The first time my mother told me the name she gave me means love, I cringed. “Ifunanya, so that love can follow you wherever you go and you can bring love to others too.” As a fairly tom-boyish child, this saccharine, odd-sounding name didn’t sit well with me. It took my young mind a while to decide if it’s spelt Ifunaya or Ifunanya and how that affects its pronunciation.
I couldn’t come to a satisfactory conclusion, so I buried it. As my third name (out of four), it did not come up often anyway, relegated to a need-to-know-basis among certain friends and nosey teachers. That is until P-Square’s hit song by the same name came along in 2007 when I was 11 and in Grade 6, and everyone around me was suddenly singing “Ifunanya, Ifunanya/Because of Ifunanya.” It made me rethink the whole affair. Perhaps there was some social capital to be gained from my being half Kenyan and half something else after all? But that’s a story for another day.
Unlike me, my mother is a performer, a great public speaker. In fact, to me pidgin is inextricably tied to her great storytelling skills. An orator like no other. Before Barack Obama there was my mother. Who can grip a room and play everyone’s emotions like a fiddle. She will do the voices. She will imitate the sounds. She will draw in any audience, Kenyan or otherwise, and feed them what they seek. It’s great to watch it unfold. Many people have been regaled with her tales, probably unsure whether they are false or just greatly exaggerated truths. Or just truths.
I took a trip to Rwanda once with some Kenyan friends. When we went souvenir shopping, they were quickly seduced by the colourful African prints in the market. These vitenge, as they are known in East Africa, are highly valued so they knew they had to get at least one for their mums. As for me I stood there perplexed.
As a child, I remember my mother’s wardrobe as an overflowing waterfall of tightly packed African wax print. Several yards of it. Half-made pieces, pieces from her older sisters passed down to her, pieces awaiting the right time to be taken to the tailor. They all smelled like her. Like Paris by Yves Saint Laurent which she has worn for the past several decades. This wardrobe might as well have been Narnia; a whole world, of endless depth packed to the brim with vibrant prints that match her vibrant personality.
So as I stood in that market watching my friends flip through the different fabrics, checking prices and asking the shopkeeper about discounts, my mind spun. How could I buy my mother, an African print connoisseur, any sort of fabric? Of course my amateur evaluation would fail and I would get her something substandard. It’s like buying a watch for a watchmaker. Impossible. So I bought her a bag instead and dodged that bullet.
Don’t get me wrong, she would have been very happy and grateful with anything I got her. She would have praised my choice and eagerly shown me the designs she’s planning on using the fabric for. Our tastes are totally different though. She prefers bright yellows and pinks and reds. Maroon and gold are her favorite colours. I’m more drawn to the opposite side of the colour spectrum.
Speaking of colour, it’s through my mother that I learned mascara doesn’t have to be black or transparent. It can even be blue. Who’da thunk? She told me how women in Nigeria caked on their makeup. In the oppressive heat, foundation drips down their necks as they attend events dressed to kill, their gele reaching for the sky. If you are stepping out, you must do so in style. And she didn’t tone it down when she made the move from West to East.
My mother once told me “You can’t be dark skinned and also be wearing black all the time”. Having lived with me, she now knows it’s entirely possible, all you need to do is believe in yourself. I believe in myself. And besides, I lack the fashion sense to pull off anything that has more than two to three colours.
Though our fashion tastes run parallel to each other, one thing my mother and I can bond over is literature. When my mother came to Kenya more than three decades ago, she carried all her books with her, including all Chinua Achebe’s bestsellers that she owned, which was almost all of them. She told me, in a twist of fate, that she got them all signed by him on a trip he’d made to Kenya. And so I grew up reading these author-signed tomes that brought me Nigeria in a voice other than my mother’s. “Was it really like that?” I asked her and we would talk about what it was really like for her to grow up in Enugu State, in the Southeastern region of Nigeria.
Girls and their mothers are supposed to have a special bond and though ours is not perfect, I can say I’m definitely one of the lucky ones. More than anyone else in this world my mother has definitely been integral in the formation of my identity. She gave me my name and my frame and I can’t wait to see how our journey together evolves from here.