There are many fascinating aspects of African culture that kept me permanently curious as a child. The one I want to focus on is the notion that it’s disrespectful for a child to address their parents by their first name. This naturally evolved to it being absolutely immoral to even know your parents’ names. I nearly failed my pre-entry primary exams because of this fact.
“What is your mother’s name?” they asked the little darling that was me.
The fuck should I know?
I wanted to cry. Not just because I didn’t know but because if the name somehow entered my sub-conscious and I uttered it, I was terrified of the punishment that would be meted out to me.
Fast forward to me being much much older and I’m applying for a travel document to go to my neighbour, Kenya. Banange, I suffered. I didn’t want my mother to know my ignorance when it came to who the hell my descendants were so I called my sister who is more serious.
But even she was stumped when it came to our grandparents and my mother’s phone was off when I tremblingly dialled it. Not to let a trifle like this bother me, I approached the desk of the immigration officer and blithely submitted the form. He blithely handed it back.
“What is this you’ve put on your grandmother’s name?” he inquired.
“Yaya”, I said.
“But that can’t be her name”, he growled. He had a long line of customers and little patience for fools like myself.
“That’s the name I know her by”.
“Listen,”, he started. “There are names we call our elders as children. Those are not their real names. Now, what is your grandmother’s real name?!”
“Well, the other one is called Kaka”, I offered.
“Just call your mother!”, he barked.
“I tried. Her phone is off”.
“But you young people are not ashamed”, he begun when I cut him off with a question of my own.
“What’s your grandmother’s name?”
Stunned, he stared at me for some heavy seconds until he said, shamefaced.
“I don’t know”.