My mum survived civil war, famine and grief – and she’s my personal fashion icon

I’m often told my mother was a fashion queen in secondary school. She would strut her way into parties wearing a bright red A-line dress, tight-fitting floral capris or a pair of white mod sunglasses.

Even her school uniform was something to behold. She often paired her green pinafore with a large white belt, small hooped earrings and a well-coiffed afro.

Sometimes people would stare, pointing at that girl with that belt or that hair or another flare of fashion that made it hard to look away.

This was in the 1960s just before Nigeria was consumed by war and famine, when teenage girls could spend afternoons sifting through market stalls for the perfect lace fabric to make a dress to celebrate Independence Day, back when life was about more than eating bugs and hiding from men with machetes.

In those peaceful days, my young mother, Obiajulu, could afford to rummage through the heap of clothes on her bedroom floor searching for just the right plaid midi skirt to show off her inner spark.

She found flickers of inspiration from the older women in town who’d spent time in London or Paris, where tweed skirt suits were much easier to find.

Zain and her mum

She loved to show off what she had. Even when she had nowhere to go, my mother would stroll along the dusty pathways of our village in Enugu, past the outdoor restaurants and crowded bus stops, with a certain swagger. Then the bombs started to fall.

Fashion became a luxury she could no longer afford as her family fled the village, racing from town to town to stay ahead of the fighting, living on whatever they could catch, and sleeping in abandoned barns or in the bush.

She wore what she could carry on her back. She was lucky to lose only one sibling by the time the fighting ended. Millions of her countrymen lost much more.

My mum and my dad arrived in London in the early 1970s, desperate to leave behind the death and destruction that had devastated their homeland.

Life in England was hard at first. The people who stared at her were not staring because of her clothes. She was part of an early wave of Black immigrants who struggled to find acceptance.

She took a job washing linen at a hospital before graduating to cleaning offices. Her meagre salary could barely bring home groceries, never mind a new clutch or beret.

Her love for style was still alive but the daily grind of life as a poor immigrant with young children consumed her energy.

Things would soon get worse. In 1988, my father was killed in a car crash while on a road trip with my older brother.

My dad, the only love she’d ever known and her partner since the age of 14, was suddenly gone. Four months pregnant, she was left to raise four children alone. And again, fashion had no room to breathe in her life.

Widows in our culture traditionally wear white for a full year after their husband’s funeral. Most days, she covered her petite frame with stained, oversized clothes — maybe a white button-down knee-length skirt. There was barely time to grieve. She had become our family’s sole breadwinner, cook, cleaner, disciplinarian and tutor.

The pace was relentless. After work, she spent hours studying with me every night to keep me one step ahead in school.

She even taught herself Shakespeare — despite barely finishing high school — to support my brother Chiwetel Ejiofor’s passion for acting. She wore many hats as we grew up but none tickled her soul like those berets of her teenage years.

It wasn’t until my siblings and I began to find success in the world that my mother slowly, quietly, began to reclaim her lost passion. I first noticed it when she visited me at Oxford University for the first time, when she’d spent days searching for the perfect pair of studs.

And then again, when she wore a shiny gold Nigerian wrapper and blouse to Buckingham Palace when Chiwetel received his OBE.

She took it to a new level at the Baftas, where she donned a stunning grey chiffon dress as she watched my big brother collect his best actor award for his role in 12 Years A Slave.

Today, she won’t leave the house to run errands without something special on. It’s almost always something understated but if you look closely, you will see flashes of her homegrown style peeking out.

This resurrection of her fashion focus has brought us closer together.

Even after life got busier with my move to America and the long hours that came with hosting a show on CNN, we’ve still found time to bond over our mutual love of African headwraps, blue lace abadas and d’Orsay pumps.

We’ve spent hours scouring market stalls for the best fabrics to make dresses for special occasions.

She’s taught me far more than I could ever imagine about ankara blouses and how to find just the right accessory to give an outfit meaning.

My mother, who grew up in a West African village and barely survived civil war and famine, has become my personal fashion icon.

When we left Buckingham Palace after my brother’s OBE ceremony, she looked at us and said, ‘You never know where your children will take you.’

But in the world of fashion, it has always been the other way around.

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