Just before Christmas we sat down to a digi-natter with Africa Daley-Clarke aka The Vitamin D Project. Known for creating the most amazing interiors in her small social housing flat in Islington, she’s transformed it into a Tardis of good taste, and, crucially, a workable space for an (incredibly well dressed) family of five. We talk taking on a covid Christmas when you’re part of a big family, making the most of your home when square footage and budgets are tight, being candid about mental health and carving out a new career that compliments life as a young mum of three. It’s a goodie so grab what’s left of the cheese board, pop on your reading glasses and enjoy.
Africa: Hi girls
Emma: There she is!
Robyn: Hiya love!
Emma: How’s it going over there?
Emma: Christmas bedlam, or general?
Africa: Three-kids-under-five bedlam
Robyn: I want a triple decker bed just like them
Africa: It’s a life-saver bed!
Robyn: I don’t know who would go in the third bunk but I’d work it out
Robyn: Yeah, probably you
Emma: Africa, the way you’ve used that space is unbelievable – you could run a degree course in spatial planning
Robyn: It blows my mind
Africa: Thank you!
Robyn: Have you always lived somewhere where space is at a premium? Cos your family is big, right?
Africa: Yeah we’ve always been overcrowded. We were in a one bed with two kids until our youngest was 18 months. And growing up was similar so you make do
Emma: I feel like small space living teaches you so much about how to get the most out of somewhere
Emma: But you just nailed it – I feel like your home is a perfect cross between what I love and what Robyn loves. Like, it’s super chill and yet every space has a story behind it
Robyn: Honestly, your house. It looks like it cost a million pounds. Such an eye! Have you always lived in social housing?
Africa: Yeah always social housing. I don’t know what I’d do with a landlord looking over me telling me off about nails in the wall
Robyn: I think my absolute lack of concern about doing things to rented spaces comes from the fact both my parents lived in social housing and we just changed it at will cos that’s what you do
Emma: So many people feel like they’re not able to make a home theirs when they rent – was there a lightbulb moment for you when you were just like, ‘Sod it, I’m doing this’?
Africa: Not necessarily because as I say we’ve always been in some form of social housing
Emma: So you kind of knew how to handle a space
Africa: But our last flat was a new build and so although it wasn’t to our style it would have been a waste to replace the bathroom and kitchen. So we just focussed on the living room, bedroom and corridor. So it was quite a good thing in the end that this place needed a lot replacing
Emma: You think quite carefully about what you bring in, right?
Africa: Kind of have to be because it can look very over crowded very quickly otherwise
Robyn: Do you actively keep in mind what can go with you or do you just go all in
Africa: In what way, like budget-wise?
Robyn: Yeah and like, this is mobile and lovely – that will come with us wherever we go – maybe to that Scottish mansion you found?
Emma: If you move to a Scottish mansion, I bagsy coming with you. Isn’t it just the dream? All that open space and wilderness
Robyn: It could be like escape to the chateau, but nicer
Emma: Funny that three people who want to move to the mountains all live in London
Africa: I don’t know what’s taken us so long!
Emma: How’s your 2020 been, Africa? If you could sum it up in, like, three words
Africa: All change please. I lost my job last December, fought it in an ugly battle for the first quarter of the year, then J lost his “very secure” job a month before baby was born. And we became a family of five
Robyn: How do you remain so calm? Cos you are always so bloody calm
Emma: You do seem serene as heck. Though people say that to me, and I’m usually a wreck
Africa: In so many ways the changes have brought about freedom. I look back on how chaotic my life was with my first born and realised everyone was absorbing my stress including the baby. When mum is calm, everyone else is calm, so I just really try to keep that in mind
Robyn: that’s good to have that to call back to. Like, this is the goal. Just breathe.
Africa: I never used to believe in the “life gives you lemons” saying but I think we’ve done that to the best of our ability this year
Robyn: and was it helpful to have your family around you too, cos that can make such a difference
Africa: Family relations have come under a lot of pressure this year. Physical and mental health implications have been compounded by the pandemic – our family is all very young and I think we’ve all had so much to deal with individually that when you take away that weekly touch base of a Sunday gathering, it’s really tough
Emma: Yes – those little contacts that we all have that help us to feel safe and connected
Robyn: I get that, I think. Sometimes physical proximity is so essential to sorting out misunderstandings and just knowing why you love each other. Without those reminders it can all go a bit weird.
Emma: You’ve spoken on Instagram about mental health and depression, and I wonder how you’ve found that, during all this change?
Africa: All things considered, being pregnant for the majority of the tough times gave me a reason not go into a downward spin
Emma: You know, my friends who had babies this year all said the same
Africa: I had a really dark blip (social media-related) towards the end of my pregnancy and I remember J in not so many words basically was like: you can not afford to take on this level of anxiety this close to giving birth. It doesn’t only impact you. You have to let it go or deal with it later. Anything, but don’t let it beat you now
Emma: He sounds very wise. That’s made me well up a bit
Africa: Yeah… So most times on a sibling Sunday it’s not all perfection. It’s a lot of screen time, more than a few of us will be asleep, not even always talking. Music will be on as well as the TV. It’s not like a deep therapy session, but we’re physically there and if someone seems at odds we can pick it up because we’re with them in that space and they can’t just fob us off with an “I’m fine” message on WhatsApp. I actually think as a family we were able to nip a few issues in the bud, catch them before they snowballed because of those weekly meet-ups, so that intermittent contact over the first lockdown was ridiculously tough.
Emma: You’ve talked before about how much work you all put into keeping in touch
Africa: Most times there’s at least one person who cba to be there but we do it for the kids and it’s always worth it. I exclusively shielded during the first lockdown, being pregnant in the beginning, too then I cracked and would have my sister on a fold out camp chair on my road and me in my front communal garden shouting over the fence
Emma: You definitely won’t be alone in those moments
Robyn: Yeah the loneliness must have been a lot. Even when you’ve got people, you can still feel pretty lonely for the people you haven’t
Emma: So, now you’re a family of five, how’s life – how’re you feeling about the festivities this year?
Africa: Not great. Had I had the time to plan a Christmas as a family of five, I would have gone all-out to compensate. But given that we don’t focus on material things at Christmas for the kids and really put a focus on family, it just really sucks
Emma: I hear that – I think it’s the build-up that makes the event. Sorry it sucks for you
Robyn: Yeah, it’s been absolutely appallingly handled. Fine if you’ve got a second home in Cornwall – absolute crap for everyone else
Emma: When we have our three-way Scotland timeshare…
Robyn: How do you even begin the explain that to kids after the year they’ve had? Though your kids did get a kick-ass play area. But preferable to be, you know, free and not locked down
Africa: Yes and you know, I get it. Every single person is going through this in a way that’s easier than anyone else
Emma: So damn true
Africa: I had a lot of pushback over the pandemic that my kids had somewhere to play, but, you know, it’s still a communal bin store area
Emma: As in, people were mad that they had somewhere to play?
Africa: Yep! That we had to pull money out of thin air to transform because of the situation.
Robyn: That blows my mind.
Africa: So I kind of just retreated in the end and stopped sharing my views or experience on the pandemic because there was always someone quick to message that we had it great
Emma: Yeah, it’s definitely been a divisive time in so many ways. Lots of comparison
Africa: Yes, and the other reason I’m reluctant to talk freely about Social Housing in the way I used to is because as you said (even though you were teasing) people (new people) look at our home, assume it’s 3x the size and cost us the earth to decorate in our style. It’s a family home that’s been split to accommodate 3 different families. We live in one floor of it – a modest two bedroom flat and it’s been a real labour of love for us to make it the space it is today.
Robyn: Do you feel like as you grow, the relationship between you and the people who follow you have changed?
Africa: I think maybe my older followers my feel a bit disappointed that as my account has grown, I’m less immediately available. But I think that they may not realise it’s due to a few factors none of which is the size of my account
Robyn: yeah just those completely self sufficient three infants, no bother at all
Emma: It’s a problem, I think, that people assume you’ll be on call all the time.
Africa: So, previously, I worked 40 hours a week but any time I wanted to go in on a topic, I’d go on lunch break and give it my all. Now, I’m self employed, with a newborn attached to my boob – time is just at a premium. My content is really thought out, planned in advance and I work with photographers to make sure there’s real value in what I share
Emma: Time is literally money. The 80s were right
Africa: But all that means I can’t just respond to voice notes and questions and queries, etc. in the way I could before
Emma: Yeah, you need an assistant to handle your DMs
Robyn: And for you, as a black woman, I can imagine that there were a lot of people expecting you to be on call to answer any question they had, after the summer
Africa: In some ways, June was easier because collectively, Black women were saying “I’m not here to educate you, do the work”, “Read the books”, “Pay the grassroots organisations”, “Make the changes in yourself offline”
Emma: Six months later, does it feel in your space like people have listened?
Africa: Not in the slightest. Like not even a bit. Now a few months have passed and the momentum has subsided, there’s just a few Black women left standing saying these things so in isolation, we no doubt come across as rude
Emma: For what it’s worth, you don’t come across rude at all. Not that that’s the point
Africa: Thank you
Robyn: It’s like someone asking Mary Berry to call them and read them through a recipe and maybe just come round and make the fucking cake. You won’t know how to make the cake if you don’t make the cake.
Africa: For me, June separated those with good hearts, those with no desire to change, and those “nice enough people but can’t be bothered to do the work”. But even the good hearted people are still in a system where if there isn’t a Black woman on hand to point out the injustices in every situation going forward, they still wouldn’t necessarily notice it for themselves. We’re still seeing all-white campaigns. Silly insta reels where they pass over to different influencers and everyone’s white in the vid. Like, no one thought to reach out to anyone Black? Black women are being critiqued for selling out and taking campaigns from less ethical suppliers that have ties to racism…. But the white people in the campaign are fine to take it? Its the bigger picture that’s really been missed, I think
Robyn: I think to people in a position of white privilege, the detachment from meaningful change is so ingrained that when we do see more representation, we think, ‘Wonderful, it’s happening’ but we’re seeing the top of the tip of the iceberg of endemic racism. The changes that matter are the ones that aren’t even comprehended of because they cost something.
Africa: I agree. I follow some influencers who I really respect that have made so many fantastic changes to their content to ensure it’s inclusive and consistently welcoming. But there are the same people who still follow and engage with out and out racists on here. The two can’t work side by side – they really can’t
Emma: Instagram has been such a force for good in some senses this year, and yet such a petri dish of turds in some others
Robyn: Yeah, it’s where we put our best selves isn’t it? But we have to be our best selves offline too.
Emma: I think my Insta-resolution for 2020 is to put more of my not-best self online
Africa: Sorry, I’ve gone off on a massive tangent here. Back to Christmas.
Emma: No no, tangents are what these chats were made for
Africa: Recent rules for all tiers meant anyone with a baby under one on Dec 2nd could form a support bubble. We had made plans to do that with one side of our family, but they had made plans to do it with another side
Robyn: Oh no!
Emma: What would a usual Christmas look like at Chez VitaminD?
Africa: A typical Christmas for us would be my brother and sister in law hosting with their kids. Four of my sisters and my youngest brother all live together too, and they would join us.
Emma: Maximum Christmas joy with all those kids
Africa: This year would have been everyone plus my mum
Emma: Ok, I have a direct question: you have a BUSY life with three kids, a successful Instagram account, a business, a huge family, a website – how do you find balance?
Africa: Usually one thing suffers at any given time. Even before he lost his job, J has always been the most hands-on, supportive partner you could imagine, so it makes it easier. And lastly, I know what I’m good at, but most importantly what I’m not good at. So I outsource for support on everything else
Emma: Oh, great answer
Robyn: What a team
Africa: If a big campaign comes my way, I budget in to pay a photographer fairly so I’m not stressing about my iPhone quality pics
Emma: I think accepting help and outsourcing is something lots of people could benefit from – I love this so much – makes so much sense to just have that shit handled
Africa: I agree
Emma: It’s not my strong suit, so I’m in awe of people who do it successfully
Robyn: I have a question too! What do you want – if it doesn’t jinx it – to see for your family in 2020
Africa: No pressure on him, but for his own SANITY I hope it brings J work that he finds fulfilling, then a renovation project and less time online. The last two were for me not J….
Robyn: That all sounds stellar. I hope you get that too!
Emma: I’m so here for the reno when it comes around
And with that we all laughed into our eggnog and – like the end of that story you wrote in year three – all went home to have our tea. You can find more on Africa at her whizzy new website here or over on Instagram.