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This is home: Sam Valiant, second-generation Bengali in Bow

Roman Road local Sam Valiant speaks about choosing his own family in Bow, reclaiming ownership of public spaces and how to build bridges between secluded communities.

Sam Valiant, 37, lives with his parents and younger brother just off the Roman. Valiant’s parents moved to East London in the 70s from Bangladesh, before having Valiant and his five younger siblings and building their family in Bow. He’s involved in just about as many community initiatives across our borough as is possible for one man, and if time allowed it, you can be sure he’d be embarking on at least half a dozen more. 

We meet in Valiant’s office in Limehouse Town Hall where he works as a part-time events manager as well as a handyman, teacher and campaigner, fighting to save the hall from development and preserve it as a community space. Valiant is also the founder and technical manager of Radiance Audio, a company providing sound equipment for events, and somehow finds time to squeeze in a few shifts at the Library of Things in Hackney Wick and Dalston. His current halo project runs ‘gender fuckery’ free workshops teaching women how to use power tools, and men how to cook and change nappies.

Every surface of Valiant’s office is covered with relics of past campaigns, ongoing ventures, or future projects that he’s involved in. He admits that his life – and office – might look a little chaotic to an outsider, but Valiant is someone who gets his dopamine hits from checking off tasks from a seemingly never-ending ‘To Do’ list, which is always in the service of others.  

While chatting to Valiant, his visions and dreams for Bow and the wider area seem to bubble up inside him. His enthusiasm for the local community is infectious.  

What is your earliest memory? 

‘We moved to Bow from Shadwell when I was about one. I think one of my first memories was my Dad taking me to the market when I was about six or seven and buying me this little scooter that I would ride around the local area and just go off with my friends exploring. Back then we would just disappear for the entire day and my mum would just come out to the balcony of our block of flats and shout my name when she wanted me to come home.’

What meal makes you feel especially at home?

‘Most meals we make are a bit of a clash of cultures: one of my sisters loves making shepherd’s pie and my parents really love spicy food so we’ve started mixing the two and doing dishes like spicy shepherd’s pie or lasagne with Asian spices. Most of the time though, there are always several forms of curry to choose from. Food and sharing probably is the biggest part of Bangladeshi culture and my upbringing.’

What’s it like being the eldest of six siblings?

‘I was one of the eldest of the Asian families in our immediate area, so my mum would send me out with shopping lists to do chores for all the other families. Back then many of our dads used to work in restaurants out of town so they’d be away for five or six days a week and it’d be up to the eldest sons to go and do the shopping for the families and that sort of stuff. For my whole life it’s always been about helping others, fixing things, and doing odd jobs. 

‘It’s almost like there was a recipe that my parents were trying to work towards, and they started off with me and tweaked the formula as they went down my three sisters and younger brothers. Then you’ve got my youngest brother who’s about 10 years younger than everyone else and he’s a mixture of all of us, so I think they finally got it right.’

What did you enjoy about your school days?

‘I went to probably one of the nicest primary schools ever. I went to Olga Primary School, and back then it was a fairly small school all in one single-storey building. There was no uniform and you referred to your teachers by their first names. I think Olga has always been really good and helping children with special needs. At the time there weren’t many special needs schools so our classes were a lot more diverse, which meant that people were helping each other a lot more, there were also masses of green areas and playground space so I have really fond memories of that. I even went back and helped set up a theatre company for a while.’

What does family mean to you?

‘To me, the term family is a little different from what other people may say. To me, family is anyone that I care about that cares about me, so I’ve got loads of chosen family, and loads of friends who might put me as their next of kin on a form. 

‘I didn’t have anywhere near the same upbringing that my parents did. I’ve grown up with a mix of Bangladeshi and Western cultures, and it’s nice because my siblings and I all appreciate slightly different parts of those cultures. 

‘When I grew up, people thought there was a world of difference between Muslim families and Cockney families, and now you look at how both sets of families live, and how important the matriarch is, how we share food, and how we treat each other, there are actually a great deal of similarities. 

‘In this day and age we’re all sharing our different religions and cultural differences, so I celebrate Christmas with friends, and then they’ll come and celebrate Eid and Ramadan with me, I’ve even got some friends who aren’t Muslim who tried fasting with me this year.’

What’s the most adventurous thing you’ve ever done?

‘I used to be part of a street theatre and activism group called Space Hijackers. We did a lot of actions around reclaiming public space. About 12 years ago we acquired a tank and drove it to the G20 protest dressed as riot squad while blasting out loud ‘Ride of the Valyries’ to make a statement about the way that policing was headed. In those years the police suddenly went from having your Vauxhall Vectras or Ford Mondeos to having American-style SUVs that were armoured, so we were like, do people not see that they’re becoming a militarised force? 

‘So when we got arrested for impersonating the police, that just proved our point. Luckily all the charges were dropped and the case didn’t go to trial, but I think it’s super important to stand up for what you believe and to realise how many of our rights have been squandered away quietly. Just look at what’s happening at the moment with the strikes.’

How free do you feel to be your authentic self?

‘I feel fairly free to be my authentic self. I think it’s a difficult question to answer as someone who’s grown up bi-culturally because you’re constantly trying to ride the line between who you are, what you’re learning, and what you want to do, how you fit in etc. 

‘I feel like I am a part of Bow to some extent, because a lot of people you meet, you can sense they’re here temporarily or because it’s the only place they could find. Some people have been here all their lives but all they do is moan about how it’s changed, but I’m just like: I’m here, I grew up here, I love it here. I like how it’s always changing. It’s a really vibrant and diverse place with people from all walks of life. There are so many different food, art and culture options all around you and it just feels like a safer place to live.

‘Sure, it’d be nice if we could have lots more affordable housing. It’d be nice if we could have this type of shop or that type of restaurant, or more community centers, but I’m part of the journey and I’m getting involved. I have a say about what’s happening in my local area and I feel like I’m a part of that, hopefully others do too.’ 

What’s Bow’s best-kept secret?

‘I absolutely adore the canal system. I love going for walks and bike rides along it, I feel safe along the canals in a way that I didn’t use to in the parks. I love seeing all the boaters and interacting with them. My dream if I could afford it would be to get a nice big wide beam and set up a wood workshop and just travel up and down the canals fixing things for people.’

What is the best way to bridge cultural divides between people?

‘Break bread with people. Invite them into different things.’ 

‘People say that Tower Hamlets is a multicultural place and I agree and disagree with that statement. Yes, you’ve got pockets of people from all over the world and from different backgrounds, but at the same time, there are individual pockets that don’t have a lot of cross-collaboration going on and I’d really love to get beyond having specific places for specific groups of people. 

‘Here at Limehouse Town Hall, we put on a Christmas Nativity a few years ago. The performers were mostly queer, we had Bengali women from Stitches In Time making the costumes, and the whole thing was translated into Bengali. And a lot of the mums who came to see it said that they’d been going to the school shows for years with their kids but they’d never once understood it, so to have it translated into Bengali for them was a really beautiful thing. They were laughing, they were really enjoying it. And it just opened my eyes to how much more needs to be done to create spaces where everyone feels like they have a sense of ownership. And that’s how we respect each other because if we keep things separated, you don’t get that chance to get to know people and only when you know someone can you truly respect who they are.’ 

When is your birthday and what’s your favourite way of celebrating it?

‘My birthday is at the end of April. I don’t really see it about me so much; I like to do charitable gifts on my birthday so normally will go and volunteer at a homeless shelter or food bank or something. This year I’ll probably be hosting a big fundraiser event upstairs with the PartyUtility here at Limehouse Town Hall to raise money to keep this community building open.’

Interesting surname, where’s it from?

‘It’s not my real name. Sam’s not even my real name! S-a-m is my initials and when I was in primary school they couldn’t fit my full name on the register so they just put my initials which spell Sam, so that’s just what everyone called me. Valiant was my online name from decades ago that I would use for usernames and stuff so it’s just sort of how everyone knows me. 

‘Then my second name is kind of a funny story. Well, it’s probably sadder than it is funny but I applied for this job out of college using my government name, and the job was literally tailor-made for me but I didn’t get it. So prompted by friends I applied for the job again using the name I now go by and the exact same application and guess what? I got offered the job. Thankfully times are changing.’

What would your message be to the next generation?

‘Get therapy, heal, diversify your skills, learn to do things with your hands and worry less what others may think. Be true to yourself. I’ve spent my life learning new skills, upcycling things and doing permaculture projects. Over lockdown, I learned how to grow food, mend clothes and how to build stuff like lithium batteries and generators so I’ll be ready should the apocalypse come. I love learning new things I guess.’ He laughs.

If you enjoyed this piece, you can find another article from our ‘This is Home’ series about Bow Sikh couple Jagmohan and Shinder Bhakar.

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