Leilani Lawani

Culture & Couture: Leilani Lawani [Lagos, Nigeria]

By the time she attended university, Leilani had multiple international moves under her fashionable belt. Currently living in Lagos, she discusses how global mobility has impacted her life, influenced her businesses and challenges some misconceptions  about her adopted home.

You have a very multicultural background. Tell us your story.

My mother is from Ghana, my father from Togo. I was born in Ithaca , New York and spent most of my formative years in Cameroon. I went to boarding school at 11 at in the UK  and returned to Cameroon to complete  11th and 12th grades. I then went to the University of Maryland Eastern Shore in the U.S., where I got my bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Traveling was definitely a part of my life. We traveled as a family at least once a year, and always went back to Togo/Ghana every other year. My parents thought it was important for my sister and I to stay connected to our extended family and culture. Cameroon was a wonderful experience. I made some great friends while living there. We attended the American school and were exposed to people from all over the world. We learned to speak French, English and our local language in Togo-mina. It has made me appreciate our differences and embrace who I am and where I come from.

You were a third culture kid and now you are an expat. How did moving around as a child/teenager impact your sense of identity as a black girl/teenager?

Being a third culture kid has its pros and cons. Anyone who is a third culture kid will agree with me that nowhere really feels like home.  You often times do not open up totally to new friendships because you are aware that you or the friend will leave the country within the next two years or less.

On the other hand,  you are constantly traveling. You adapt easily in any environment and are very open to people from different backgrounds. Race is never an issue because you are used to being around people from different backgrounds. You tend to make some lifelong friends who will almost always live on another continent and you will always know someone anywhere you travel.

I think my upbringing has made me very independent and confident. It was very apparent to me that I was different from the girls in boarding school. A lot of them came from wealthy families and had a very different mindset from me. I knew where I was coming from and what was expected from me. It was also there that I was exposed to some racist comments here and there, but I was able to handle the various situations I found myself in.

How did your move from the UK to Nigeria compare to your move from the U.S. to the UK?

When I left the US after about 15 years (most of which were spent in Maryland) I was living in Los Angeles. I loved Los Angeles. The weather, the people, the culture. I loved everything about it. My husband got a job in London and we had to move. Who does that? Who leaves sunny Los Angeles to go to London? It rained all the time, people were not friendly, streets are narrow… the list goes on. It took a while to adjust to living in London. I think it also had to do with the fact that I had a toddler and it was much harder to settle into a routine. I had friends from boarding school that I reconnected with, but everyone had their own lives and it was much harder to hang out with friends unless we had kids around the same age and planned play dates.

As luck would have it just as I was getting comfortable with living in London, hubby informed me that he was ready to move back to Nigeria! That was the last place I wanted to move. To cut a long story short, it took me 6 months to adjust to life in Lagos. From the traffic to the culture and the weather; you talk to staff and they have no idea what you are saying but will say ‘Yes Ma’ and do the opposite. You spend your time constantly repeating yourself over and over again.

Your husband is Nigerian.  Though you are both of West African heritage, you each  come from very distinct cultural backgrounds. How have you managed to blend those cultural identities in your family life and in raising children?

My husband and I actually first met when we were 2 years old. Our fathers worked together in Nigeria briefly before we moved to Cameroon to work for the same company. When my family moved back to Nigeria in 1995 that is when we became best  friends and the rest, as they say is history. Togo is two countries away from Nigeria, however the cultures are very different.

I have had to adjust and accept how certain things are done here in Nigeria without completely alienating my kids from their Togolese culture. They know that they have Nigerian, Togolese and Ghanaian blood in them.

In addition to being a mom and a wife, you’re an entrepreneur.  How did you start?  

I launched and own two businesses. The first is Ayele’s Cakes. I love cakes and decided that while being a stay-at-home mum, I should bake. I would bake cupcakes with my daughter and thought why not sell them?  It in Nigeria that the business took off in 2011. I began to work full time and Ayele’s cake became more of a weekend gig.

In the summer of 2015, I designed some bags and sandals using African prints and Italian leather and took them to the States just to see what the reaction would be and people loved them! What they kept saying was “I can’t believe these are made in Nigeria;  the quality is great!’  I ended up selling a lot of my products. While in the States,  I began to put a plan together and ordered tools, labels, etc. to start the business. On December 13, 2015 I launched Koele. We stock at Quintessence gift shop in Ikoyi, Lagos and we have an online store.

Koele Purse
Photo: Leilani Lawani

How did your upbringing  influence the design and aesthetic?

Koele is a luxury brand where we create unique handmade clutches and sandals by combining African prints with genuine Italian leather. I think my background has caused me to  developed a unique appreciation for the diversity in fabrics and designs that lie within West Africa: bright colors, and bold prints and textures. Koele is an amalgamation of those African experiences that make me who I am today.

Our mission is very simple:  We want to change the perception that anything made in Africa (Nigeria in particular) cannot be of good quality. Koele’s eccentric bags and sandals are proudly made in Nigeria!

What has been the relationship between Lagos and your identity as an expat?  Are there challenges?

I do not see myself as an expat. Many people are surprised when I tell them I am not Nigerian, because I think I blend in quite well. I am able to join several groups which is very helpful when you live in Lagos. It is easy to get lost and overwhelmed otherwise. I am part of the American Women’s Club where I am currently the Social Programs Co-Chair. I am part of the Nigerwives – foreign ladies married to Nigerians. These two groups have given me the support and networking that I need in order to cope with living in Lagos.

One challenge in Nigeria is that some men still have a hard time taking instructions from women. You see it in the corporate offices down to the domestic staff (cooks and drivers). I have learned to be more aggressive and confident in order for people to take me seriously. What I like about Nigeria is that there are so many opportunities. I do not think I would have been able to start my company as fast as I did had I been in the States or Europe. In Nigeria it is all about networking and who you know.

What do you think people need to understand about living in Nigeria?

There are many misconceptions about Nigeria – I cannot cover them all. I would like to highlight though that Nigerians are some of the nicest people you will ever meet; they are charming and family-oriented. They are hard working and very entrepreneurial. Nigerians are very patriotic. Not every Nigerian is a criminal or doing some shady deal. Not every rich Nigerian is a prince. Not every Nigerian has an oil deal nor do they all have private jets. When considering a move to Lagos, have an open mind!!! Do not try and change the way things work in Nigeria – you will get frustrated. Prepare to be misunderstood, and to misunderstand what others say.

For the first time visitor, what is one thing you must have experience while in Lagos?

Lagos has a myriad of things to offer. From art expos, spoken word events, music shows, and restaurants, to Yoga classes, to shopping, clubs, wine and cheese tasting  and more. You will never be bored in Nigeria!

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