Get to Know Dara Oke: A Sensory Essay

Essay and Photography By Dara Oke. 

As an editor, I was very inspired by Beyonce’s September ‘18 Vogue interview which was written in her own words and under her complete creative direction. I loved how simple, yet intimate each section of her essay was. For this month's Travel interview, I had the pleasure of creating a sensory essay activity to help bring the powerful words and experiences of Dara Oke to life. It was a true pleasure to learn more about her recent move to Nigeria and how her dedication to technology and creativity has evolved since leaving America. The format of this interview is a sensory essay. I presented Dara with 9 prompts that were each assigned a specific sensory element in which she'd have to craft her thoughts around. The purpose of the exercise is to engage in sensory description to help readers truly envision her unique spirit and authentic message. I encourage everyone who has embarked upon a recent journey - whether it be physical or internal, to use the senses to reflect on how the experience has contributed to your growth today. Dara was encouraged to get intimate with each paragraph and to paint a real picture for us. The result is this beautiful essay about a strong young woman becoming even more confident in her journey and evolution. Black Girl In Om, meet Dara Oke:

Dara Oke.jpg

Austin Texas - Sight

I remember shutting my eyes hard. I thought - if I could close my eyes enough, I would start to remember what life in Nigeria was like. I feared that I was forgetting. That in the midst of my suburban American childhood, I would forget the first seven years of my life in Lagos. Eventually I would. Eventually, when I would shut my eyes, the memories would start to become hazy and blurry. I could no longer make out the faces of my teachers and neighbors and friends. Soon, I would forget their names as well. Instead, my memories of childhood would be of swimming on a scorching Texas summer day and of pickup basketball games. Lagos would eventually become further and further away, like something of a past life.

Adulting in Seattle - Smell

The year I graduated from college was one of the most profound in my life. I would experience joy and pain, a useful introduction to life as a new adult. Three days after my graduation, I would find myself on a hospital bed, recovering from an intense spine surgery. Over the next few months, I would have to learn to walk again and would start to seek wellness in a new way.

At the end of that summer, I would move across the country to Seattle, Washington. I was 21, far from home, and still recovering but eager and ready for the new adventure.

Mornings in Seattle were wet and dark. If I slept with the windows open, I'd be greeted by the smell of rain and pine permeating the air. I would illuminate my apartment with all the lamps and lights I had to bring faux sun into the darkness. Mornings weren't easy, but Seattle was the most beautiful city I had ever seen. We lived surrounded by trees, mountains and water from every side, like we were enveloped by a work of art.

From my downtown apartment, I would drive the 30 minutes to Microsoft's headquarters, where I would get to build things used by millions of people all over the world. I believe there's a reason in everything, and looking back, it's clear that working where I did, when I did, placed my next step directly in my lap.

The Day I Moved to Lagos Nigeria - Motion/movement

By the time I made my first trip to Lagos in November 2016, it had been 16 years since I last stepped foot on the continent. Over the next few months, I made 4 more trips: 3 for work, and the last for good.

I fit all my belongings into two suitcases, sold the rest, and was on a one way flight direct to Lagos. When we landed, all the passengers erupted in claps and prayer, in true African fashion. To be fair, it had been a turbulent flight. Making my way out of the airport was like seeing the city for the first time. Even though I had done this a few times that year, this felt different. Everything and everybody was moving so fast, in a way that's so uniquely Lagos.

As I settled into my new apartment, I felt completely numb. It hadn't quite hit yet, that I had done it. My faith had become greater than my fear. I moved to Nigeria.

Community - Touch

Weeks leading up to my move to Nigeria, I would discover that three of my friends, from different phases in my life, were also embarking on the same journey. It was an act of pure coincidence, but it felt like a bear hug from God and a nod that I'd be alright. One evening we all were in my living room, and I remember thinking how surreal it was that these specific people had all ended up here.

I strongly believe that on every journey, we're equipped with exactly what we need to take the next step. For me, as I would wrestle with feelings of loneliness and self-doubt in the few months following my move,  it would be my small, yet mighty, community that would keep me going.

African Adventure - Sound

I took my first solo international trip earlier this year. I stayed at a hostel in South Africa and downstairs at its bar, people from all around the world would gather each evening.

I met a young woman, a food writer, from Port Elizabeth in South Africa's Eastern Cape. She had moved to Johannesburg that day.

As Wizkid played over the speakers, we talked about the complexities of blackness and identity. In our stories and experiences, there was this wave of understanding and familiarity between us.

I constantly feel that sense of familiarity while traveling Sub-Saharan Africa. It's still complex: there are cultural differences, language barriers, my voice immediately labels me American and my features as Nigerian. But, for the first time in my life, I don't feel hypervisible and othered.

African Zen - Smell

My exposure to the continent is still recent, but I've made it a goal to choose African destinations when making travel plans. I dream of places I'm yet to visit: Abidjan, Dakar, Addis, Mombasa. Of the places I've been, I'm always caught off guard by how the faintest smells trigger my nostalgia. The smell of charbroiled food and jollof immediately takes me back to Accra, while salty ocean air reminds me of Zanzibar.

There's been this singular view that most of the world has of what Africa is and Africans are. Africa is vast and her people, landscapes, cultures, and languages are many, different, and unique. I'm grateful for all the voices and stories we're now able to be exposed to and can only imagine how differently the next generation will view this continent.

Nigerian Entrepreneurship - Taste

I was drawn to Nigeria because of the people that were building, creating, and solving its toughest problems. Starting a business is hard, and it's even harder to do so in countries like Nigeria where there are so many variables at play and completely out of your control. Yet, everyone in Nigeria is an entrepreneur, whether market sellers or tech founders.

For people aspiring to make physical products, there are so many raw materials and talented artisans that can be tapped into here. For instance, everyone here designs their clothes, shops for fabric, and has a tailor bring their ideas to life. Some of my favorite pieces were a result of this. This process is much more complex in America.

For those that keep going despite the odds, there's something about creating in or for Nigeria that makes the fruit of your labor so much sweeter.

America - Sight

I see the world differently now, or perhaps my field of vision has increased in size. The future I want for myself is no longer constrained to America. I now see myself as able to exist and thrive anywhere in world. I want San Francisco, Lagos, Accra, Copenhagen, Tokyo to all be chapters in this story I'm writing.

There's this strength or lack of fear after you've overcome a big move. When I think of the possibility of new adventures, there's this sense of "I did it, I'm on the other side of the world. I came to a place that was new to me and I thrived. I can do this again".

Purpose - Touch

For the past few years, I've leaned heavily into my career and my goals, and I don't think that will ever stop, but I'm learning how to define myself for who I am, rather than by what I do. The goal is to be proud of who I am at my core and proud of how I express that to the world. Because of that, I have to give myself the freedom to become who I'm destined and called to be.

I always intended to spend my twenties focused and hard at work, but recent revelations have shown me it'll be just as important for me to give and to create freely, with no expectations.

I'm still coming into myself and I've grown comfortable with the idea that it might take my whole life to reach her. I've shed so many versions of self over the past few years. Sometimes the process feels beautiful and renewing. Sometimes its ugly, painful, requires ripping the bandaid off, and letting those scars heal. But, that's the essence of becoming. Becoming, discovering ourselves and our purpose, takes work but it's the most important work we'll ever do.

I hope that at the end of this ride, I will have poured everything out, in love and work.

Dara Oke is a product manager, designer, and entrepreneur now based in Lagos, Nigeria. She spends her days pursuing personal projects, building technology for the emerging world, supporting talented African entrepreneurs, and finding ways to tell stories. She’s passionate about art, tech, and how they both shape our human experience. Keep up with her journey via instagram and twitter.