What does it mean to be me? What does it mean to exist?

Meet Briana Ekhator

The entrepreneur and naturopathic doctor-in-training advocating for holistic living.  

Briana has spent 25 years ‘on this life journey’. Originally from Houston, Texas, and descending from the Delta region of Nigeria, she has just recently moved to Tempe, Arizona. Having known Cary for ten years, her photo for the timeless goods puzzle was taken last summer. The pair originally met through a friend who was working on a shoot and invited Briana along; it would be her first modelling gig, and it turned out to be Cary’s first time shooting. ‘I was just like, ‘Let me take a whack at it. Let me see,’ Briana recalls – adding that it’s crazy to see how much things have changed in the intervening years. Through social media, Briana has followed Cary’s work since that first shoot. Since then, Cary has worked with Solange; ‘Anyone who knows me, knows I love Solange because she is the epitome of what it means to be an African-American woman, embracing herself in different ways and being multi-dimensional.’

Like Solange, Briana, too, has figured out how to carve out the space to embrace something that is important to her; naturopathic medicine and holistic health. ‘I’ve always wanted to be in the health world, but not conventionally,’ Briana explains; medical school was not something she saw in the stars for herself. She studied biology as an undergraduate at Prairie View A&M University – a historically Black college – but  recognized that the world of medicine and academia can be intimidating, which, at times, made her question ‘my worth and the value of my intellect’. It was during her junior year of college that she came across the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine in Tempe, Arizona. Since graduating in 2018, Briana has been working towards getting to Southwest to continue her journey towards practicing naturopathy, and was accepted onto the program this February. The coronavirus pandemic delayed Briana’s move to Arizona, and the course has been shifted online – something that hasn’t been done before in medical teaching – but it’s given her the chance to refresh and deepen her knowledge.

The process towards becoming a naturopathic doctor isn’t a short one. As Briana explains, the course will take her between four to six years and she’s keen to go at her own pace so as not rush learning the necessary information that will, eventually, help save lives. Briana is also eager to shake off the assumptions people often have about naturopathy, that it’s pseudo-medicine, especially when ‘modern day [and] conventional medicine actually derived from naturopathic medicine.’ When it comes to naturopathy, the emphasis is placed on considering a patient’s overall health, and not just their symptoms. ‘So you’re looking at the patient’s mental, emotional, spiritual and physical bodies, in order to really get a full spectrum of their healing process.’

For Briana, her first encounters with naturopathy were deeply personal. ‘It started with my dad being diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2003, when I was nine years old. That was really what started the journey of me wanting to get into health.’ Aware of the impact that chemotherapy can have on the body and the immune system, Briana’s family sought out alternative remedies to ‘help counteract the effects he might have to deal with under cancer treatment,’ she explains, adding that her dad’s first wife was able to recommend a naturopathic doctor. ‘Honestly, it’s probably why my dad is still here and alive today, and he has been cancer free for 17 years,’ Briana reflects. This experience ‘ignited the spark’ in her that medicine was her calling – just not the conventional kind.

Encounters with holistic health have granted Briana another avenue for sharing the benefits of natural living with others. Last August, she began selling all-natural, non-GMO handmade shea butters and oils. Amane Butters, which derives from her traditional Nigerian name – Briana Chiamaka Nene – is what she describes as an ‘extension of the personal lifestyle that I live, which is that I don’t use anything that’s non-organic or -natural on my skin.’ When she was 15, Briana stopped treating her hair; around that time, in 2010, new research found evidence that chemical perms and hair products aimed at African-American women were linked to cases of fibroids and cancer. In response, she began embracing her natural afro hair, incorporating shea butters and essential oils into her regular routine.

The products Briana now sells through Amane Butters are the result of years’ worth of ‘making concoctions of skin, hair and multipurpose products for myself while in high school and in my undergrad program.’ After graduating in 2018, it occurred to her that, considering she was already making her own products and that people would ask her what she was using, the next logical step would be to take things a step further. ‘People used to come to me like, “Hey Briana, what do you use to make your hair look like this?” Well, I just get some butters and some oils and mix them together; I don’t really have a process. So once people started to use a bit of my stuff, I was like “Hmm, okay – this might be something that I might want to embark on.”’ Though she’s currently still learning the ropes of the business world, Briana enjoys the creative autonomy that Amane Butters gives her. ‘It’s my baby [and] it’s a form of care and self-love for me when I put my butters on my skin, or the oils on my face. I’m just sitting there like, “Wow – I did this out of a space of wanting to love myself more literally.”’

Healing and self-love is important to Briana. It involves ‘embracing the ugly truths; healing is accepting even the ugliest parts of yourself and accepting your duality.’ Briana reflects that she is, and has always been, ‘a little bit more emotionally sensitive to things and people,’ which explains why she wants to get into medicine – and also why she’s now sharing her homemade products with the world. Being able to love yourself is something Briana has come to terms with, too. ‘I used to hate my skin simply because, if you are a darker shade, as an African-American woman, you’re not visible.’ Coming to terms with this has taken time and, she admits, it did take a toll her self-esteem. ‘So when I would hear things like, “Oh you should model,” I couldn’t believe that and I didn’t receive it well. I used to believe that was nonsense, and it took a lot of work.’

Things are coming full circle for Briana. For one, she has learned how to switch up her own personal narrative to one that emphasizes her power and presence in the world. Last summer, she went to see an exhibit of Cary’s, where he asked if she would be part of a photography project. When that photo was made into one of the timeless goods puzzles, a friend told Briana that her ‘essence [had been] turned into a puzzle.’ Reflecting on how it feels to be on a puzzle, Briana explains that it pays off to be the most organic version of yourself at all times; ‘Even when the world tells you you’re too weird or you’re too quirky, […] somehow the universe is always honoring people who are authentic.’ Above all, she’s now able to see herself as ‘part of a puzzle, which is now a part of art history.’

by Ellen Brown, writer & art historian