I honestly can’t tell you where or how I met our latest ‘Nomad, Ola Abayomi. Every time I see Ola’s bright smile, I think to myself, “I need to hang out with her more.” We cross paths a lot — from random events to working in the same building at one point — my crystal healer would say that Ola is definitely on my frequency map. Recently, I saw Ola’s instagram posts about a trip to Cuba. As Cuba is the number one place I’m dying to go, I knew I had to find out more. When I reached out, I was happy to hear that this renaissance, well-travelled woman was not just an ad exec by day: she had started an accessories line, Dual Citizen! Check it below, we dual citizens* 😉 dish on Cuba, being black while traveling and of course the label, Dual Citizen.
’N: Where are you from?
Ola: I was born in Boston but grew up in Bethesda, Maryland. I’m first generation Nigerian-American.
’N: Where do you live now?
Ola: I live in New York City.
’N: Did you grow up traveling a lot?
Ola: Yes! When I was younger, I would spend entire summers in Nigeria where all of my extended family is. My parents also love to travel so I’m fortunate that they took me and my sisters along. We’re a very global family – which was the inspiration for my boutique, Dual Citizen.
’N: You went to Cuba recently. Tell me why your family chose to go to Cuba now?
Ola: My dad has always been fascinated with Cuba and since he was younger, it’s always been a dream to go. I think over the years, his curiosity passed through my sisters and I. As I mentioned, we’re a very global family and traveling has always been something we’ve done together and continue to do together. We went over the Christmas holiday last year. It just so happened to be a coincidence that a week before we left, President Obama announced his intention to normalize relations with the island.
’N: What area of the island were you in?
Ola: We were in Havana.
’N: Did you notice any anti-American sentiment?
Ola: Not directly or in a way that felt threatening. There’s no denying the history between the two countries so there were hints here and there. Tourism is very important to the island so I think any anti-American sentiment is limited. However I’m sure conversations outside the capital are very different. I think it ultimately depends on who you speak to; some people prefer how things are and others want change.
’N: What is something you learned about Cuban life that you often found incorrectly portrayed in American media?
Ola: I really had no idea what to expect. Before I left, I started reading This Is Cuba by Ben Corbett which is a super interesting look at the different sides of Cuba; the tourist side and the Habaneros (Cuban) side. He probably described the country best as “a contradiction, through and through.” The majority of my time was spent in Havana so I can’t say wholeheartedly but I think the biggest misconception was quality of life. I think the American media has made it seem that life is lowest of the lows. That’s not to say some of the practices of the Cuban government are in the best interest of the citizens, but I have to say, it doesn’t actually seem as terrible as the American media has made it out to be. This is also coming from a person who has roots in another third world country where conditions are exponentially worse.
’N: What are 5 must-haves for packing for a week in Cuba?
Ola: Sunglasses, beach/pool gear, a light jacket, a flowy dress, sandals.
’N: What was your favorite Cuban dish you tried while there?
Ola: This is a hard one. I’m not sure that I can name just one but I did eat a lot of seafood and it was fantastic.
’N: Tell me about Dual Citizen. Why did you decide to start this handbag line?
Ola: Since I was younger, I knew I wanted to do something that was the manifestation of my heritage and experience of being Nigerian-American along with my love of fashion and style. It’s interesting. Even though I’ve never officially lived there, I’ve always felt this responsibility to share what is not often talked about. Too often is corruption, oil, and most frequently Boko Haram surround the conversation about Nigeria which is not to say these are not important issues but they are not the only things that are happening. The city of Lagos where my family is from is quite a city with a crazy amount of energy, creativity, liveliness and social functions – there’s always a wedding, birthday, anniversary, or some other reason Nigerians are getting together to celebrate. I created Dual Citizen to do my part in changing the dialogue surrounding Nigeria.
‘N: While at a Travelling While Black conference with NYTravel Fest, a panelist from South Africa mentioned the desire for Africa to be on international tourism’s map and for black people to visit the continent just as they would visit Europe, to see the sites and not necessarily to have intense ancestral awakening experiences. What are your thoughts on this? Do you think the later perspective on tourism stagnates the continent’s tourism industry?
Ola: I’m not sure that the idea of having an “intense ancestral awakening” is really what stagnates the continents tourism industry. Personally, I can’t relate to that because I have a very clear sense of where my family comes from. I think part of the stagnation stems from this idea of the unknown – the unknown beyond what the media portrays, especially if you don’t have any type of connection, it can seem like it’s not really a destination for tourism. I think its also the practice of considering Africa a homogenous place versus 54 individual and unique countries, with even more diversity within those countries. I will say that I think it’s gotten better; I think more and more people are open to traveling to the continent and exploring their curiosity.
More about Dual Citizen:
Dual Citizen is an online boutique of limited edition handbags for women handbags, handcrafted in Lagos Nigeria. Dual Citizen at the surface is a globally inspired boutique but on a deeper level, it’s a celebration and reflection of what can happen when different cultures, ideas and stories are shared. Learn more and shop at http://www.shopdualcitizen.com.
Dual Citizen is actually having their first pop up shop in New York City this weekend as apart of the I-CAF (International Coalition for African Designers). If you’re in NYC definitely stop by! Details below (and check out my hand in the invite — do you guys think I should go into hand modeling?!)
* Did you know until recent history the UK and many other countries required that you renounce your citizenship and allegiance to any other country before becoming a citizen of theirs?