John and Irene Kabuye talk about their love for the town and burning desire to help bring people together
When John Kabuye first moved to Teesside in 2004, he remembers walking down the high street in Stockton and never seeing another black face.
“On many occasions people would think I was a footballer,” he laughs.
“They must have thought I was a new signing.”
Fast forward seventeen years and a powerful portrait photograph of John has recently featured in Seeds of Hope, a public art exhibition in Albert Park.
The image was displayed not far away from the statue of Brian Clough, one of Middlesbrough’s most famous footballing sons.
It was a proud moment for John, who laughs again as he tells the story of children recognising his picture standing tall in the park.
John Kabuye with two of his children at the Seeds of Hope exhibition
“When people see my picture in the park they see a sense of belonging and achievement,” he says.
“I have been saying, ‘if you do something good, that’s what can happen’. That’s what we need to concentrate on.
“We need to focus on the younger people. How do we encourage them to help build the future of Middlesbrough?”
The future and the sense of hope and belonging are what drive John and his wife Irene. They run the Ubuntu Multicultural Centre on Clifton Street in Middlesbrough town centre.
The couple passionately believe that only when people of different ethnicities and life experiences work together, will Middlesbrough fully realise its potential.
It is John’s firm view that the town is becoming more diverse and vibrant, but that the pace of change could and should be more rapid.
“Change doesn’t take one or two days,” he says.
“Change is an ongoing process.
“The demographics have changed. But we still need to do more from a work point of view, for instance. That’s one of the reasons why Covid has had such an impact on our communities. Our communities work in jobs that are on the frontline. They don’t have a choice whether to be at work or not. It’s about experience. We’re trying to help with things like that, improving people’s CVs.”
Alongside featuring in the park exhibition, last month Ubuntu won a community award at Middlesbrough Council’s Civic Awards.
“The award made it feel like some people out there really appreciate the work we do,” Irene says.
“Appreciation is not always about money, but someone out there pointing out that Ubuntu is doing marvelous work here. It was great to be alongside other groups doing really important work in the community. It meant a lot. It gave us enthusiasm to keep going.”
John adds: “We don’t do what we do for recognition. I do what I do to help build a better Middlesbrough. I saw a gap and I thought, ‘I’m going to fill that gap’. Getting an award is very good as our story gets to be known and more people can partner with us so we can do more good.
“The fact that we’re talking a lot and people see our faces is a good thing.
“Even having more black people being featured and photographed is having a positive impact and changing society more.”
Ubuntu offers a range of services from an eco shop where visitors can buy ten items for £2 to language support, help with IT and job applications.
John, who works as a maths tutor at Stockton Riverside College, also runs tutoring sessions at the centre on Wednesdays and Fridays.
“We’re trying to be a stepping stone for our communities,” Irene says.
“Some people out there lack the confidence. We’re trying to help people with basic things.
“If you look at our community, some are pensioners, others are on zero hours contracts, others are students. We help to get them affordable food to savour. We can get 50-60 people a week. It’s not just about the food. It’s about somewhere to come for a conversation.”
Irene explains how mental health is a topic Ubuntu has been working hard on.
“There are different types of support available and often we will just refer someone to the specialist help they need. We just try and provide a space where people can be comfortable.
“This is a space where you can come, you won’t be judged and everything is confidential. We give people support. Some people don’t have families to support them so they rely on us.
“A lady came in here and it turned out she had just lost her mum back in Africa. She was alone here. Back home people wouldn’t grieve alone. They would have others to support them. We gave her space to talk. She told us about her mum, she was mourning and remembering her mum.”
Looking back on his time in Middlesbrough, John says he got involved in community work because he wanted to be a role model.
“It felt like there was something missing. People needed others who looked like them, who understood how they behave. For example if we’re shouting, it doesn’t mean we’re arguing. We’re just being loud!”
John and Irene at the Ubuntu Centre on Clifton Street
Irene laughs when her husband mentions the volume, and reflects on her own five years in the town.
“I love Middlesbrough. I’ve visited so many other cities in England, but after two days I need to go back to Middlesbrough. There’s something here that other towns and cities don’t have. There’s a warmth here. When I first came here maybe it wasn’t like that, but when you find your bearings it becomes so much better.
“It’s the way that people take care of each other here, there’s a real sense of community.”
Ubuntu is certainly adding to that sense of community, breaking down barriers and helping people to understand more about each other.
“The existence of Ubuntu has in some ways changed people’s mindsets,” John says.
“We have surprised people I think. Our friends from the white community have engaged with us and broken that fear that may have been there.
“I feel that I belong here and that’s the reason why I’m doing what I’m doing, because I want to help find solutions for people and for some of the issues we had before.”
For Irene, Ubuntu’s “lived experience” is crucial.
“When you look at our board of directors we have people who have been asylum seekers or refugees,” she says.
“We know what people are going through, we have been there. It gives us a better chance to support them. We can make a connection and understand people’s chances.
“Ubuntu means I am because we are. What you do, contributes to what I am. So if we work together we achieve more. That togetherness is so important. We can’t do this alone.”
We are words by Andrew Glover.
We are images by Joanne Coates and Andrew Glover.