The Bigger, The Better: Pam Boy on Family Life
Let’s start with this: the world was not meant to be my oyster, and fashion was not the obvious path. I must put everything back into context. I didn’t have a traditional upbringing, and neither do I have a traditional family. My parents are both from Congo-Brazzaville, the one that was colonised by France until 1958. The Republic of Congo is rich in natural resources, gold, diamonds, iron ore, lead, copper, zinc, potash, you name it, and of course, the cause of many of humanity’s troubles, the so-called black gold: oil.
My dad’s a retired MD who specialised in HIV, infectious diseases and public health, and who now oversees Mercy Ships’ African operations. My mum’s a former banker turned housewife turned entrepreneur. My parents come from different socioeconomic backgrounds. My dad had to fight and work hard to become someone, and my mum was someone’s daughter who is nevertheless an intelligent woman. Their temperaments, too, are different – rather dichotomous, to be frank – but opposites attract, I suppose. She’s a Taurus and he’s a Scorpio, two fixed signs, of earth and water respectively. Both are stubborn, that’s for sure.
Mum and Dad “randomly” met in a hospital in Paris, as my mum was a patient in care. Dad had heard of a Congolese woman, so he wanted to say hello. At that time, my mum was a single mother of two, and my dad a single father of one. Long story short, they got married a few years later, moved back to Congo to start a family. Together, they had four children, rather quickly. Then, following a succession of dramatic events, our mum moved back to France. We lived in the suburbs. My two little sisters, older brother, and half-sister, who really is my best friend, were regular kids. Our dad would visit from Abidjan, Ivory Coast, where he led UNAIDs’ West African branch. And one day, my parents decided we would follow Dad, who couldn’t bear not living in the same country any more. Mum stopped working and became a full-blown housewife. Having kids is oftentimes more impactful on a woman’s life. With hindsight, I wish Mum had not sacrificed her career. It’s terribly unfair. We then lived in Morocco and Nigeria, before settling between Benin and Togo, while our dad did a stint as the WHO representative in Ethiopia.
All this travelling forged my character and open-mindedness. Being in touch with such diversity at a young age is a true gift. And, even though moving to new countries regularly means starting over – new school, new friends to make, and so on – I am grateful for it. I probably would have been a hugely different person had I not had those experiences. Our parents made sure we had all that we wanted and more. We attended the best international schools, spent great holidays in London, Spain, France, Central Africa, and at our beach house in Morocco, and learnt to enjoy some of the finest things in life without forgetting humility and kindness to others. Growing up was easy, as my parents always tried their best to protect us from the real, mean world. For instance, I knew about racism, but I never really experienced it until I graduated from high school and moved to London. We lived with the kind of insouciance that allows for dreams and aspirations to flourish.
I have many siblings, more than I stated, simply because, in traditional Congolese culture – inherited from Bantu, pre-colonial kingdoms – maternal cousins are indeed your brothers and sisters. I’ve never directly referred to my cousins as such, except for genealogic explanations for Westerners. My mum’s sisters are my mums. The logic is that sisters’ wombs are one, so they all share responsibility and authority for the children. Although we have a modern approach to this custom, the resulting sense of togetherness exuding from this mindset is real. Parents tend not to burden each other with their offspring, or at least they try to avoid doing so. Ultimately, it creates a large family, in which interactions are more interesting and intertwined, but also rather complex.
As you might have guessed now, my extended family is huge. It’s composed of many aunts and uncles and cousins and more relatives than I could ever count, meet or even name. At the top of this family stands my grandfather, my mum’s dad, who is one of my real-life heroes, and one of the most morally accomplished and successful men I know. From studying law in Nancy, France, to becoming the senior executive of an oil company, to embracing a long career in politics – as with many of my relatives – and ending it as a minister of state, legislator, and keeper of the seals of Congo. But what inspires me the most is his ability to love his children and grandchildren unconditionally. He taught my brother and me how to fish at his estate farm outside Brazzaville. Holidays with him are always the best, and he is for sure one of my best friends. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received from anyone came from him. “To be successful in life, you must be both smart and kind, for idiotic and cruel human beings ought to fail,” he once told my brother and me when we were teenagers, and I try to live by those words every day.
Photography courtesy of Pam Boy. Taken from Issue 65 of 10 Magazine – FAMILY, FOREVER, LOVE – available to purchase here.
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