Ogo Mkparu spent a lot of his younger years feeling disconnected from, and even shameful of, his Nigerian heritage.
First-generation Nigerian Londoner Ogo, now 41, spent years forming a positive connection to his African background and learning about his ancestral culture, and he’s determined that his own children will grow up knowing and loving where their family is from.
One significant way Tooting-based Ogo has managed to connect with his heritage is through clothing – bright, colourful, patterned garments reminiscent of those worn in his native Nigeria.
He and his wife, Claire, have started Akwa Baby – Akwa meaning ‘The Great One’ – a baby clothing brand that celebrates colour, courage and love through traditional African designs.
‘I want my child to have a positive connection to her African heritage’
Ogo and Claire have two children, Chiasoka and Kalu, with a third on the way, so now is an important time for them to be thinking about the future they want their children to live in.
“When I was growing up, I didn’t always have the most positive view of Africa,” Ogo explained.
“I wanted to make sure that my child, who is growing up as a biracial young person, didn’t have any limiting beliefs – instead, that she felt she could be or have anything she put her mind to.
“As part of that, something that helps you is knowing where you’re from. I wanted her to have a positive connection to her African heritage, and to do that by creating bright, colourful African clothing.”
Ogo said that African clothing usually tells stories through the prints and patterns, a concept that he and Claire wanted to channel in Akwa Baby’s designs.
He said: “We also have affirmations woven into the clothes – ‘I am loved’, because I always want my daughter to know that she is loved, ‘I am courageous’, and ‘I celebrate colour’.
“For us, the celebration of colour has a number of meanings – one, obviously, African prints tend to be very colourful, bright and uplifting, but we felt it also applied to living in London, which is extremely multicultural, and it’s a good way of celebrating the differences that we have.”
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‘Clothes shops felt very Western, with colour palettes that suit a certain type of child’
Ogo’s wife Claire added that she felt she’d had a “blinkered life” when it came to racial diversity before meeting Ogo, growing up in a white suburb and thinking racism was a thing of the past.
Her children have taught her, even at their young ages, about the struggles people of colour face in the UK, right down to having culturally appropriate clothing available in shops.
Claire said: “When I was shopping [for clothes] for our first daughter, I was stood there looking at rows and rows of pinks, blues, or grey and yellow for unisex, and it dawned on me that a very specific child is thought about in the mainstream baby clothing market.
“She has beautiful skin, she can wear vibrant colours, and it made me feel sad – it felt like a uniform, very Western with colour palettes that suit a certain type of child.”
Claire added that the ‘Celebrate Colour’ message has also been printed onto adult and children’s t-shirts and sweatshirts by Akwa Baby, to “encourage parents to have conversations about race with confidence”.
“I want to encourage more white people to be open, to be confident, in talking about race with their children, especially when they live in areas where there isn’t much diversity.
“Ogo’s angle is about empowerment, encouraging self-love and confidence in the new generation, and I’m focusing more on the messaging to the parents.
“There is still a lot of work [to be done] and conversations that need to be had, so I’m looking at how we can drive that message.”
‘We’re here to explore our greatness, explore our uniqueness’
Akwa Baby launched earlier this year with their OBI print, with greens, blues, pinks and yellows woven together in a fun, colourful design reminiscent of African clothing.
Claire explained that ‘obi’ means ‘heart’ in Igbo, the native language of the Igbo people from eastern Nigeria.
She said: “The symbols within the print design represent affirmations to empower the new generation.”
The affirmation of ‘I am loved’ is represented by the desert rose flower, symbolising the African proverb: ‘Family names are like flowers, they blossom in clusters’.
‘I am courageous’ is represented by the lion and lioness, which Claire said “also symbolise the male and female in all of us,” and ‘I celebrate colour’ is represented by the Nsibidi writing symbol for the word ‘chi’, which in the Igbo language means someone’s higher self, or their soul.
Ogo says it is Akwa Baby’s mission to “make sure every child grows up feeling valued”, as he believes that this would “change the world”.
“If we can encourage every child to grow up feeling valued, the level of confidence they will have will impact what they can do in the world, and will make the world a better place for all of us.”
He said that he often wears African prints now, and “people love it”.
“I was at a petrol station the other day and the guy serving me stopped to point out how nice my top was, and it was so beautiful.
“I remember really, really wanting to fit in when I was a kid, and I think now I’m realising that we’re not here to fit in.
“We’re here to explore our greatness, explore our uniqueness, and when I’m wearing this I feel unique, I feel a connection, and a younger me would have hopefully felt that as well.”
You can shop Akwa Baby’s range on the website here.
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