Small memories

The other day, I Skyped my cousin Tope from my college apartment, and he told me a funny story about my name. When we were little, he would always tease me on my visits to Nigeria, but now that he lives in Australia I almost never see him. So occasionally, we reminisce long distance about old inside jokes and pranks, listening to each other’s laughter scratchy and two seconds late from the other side of the planet. This time, he was giggling so hard he could barely get out: “Do you remember that time I told you your name meant ‘what’?”

I did. I was nine and his family was visiting us in California. His mom was talking in Yoruba with my dad. I knew Tope understood the language, he knew I was jealous that he understood the language, so he, eight years old and rambunctious, mocked me.

“You hear that they’re saying your name?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “Are they gossiping about me?”

“No. But you will hear they’re saying, Korede, Korede, Korede. Listen.”

I did—I still couldn’t hear it.

Tope laughed. “It’s because your name means, ‘what.’ It’s a very common word.”

“Why would my parents name me ‘what’?”

“Because you Americans don’t understand anything.”

Eight-year-old Tope was mean, and 20-year-old Tope is nearly as bad. “You believed me,” he said. “I can’t believe you actually believed me.” And I did, briefly—in those moments during which I thought my name meant “what,” I remember thinking that I finally knew what to say when my family lapsed into Yoruba and I no longer understood. I’d announce myself. “Korede?” I would say in response to a simple greeting or an inquiry after my health. “Korede?” Korede was what people said when they didn’t know the language. I was Korede and I did not understand. My name was a question; my existence was a question. Why is this girl with an American accent called Korede? Why, if she is called Korede, does she not understand?

The truth is, Oluwakorede doesn’t mean “what”—it means “the bringer of good tidings.” This I learned—or re-learned—on the phone with my dad one night as I lay in bed, avoiding my schoolwork for the next day. I asked him where I was bringing the good tidings. Home? He said no—his name, Dele, meant home. His interpretation is that I am supposed to bring good tidings to the whole world. But my interpretation is simpler, less optimistic: Oluwakorede is a wanderer’s name. It comes without a place.

My dad chose the name; my dad has a place. It’s called Ilesa, the village where he grew up. I think before he left, thirty-two years ago, it was his home, his dele. His whole family used to live there: him, his parents and his five sisters. But now, only Tola, the youngest, still lives in Nigeria.  Our grandparents’ sprawling, haphazardly built house is no longer home to our sprawling, haphazardly diasporic family.

My dad chose my name to give me a little bit of his place, or a little bit of what is left of it. What do I, Dele’s daughter, recall of my dad’s dele? From my four visits to Ilesa, I only have impressions: the smell of ash from street fires. Roosters’ calls echoing loud before dawn each morning. Sunrise in the morning. Sun-warmed dust rising in clouds from the road. Something about a goat. Nothing but small memories; nothing, really, at all.

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