Ngozi…

My father has an ‘unusual’ middle name, it’s fairly common but unusual still. A few weeks ago, I stumbled on a post that referenced the name – maybe it’s Tsar’s post actually. Anyway, he made a quip about the name on the post and I threatened to report him to the bearer of the name, but something nagged at me.

Who gave this name to my father? It didn’t seem like the kind of name my grandfather would have chosen. Why didn’t I know the story behind this name in particular? He has only three names and I know the detailed stories behind the other two names.

His paternal grandmother gave him this middle name, he told me. The name was fitting for the circumstances of her life, an only child who had seven children who grew to adulthood and now a grandson. She must have felt very blessed.

Then it struck me that Daddy didn’t have a name given to him by either of his parents and I asked why. He explained that naming children was the exclusive preserve of grandparents, then I reminded him that my brothers and I all bear first names given to us by our parents.

“Well, my parents were eaglet parents, they were not qualified to name me.” He said, and we both laughed. Eaglet is a word he uses when he describes an inexperienced person handling a huge challenge.

“And you were qualified to name me? Even though you were younger than he was when you had your own firstborn.”

“Yes, I was more prepared than your grandfather when you were born.” He had a faraway look in his eyes and I was afraid he was about to launch into the account of how I was born – a story I have heard three thousand, four hundred and seventy-six times.

“Let me tell you a story that I’ve never told you before, your mother doesn’t even know this story.” I folded my legs into the chair to enjoy the fresh story.

Like me, my father was born on the 31st of December. It is perhaps the most uncertain day of the year, it’s not a holiday but feels so much like one and when it falls on a weekday, work is never serious – for those who have to go to work that day, that is. In all my working years, I have only gone to work once on my birthday, and that was even evening shift.

On that beautiful afternoon – December has spectacular weather and the 31st has the best of weather of the year – always. My grandfather left the Railway Compound at Ebute-Metta where he worked, to the Island Maternity at Lagos Island where his pregnant wife had gone to have their baby.

My father said the man rode his bicycle through that distance and I think Papa was gangster. I miss him very much; he was a fierce protector of his grandchildren from parental ‘bullying’. When I was a toddler/little girl, I called his name when I cried. He was also buyer of treats, teller of stories and keeper of secrets.

It wasn’t visiting time yet when he left for the Island, he clearly couldn’t concentrate at work. My father had been born in the morning – he teases me about being born in the afternoon and having to wait until 2pm to begin my birthday. By the time his father got to the hospital around noon, he had been born already.

Knowing my grandmother’s room and the position of her bed, he headed to the window to check on her. It wasn’t possible for him to walk into the ward a minute before the allowed time even if his wife had triplets, not with the dragon nurses that bestrode the wards of Nigerian hospitals in the colonial 1950s.

He got to the window and called her name, I wonder if they were giggling and laughing or if they were formal, neither of them is here to answer that question. Papa asked her how she was and she said she was fine. She had had the baby and they were both fine.

“Can I announce the birth?” he said in Mbaise dialect

“Go and announce,” she said, I’m sure she would have found it funny. My grandmother had a wry sense of humour.

So he mounted his bicycle and rode straight to the house where his neighbours were waiting for the news. If you have read Buchi Emecheta’s The Bride Price, you would instantly understand the kind of connection the Igbo neighbours had, sojourners in a strange land who became family because they lived in the same house and they spoke the same language, even though their dialects differed sharply.

He went straight to Nwanyi Owerri, the woman who carried out omugwo duties for the women in the compound and the neighbourhood. Having your mother come down for Omugwo was a luxury that was nearly unthinkable for the young wives who were married to men living in faraway cities like Lagos, Ibadan, Kano, Potiskum, etc.

“My wife just had a baby this morning, start getting the things she would need for mmiri ogwu.”

She jumped up and danced, surviving child birth was always wonderful news and the birth of a first child was truly special.

“What did she have?” she asked when she stopped dancing.

“I didn’t even ask,” he said with a sheepish grin.

She became angry at Papa for not asking such a pertinent detail, the man was unbothered, he had just become a father. What did it matter if it was a boy or a girl?

“Was this the person who would have been insistent in given me a name? the same man who didn’t even know to ask if it was a boy or a girl?” he asked me and I giggled.

Now that I think about it, the man wasn’t really interested in naming anybody. There’s only one person I know who has a name given to them by him.

Me.

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