A Memory of Names

By: Mariam Sule

The year my sister was born, I found out my name meant bitterness. It was also the first time I changed my name. I was eight. I would change my name many times later, like a hairstyle. I had just read a ​book of names ​I found in my school’s library. ​Imams gathered in our living room while my mother and relatives cooked jollof rice at the backyard to mark the ceremony of the birth of my sister. It was the first time I watched my father kill a ram. After he cleaned his hands, he walked up to the cot where my sister lay and whispered something in her ear. When he came back to sit with me, he told me her name was Zahra. Later, I read it means flower. I imagined he chose the name because she was precious; last girl after the two boys. During the ceremony, I heard people describe her birth as a perfect ending.

At first, I thought bitterness was not as bad as Linda, which means serpent, or Cecelia, which means blind. Then I searched my other siblings’ names in the book; Jasir, brave, and Arib, brilliant. I checked my cousins’ names. Zeenat, honour, and Nafisa, precious. The introduction to the book read, “The meaning of your name follows you,” and it made sense to me. As I grew older, I learned people were named for different reasons. I had a classmate named Wisdom because his parents wanted him to be wise. Another named Temple because he was almost born in the family church.

I was a sad child who preferred to read books alone in the corner rather than interact with other kids. As the first child, I was the makeshift mother to my siblings. This meant getting punished if they did something wrong because I failed to pay attention to them. I detested my siblings for this and stayed on my own. My siblings on the other hand enjoyed endless cartoons and had the luxury of not being on guard. From the books I read, I could tell there was adventure in a world I was not part of. I hated being myself. I hated being Mariam. I hated what Mariam meant. I tried to go only by my middle name.

The first time I told a teacher my name is Ofeh, he laughed and after asking where I was from, he said, “In Benin, Ofe means free.” I asked my father later that evening what Ofeh meant in Uwano.

“The full name is Ohiaofeh and it means someone that walked into good things.” I should have held onto that. Instead, I changed my name to Sweet because it was a direct contrast of what Mariam means. Sweet made me feel special.

I started introducing myself as Sweet during my first year at boarding school. All the girls had fancy names; Christiana, Jennifer, Princess, Emmanuella. Names that had me thinking about how beautiful they were before I even met them. Even their native names sounded better than my Ofeh. There were the ones you can carve cute nicknames from; Kemi, Temi, Tomi. There were the ones that sounded like songs; Onyinyechi, Osasikemwen, Tamarebi. Everyone called me Marian. Or Mary. It felt lazy. At first, I ignored it but on one hot Saturday, while kneeling in the sun, arms hanging above my head alongside my classmates for one junior girl’s failure to take out the trash, I corrected a girl named Jessica.

“My name is Mariam, with the letter M. Marian is a Christian name and Mariam is a Muslim name.”

“Are you not a Christain?” Jessica asked.

My school was the one of the biggest Pentecostal schools in Nigeria. They claimed they did not discriminate; all religions were welcome, but once you were a student, you had to follow all the rules regardless of what your religion insisted on. I struggled to keep my hands above my head. 

“My mum is a Christain and my dad is a Muslim.”

“And what does that make you?”

“I—I don’t know,” I replied, aware of the other girls listening to our conversation.

“Two of you talking, extra ten minutes for you” the senior prefect, Wumi, barked at us.

I spent the rest of the punishment, quiet thinking about an alternate life. One where I had a different name, lived in a different city, attended a different school. What makes a good name? Why did I care so much about mine? 

I dumped Sweet because even after introducing myself, people still asked what my real name was. My only friend at the time, Oghenetega, said the name felt artificial.  A name had to look like the person bearing it. Tega was a dark-skinned girl with chubby cheeks and red lips. Her name fit her. My next name had to feel real, something parents could give their kids. Also, I needed it to be something that was not a question of my faith. So I chose Hannah.

In the bible, she was one of the women on God’s good side. Hannah could be Ann or Hanny. I was comfortable with it for a while, but it was also around that time, I started questioning my faith. Tega, who was also the girl I had a crush on, was the kind of Christian who spoke in tongues, did not listen to secular music and did not hug boys. I had no problem with those things, but I pretended I did. I desperately wanted to speak in tongues for her.

One time, a senior prefect, Daberachi caught two girls in an empty classroom with hands in each other’s pants. When Tega and I heard it, she made a circle around her head with her fingers and snapped, “God forbid Satan.” I didn’t say anything because I was thinking about what it would feel like with her. I crossed my legs tight and waited for her to finish judging them before I asked which house wear she was wearing for visiting day.

I doodled Hanny on my notebooks, answer scripts, toilet walls. I even carved it into soap for a Fine Art assignment. One day, my father was going through my schoolbooks and he found I’d cancelled Mariam and written Hanny over it.

“Who is Hanny?”

I avoided his eyes, staring at the rug.

“Your name…the name your parents…the name I gave you is Mariam Ohiaofeh Izuagbe. Izuagbe means nobody can beat me. It means that you, Mariam are indestructible.” At this point, his hands were on my shoulders, trying to shake the insecurity away. I closed my eyes to pray the moment away.

Hanny lasted the longest. It stayed with me through my second year till the end of secondary school. It stayed even when the boys renamed me. The renaming started with Shina. He was a boy in my class I liked talking to about books. He was yellow like my brother and loved Cartoon Network so much I thought he could easily be my brother. One day, we were sitting outside our class, on the pavement with red flowers hanging above us when he first asked to be my boyfriend. I said no but he was persistent. The next day, he bought me a snow globe. Inside it was a red stone with the inscription, I love you on it.

The other girls in my class urged me to say yes to him even after I’d stressed I wasn’t interested. He went on for days, repeating, please be my girlfriend. Our discussions stopped, so did sharing breaktime together. One day, when he tried one more time, I said yes. He was elated until he found out I’d said yes to other boys who asked me to date them.

The first time a boy called me ashawo, I didn’t know what it meant but I knew that he was disgusted. Ashawo, okpo, prostitute, whore, hoe: different words, same girl. I claimed those names and wore them like armour. I would date a boy and then his brother. I would date another boy and then his best friend. Their curses lost meaning to me. I’d read somewhere that you cannot shame the shameless.

I carried on until I discovered Facebook. I needed a presentable name, so I chose Tyra Tresscott for sophistication. I set up the account using my own pictures but a fake address. I got friend requests from people around the world. One of these requests was from Jackie, whose bio read “16, lesbian, ​Mauritius.” On the third night of nonstop chatting, Jackie asked about my first kiss. I told her about Amara, who kissed me on a dare in SS3. Amara was in SS2 but she always hung out with the senior girls. One day, as we played a game of truth or dare, Ibitayo dared Amara to kiss me. Amara’s lips were the softest I’d ever kissed at the time. That same night, after the game, we ended up under the staircase rubbing each other’s clit. Though what we had lasted for two weeks, Amara and I never talked about it. Telling Jackie made it real. Jackie and I exchanged messages every hour, giving the other person updates on our lives. The thing I loved the most about her was how she never asked me questions I did not want to answer.

But as the relationship blossomed, so did my anxiety. So just before I went off to University, I made another account under the name, Cherri Daniels-Sue. I was thinking of the star apple, the one the Yorubas call ​agbalumo​. I put in my real location, Benin City, hoping I would find another girl like Jackie, but somebody who would be physically present. Old friends found me, and I made some new ones. But Jackie found me too. I accepted her friend request and she quickly sent me a message.

“I would like to be with someone that knows themselves.”

I never replied.

No matter what I did, I had to keep shedding. Cherri Daniels-Sue was over within the first few months at the University. I met Ena in my third year, a writer like myself. She taught me how to read like a writer. We exchanged novels as presents. On her birthday, I bought her the complete collection of Shakespeare’s work. That night, in my bed, she kissed me and asked me to run away with her.

“I will sell my kidney for you, babe,” I said.

During the holidays, she sent me links to publishing opportunities and before I applied, she would polish my sentences. I read the works of my contemporaries and I got the impression my name was not writerly enough. I chose Faridah because it was a Muslim name and it meant beautiful. I liked its flavour on my tongue. Then Sule, because it was my great grandfather’s first name and every son after him kept the name as their own middle name. I wanted to be the first woman in my family to claim the name. Faridah Sule. It reflected my complexities.

At University, you were called whatever you called yourself, at least to your face. The database of student background information was a lot more discreet. To find a person’s full name, you had to break into the school’s archive. Nobody cared that much. Maturity, if you will. I only mentioned Mariam when I had to fill official documents and to remind people never to call me Mariam.

I created a Twitter account with Faridah Sule because my parents had gotten on the Facebook wave. Twitter was a great place to reinvent yourself. Nobody knew anybody the way Facebook members knew each other. Twitter removes the sense of seriousness in the way that Facebook intensifies it. Here, everyone said what they wanted without mincing words. I met homosexuals, lesbians, trans people who tweeted about their lovers. We talked about being closeted in a country like Nigeria. I curated my timeline carefully. No sexism, no homophobia, no Christians, no Muslims, just misfits like me.

It was on Twitter I found the link to the call for submissions for an international magazine. When an acceptance letter came in, the first person I wanted to tell was my father. I felt like I owed it to him. I only ever called him when I needed money. One of the times I called, I’d been arrested for smoking weed within school premises. He came to meet me at the station and after settling the officers, he made me promise not to tell my mother. The last time we spoke before the acceptance letter, I told him I was dropping out of school. He didn’t fuss about how I failed his expectations of being a medical doctor. He sent me money and a text saying, I love you. I wanted him to know I had good news to share too. But I knew he’d be unhappy with my name. So I wrote back to the editor with a name change request. It was the first time I addressed myself as Mariam in years. My father was happy to hear the news.

“It makes sense now. All the trouble you get yourself into. Only writers act like that.”

I laughed. The sound of his laughter warmed my belly. He did not question the Sule bit and I was grateful for it.

It was through books I discovered that my need to stay silent, to run and hide, may be a mental health issue. Ena advised me to see a doctor before she left me, after months of strained conversations, outbursts, and silent treatments. After visiting the hospital a few times, a ​psychiatrist finally diagnosed my problem. The lowered self-esteem was a symptom of the problem and not the actual problem. I was relieved that the feeling of not wanting to live in my body could be named. My doctor said that mental health issues can develop because of nature and nurture factors.

As he spoke to me in his office shaped like a cube, I wondered if the meaning of my name played a role in my depression. He prescribed anti-psychotics and anti-depressants but what really helps is therapy where I am learning to find love for myself within. But for love to happen, acceptance must come first. I need to see myself to accept myself, so on a Sunday afternoon after lunch of rice and chicken stew, I asked my father why he named me Mariam, of all names.

He didn’t know Mariam meant bitterness. He named me after Prophet Mohammed’s first wife because she was noble. Still a shitty reason, but self-love is the destination. After I sent him another acceptance email, he asked why I didn’t include Izuagbe in my name. Before I could answer, he said, “Mariam, you are indestructible by virtue of your name. Forget what has happened and hold on to that.”

I cried.

My name is Mariam Ohiaofeh Izuagbe—Bitter, lucky and indestructible. A woman learning to navigate her place in this life.

Mariam Sule is a Writer, an entrepreneur, and Communications strategist. Her prose has appeared in the Aljazeera, Guardian NGITCH Creative JournalLitro Magazine UK and Elsewhere. She was a Writer-in-Residence at the Ebedi International Writers Residency. She writes monthly articles for ArtxJuJu, a brand committed to challenging the demonization of African culture, which she also co-founded. She is a beneficiary of the Tony Elemelu Entrepreneurship Programme 2019 and one of the participants of the She Leads Africa Accelerator program 2019. She is the recipient of The Freedom Awards’ Activist of the year 2020.