. Since we're Muslim, we get Halal meat, but we don't go to the mosque, except if there's a festival. In Somalia, the women and children mostly worship at home. That's what I do.

Sometimes, when the weather is horrible, I wish I was back there. I don't have cultural problems, but I do have a problem with the weather. In summer, we take picnic things to the park. That's the life I'm missing in Somalia.

In Mogadishu, everyone is friendly, your neighbours are knocking on your door or you're knocking on theirs, and here I feel very lonely. When we first came, when the children went to school, I used to feel frightened of the silence at home, with nobody to talk to, so I'd go out and do some shopping, but I don't feel that way any more. We were in Hendon then, and that was very different. In Camden, there is a Somali community. When I go out, I meet two or three Somali people every day, and, even if I don't know their names, we'll say hello. Then, on Saturdays and Sundays we will meet other Somali families, so it's getting better.

The International Women exhibition of photographs by Segal and Humphry is at the Kingsgate Gallery, 114 Kingsgate Road, NW6 from 6-16 March