Today is the fifth of November, a day that has grown in personal significance for me over the years. Today I remember and celebrate two women who in their own ways have done so much to make me who I am today. They have been ever-present (and still are), and I had to write something to mark their birthdays, which by random chance coincide on the same day.
First, there is my biological mother, Nkoyo Toyo (of whom I have written before here). She has been a relentless force in my life, driving me to strive, to dare, to get shit done. Never one for philosophising, her philosophy is action—just do it. I used to scoff at this approach, perceiving a weakness in her eagerness to start doing before spending as much time as possible to think through all the possible ramifications of the course she was about to take. But now, approaching my 40s, I have come to see her approach as the distillation of all of the ancient philosophical traditions.
Our actions are our philosophy; everything else is just fancy words. What you do is the revelation of what you believe in your core. My mom was hip to this from the jump, and she never wasted a second overthinking an issue before executing. Before it was cool to say that success is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, she was on it, and made it her life story.
If she taught me anything, it was just that—act, start, go! She fought against lazy intellectualising in me. Scandalised by what she saw as my passive attitude growing up, she basically seared the words BE ASSERTIVE into my brain with her relentless repetition of them. Standing at a bank counter or airport terminal with someone trying to take me for a ride, I would hear her bark: “Be assertive! Be assertive! Be assertive!” She meant don’t just accept the outcomes that confront you, grapple with life, make it difficult for anyone to tell you you can’t have something you want.
And that’s been her life mantra: action and assertiveness. She has demonstrated this in her track record of conceiving and driving new projects. Her gigs have included: being a banker (Mercantile Bank, now defunct); a salon owner (called Malaika after my sister), a restaurateur (The Barracuda in Surulere sold the meanest Efik edesi isip (coconut rice) in Lagos), a kilishi merchant (years before the nicely wrapped packs of kilishi appeared in places like Shoprite, she had the idea that kilishi could become a retail hit like beef jerky overseas), an alcohol distiller and merchant (she has the idea that Grade A ogogoro can be a multi-billion dollar export opportunity in the same way that tequila from Mexico is), a development professional, a barrister, an ambassador, a member of the House of Representatives, and a bunch of other things I have no idea of.
Even now, approaching her mid-60s, she has a new new gig: getting her MPA from Harvard’s Kennedy School. In her telling, it is “something to inspire my grandkids.” Apparently, before her grandkids come of age, this “inspiration” is my problem, because I am now expected to do something about my “lack of masters.”
Her fierce determination to waste no time and drive forward has been a constant refrain in my life. Whenever my natural tendency to shrink myself or to overthink things rears its head, I hear her voice tell me to “be assertive” and remember the many attempts—which necessarily come with many failings—that seeded all her successes, and I act.
My second mom is Eka Williams (Nkoyo’s elder sister and my aunt). I have known her my whole life, but we only got to kick it from my late teens into my twenties. At age 18, I was deposited in her home in a green Johannesburg suburb to start my journey into adulthood. Released from the expectant glare of demanding Nigerian parents (yes, including that mother I love so much) and in a new country, I slowly lost my mind, stumbling through school (I did make it eventually after one exclusion and three different faculties), becoming a full-time loafer in and out of jobs and in and out of her home, and, eventually, figuring things out and getting on the mends.
That was a long seven year process (which feels like a lifetime when you are in your early 20s). But throughout, in her awkward way, she was the epitome of patience and solicitude, a homing beacon in a foreign country and a sort of guiding angel, a physical and spiritual connection to the family back home, a reminder of the expectations of my family and that, however bent I got, I had to right myself and find my way back home, often literally to her house, where there was a warm bed, a meal with the right amount of cassava and palm oil, and some desperately needed cash.
Her life was an example of how to patiently build for the long term. Utterly dedicated to her career, a careful manager of her finances (mistaken for stinginess by unwise types who now depend on her largesse for their sustenance, a largesse afforded her by the same frugality they once derided), content and self-possessed, I could not ask for a better role model of how to be an adult, how to keep things heading in the right direction at all times, and how to enjoy life’s simple pleasures. Perhaps her greatest legacy is inculcating me into the cult of wine drinking, a practice which I will most assuredly take to my grave.
In her late 50s and already enjoying a distinguished career, she enrolled for and earned a Masters in Public Health. I assume she did this for shits and giggles, because I couldn’t tell you what she planned to do with it in addition to her PhD in Immunology. Ah, but there are those grandkids again.
Today is their birthdays. Unfortunately, I cannot join either of them physically to celebrate this day together. But this post, I hope, expresses something of what I feel for these bookish, accomplished, striving, caring, totally dope women who, though quite different—Eka is quiet, deliberate and unassuming, Nkoyo is stylistically the equivalent of a bazooka—embraced me with a deep, unmistakeable love. If I could give my daughters one thing as they grow into their adulthood, it would be this same gift of the feeling of inimitable love I enjoyed (and still enjoy) from my two mothers.
Today, I drink to their healths — wine, of course.