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My name is Boluwatife Ogunbodede

EDITOR’S NOTE:This article was originally published by youth communications and is republished here with permission. YC is a nonprofit publisher of stories and curricula written by teens to help educators strengthen young people’s social and emotional skills.

In fifth grade, I moved from Lagos, Nigeria, to New York City. I immediately knew that my name, Boluwatife (pronounced bow-luh-wah-tea-feh), is a tongue twister for many Americans. They just can’t do it right.

At school, almost everyone trashed my name. With each mispronunciation, the laughter of my ignorant classmates was never far behind, saying that it sounded like a witch’s enchantment.

I wondered why my parents had given my younger sister, Tobi, a name that was so much easier for people in this new country to pronounce. I was desperate to find something to like about my name. From other Yoruba speakers, I learned that the name Boluwatife means “the will of God.” I already knew that my sister’s name means “God is great,” which increased my suspicion that they favored her over me. I thought that my parents had named me after her because of her decision to have me, that they had left it to the will of God. I never sought reassurance from them and kept these feelings bottled up.

Meanwhile, I was feeling overwhelmed by the continuous mispronunciation of Boluwatife at school. It was as if part of who I am was being discarded. She wanted to be like everyone else with a name that was easy to pronounce. My middle name is Viola, after my aunt who sheltered us when we first moved to the United States. So, a year after my move, I decided to make Viola my unofficial first name everywhere. Just as Aunt Viola had sheltered us, her name became my shelter.

Every time my teachers called roll, I watched their facial expressions, and when I saw them pause or look puzzled, I assumed they were wrestling with my name. Although I introduced myself as Viola to everyone, the time sheet still showed Boluwatife; that was the one thing she couldn’t change. To combat this, I raised my hand and yelled “present”, before they even tried to say it. Soon, Boluwatife was rarely mentioned.

So the years passed until one day in tenth grade history class. We were learning about foreigners coming to Ellis Island. The teacher explained the different ways that foreigners tried to better fit into American cultural and social norms, saying that immigrants often changed their names to Western names. I shifted my gaze from the loudly ticking clock to my small desk as I rested my head on my arm. So, I heard them calling me by my name.

“Viola here is the perfect example,” he said, “She also looked for a more Western-sounding name to fit in America.” Suddenly the clock didn’t seem so loud. Though I wished it would drown out everything with its insistent ticking sound, the classroom fell silent.

In a whisper, I quickly replied, “I’m not a good example because Viola is my Surname. It’s on my birth certificate. I didn’t change it.” He might as well have said, “I’m American! I fit in!” I was surprised to find that I was still seen as Boluwatife, despite all my efforts to the contrary. It was frustrating to admit, but trying so hard to be Viola had made me uncomfortable. I thought it was worth the awkwardness if it meant I could fit in perfectly, but I didn’t fit in after all.


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