One morning in July 2019, the body of a homeless man named Mustafa Sevimli was found wrapped in blankets at a bus stop opposite a vintage-clothes shop in Dalston, East London.
Sevimli was an alcoholic heroin addict who had come to the UK from Turkey in the 1970s and spent years bouncing between prison, hostels and nursing homes. But his very public death was disconcerting for residents of the streets where he had been sleeping rough.
One local was particularly upset. Ngozi Fulani had walked past Sevimli daily en route from her home to the headquarters of Sistah Space, a domestic abuse charity she runs.
Calling his fate an ‘avoidable tragedy’, she decided to raise money to install a ‘memorial plaque or bench’ to pay tribute to him.
Ngozi Fulani (right) is, of course, the charity worker at the centre of an explosive royal scandal that occurred in late November following a reception at Buckingham Palace where Susan Hussey (left) had approached her at the event and repeatedly (and somewhat tactlessly) asked ‘where are you really from?’
‘This homeless man was clearly unable to take care of himself,’ read her page on a crowd-funding section of the website JustGiving. ‘Allowed to exist on the ground at a bus stop, sleeping in his own filth, [he] is a testament to what is wrong with the world today.’
The heart-rending appeal was reported by the Hackney Gazette, ensuring that, by the end of August, well-meaning supporters had donated £1,570. At this point, according to JustGiving, all of the cash was transferred to a bank account nominated by Ms Fulani.
And then? Well that’s where things get interesting. For today, more than three years down the line, there is absolutely no sign of any ‘plaque or bench’ materialising.
We will come back to the question of why in a minute. But first, a word about Ngozi Fulani, whose name may ring a bell.
She is, of course, the charity worker at the centre of an explosive royal scandal that occurred in late November following a reception at Buckingham Palace. It was alleged that an 83-year-old courtier, the late Queen’s most senior lady-in-waiting, Susan Hussey, had approached her at the event and repeatedly (and somewhat tactlessly) asked ‘where are you really from?’
The ensuing hoo-ha saw Lady Hussey, a lifelong servant of the Crown, agree to ‘step aside’ with immediate effect. She has since offered ‘sincere apologies’ to the charity boss at a photo call staged by the Palace, but her longer-term future within the royal fold remains unclear, although there has been talk of an invitation to the Coronation.
Fulani has also experienced unwelcome fallout from the affair.
In the sewers of social media, she and Sistah Space were at the wrong end of some vile racist abuse. And elsewhere, her professional life has been subjected to legitimate, if awkward, scrutiny.
All of which brings us back to Mustafa Sevimli. For it is unclear what, if anything, became of his memorial. Today, the bus stop where the homeless man perished is covered by advertising posters; surrounding pavements do not contain a commemorative bench.
Sources at Hackney Council say they have no knowledge of any ongoing attempt to install a tribute in his memory, beyond some discussions between the appeal’s organiser and Transport for London in late 2019.
And the £1,570 that was so generously donated to the cause? Its fate is currently unclear. While it is, of course, perfectly possible that the cash was donated to another good cause, a spokesman for Fulani did not answer questions on the matter.
Fulani has also experienced unwelcome fallout from the affair. In the sewers of social media, she and Sistah Space were at the wrong end of some vile racist abuse
In fairness, the charity boss has an awful lot on her plate. For the main non-profit organisation overseen by Ms Fulani is now facing extensive scrutiny.
Before Christmas, the Charity Commission began investigating concerns about ‘governance and accounting matters’ at her charity, Sistah Space, which helps women of colour who are at risk of domestic abuse.
That probe has now concluded. Although it should be stressed that — here and elsewhere — there is absolutely no suggestion or evidence of illegal behaviour by Fulani or anyone else connected with the charity, the organisation is now being offered ‘regulatory advice and guidance’.
‘We have carefully reviewed and assessed concerns raised about Sistah Space, and, as a result, have written to the trustees,’ says the Commission. ‘This includes advice around how to prepare annual accounts, and the importance of filing these on time, as well as around managing any conflict of interest.’
Elsewhere, questions are also being raised in the London Assembly, where lawmakers are trying to get to the bottom of how thousands of pounds handed over to Fulani’s charity via taxpayer grants was spent.
The fate of the cash first came under the spotlight in the wake of the Lady Hussey incident, when Neil Garratt, a Conservative member of the assembly who sits on its audit committee, sought clarification as to the fate of a tranche of public cash that, according to public records, went to Sistah Space.
‘I have asked the Chief Finance Officer to look into this issue and report back as soon as possible,’ he said.
To understand how things have come to this, one need only leaf through the most recent set of financial records Sistah Space filed with the Charity Commission last April, more than two months after the required deadline.
Containing basic errors, the nine-page document raises legitimate questions about Sistah Space’s stewardship of almost £350,000 that, according to the charity’s accounts, may have gone through its bank account in the last financial year.
Lady Hussey has since offered ‘sincere apologies’ to the charity boss (circled left) at a photo call staged by the Palace
Perhaps the most striking question revolves around the money that Sistah Space — which describes Fulani as its founder and chief executive, and her daughter Djanomi as one of its ‘domestic violence advisers’ — claims to be paying staff.
According to tables on page seven and eight of the accounts, its annual outlay on salaries and National Insurance has been declared as £0.00 for each of the past four years.
Yet on page five, a different spreadsheet states that, in fact, the charity spent £26,950 on salaries in the past 12 months.
Self-evidently, these figures can’t both be true. Or, to put things another way, one of the most important numbers in the charity’s main financial accounting document must be inaccurate.
Then there is the small matter of who actually keeps an eye on the tens of thousands of pounds that appear to come and go from Sistah Space’s coffers each year.
Under UK law, any charity that has income of more than £25,000 is required to undergo an ‘independent examination’ of its finances.
The process, which is less onerous than a full audit, must be carried out by someone who is not involved in the organisation’s day-to-day decision-making, and can therefore investigate without fear or favour. Yet, awkwardly, the supposedly independent examiner who signed off Sistah Space’s most recent accounts happens to be Ngozi Fulani herself.
She, of course, is the organisation’s chief executive with direct personal responsibility for all of its day-to-day affairs.
Moreover, the organisation not only boasts her daughter Djanomi as a staffer, but also seems to have collaborated with another daughter, Aduwa — the charity has tweeted pictures and videos of her at its events. She is a reggae singer who performs under the stage name Stushie. And Ngozi’s twin sister Maxine makes handmade African dolls that are sold on Sistah Space’s website. Again, it is not suggested that any of the family members have acted unlawfully or inappropriately.
The charity, to its credit, accepts there are shortcomings in its governance, blaming problems on the fact it has expanded very rapidly in recent years. And that much is certainly true.
Prior to the Covid pandemic, it was a relatively tiny organisation. However, since then it has come into huge amounts of cash.
Much of it was raised via crowd-funding appeals following the death of George Floyd, when many charities serving minority communities benefited from significant public goodwill.
During the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 for example, it opened a page on the GoFundMe website seeking donations to launch a ‘safe space for African heritage domestic violence survivors’. The appeal described Sistah Space as ‘a small charity with one paid worker’ — though its annual accounts, of course, say otherwise — and raised an impressive £122,000.
Awkwardly, the supposedly independent examiner who signed off Sistah Space’s most recent accounts happens to be Ngozi Fulani herself
Early this year, Sistah Space set up another GoFundMe page, soliciting donations for a ‘black women’s short-stay refuge’. Some £31,000 was donated. And this summer, a third appeal was opened, this time on JustGiving, seeking £100,000 for a ‘refuge’. It has so far raised just over £40,000.
Not all of its fundraising methods appear to be compliant with standard charity practice, however. The Fundraising Regulator, which oversees the charity sector, has since last November carried Sistah Space on its register of organisations that are failing to adhere to its ‘service code’. It appears to have broken rules involving unsolicited marketing literature.
The charity is relatively young, too. Founded in 2015, and registered as a charity in 2018, Sistah Space’s official remit is to help victims of domestic violence from London’s African and Caribbean communities.
However, in recent years it has also devoted significant energies to wider campaigns.
Recent months have, for example, seen Sistah Space’s Twitter feed claim that the Duchess of Sussex ‘is a survivor of domestic violence from her in-laws’ — which, one might argue, is a remarkably insensitive remark, given the charity’s role.
The Twitter feed, which Fulani appears to run personally, has also pursued vigorous complaints against the cab company Uber, after she had an unsatisfactory journey in one of its vehicles, and a hotel chain in Bristol where she claimed to have been overcharged for rooms.
So who is the woman at the centre of this storm? Born in 1961, Fulani actually grew up with a different name: Marlene Headley.
Her parents Gladstone and Mildred were Windrush immigrants who came to the UK from Barbados after World War II and settled in Willesden, North London, where they had seven children.
She appears to have adopted ‘Ngozi’ (which means ‘blessing’ in Igbo, a language spoken in Nigeria) in the early 1980s; around the same time she decided to join an African music collective called Emashi, which was financed largely by Hackney Council. In addition to running the group for the ensuing three decades, she worked as a dance, speech and drama teacher in local schools.
Since then, despite her Caribbean heritage, she has worn clothes from Ethiopia, Ghana, and Nigeria to public events, saying on a website promoting herself as an ‘actor and performer’ that: ‘I have waist-length dreadlocks [and] a very extensive wardrobe of African, Caribbean and Western clothes.’
For the visit to Buckingham Palace that threw her into the public eye, she wore an animal print dress and a necklace of cowrie shells, which may partly explain why Lady Hussey chose to ask where she hailed from.
Tracing other aspects of her life and career is not easy, partly because of the variety of names Fulani has used. In recent years these have included Ngozi Headley-Fulani, Mary Headley, Mary Fulani, Mary Headley-Fulani and Sister Ngozi.
At the time of her marriage, to one Paul Fulani in 1990, she gave her maiden name as Ngozi M. P. Headley. They went on to have four children. Paul remarried in 1995.
In the mid-2000s, she began working as a marriage and funeral registrar and celebrant for Hackney Council. She also moved into her current home, a terrace property owned by the Peabody housing association on a street in East London, where similar houses fetch up to £1.5 million.
When Sistah Space originally came into existence, it survived on a shoestring: its entire income for 2018 was just £14,000. The following year, its income was £19,000.
Then came the pandemic, during which huge grants suddenly became available to organisations that had the wherewithal to apply for them. Virtually overnight, Sistah Space started spending large amounts of cash. In 2020, income increased to £231,000. The following year, it increased again, this time to £356,000.
Some of the extra funds came from the crowdfunding appeals mentioned earlier. Some came via grants.
For example, Sistah Space received £12,000 from the Mayor of London’s ‘citizen-led engagement programme’ to carry out a ‘community-led research project’ which then seems to have been carried out, in part, via a free online polling website. Public records also state that the London Assembly handed over £40,000 to Sistah Space via its ‘grow back greener fund’, designed to help local communities plant trees, although City Hall sources now tell me that those records may be inaccurate.
Elsewhere Comic Relief handed over £60,000 to help Sistah Space ‘increase outreach’ partly by making its website more ‘user friendly’. A charity called the London Community Foundation gave a series of five-figure grants including £22,500, largely earmarked to buy four laptop computers and four mobile telephones for members of its staff.
If you trust the financial accounts, then Sistah Space’s spending rocketed during this period, from £18,000 in 2018 to £163,000 three years later.
In 2020, Sistah Space spent a mere £1,131 on ‘administration’. The following year, it ploughed through £54,330 for the same thing, an increase of more than 5,000 per cent. Lately, the organisation has tried to blame the inconsistencies in its accounts on incompetence, exacerbated by the pandemic.
This certainly seems credible. Its 2021 report contains a note detailing an ’emergency financial management meeting’ at which it was explained that the Covid pandemic had meant most staff ‘were on extended leave’ including its finance officer, who eventually resigned.
His replacement was then ‘overwhelmed by the sudden increase in our accounts and unfamiliar with procedures for charities’. The charity also complained of ‘problems’ with the Commission’s website which contributed to its severe delay in filing accounts.
In a statement, Sistah Space elaborates: ‘In our March 2021 trustee report to the Charity Commission, we were open and transparent about the staffing problems we have faced since the start of the pandemic, which led to some issues with the reporting of our accounts, but we have since engaged an independent accounting firm with the aim that won’t happen again.
‘We will of course co-operate with any inquiries from the Charity Commission and anybody we have received grants from which have allowed us to help so many women and children who have endured unspeakable torment.’
Whether that will be enough to silence critics is another question.
And with regulators and politicians now keeping a beady eye on her charity’s affairs, Ngozi Fulani is entitled to wonder if her recent brush with controversy was really worth it.
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