What does it mean to be a man? Surely, it’s not one thing. It’s a series of little moments that add up. Man Like is a weekly Zikoko series documenting these moments to see how it adds up. It’s a series for men by men, talking about men’s issues. We try to understand what it means to “be a man” from the perspective of the subject of the week.
Today’s Man Like is Yemi Davis, an art director, 3D designer and all-round baby boy. He has been known to collaborate on multiple projects with international brands like British Telecom, USAID, Georgetown University and First Bank, as he continues to explore the unique intersection between art and technology.
In this episode of Man Like, he talks about developing a thick skin after being bullied because of his albinism, growing up as a true omo pastor, how math stopped him from studying robotics and the mental health concern that drove him to therapy.
So Yemi, tell me, what was growing up like?
Growing up was interesting. I’ve got albinism, and when I was younger, I was bullied and called all sorts of names like afin, oyinbo or yellow man. It would annoy the hell out of me. I was also a cry baby so once I heard these names, serious gnashing of teeth. My parents would tell me that these people didn’t know better and crying all the time was not a practical solution. I eventually learnt how to be comfortable with my skin enough to drown out everybody else and their opinions.
I’m curious as to how you found this confidence.
A lot of what I’ve said happened in primary school, but I think I started discovering my confidence halfway through secondary school. This doesn’t mean I wasn’t bullied, I just found a way to trick myself into not thinking too much about it. Plus, there were a lot more pressing issues I needed to focus on.
What other pressing issues again?
So I was absolutely terrible at schoolwork. Fun fact, I failed the math section of my GSCE twice. You know the usual grades are like “A” through to “F”? Well, I got a “U”, which is worse than an “F”. It literally means ungraded, like it wasn’t worth being graded. You might as well not have written anything on the exam paper. How I got into university was a miracle.
The only subjects I was good at were ICT, English and Fine Art. Everything else, zero. My teachers kept telling me there was no way I could make it on just those three subjects, but I already sort of knew the trajectory I wanted my life and career to take. Thankfully, it was in line with the subjects I was good at.
You already knew what you wanted to do with your life in secondary school? Must be nice.
I mean at the time I wanted to study robotics.
Say what now?
I know right. A lot of people didn’t even know what it was at the time. Even my physics teacher was confused. To quote that song, “No one knows what it is, but it’s provocative. It gets the people going.”
So Tony Stark, did you do the robotics thing?
The first time I wrote the GSCEs, I went with my dad to collect the result and as soon as we got there, I knew I had failed. I did well, generally, but math was just my problem. My dad was the first one to see the result and I could smell the disappointment in the air. So basically I had to redo it again and this time, I realised that the sciences were not for me. I loved tech and art, so I had to figure out a way to combine both. I was looking through university brochures and found a course called Graphic Design and New Media, which basically combined the things I love. I looked through the requirements, wrote the second exam and even though I failed math again, I scaled through and got into university. Now, I’m a graduate working as an art director and 3D designer.
Whew. I hate to take you back, but how did the bullying you experienced affect you?
Getting bullied has been a somewhat good and bad experience for me. Good because I now have restraint for certain situations and can handle myself when I’m upset. But at the same time, things that should make me upset tend to just fly over my head. So it’s either I don’t react or I fail to react with the level of intensity I should.
Are there any scenarios you’d like to share?
So when I found out I got a 2:2 for my bachelors, I didn’t feel too bad about it. If anything, it further reinforced the fact that I’m not the best at academics, which honestly, I had come to terms with. Would it have been nice to get a better grade? Yes. But the people who truly mattered (my family) were okay with it and that’s all that mattered.
Normally, I’d be upset about something like that, but what I had gone through turned me into one of those “carpe diem” types of people, so I just try to enjoy the moment and avoid letting negative things get to me, especially when they’re beyond my control.
Wow. But how does this affect your relationship with people?
So I started seeing a therapist when I was in university abroad. I would say I’ve improved quite a bit since that time and now I’m better at feeling things.
As men, we rarely talk about our mental health so I’m intrigued as to what inspired your decision to seek therapy.
When I got to university in the UK, everything felt unreal. There were certain times at night where I felt like I was observing myself from outside my own body and genuinely thought I was losing my mind. I used to run to my friends house because I was scared. I later found this toll free number on campus you could call in when you’re feeling depressed or suicidal. I reached out to them and they suggested I see a therapist who diagnosed me with Depersonalisation Disorder.
Getting this diagnosis helped me really understand what I was going through because while I had been to England frequently as a child, this was my first time here alone and I was just 18 years old. The disorder happens to people when they are placed in places foreign to them and at the time, England was a strange place for me. It was this new environment that was cold as fuck with so many white people in one place. I assumed I had everything under control and I was handling the move well, but apparently I was not. Over time, all my suppressed emotions eventually bubbled up to the surface.
First day at therapy, and I didn’t know when I started crying. Big man like me? I hadn’t cried in years, and I was just there bawling my eyes out. I remember my therapist telling me it was normal to cry. It was a nice opportunity to be vulnerable and also understand that it’s okay to be that open and honest.
How long were you in therapy for?
About two months.
When did you realise you didn’t need it anymore?
So it wasn’t two months back to back, but more like two months worth of therapy spread over a longer period. I stopped going in my second year of university because I felt like I had found my footing.
Have you ever felt the need to go back?
Yes. I probably will, but I’ve been putting it off. Right now, I’m focused on work. I’ve been having this creative block and my head just feels clogged up. I’m sure it’s due to emotions or feelings I haven’t dealt with. I’ll go back soon.
You’ve spoken about being bullied in Nigeria. What was your experience like in the UK?
Much better. I was intentional about having a fresh start and getting to experience other cultures and people. I had friends from all over, and I remember we had this thing where about six of us from different countries would hang out in a flat and basically make food from our different countries. That’s how I got to try sadza, which is like Fufu from Zimbabwe. It was a nice experience.
LOL. Then again, I had some people calling me “Yam” instead of Yemi. I mean, it’s a four letter word. How hard could it be?
Screaming. Have you ever had a “I’m a man now” moment?
That would be when I had to move out of the school dormitory and look for a place of my own after my first year in university. Damn. House hunting was not fun. It was crazy because I was still a stranger in this country, but I had to go get a place, sort out guarantors and sign a lease. It was tedious and made me realise that I was no longer a kid. I had moved from my parents’ house to a dorm and now I had to get a house where all the responsibilities fell on my head. My parents supported with rent, but they still had their own shit in Nigeria, so I eventually got a job to supplement for months when I didn’t get money from them.
What job did you get?
I remember my first job was with Dominos. I didn’t work in the main shop; instead, they made me dress up in a pizza box and just dance on the streets for like five or six hours.
This visual is killing me. Your current career path isn’t the most conventional. How did you sell it to your parents?
They didn’t respond to it badly because even as a child, my dad had a printing press and I used to kick it with the designers. I remember I was already panicking and thinking about how I would convince them, but they were like, “If you’ve prayed about it and it’s what God wants you to do, then fine.”
Awww. So are your parents religious?
Ahhhhhhh. Both my parents are ministers in church.
So you’re like a real omo pastor?
Yeah. When we were younger, we had to go to church. It wasn’t even a question. There was no “My tummy is paining me” or “I have a headache”. As long as you could physically walk, you would be in church. It was interesting and annoying because while everyone left after service, my family would stay back for hundreds of meetings. Church closed at 12 p.m., but we would be there till about 4 p.m. Also, as ministers, my parents got transferred a couple of times, and I didn’t always like the new church.
How did all this moving around affect you?
I missed my friends. We would move to a church, I would make friends and then we would move again. Honestly, it was chaotic. I was able to still keep in touch with some of them via Facebook and BBM because at that time, I wasn’t allowed to go out often.
Why weren’t you going out?
For the most part I didn’t do much going out other than the cinema or to see my friends, and even with these hangouts, I had to book an appointment with my dad days ahead and tell him whose house I was going to and how long I’d be there for. Even after all of this, he would still find a way to scatter everything on that day. That’s why when I got my freedom in university, I went out and did the most. Now my eye don tear.
LOL. Now that you’re a proper adult, what’s your relationship with your parents like?
We’re pretty good now. My dad supports my endeavors, while my mum is the person I go to when it comes to discussing intimate things.
Cool. Talking about spicy intimate things, what’s the dating scene like for you?
Honestly, I’m just being a baby boy, chilling and hanging out with people. My last relationship during the pandemic and she was absolutely wonderful. After that, I just decided to take out time for myself to heal, but now I’m at the point where I can try again.
If you don’t mind me asking, why did it end?
It wasn’t anything crazy, but it’s between the both of us, so I’d rather not get into it.
Fair. So Yemi has entered the streets?
But more specifically, has your albinism affected your dating life?
Honestly… I don’t think it has.
Great. So it’s a new year, what are you excited about?
I definitely want to put out a lot more personal projects this year. Last year was focused on client work, and I didnt get enough time to explore my personal ideas. I also want to put myself out there this year. People always say they don’t know what I look like, and now I’m posting more pictures so they can finally see my face.
Love that for you!