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 subect of the week.
If self-awareness was a person, I’m confident it’d be Obida.
There’s no use telling Obida Obioha what his problem is. Chances are, he’s already diagnosed himself — and he’s either going to fix up or tell you to kindly fuck off. I was initially tempted to believe he developed this confidence with age, but let’s just say I had to throw my first impression in the gutter after talking to him. The truth is, Obida has always known who he is. He just needed everyone else to catch up.
In this episode of Man Like, he talks about being forced to figure out his identity at a young age, how therapy has helped him process his childhood and why he’s good at everything but relationships.
Let’s start at the beginning. What was growing up like for you?
I was a very independent child. Before I was 16, I’d started picking universities and the courses I wanted to take. I remember getting my first job at an electronics shop when I was 10 and riding my bike there and back home every day. Other people found it strange that my mum let me make adult-like decisions as a child or ride a bike unsupervised around VI. But for her, exploring was the only way I’d understand how to take care of myself.
That independence followed me to London. I moved when I was 12, and I remember getting a job, distributing fliers on weekends, as soon as I got there. By the time I was 13, I worked in a shoe shop, and by 16, I was working at the GAP store. I lived with an aunt who couldn’t understand my independence. Looking back, it must’ve been difficult for her. Even though I was placed under her care, I didn’t really need her or anyone. I didn’t ask for help with my homework or bus fare. I wasn’t looking to be parented, even at that age.
I’ve always known what I wanted to do and did things my way. It also helped that I wasn’t a child who got into trouble or raised any cause for concern, so it was easy for my mum to permit that autonomy.
Even in school, I was a Bs and Cs student by choice. I just thought the work to get an A was unnecessary, and I didn’t have to prove to anyone I was intelligent.
Autonomy is important to me. I always tell people the reason I work so hard is so I can have control over how I choose to live my life. I get to decide what I want to do (and not do), who I want to work for and what projects I’m happy to take on.
What was it like navigating England as a young Nigerian boy?
It was difficult, and it took me a while to adjust. I came from a country where I was brought up to be respectful of elders (teachers, etc), and in my inner-city state school in London, they made fun of me for that.
There were instances when other students tried to make me feel less because I’m Nigerian. They’d make fun of my accent and tell me I was from the bush. These things were funny to me, and I used to say to them, “My guy, I live in a penthouse in Nigeria, and I have my personal driver too.” I had a strong sense of self that didn’t allow their bullying or racism to land.
Hmm. Now, I’m curious to know how you figured out your identity at such a young age
I was forced to deal with it very early in life. My parents weren’t together, so I was raised primarily by my mother, which made my family dynamic quite interesting. My mum and her family are Yoruba, so among them, I was already different because my dad is Igbo and my name is Obida Obioha.
From when I was 5, I spent a lot of time explaining who I was to other people. I remember going to birthday parties where adults would ask if I was my stepmum’s son when I mentioned my name. I’d then have to explain the situation with my parents and that my mum is a different woman.
By explaining myself over and over at such a young age, I was able to understand a lot about who I am — I understood I was Igbo and different from my Yoruba family. I also understood I was born out of wedlock, and that’s fine.
My childhood experience made identity an important part of my life. For me, it’s knowing who I am and where I’m coming from. Essentially, who I am is how I treat people, the principles I take on, my actions, my great style (haha), and perhaps, even the man I hope to become.
Wow. Explaining your family dynamic must’ve been tough for a 5-year-old
I didn’t know it was a big deal back then, but over the past two years, I’ve realised it was a lot to process and explain as a child. Back then, it was very matter of fact for me. If you asked, I just wanted to tell you what it was and go back to playing or whatever I was doing.
A part of me was also blunt about my parents’ story because I wanted to control my narrative.
You understood controlling your narrative at 5?
I don’t think I understood it that way when I was younger, but in hindsight, it’s what I was doing. I could sense some of these adults were trying to make me feel less. Most of them knew what had happened but still felt the need to ask a child about an affair in a scandalous way. It was mean. And when someone is mean to me, I don’t give them the satisfaction of making me uncomfortable. I’ll take that joy from you.
I never lied, cried or hid that part of who I am. And it plays into how I view what it means to be a man today. For me, being a man is accepting where you’re from. Once you do that, no one else can use it to intimidate you.
Interesting. What made you sit and process these events from your childhood?
About five years ago, I started going to therapy. I’d felt I was okay and well-adjusted regardless of my past, but I really wasn’t. I even fought with my mum because I had to ask her why she wasn’t more of a parent to me, even though it looked like I didn’t need it. Why didn’t anyone warn me as a child that people would bring up my identity whenever I went out?
I thought practising self-parenting was great for me, but it also affected me negatively, especially how I approach life today. I’m so used to fighting my battles and protecting myself that I’m not used to needing people. This is probably why I’m also shitty at relationships.
And how has finding yourself helped you, besides shedding the need for external validation very early on?
As much as I didn’t have an ideal childhood, I can’t deny it’s made me extremely resilient, and helped me succeed business wise because I can stay the course much longer, till success eventually comes.
I also can’t deny the influence my mum has had on my life. She taught me some important lessons. One, to never lie, and this is the reason I don’t do things I can’t defend; two, to not rely on people for anything including validation; three, to be good to people; and finally, be content with what I have.
Oh! And don’t be daft.
Scrim! I was going to ask how you navigate relationships
I’m good at many things, but I’m not good at relationships.
My therapist says I’m very self aware, good at spotting my faults and super self reliant. And I recently realised I must be a difficult person to be in a relationship with because I sort of rely solely on myself for all my needs. I don’t think it makes me a pleasant partner to have in a relationship — someone who’s so independent and self-orientated.
They always say identifying a problem is the first step to solving it. Do you plan on being more malleable to accommodate a relationship?
To be honest with you, no. My independence and autonomy are important to me — more important than being in a relationship.
Honestly, I agree. But what if loneliness sets in?
So I worked from home today, and at no point during the day did I think my own company wasn’t enough for me. I listened to music, went for a walk, and had a nap. I don’t think there’s been a time I thought my life would improve if another person was in it with me. Wait—
I don’t think that’s completely true. There was a point when I woke up and thought to myself that a hug would be nice. If I meet the right person who understands I need a lot of time alone and can engage me intellectually, I think life would be nicer, no, sweeter. But my criteria for a partner have become so niche, it’ll be difficult to find someone to match them all, but not impossible.
I currently run three startups, which distracts me from loneliness because they’re intensive. But if I’m sincere, I can see loneliness coming my way. Once these businesses stand on their own, I might wake up one morning and be like, “Ye! I feel lonely.”
I think it’s dangerous what I’m doing.
It’s the self-awareness for me. So you can’t adjust these criteria?
No. I don’t know how to manage, and I can’t pretend. When my friends say I communicate well, they don’t always mean through words. You can see how I feel on my face, so if we were dating, you’d know I’m unhappy or dissatisfied.
But the basics of what I’m looking for in a partner is someone who knows who they are. Own your shit, and I’ll respect that. I also want someone intelligent and kind to people around them, not just me.
Outside of relationships, I’m curious to know who you are as a friend
Surprisingly, I have a lot of close friends, for someone with these walls. I think friendships work for me because I’m pretty transparent. I’m always constant, and my friends appreciate that. I’m not the friend you call when you want to moan or cry about something; I’m the friend you call when you’re ready to take action and find solutions.
You defined what it meant to be a man earlier, and I’d like to know how your approach to masculinity might’ve changed as you’ve gotten older
As a human being, not just a man, I’m working on being more patient with others. I’m consciously sharing my decision-making process with the people in my life now. It’s no longer, “Fuck everyone. It’s my way or nothing.” I’m taking time to explain why I do certain things.
Love it! Is there anything you know now that you wish you knew when you were younger?
I wish I’d learnt to open my mouth and ask for help. I wish I didn’t build this fortress, but now, it’s formed. I don’t ask for help a lot, but when I do, it’s positive. I wish I knew how to open up like that some more.
Baby steps, Obida. So before I let you go, can you tell me something you’re grateful for?
Yes, I’m very grateful for a lot of things.
I’m grateful that I can comfortably be who I am. I’m grateful for my friends. I’m grateful for my mum — the lessons she taught me — for accepting me for who I am. I’m grateful to make a living from designing and curating beautiful things. I’m grateful that I’m able to afford my lifestyle and that my house is beautiful. I’m grateful that I’m able to connect with people. I’m also grateful to my body for keeping up with my ambitions and staying healthy.
Yeah, I’m just grateful.