I’ve been thinking about my dad a lot lately and it wasn’t until a few promotional emails pinged into my inbox from various brands that I remembered it was Father’s Day.
My father passed away over 15 years ago whilst I was in my final year of university, so I guess I somehow managed to scrub this particular date from my brain.
Here’s the thing about African dads. Well MY African dad anyway.
He definitely wouldn’t have remembered it was Father’s Day.
Not because he didn’t care, but because he just wasn’t overly sentimental and was more of a big picture thinker. He would rather focus on things that didn’t centre him and would also encourage us to focus on things with a bigger world impact. Talk less and do more.
He was also pretty strict so we didn’t exactly spend much time just hanging out. Especially in my earlier years when good children were pretty much only seen and not heard.
But it wasn’t so much my dad’s strict rules or wonderful world views that intrigued me the most.
It was his magic.
By spells I mean the way that he could pretty much capture the attention and steal the heart of every person he engaged with and have them roaring with laughter within the first 15 mins of meeting him.
My dad, Mazi Jerry Okoro, was the ultimate connector.
And not in the surface-level way we tend to think about connections on social media now, but in a way that meant he could always find some common ground and a deeper connection with practically everyone he met regardless of where in the world they were from.
My dad had charisma for days and, even as a young child, I could see that he was a flawless communicator.
Here’s the thing about great communications: It has the power to completely lift a mood, shift a perspective, pacify an argument and spark change IF the communicator is just as committed to listening to their conversation partner as they are to speaking.
I often wondered where my learnt these spells of connection and communication.
Was it his formative years in our native Nigeria gingering up the community to build each other up through bettering the local area, lobbying local government to build safer roads or better education resources from a young age?
Perhaps it was in his role as African Correspondent for the London Times – where I imagine being one of the first black man on staff at a major news outlet in the 60’s interviewing some pretty unpredictable and powerful leaders such as Idi Amin and Muhammad Ali – he got to fine tune his rapport building quickly and communicating without judgement of controversial views.
Or maybe it was his extensive world travels that helped him understand the lived experiences of those from different cultures and proudly share parts of his own that connect us all as humans – even if it felt risky or radical to speak up in the moment.
You see – my African dad loved a good old debate.
He loved to host them, lead them, watch them and critique them.
It was incredible to watch and, I guess it was skill I subconsciously tasked myself to learn from the side-lines from a young age. I would occasionally sneak into the ‘grown ups’ living room when we had guests and listen to them converse about politics, race and ‘the good times’ in Nigeria for as long as I could before getting booted out and forced to hang with the rest of the kids.
It seemed like my siblings and cousins had already accepted their place in the kids living room, but a bit like dad, I was pretty stubborn so I always felt like I was missing out on all the real action with the adults.
That was until I mastered one of his own spells for myself and found a small way to connect with dad which firmly secured my spot in the adult living room once a week.
When his Sunday papers got delivered I would run downstairs, pick up the heavy package and hand deliver it to him myself. Then I would wait patiently cross-legged on the floor next to him and request the Funday Times – a cartoon supplement for kids that made the week’s news digestible and fun to understand – then read it right there whilst he devoured the large sheets of of the main paper. That became our new routine when dad was in town.
On the rare occasion mum allowed us to sleep in on Sundays instead of going to church, I would come downstairs to find he had already pulled out the cartoon supplement and had sat it on the little foot stool next to his big armchair ready for me and we’d enjoy a mini debate of the news post read.
As a journalist turned political adviser, my African dad would share insights into why the speakers on TV used those specific words in their speech and the desired outcome. As I got older, he explained the importance of intentions and the power of words to be able to either connect or disconnect a community.
He once told me that if I want to work in media – I had just started my communications work experience in college at the time – then I would need to get comfortable being uncomfortable at work pretty quick.
He said that I would need to have thicker skin because of the skin I am in and that my smarts may invite jealousy from some people who may see my ambition as an act of defiance as to what black women should be able to achieve. He reminded me that if that happened it wasn’t my issue to worry about, but their own.
He told me to never forget that, whether I intended to or not, in these circles I would be responsible for the perception of a race that is poorly represented and that I shouldn’t take that responsibility lightly. He told me it was an exciting opportunity – NOT to conform – but to actually disrupt the narrative with my brilliance.
Looking back now I guess he sometimes enjoyed using his silver tongue to ruffle some feathers, especially if it encouraged broader thinking about the world’s issues and how you show up for yourself and your community.
My African dad will hear this now, but there are 3 lessons (I like to call them ‘magic tricks’) that he unknowingly taught me through his words and actions:
Magic Trick 1
Never be scared to speak up for what is true.
Not what is right or popular, or keeps the peace, but what is actually real.
Real emotions, real hurt, joy and/or real injustice.
This may cost you something. Friends, opportunities, money – but it’s a natural filter of what is meant for you.
Magic Trick 2
Believe (and behave) like you belong.
Show up as your damn self always – no apologies.
Release the need for validation or external acceptance to remind you that you belong here. Don’t waste time and energy trying to be acknowledged or begging for a seat at the table.
Build your own table and invite others to sit with you.
Magic Trick 3
Community comes first.
There is a power in building up your community’s economic wealth as well as feeding into the society you currently live in. Proactively contribute to the lives of your family and do your best to better the communities from which you originally came from. Lead the charge.
Don’t wait for a knight in shining armour to do it for you. Invite them to help, not solve the problem.
Gratitude For These Spells
As a black business leader in Britain, who is no stranger to microaggressions climbing the corporate ladder before starting my own company, I now carry these magic tricks with me everywhere I go.
I am so grateful to have them in my tool kit as they are the driving force of everything I do in my business and bigger life.
These magic tricks are my daily reminders to keep going as I encourage and mentor women of all backgrounds to become economically empowered through entrepreneurship inside my Savvy Startup Club.
I often wonder what my African dad would make of the modern day lynchings, perhaps reminiscent of the ones he may have witnessed in the 60’s, that black people are still experiencing today.
I wonder what he would make of the lack of compassion we witness from our appointed world leaders daily towards BAME communities and the lack of listening in leadership that leads to more pain and more broken systems.
I wonder what he would make of the brutally honest conversations that we are all now having around race and the deep systemic changes that are now possible if we do more and talk less.
Above all this though – even in all the madness of the world right now – I mainly just wonder what it would be like to give him a long tight hug (even a virtual one if it was possible) and remind him that we miss him and wish him a Happy Father’s Day this Sunday.
I guess in some strange way, I just did.
Written by Irene Moore. Entrepreneur + Business Coach