Spotlight on Thomas Bisika
As part of our continuing celebration of Black History Month, the spotlight this week is on Thomas Bisika, a third-year drama and creative writing student. Thomas reflects on his first few years in the UK, growing up in Malawi, and the importance of humour.
You can also read about Makani Zulu, our student spotlight from earlier this month.
Tell us a bit about yourself
My name is Thomas Bisika. I'm a third-year drama and creative writing student in the School of LDC and I'm not British. I'm Malawian. I'm an international student studying here for the last two years.
What were your first few months like?
I had a very strange experience because I didn't come to the UK in my first year. My first year was online because of COVID. I thought, there's no point in me coming all the way to the UK if I'm just going to be in my room the whole time.
When I arrived in my second year, and I came a bit late, I had to do the whole quarantine hotel thing because Malawi was on the Red List. But I was also very busy doing a ton of extra-curricular drama stuff, and also doing what I needed to do for my degree. I was also getting used to living on campus, meeting new friends, and adjusting to how England worked.
The first three of four months, it was just adapting. It wasn't hard, but it wasn't easy either, if you know what I mean.
Like if it was hard, why was it hard?
It was the first time I've ever tried to set up a life on my own. My parents were all the way back home. I came on my own. It was just me figuring out everything, from banking stuff to meal plans for the week.
All of that while also keeping up with the degree, meeting new people, trying to figure out: are these people going to be nice to live with or are they're going like me? Am I going to like them? I ended up liking the people I lived with. And I did have fun trying to adapt as well because it was a new way of living.
When I first arrived in October, a lot of people told me I was going to struggle with the cold, and these were British people who dealt with the cold all the time. But I never really felt that cold. I always expected it to get very bad, but it never really did.
Because you’ve recently come here from Malawi, were you surprised about Black History Month?
To be fair, we don't really have a Black History Month in Malawi because Malawi is an African country. Everyone's predominantly Black. We never really had a reason for Black History Month.
I only thought the USA did it. I thought it was only like an American thing. My entire education, for some reason, was focused on kind of like the civil rights movement and Black movements, either in Africa or in the USA. We never really did much on Europe or the UK.
Have you felt racism since you've been in this country?
No, I wouldn't say so. I've had an odd moment here and there.
I went to a pub quiz with a group of friends. On the way to the quiz, they warned me. They said: “Thomas, be aware that this is a predominantly white pub, and so we just want you to be prepared for that.” Maybe it’s in moments like that where I remember just how predominantly white Norwich is.
But I'm not used to being the minority. In Africa, I'm part of the majority, but here I'm the minority.
I think on my course we have maybe fifty or sixty students per year. And I think even overall, in terms of people of colour, there might be a handful of us, maybe six?
I wouldn’t say I’ve experienced any racism, but I have properly felt my colour for the first time.
Do you use the word Black in Malawi?
Funny enough not.
I think the only time I ever heard it was when I went to International School. Whenever we dealt with stuff like race, it was always kind of funny to us. We had all grown up in this very diverse, very culturally and racially diverse environment where everybody was from everywhere.
We'd even make fun of the idea of racism. But you wouldn’t look at somebody and just think, oh, wow, they're Black. Or if someone was looking at you, it was for your skin colour or anything like that.
Growing up, I was very used to hanging out with huge groups of Black people. We would always make these kinds of harmless Black jokes. They were just kind of funny. We watched Black comedians like Dave Chappelle, Kevin Hart, even Trevor Noah when he was back in South Africa, or shows like Blackish, and they just made fun of the Black experience. We would also make fun of the Black experience because it was funny.
Do you think telling jokes like that is different in the UK?
I can't say, here in the UK, I can do that because a lot of my friends grew up predominantly white. Sometimes, just as a reflex, I'll make one of those Black jokes. And I’ll see them freeze up a little bit, as if they’re not sure how to respond. “Should I laugh? It's funny but I don't want to laugh because they might think I’m racist.” I have to say it's fine. You can laugh. It's just making fun of yourself.
I’ve done two comedy stand up sets where I've made race jokes about the racial encounters I’ve had. I just did this joke about being on a bus and I play a game to see how many Black people I could spot. And then “Oh, there's one.” Twenty minutes later, “oh there's another, oh wait, that’s the same one.”
Recently a lot more people have become comfortable around me. They feel safer and have started laughing around me when I make those kinds of jokes. They’ve started making those jokes as well. I absolutely love it when they do, because I've always thought that if you can laugh about something, then you could really talk about something.
My humour has always been very organic, situational humour. 90% of the time, those kinds of jokes are relevant to the situation.
I started going out to Damn Good in my second semester, and a funny thing would happen where whenever I would show up, you'd see this a random Black student just come up to me, shake my hand, or give me a fist bump. And then you'd walk away. And then my friend would be like “do you know that guy?” And I say, “I've never seen him before in my life.”
I found that funny personally because I just wasn't used to that.
What kind of dramatic work do you do?
I write and direct plays most of the time.
I recently put on a play with the Minotaur Theatre Society. It was called the Hollywood Man, a kind of black comedy. It was a story about this Hollywood writer who lives in the 60s and he's trying to figure out why he can't write anymore, so he interacts with his younger self trying to figure out what happened. It’s a funny play but it’s also a very dramatic play.
And people would say: “this is a very serious piece and very lovely.” I tell them I wrote this as a form of retaliation against the new Ghostbusters movie that got released in 2016, because I got very annoyed at Hollywood trying to constantly recycle very good movies from the past instead of just making new movies.