• Sun. May 22nd, 2022

'She expected us to thrive at all costs – and so we did!'

Apr 24, 2022

‘She expected us to thrive at all costs – and so we did!’ No mirrors, no TV, and charged to use the phone – CNN anchor ZAIN ASHER reveals how her mother’s tough love propelled her to stardom

  • Zain Asher’s new memoir details how after a tragedy her mother’s strict regime pushed her and her oscar-nominated brother Chiwetel Ejiofor towards success
  • The CNN anchor explains how when she was five her father was killed in a car crash when on a bonding trip with her brother in Nigeria 
  • She remembers how her French teacher asked her mother for parenting advice, after eliminating distractions saw her academic career soar  

She spent the entire day waiting for the phone to ring. My mother barely left the living room that afternoon, fearful she’d miss the call. 

She kept telling us to turn down the television, so nothing drowned out the sound. My father and brother had just wrapped up a week-long road trip overseas. They were due back to London that morning. They were late. My mother was desperate to find out what happened. 

When the phone finally rang, the voice on the other end wasn’t Dad’s. This voice was nervous; it hesitated and stuttered. It then mumbled two sentences that brought that chapter of our lives to a swift and sudden end: ‘Your husband and your son have been involved in a car crash. One of them is dead and we don’t know which one.’ 

My father and brother were travelling together across Nigeria. It was supposed to be a rich bonding experience, a return to my father’s roots. But somewhere along the six-hour stretch of bumpy highway between the cities of Enugu and Lagos, the man driving my father and 11-year-old brother, Chiwetel, swerved into the opposite lane to overtake traffic. 

Zain Asher’s (pictured) new memoir details how after a tragedy her mother’s strict regime pushed her and her oscar-nominated brother Chiwetel Ejiofor towards success

Within seconds, their car was crushed by a speeding tractor trailer. Everyone was killed instantly, apart from one person in the back seat. I was five, my eldest brother Obinze was 14 and my mother was four months pregnant. 

She hung up the phone in stunned silence. Every expression shrouded in disbelief, every movement weighed down by numbness. 

She prayed there’d been a mistake. ‘God, if you grant me just one miracle for the rest of my life, let it please come tonight,’ she whispered. She scurried upstairs, took her passport out of her bottom dresser drawer, threw some clothes into a suitcase and called a cab. 

By dawn she was on a six-hour flight to Nigeria. Her prayer was not answered. She would soon learn that my father, Arinze Ejiofor, just months away from becoming a fully-fledged doctor, was dead. 

Bystanders initially feared the worst for Chiwetel, too. His lifeless body had been flung into the back of a truck alongside my dad’s. 

It was only when the driver arrived at the morgue and began unloading the bodies that he realised my brother was still breathing. 

Chiwetel would spend several weeks in hospital before he was well enough to return to England. It would take many more months for his massive head wound and badly broken right arm to fully heal. 

There is tragedy in my story. But my story is not a tragedy. It is a story of grit, grace, and perhaps above all, a story of extraordinary triumph that I want to share with the world. 

Zain pictured with her mother and brother Chiwetel. When he was 11 Chiwetel was flung from a car in Nigeria along with his father, who was killed instantly. It wasn’t until at the morgue that people noticed he was still breathing

To be fair, it is my mother’s story more than mine. Up against soul-crushing challenges I can barely imagine, Obiajulu Justina Ejiofor raised four children who shattered every expectation. 

Her unique parenting style, her life-changing sacrifices, and her unrelenting discipline are the reasons Chiwetel is today an Oscarnominated actor; they are the reason I am a CNN anchor with degrees from Oxford and Columbia; my sister, a doctor; and my eldest brother, a successful entrepreneur. 

People usually underestimate my mother. By all appearances, she is an ordinary woman, small in stature and quiet. She speaks slowly, with the singsongy cadence of the rural African village where she grew up. 

She is also someone who fought with every fibre of her being for her family. She carried us through a staggering tragedy, shielded us from the crime in our neighbourhood, and devoted every spare penny to our education. 

She barely finished school as Nigeria struggled through civil war and famine, but taught herself Shakespeare, French and the piano — just so she could teach us. She plastered clippings of Black success stories over our walls to remind us of what we could achieve. 

And, after ten-hour shifts each day, she hosted late-night study sessions so we’d always be one step ahead in school. 

My mother would tell you she did nothing special. In a way, I suppose, she’s right. She simply raised us the way she had been raised, the way her parents had been raised before her, and theirs before them. 

In the village where she grew up, mothers and fathers sometimes go to extreme lengths — doing things you may find wacky, weird or even a bit frightening — to elevate the lives of their children. 

But in those days after the accident, as she contemplated her new life as a single mother, she was painfully aware that her family’s fate was teetering on the brink. 

My brothers started veering down the wrong path almost immediately after my father died, desperate for any distractions they could find. 

But my mother believed discipline, tough love and a healthy dose of inspiration would help them see past the empty chair at the dinner table. ‘We’ve been through a lot this year,’ she told us. ‘We’ve suffered, yes, but that will not stop us.’ 

She ticked through a list of changes to keep us focused — eager to foster a sense of routine. Strict curfews for the boys, a long list of chores, regular family time to talk about schoolwork. 

From that day forth, we were ordered to read one book a week and discuss our progress at the dinner table. She did whatever she could to keep up the regime — even after she gave birth to my little sister, Kandi, that spring. 

Zain pictured with her mother. She says her mother believed discipline, tough love and a healthy dose of inspiration would help the family see past the empty chair at the dinner table

Every night — despite sleepless nights with the baby and long hours at work, running a chemist in Brixton — she’d come home, prepare dinner, put Kandi to bed and guide the boys through the family book club. 

After I turned seven, she requested my school syllabus to teach me my subjects months before they were presented in class so that by the time something new came up in school, I would have already mastered it. She motivated us in other ways, too. 

One day I came home from school to find my bedroom mirror missing and newspaper clippings crudely plastered to the walls. My mother had cut out six articles, each featuring someone with a similar background to us, who had achieved something extraordinary, and stuck them up. 

I remember first learning about the Nigerian playwright and novelist Wole Soyinka’s life story this way, and studying Paul Boateng, one of the few prominent Black British politicians at the time. She drilled it into us that the people in the articles were just like us and, if we worked hard, we could have what they had.

Their stories may have been inspiring, but as a girl on the verge of becoming a teenager, I desperately wanted my mirror back. When I confronted my mother about it, she said simply: ‘Less focus on how you look, more focus on what you can become.’ 

I never saw that mirror again. Then, when I was 13, my mother’s plans grew even more ambitious. She’d heard all about Oxford University and its prestigious stature while growing up in colonial Nigeria, and became convinced that a degree from such a place could change my life for ever. 

On paper, Oxford was an impossible dream. The university required years of proven academic success, was a magnet for people of privilege, and featured a student body that was only two per cent Black. All of that should have been a deterrent. It wasn’t. 

On a cold Sunday morning in February, four years before I could even apply, my mother forced me into the car for the first of many trips together to wander Oxford’s hallowed streets. 

We didn’t know anyone at the university and, as a kid, I obviously knew very little about its reputation. We hadn’t even signed up for a tour. My mother just wanted me to be there — to see and feel the institution that had educated so many of the world’s decision makers. She wanted to show me what was possible. She wanted it to seem real, to seem reachable — for both of us. 

Those trips soon became a mother- daughter tradition. Whenever she felt I was drifting or rebelling as I entered my teenage years, she wouldn’t yell or ground me. Instead, she’d take me back to visit Oxford, to show me something better to aspire to. 

By the time I was 18, we had been there half a dozen times. Still, my teachers were not optimistic about my chances of getting in. My grades were good, but not great. And so, my mother came up with a plan. 

She quickly realised there was one obvious distraction that loomed above all others and represented a clear and present danger to my meandering teenage attention span: TV. Just under two years before I would even start university, I was barred from watching any television whatsoever until I had an actual Oxford acceptance letter in hand. 

I thought she was joking at first. Who had ever heard of such a thing — no TV? My little sister and I were obsessed with EastEnders and the latest scandals in Byker Grove. 

Zain and Chiwetel pictured as children. When their mother saw Chiwetel perform in a play she was astonished at the audience’s reaction to him and bought her first Shakespeare play

But, as always, my mother meant business. As far as she was concerned, television was stealing from my future. 

She had no way of enforcing her new rule round the clock. While she was at work, Kandi and I would spend hours watching MTV music videos or The Simpsons reruns without her knowing. It didn’t take long for her to catch us in the act. 

I remember her walking in on me while I was engrossed in a particularly intense episode of Quantum Leap one evening. 

‘This won’t be happening again,’ she said somewhat ominously, before ordering me to my room. 

The next day after school, my sister and I assumed our normal positions in front of the TV. I pressed the large red button on the remote control. Nothing happened. I pressed it again. Nothing. I peeked around to the back of the television, and to my horror, discovered the cause of the problem. The power cord was lying there in two pieces. My mother, desperate to keep us on the right track, had literally taken a pair of scissors and cut the cable in half. I gasped. This woman has snapped, I thought. 

I knew she was capable of a lot, but I never anticipated she’d intentionally destroy a major electronic appliance simply to boost my grades. I didn’t realise she was operating under a different code, the code of her Nigerian village, in which long-term success — even survival — often required serious short-term pain. 

Without television, the phone quickly became my new best friend. I spent long hours chatting with friends on our landline, until she found a solution for that, too. 

I came home one day to find the home phone replaced by a big, grey box, with a slot for coins on one side. It was an actual payphone. Starting that day, if I wanted to talk to my friends, or anyone, it would cost me 20 pence a minute. 

I missed the TV and the phone, of course, but I couldn’t ignore my dramatic improvement at school. My grades began to soar. 

Within a few months, I was getting top marks in most of my practice exams. 

One day, my French teacher tracked down my mother in the car park to ask about my sudden surge. When my mother explained that it was simply about eliminating distractions, my teacher asked for advice about what to do with her own children. 

Eventually, my academic record was so strong that my school had no excuse but to support my Oxford application. 

My mother’s steely discipline pushed Chiwetel to fulfil his potential, too. He stumbled upon Shakespeare in an English class at school, just after he turned 13. There was something about the complexities of the playwright’s characters that spoke to his soul. 

He soon began consuming as many plays as he could, learning most by heart and even scribbling the Bard’s most famous lines all over his bedroom walls. 

My mother, who knew nothing about Shakespeare, thought the lines were gibberish. She was furious. 

Her attitude changed when she first saw Chiwetel perform in a school play later that year. It was Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure. While she had a hard time following the complicated dialogue, she was stunned by the applause for her son at the curtain call. 

She surveyed the crowd, astonished to see so many strangers showering her son with so much acclaim. 

In a matter of days, my mother had purchased her first Shakespeare play. She moved through Measure For Measure slowly, by necessity and by design as she tried to relive her son’s captivating performance. 

Of all the things she thought she’d be doing as a Nigerian immigrant in South London, studying Shakespeare was not one of them. 

But she knew that acting had given Chiwetel new-found hope after the accident and she took it upon herself to nurture it in any way she could. She soon began practising lines with him and finding her own small ways to push him to be better. 

Nearly 25 years later, Chiwetel would become the first African actor nominated for an Oscar for the best actor in a leading role for the film 12 Years A Slave. 

It was a defining moment for him, for my family and for millions of Nigerians who had never seen one of their own honoured on the entertainment industry’s biggest stage. 

Obiajulu Ejiofor mother of Zain Asher and Chiwetel Ejiofor. Zaine says her mother knew she was capable of a lot but was surprised that she took away all technology to encourage it 

Chiwetel was already on his way to the big screen when I finally got my acceptance letter from Oxford. 

I remember my whole family coming home for Christmas that year to celebrate. Each of us in some small way, had surpassed expectations. My eldest brother Obinze had started his own highend fashion distribution company operating in London, Paris, and Milan. Chiwetel had already got his big break with a role in Steven Spielberg’s Amistad and Kandi was eyeing medical school. 

We’d all overcome incredible odds, but ultimately, my mother might have accomplished the most. Today, the­ ­village girl who studied long division in the dirt as a civil war raged, is the founder of Brightland school in Enugu, a place that gives children the sort of education she was robbed of when she was young. 

The school boasts an athletics field, computer access for each child, and a modern science lab under construction. Such amenities can be truly transformative in Nigeria. I know that my dad would be proud — not just of the school, but of the way my mother fought for us all those years ago when she had every reason to give up. 

Her family book clubs, her trips to Oxford and the newspaper clippings she plastered across our walls were constant reminders that we were not bound by the pain of our loss or the low expectations of the world around us. Instead, they were proof she expected us to thrive at all costs — and so we did.

  • Adapted from Where The Children Take Us by Zain E. Asher, published by Fourth Estate on April 28 at £16.99. © Zain E. Asher 2022. To order a copy for £15.29 (offer valid to May 9; UK P&P free on orders over £20), visit mailshop.co.uk/ books or call 020 3176 2937.

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