My name is Ayomide.
That’s how I introduce myself. It’s a common name in Southwestern Nigeria, home to the Yoruba people. And to any Nigerian it’s as instant a marker of what part of the country I’m from as my hair marks what continent my ancestors hailed from. But to many here in the UK, though, it’s just another name. And although no one ever says it out loud, I can sometimes tell they wish I introduced myself as—I dunno, John or something.
But my name is Ayomide, Yoruba for “my joy has come.”
I didn’t always call myself that. I grew up being called the diminutive “Ayo”—“joy”. You can still tell who in my life knew me from back when I was younger because they still call me that: friends from primary and secondary school and some of my larger family. That changed in university over two decades ago. That was when I announced to my parents I now would go by the entirety of my name. I thought—and still think—it had richer, fuller meaning. But also, “Ayo” is even commoner than Ayomide, and at that age where identity was so heavy on my mind, it was a start to carving mine out.
My name is Ayomide, pronounced like re-do-mi-mi (as in the solfa), if you really want to say it right. (Check here for how that sounds.)
I don’t insist on that, though, and certainly not here in the UK. I mean, even in Nigeria, few people say it perfectly anyway—you can hardly expect that in a country of 400-plus languages. Speaking in the kind of tones Yoruba is built on is hard for anyone whose language isn’t like that, like most other Nigerian languages—I’ve come to realise people are quite literally deaf to the tones. So that’s fine. But you have to say all four syllables, though—Ah-yaw-mee-day, not three (Ah-yaw-mide, rhymes with “ride”), like I’m an antibiotic. And certainly not “Ayo.”
My name is Ayomide, but my dad calls me “Ayo mi”.
I love that, for many reasons that you need a basic understanding of Yoruba to appreciate. It’s a short form of my name on two levels: the obvious level, in that it cuts of the “de” at the end, but what’s left means “My joy.” And to be called that by my father means a lot and all the more because he wasn’t always that expressive. The first time he started a text with, “Ayomi” and signed off with “your dad and friend” I wondered who this person was and what he’d done with my dad. That was over ten years ago and he hasn’t stopped since. Simply reading that from him feels like him saying a blessing over me, which in turn brings back memories of my parents speaking blessings over us as the first words out of their mouth every morning. He’s still not the most expressive, but I realise this is huge for him, and that matters. And every time he says I’m reminded that sure, you can’t change people, but people can change.
My name is Ayomide—and don’t you dare ask me to shorten it.
Every now and then someone tries to call me “Ayo”, whether that’s someone from Nigeria or from here in the UK. I can always tell they’re familiar with other Ayo’s and feel it’s okay to shorten my name. I always correct them. I could let it go, of course, but I won’t, on principle. I know some people prefer that: they say they’d rather shorten it than have it butchered. That’s fine, it’s their choice. This is mine: for me the butchering is in shortening it. I decided it a long time ago and the seed was planted even longer before that, all the way back to reading Ursula K Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea as a child. A key idea in the story is the idea of a true name: the true name of a person or object was the essence of its identity, and to know it was to have power over it.
My name is Ayomide—not “Ayo.”
It would be many years later before I would see how Le Guin’s story about wizards and names shed light on the ancient Hebrew story of Adam and his task of naming the animals: the power not just of names, but of naming. Even today, and especially in the West where the sound of a name appears to matter more than its meaning historically did, it’s interesting to note what we get to name: your kids, your dog, your business. But you can’t just name a star, say, or even a building in your town. (And whatever your views about marriage name changing, it’s interesting to note the traditional expression is that a woman takes a man’s name, not that he renames her.) Somewhere deep down, we still understand naming is an act of claiming ownership, or at least authority. It’s not for nothing slaves used to be given new names. Even nicknames or pet names carry weight.
My name is Ayomide, but I’ve certainly had my share of nicknames.
Some of my favourite were Haywire (I always found that one funny) and A-Why (which I made up during that age when you think playing with your name is cool). I also had one friend who used to call me Apoc (from the character in the Matrix). Another insisted on naming me “Ayochukwu” because I “looked too Igbo” to be simply Ayomide. Even now I think of these names with fondness. That’s the thing about nicknames: they imply closeness, a certain intimacy—in the absence of that they’re usually being used to bully and demean. It’s for the same reason being on first name basis used to be important. Shortening my name feels like that, like trying to give me a nickname when we aren’t even that close (because if you were you wouldn’t do that). Even if names no longer mean much, naming still does.
My name is Ayomide, and I was named by my grandmother, the first person to lay eyes on me.
Mama, as all of us fondly called her, is late now, but she was in more ways than one a true matriarch. She was a traditional midwife and my cousins and I grew up hearing and retelling the stories of some of her most unusual experiences. And she was first to lay eyes on me because she literally took delivery of me. As the story goes, in her joy at seeing her first grandson, from her first son, she exclaimed, “My joy has come!” Ayomide.
So my name is Ayomide, and I will be named as I introduce myself, and not as anyone finds “easy.”
My identity, after all, is not subject to someone else’s convenience.
I had already planned to write this essay, but it so happened that the week I wrote it, a friend shared an essay by Ope Adedeji on a similar theme: What’s in a Name? Hers inspired the refrain structure of mine. You can also read my older essay about Le Guin’s story: What a wizard story taught me about the Bible.)
Edit: I didn’t add this to the original essay, but a friend shared this video when I talked about the essay, and I really like it: it says a lot about what names mean for Nigerian people, and particularly for the Yoruba who are my ancestors.
Header image courtesy Austin Kirk on Unsplash.