A Name Is What You Want It to Be

My grandmother was named after Adolf Hitler. A fact I was not aware of until five years after her death. I was nineteen at the time and all my life I’d always called her “Oja”, which meant “old woman”, just like my siblings and my older cousins before me did.

My grandmother’s name was Etila. (Pronounced A-tee-la). She was born in 1941, at the beginning of the Second World War. Her mother, my great-grandmother had been sick during her whole pregnancy. During the war, she’d lost her two sons and a pregnancy due to famine. My mother had said that my great-grandmother knew this was her final chance at procreating. She knew nothing about the war in the West, but felt the reverberations and shared the tragedies just the same in her little village where one word … one name continuously echoed. Hitler. There was no food because of Hitler. Her children died because of Hitler. She might lose this one because of Hitler.

So, when she pushed out the little waif of a girl, alone and delirious from hunger in the forest, she named her after the faceless person across the ocean that knew nothing of her existence but had tried to kill her anyways.

My mother said her mother had told her that, for my grandmother, it was the equivalent of inviting your enemy to the peace table. Because when you feared something, you befriended it. So that on the day its true nature emerges, it might remember the friendship that you both once shared.

I question my great grandmother’s logic almost as much as I admire her sense of humor.


I was twenty-two when I developed enough curiosity to ask my father about my name. And the only thing he could remember of it was that I had turned seven days old on a rainy morning and he couldn’t get to the mosque. So he had paid the token money to a freelance brown-toothed, dirty-turbaned, old Mallam to whisper a name in my ears before time ran out. He said I’d howled the entire time and the Mallam had looked at me and said, “This one should be called Zainab.”

“What did that mean?” I’d asked my dad.

And his answer was the same as it had been when I had asked what my name meant when I was six years old.

“I really have no idea. It just seemed fitting, I guess.”

I shrugged. “What is a name, anyways? Like being born, you have no control over it.”

“Of course, you do. If you wanted a name bad enough, you’d pick one for yourself,” my father retorted.

I thought of my aunt then, who had changed her name when she became a Christian. Grandmother had named her “Alikeju” which meant “I have seen horrors and my eyes are full”.

When my aunt was baptized, the pastor asked her to pick a name. She picked “Grace”.

“My eyes shall not be full from seeing horrors. Instead, it shall be full from beholding grace,” she said.

Grandmother neither acknowledged nor adopted this new name. Alikeju, she continued to call her and my aunt responded. So when grace-less things began to happen to her, I wondered if it was because she had betrayed the name she chose for herself.


My grandmother, up until her death, called me “Ojonupe” – the name she’d whispered to the wind to carry to my ears when she heard of my birth. It means “What God wants”.

Everyone else called me Zainab. But to grandmother, I was Ojonupe – her daughter’s daughter. She made music from my name and we danced around her compound beating on sticks with it. And I loved it as a thing so uniquely ours. When she died, I wondered what a name was if there was no one to call it – it was just another prayer with no one to say it, another word with no one to make a meaning of it. A language that nobody speaks, a house that nobody lives in. Abandoned. Empty. Forgotten.

The older I grew, the more names I collected, determined to keep them all safe on the lips of people who loved me.

Some people say that the most important thing a person owns is their name. Some say that your name shapes your future.

My grandmother believed that a name is only as important as the bearer decides it is.


Where I come from, a child is not just born, he is brought forward … guided through. Reincarnation. Rebirth. Metempsychosis. These children take up the names of their ancestor guardian, their own names fading into oblivion.

My father was born on the night the chieftain of his little village died and everyone agreed the old chieftain had gone to bring my dad forth.

Onuh”, they called him, which meant King, from the moment he was born, whatever name that had originally been intended for him slipping slowly from their minds.

Sometimes I wondered if he missed his real name, his first name – the one his mother had called him deep within the confines of her mind when they were connected by an umbilical cord, the one she’d whispered when he slipped out of her, the one she’d called when he latched onto her breasts for the first time.

“What is dad’s real name?” I’d ask over and over when I first discovered his name, now a part of mine was not even originally his … ours.

“I’m not even sure he knows. If he does, he probably doesn’t remember,” my mother once said.

I thought that it was incredibly sad.


Days before grandmother’s death, I visited her in the hospital. The nurse was changing her sheets and I stood in the doorway for a moment, watching my grandmother curled up on the couch, wondering just when she became so small she hardly seemed to make a dent on couches.

“Zainab is here,” the nurse said to her when she noticed me standing there.

“Who’s Zainab?” grandmother asked dryly and I shook my head slightly as I entered the room: “Should we be worried about your memory now, grandmother?” I teased.

She scoffed, “Your name is Ojonupe. I don’t know a Zainab.”

“I’m both Zainab and Ojonupe, ma’am,” I replied warily as I sat next to her.

She sighed then, shaking her head slightly, “I don’t know who you are when you’re Zainab,” she insisted. Just before I started to voice my protest, she continued, “Your accent changes and I barely understand a word you say,” she smiled sheepishly as she scrunched up her nose , mimicking me: “Hi, ma’am, my name is Zainab. How do you do?” she drawled.

“Grandmother!” I protested.

She laughed then, her big belly laughter, wiping tears from her eyes with the edge of her wrapper. “That’s exactly how you sound.” She paused, peering at me intently. “But when you’re Ojonupe, my Ojonupe, you’re softer. Your voice is clearer and even when you don’t say a thing, I understand you.”

As I curled up on the couch next to her, my head on her shoulders, she patted my hands softly. “This moment, you’re Ojonupe.”

“What does it matter, oja?” I asked, “A name does not define you, does it?”

“It doesn’t. But people do. When people call you by a name, there is a version of you that is created to answer to it.” She paused for so long I wondered if she had fallen asleep, then she continued, “When I call you Ojonupe, you do not even know when you drop off the part of you that is Zainab. But the change is so palpable a person who knows Zainab would hardly believe that you are the same person.” She nudged my shoulder slightly, “Through the different versions of yourself that you would create and recreate to fit into a name that others call you, you must remember that none of them truly defines you. You live up to no name except that which you call yourself.”

“Yes, grandmother,” I said softly.

And as I moved through schools, through cities, through friends and lovers, I was more than grateful for grandmother’s wisdom.

Tonight, my lover plants a kiss on my lips and calls me Zai. Tomorrow, my friends would call me Nabs and the girls at my Pilates class would call me Zee. When my father is happy, he would call me Jimmy. And my mother would call me Zainab-de to express her displeasure.

I have hundreds of names. The only one I live up to is the one I call myself. Zainab. O jonupe. Ajú Etila.

Zainab Onuh-Yahaya

About Zainab Onuh-Yahaya

Zainab Onuh-Yahaya is an essayist from Nigeria. Her work has appeared in Gaya Magazine, Minority Africa, Apartment Therapy Media, Huck Magazine and elsewhere. She's currently rounding up a law degree in the Nigerian Law School.

Zainab Onuh-Yahaya is an essayist from Nigeria. Her work has appeared in Gaya Magazine, Minority Africa, Apartment Therapy Media, Huck Magazine and elsewhere. She's currently rounding up a law degree in the Nigerian Law School.

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