In my street, we are either Maman ƴan biyu or Maman ƴan uku. That is our name. We have no other name to differentiate us. Just descriptions that were usually enshrouded with “that fat Maman ƴan biyu or that slim one; you know, the black slim one with the long neck that has something on her nose.” I don’t know how they describe me. But I never liked the idea of being called Maman this or Maman that. And it is why I have never used it on anyone either. But some people have strong heads. They are more stubborn than a bull and have insisted on calling me Maman ƴan biyu simply because I have given birth to twins. Most of them do not know my name and they never cared to learn it.
In my family, we have two Maman Juniors. Those who insist on calling them that often pause in conversations when they are asked “Which one?” And they will begin to use descriptions or locations to get right who they are referring to. I thought I would never get tired of correcting those who call me Maman ƴan biyu.
I tell them, “Call me Ummi or Aunty Ummi. My name is not Maman ƴan biyu.”
I keep correcting them until I find myself answering to their persistence. I don’t know when it began. I can’t remember how I came about disliking being called the names of firstborns. I am a firstborn myself. I grew up hearing people call my mother Maman Ummi. I often wondered if she was not a mother to my other siblings. It was the thoughts of a young child, but as I grew up, I began to find answers to that question.
There was a time I was strolling down to the small market at the end of the street and the woman who had a grinding shop by the roadside kept calling for me. But because I didn’t think my name was Maman ƴan biyu, I didn’t respond to her. Hours later when I went to her shop to grind rice into pasta for masa, she mentioned how she had been calling for me but I didn’t reply to her. I was still in the shop waiting for my rice pasta when a woman who had two sets of twins came in. She was one of the many Maman ƴan biyus in the street, but she was the only one who had twins twice.
The woman at the shop said, “Ah! Maman ƴan biyu and Maman ƴan biyu.” She chuckled.
I looked at her and wondered how she’d differentiate us if this was a conversation. I imagined her saying something like, “You know that maman ƴan biyu and the other maman ƴan biyu, they have things in common.” The other conversant would be left confused as the person tried to picture which and which maman ƴan biyu in the maze of many maman ƴan biyu she had just mentioned.
My name began to fade. The thread forming each alphabet in my name loosened and the tongue could not hold its brokenness. I knew my identity had begun to change when I was at a literary gathering and everyone was calling me Maman ƴan biyu. It shocked me to sudden silence. At first, I didn’t hear it until I was leaving and a group of people spoke to me, referring to me as Maman ƴan biyu.
My silence only lasted for few seconds but thinking that being silent could give a quiet approval of such names, I said, “My name is not Maman ƴan biyu. I have many names. Call me Ummi or Hajaarh or even Huntress. Not Maman ƴan.”
They laughed, thinking I was kidding.
“Don’t make me an old woman,” I added playfully.
But I was not playing. I meant it. It made me feel old. I was still young for such heavy names. It felt as though they were changing my identity. A friend of mine, in a conversation on WhatsApp, said my identity had already been changed the moment I gave birth to the twins. Being a mother was part of my identity, he said. I agreed. But does that change my name?
I once read a nonfiction story about a woman who, after thirty-something years of being married and being John’s mother or Mrs. Steven, had begun to forget her name. When she was asked for her name, she was either Mrs. Steven or John’s mother even to herself. And after those years with a late husband and grown-up children who had all left to live their lives, she met someone at a restaurant whom she knew in her youth. And when the person called her by her name, it took her a while to know it was her the person was referring to. She wept at the realization.
I could understand her and what she felt at that moment. It was never just her. Her identity was linked to either her husband or children. But what about her? This is what it’s like for women. Their names are easily lost behind their husbands and children. They begin to forget and become nameless without those two identifiers. Most are never recognized without those links. That is what society has made it become.
This added to the validation that I needed to keep my name. I needed to remember who I am.
My name is annexed to my body so much that I didn’t change it after I got married. I didn’t bear my husband’s name. I remained me – the name that had been incorporated into me at birth, a name that followed behind me from kindergarten to master’s degree. I wouldn’t change it for a penny. Not because I didn’t like being my husband’s wife, but, before that, I was me.
When I first got married and moved to my husband’s apartment, the neighbourhood began calling me ‘Aunty Amarya’; a name that followed every new bride. Nobody cared to know my name or what I was known for. This left a sour taste in my mouth. I barely answered anyone who called me ‘Aunty Amarya’, but that changed immediately after I gave birth. The change of my name based on circumstances gave me a namelessness I repelled.
My mother had been a victim of this vicissitudes, and so was my ex-stepmother. My mother, who had been known all her life in our neighbourhood as Maman Ummi, was known at her workplace as Mrs My-father. Then after the divorce from my father, her new husband insisted she had to change her name. This had caused a crease in her brows. Because it was going to affect most of her official papers. But with so much insistence, she decided she would return to her father’s name. This caused frequent visitation to the court. Aunty Billy—my ex-stepmother—after the divorce from my father and after marrying three times and assuming different names and identities, called my mother on the phone.
“I am tired of changing names and going to the court to swear in,” she said.
“Change it back to your father’s name and never change it again,” my mother told her.
They had been close when they were still my father’s wives, bearing the same identity. They fought now and then but you know how it is with co-wives. My stepmother left first and years later, it was my mother’s turn.
Refusing to go through such headaches, I kept my father’s name. I told my husband before we got married that I wasn’t going to change my name. He agreed.
Now, those people, who were as stubborn as a bull, dismissed me whenever I told them to call me Aunty Ummi or just Ummi instead of Maman ƴan biyu. I am most bothered by how even my relatives had assumed this change. They discharged my name and made me into Maman ƴan biyu wherever they saw me; at every event and visitation. To the extent that even strangers began to take part. The name settled on their tongues as though it was crafted there.
And I, in my desperation not to let my name fizzle to dust, would hold a deep frown, eyeball them, and say, “Call me by my name.”
Hajaarh Muhammad Bashar
Hajaarh Muhammad Bashar is a multi-award winning writer, born and raised in Minna, Nigeria. She writes in English, Hausa, and Pidgin. She is the winner of the Nigerian Prize for Indigenous language 2023 (pidgin category) and the winner of the Genti Media Pidgin Writing Competition 2023. Her short story was the 1st runner up for the Hafsat Abdulwahab Short Story Prize 2022. Her nonfiction ‘Outborn Wing’ was the 1st runner up for the WeNaija Literary Contest 2023 (nonfiction category). In 2021, she was announced the winner of Abubakar Gimba Prize for short story. Hajaarh is a two-time finalist of TYS nonfiction contest 2021 and 2022 respectively. Her works have appeared in Isele Magazine, Kendeka anthology, Akuko Magazine, Bakwa Magazine, Artslounge Magazine, and many others.