This essay is part of Fashion in Isolation, a special issue on the intimate, contradictory, and ultimately inescapable relationship we have to what we wear.
I recently discovered that if I shut my eyes long enough and let my mind wander, I can conjure detailed memories of my childhood. The farther I let my mind drift—unfettered from the toneless life I’m habituating in this pandemic, in a country thousands of miles from home—the clearer they become.
Like a butterfly riding on a harmattan wind, my mind takes me back to the small, unhurried town of my birth, Akwanga, Nigeria. I travel past the evergreen Mada Hills and the swamps of Ungwan Rimi, sprawling with tender rice and guinea corn seedlings. I am close enough to smell the blooming scent of the lemongrass plants that surround its perimeters.
I travel to 2001, the year we moved into our new house—the one people walked into with mouths agape and eyes searching for stories to tell. It’s a Sunday morning, our house is jam-packed with family and friends, and it’s my brother Solomon’s christening.
“Inna! Innanoshe! Zo nan ka taimake ni ku’lai abun nan,” I hear my mother say to me in Hausa. I walk in with a bounce in my gait, adorned in the matching carton-brown, military-style safari suit she’d gotten my brothers and I the week before. She’s seated in front of a full-size mirror in her room, and I reach for her girdle to help her hook it. I stretch the last of it with all the strength my eight-year-old body can muster, but my hands weaken and slip from the shea butter on her skin. Her breath grows louder before she snaps, “Didn’t you eat this morning? Pull it harder!” I never understood why she had to wear this belt, one that was hard to wear and uncomfortable, when Daddy didn’t. “He has a big belly too,” I once remarked. “He’s a man,” she briskly said. “Besides, big men like your father are expected to have big bellies as evidence of the good life they’re living. Otherwise, his people will say that I’m not a good wife.”
A few weeks ago, I heard her telling her elder sister over the landline, “He invited Abigail.” Daddy’s mistress—the “yellow” ( or light-skinned) one he built a house and bought a car for—would be at the naming ceremony. Abigail is Eggon, the same ethnicity as Mummy, and has her body type too. But Mummy is younger and has long, thick hair. Abigail, on the other hand, is ten or so shades lighter, “but never the brightest bulb in the room,” as Mummy once said.
I sit upright on the edge of her king-sized bed to avoid creasing my suit as I watch her slip into the iro and buba, sewed using the Swiss lace Mrs. Nwodu, her fabric dealer, promised would turn heads. When she visited, Mummy had asked for something that would make her stand out amongst the sea of guests. Mrs. Nwodu lifted up a heavy-looking, lavishly embroidered gold lace. “My Swiss supplier custom-made this pattern for me. You’ll never see it anywhere,” she quipped, “not even your Oga’s yellow friend knows where to find something like this.”
Ceremonial etiquette in Nigeria dictate that a husband and wife are to wear matching outfits to family events or when marking milestones. Mummy got the lace, knowing that Daddy would never wear any baban riga made of such fabric.
Before the ceremony, I notice she needs help with tying her aligogoro, or gele—as southern Nigerians call the elaborate headdress. These were the days when the volume and richness of a woman’s aligogoro symbolized her status in society. I secure the different layers and structures she’s building with office pins, as she wraps and contorts the stiff fabric around her head. It’s the intricately hand-woven type, in purple, with generous gold accents to match her lace.
I steal glances at her from the mirror, as the rustling sounds of the headdress fill the silence between us. My mother is beautiful, with skin as dark as night. She embodies a starry sky—bright and vibrant—with a clever mind beyond telling. But just as her headdress begins to take the desired shape, she slowly lets out a smile that reveals things about her that I didn’t inherit; her perfectly molded nose and deep-set eyes that make her look many years younger. Instead, I have Daddy’s nose—the type that flattens at the top when you laugh—and the unremarkable smile of his people. I’m awash with dread and a piercing sense of betrayal as I see his reflection in my face.
This Sunday morning, we all have a role to play. My older brother Reuben and I, respectful and obedient; Mummy, a happy and complete woman with three beautiful sons, a husband that provides, and a teaching career she enjoys; and Daddy could be the head of the family, a husband, father, or a friend to Abigail. When it suits him, like this morning, he can be all at the same time.
At the church, in the full glare of our friends, family, and well-wishers, we dance our way to the front, as the women’s fellowship sings in Hausa about Esther, the virtuous woman. As we turned to face the congregation, my eyes dart around the multitude of faces, searching for Abigail. And there she is, fair and almost beautiful, seated two rows behind Uncle Amos. She’s wearing a nicely tailored blouse in a fabric I’ve seen before. I turn to my left as Daddy begins speaking into the microphone. Then it strikes me: He’s wearing a darker version of the blue jacquard she has on. I force a smile on my face as I turn towards Mummy, who’s rocking and soothing Solomon in her arms. She didn’t see that, I think to myself, before letting out a sigh. Except, she did.