WHO OWNS YOUR NAME?
The most central building on our school campus was also the building that gave me claustrophobia. It was the school chapel.
Right in front of the building was a stone monument. Within the monument was a plaque, with the inscription, “STUDY TO SHEW THYSELF APPROVED UNTO GOD. 2 Timothy, 2:15”
That, certainly, was not good English, I concluded. Even at age eleven, I felt they needed a copyeditor.
Whenever I entered that building, I suffered palpitation. My heart would beat so fast, it sometimes felt that I would suffocate.
I discovered after some time that I could control the feeling by holding my breath, breathing deeply in and deeply exhaling.
It only happened when I entered that particular building. It was a bewildering experience.
Several times, when I believed the building was empty, I would go inside and try to sit still, controlling my breathing, to get used to the experience.
It did not work.
I was only eleven and did not understand what was happening to me. But now as an adult, I have figured out from my readings that what I was experiencing was a panic attack.
Finally, I asked myself the question: what would happen if I stopped going to the chapel? Would anybody miss me? Would anyone know?
I concluded that I was only one person out of more than one thousand students. I wasn’t that important.
One Sunday, I decided not to go to the chapel. Instead, I went into the large crop of bushes and farmland within which our school was built.
No sooner did I find a small clearing and sat down than Dayo Esuruoso appear. “Ominiwo!” Dayo screamed. “You did not go to the chapel.” He settled down next to me. I had brought a novel with me, a James Hardley Chase novel.
I opened the first page and started reading it aloud to him. After page 5, I passed it over to him. He read the novel to page 10 and passed it back to me.
We continued to exchange reading the novel aloud to each other until we heard the large school bell announcing that chapel was over. Then we went back to the dorm to join other students.
Nobody missed us!
It became a regular thing for us to do on Sunday evenings when other students went to the chapel to worship.
One Sunday, I went to our spot and waited for Dayo to join me. I waited for a long time, but he did not show up.
I decided to go home to see my grandparents in the city of Oyo.
When I got there, my grandmother was at home, but not my grandfather. I looked disappointed.
“Where is grandpa?”
“He has gone to church for the evening service,” grandma responded.
“What about you, Mama Oyo?” I asked her. “You didn’t go with him?”
“No,” she answered. “I’m not a Christian.”
“What are you?”
“I don’t understand all the strange things they say,” Mama Oyo said, as she made me a warm bowl of àmàlà, gbẹ̀gìrì, and dry fish. “I just stick to what I understand. Yemoja, Osun, Oya and Esu: those are the ones I understand.”
“Who are those?” I asked her.
“Those are the orisa of women,” she explained. “The orisa of birthing, healing, beauty and elegance.”
I thought she was queer.
“Isn’t Esu the Satan in the Bible?” I asked her.
“Satan?” My granny asked, setting the bowl in front of me. “Who told you that rubbish?”
I didn’t answer her.
“It was Esu that brought you here today,” she said, as I ate. “Finish up your food and drink some water. Then you will help me write a letter to your aunty in Akure. Your father’s senior sister. I miss her.”
I took my time enjoying the food. I licked each finger. The gbẹ̀gìrì stew was so tasty. I packed up the plates. Mama Oyo asked me to place them in the kitchen.
“I will wash them later,” Mama Oyo said. “Just come here, sit down, and write the letter as I dictate it to you.”
I sat down and she sat next to me. She slowly dictated the letter, while I wrote carefully and fast. I was happy I could write Yoruba very well. When she was done, she gave me an envelope and asked me to write the address there.
She produced a small piece of paper with the writing, “Alagbaka Quarters, Water Works, Akure.”
“There is no name on this piece of paper,” I informed her. “It’s just the address.
“Oh, just write Iya Funke,” Mama Oyo said.
“That’s not going to work,” I responded. “I need her real name.”
“That’s what everybody calls her,” said Mama Oyo.
“But that’s not her legal name,” I corrected grandma. “But I know her real name. She is Mrs. Ayekagbo.”
“No,” Mama Oyo argued. “That’s her husband’s name.”
“When she got married,” I tutored her, “she automatically took her husband’s name. She became Mrs. Ayekagbo.”
“Why would she do that?” Mama Oyo said.
“That’s the law,” I informed her. “She and her children—I mean their children—must take her husband’s name.”
Grandma laughed heartily. “Why is she the one changing her name. Why is he not changing his name? And the children belong to both of them. Why are they taking HIS name only?”
“Grandma!” I said in disbelief. “THAT-IS-THE-LAW!” I spelled out each word because she didn’t seem to understand anything.
“Whose law?” grandma asked me. “I have not taken your grandfather’s name. My name is my name. You can’t let anybody take your name away from you. It’s the most personal thing you have. That is the way we do it in Yoruba culture.”
“That’s not the white man’s way of doing things,” I said, controlling my impatience.
“And who said you are a white man?” grandma asked, rolling her eyes.
Is this true? Was grandma making any sense?