Circumcised at birth in Nigeria and sold to a man in London whom she’d never met, Crystal Ahamefula has come a long way from home. She studied law, owned a restaurant, wrote a cookbook, is writing a novel and runs a successful food stall at Brunel University.
Crystal told me her incredible and moving story in her own words below.
‘Living in Nigeria aged 20 I believed the streets of London really were paved with gold. As soon as I arrived, I wanted to go home.
‘We lived in a 2-room apartment in Africa and lived a communal life. Yes, there was hardship and there was squalor but we came out, talking, listening to music, then I found myself here on my own in a box, pregnant and sick. My husband refused breakfast and went out to work – I wasn’t needed. I wasn’t relevant.
‘These were the loneliest periods of my life. My marriage started to falter, it wasn’t a love marriage. His Mum wanted a homely African girl and that wasn’t me. I wore make-up, painted my nails, and wore trousers which was taboo at that time. I was reading Ebony magazine, reading about Oprah Winfrey and all these black women who changed the world and I wanted to be like them. But my ex-husband’s Mother had a different plan: for me to cook and clean for her and her son.
‘I had no idea there was pre-natal groups. I was constantly on the phone with my Mum back in Nigeria but I was forbidden to leave the marriage so I stayed. What you have to realise is that I was circumcised. Where I come from – the Ibo tribe – the first born girls are circumcised and then your job is to take care of the family. Nothing else. When they all go to work you stay home so from the age of 8 I took care of them. I was hawking food outside our house – roast BBQ corn on the cob I had made.
‘This was how I got my school fees paid, Christmas clothes made. We were 10 children and I was the first daughter – they call it Ada or ‘Second Mother’. I don’t remember having any freedom to play. I thought my reward was meant to be in the afterlife.
‘I was at Uni back home when he came to marry me. He lied and told me he had been to university, he spoke perfect English but it didn’t equate with any academic intelligence, so that made me even more lonely. We didn’t gel at all. He went to work and read The Sun. I was ostracised in every way.
‘I left him. I decided this was not going to be my life. He was seeing someone else. Then I got to understand the system. I lived on my own, my daughter was 4 years old so in 1995 I decided to continue my further education and in 1999 I graduated from Brunel University with a law degree.
‘My daughter suffered from convulsions and a learning disability. It was tough. I found could not care for her properly and turn up at court to brief a barrister in Croydon – I just couldn’t do it. One of the barristers took pity on me and simply said, ‘You can’t do this.’ She asked me if there was anything else I had a passion for and I said cooking. She encouraged me. No single black person I knew or from my family encouraged me to do anything for myself.
‘So I leafleted families to ask if they would try African food for free. I went to a pub in Acton with around 50 people and I cooked spicy goat with bones and I asked them to critique it then I adapted my recipes accordingly.
‘Then my Dad died and I was so, so sad. My best friend took me to Camden market. I saw a French guy selling French food in the open and it struck me. Why can’t I do that? I gave myself two weeks took what little savings I had, bought pans and even though I really didn’t know what I was doing, I had a queue.
I cooked plantain, jollof rice and I became quite popular there – Channel 4 featured me in a documentary about Camden in 2005. I opened ‘Crystal’s World Cafe’ in Park Royal, had 4 pop-ups Canary Wharf, Regent’s Place, Greenwich market, St. Catherine’s Dock and had 10 staff. Celebrities from the jazz cafe would come and order food from me. We went to Disney World, I was happy. I didn’t have a love life, I kept attracting the wrong people. I don’t know if it was losing my Dad but I couldn’t move forward with myself.
‘I don’t know how to be a woman: at least, an African woman, I don’t respect that authority. I got divorced. Coupled with the fact that I was circumcised and I never see men and feel much. I would take a bullet and have an all-encompassing love for my children but I am incapable of saying the same for a man.
‘I didn’t know what my role in a relationship was. I only needed emotional succour and when you’ve been mutilated, someone has to be kind. I could see love with a person because of their acts of love. He would have to be extraordinary as for me, there are simply no frivolous feelings.
‘I remarried. I love my husband and we have two children together as well as my daughter from my previous marriage. I will care for my eldest until the day I die. I worry what will happen to her as I know the little ones are street smart. But she isn’t.
‘I know I have come a long way. And that there is more to come.’
Crystal has written a children’s book, a cook book and is writing a novel about her life with her eldest daughter.
1. What is – or has been – your greatest struggle (either personal or professional)?
The sad realisation that I am mostly first judged by my skin colour and not my capabilities.
2. What did you want to be when you were growing up?
A Lawyer. I have a Law degree from Brunel University obtained in 1999. The main reason I am not practicing today is because my 26 year old daughter, Jasmine, used to suffer episodes of convulsions.This meant that I could not follow a rigid work pattern as I had to leave work at short notice each time she suffered an episode.
3. Best advice ever received and from whom? To your own self be true. I read it in a biography of Elizabeth Taylor.
4. Who do you most admire? Not who but what: kindness, integrity, honesty.
5. What keeps you up at night? The fact that we have all become brutalised by violence and mutiny caused by religious radicalisation.
6. When were you happiest? When I had my son Nosike and daughter Giselle. I had been single for 20 odd years after my first marriage collapsed in 1991.My 26 year old daughter has a learning disability. I worried that she would not have any remnant of me to look out for her should anything happen to me. The messianic Nosike and Giselle are here now. I feel fulfilled.
7. Favourite object you possess? My children.Sorry…are they not my possessions? They ARE all mine!
8. Which words or phrases do you most overuse? No.
9. What is the most important lesson life has taught you? Tomorrow is not guaranteed for any one of us.
10. What is your guiltiest pleasure? Tayo my husband!
11. What change do you hope for in your lifetime? For all religions to coexist peacefully.I once heard a most beautiful music composition. It was on Radio 4 on a Sunday morning and it was a Muslim call to prayer interposed with Christian music. I thought this must be what paradise sounds like.
12. Who could help you next? A PR Agent and publisher for both my cookery book and novel.
13. Please recommend a brilliant female-led brand or business you have used recently. Me. My goat curry is to die for.