Art: Nightingale HBO
You swore it was the masculine version of Jill− a ‘one L’ variant of common female names, like Hilary was of Hillary and Alison of Allison− when your friends would poke fun at the absurdity of your name. To get the last laugh when they asked who and who you knew that answered to such a name, you would taunt them about their crude backgrounds: uncivilized lots just exposed to the brilliant sheen of education, of sophistication; that since they were fresh from thick bush they could not possibly know such names did exist. You would make up names of men in occupations foreign to their hearing like Seabed Engineering and Agronomy, in places remote to their ears like Estonia, Malta and San Marino, who were your namesakes.
Also, their ignorance of your sisters’ history in the school was another great relief. They were too young to know− and for that you were grateful− else they would not have believed a single word from your mouth, as it would have been a case of mad family names.
Of course they ceased in their pestering, silent as you listed your faux namesakes. Jil Anderson, Jil Cooper, Jil Taylor. Even you, son of a respected churchman, marvelled at your ingenuity with lies. It was also your earliest insight on the steep damage of ignorance. You were cautious with your mockery lest you appear condescending; that you saw them as charity cases under the benefaction of the church for which your father was the education chair.
He had led the campaign for the massive education of fellow natives. Everyone, even if they did not pray to the Christian God. He had argued to the committee, when they protested that it was not only unheard of, but utterly preposterous, that sons of heathens− Sango and Ogun adherents− should partake of the church’s scholarship scheme. Heathens who every so often rebuked them for deserting the gods of their ancestors for the god of the same Whiteman that not too long ago, ferried them off in chains as slaves in the name of the same god. That was not all. Your father insisted that the school open its doors to girls as well.
That was the height of it. Some called for his immediate resignation. They were grateful for his work in the past, but for the future, they were not quite sure. Did the bible give credence to women learning? Did Paul not say women should remain silent while men do the talking? Even the Old Testament had men deal with the intricate labyrinth of learning and leadership while women remained in the modest plateau of domesticity.
Your father, Brother Hezekiah, mission school principal and director of education’s response was both salient and silencing: Show a man light and he’d want no part with darkness forever. As for the bible, Deborah was the Judge in the era of Judges who delivered the Israelites from the Canaanites. Likewise, Phebe and Priscilla preached with Paul. In retrospect, you know your father might never have admitted girls into the school were it not for his miraculous circumstance at the time: a proud first-time father; as he had a penchant for tailoring truth depending on his need. Anyone who knew Brother Hezekiah was mindful of the premium he placed on education. And so did you, because without any fuss you would have believed, if he someday confessed he placed education before his faith in God. Because all your life, he never so much as raised his voice when you went truant on Sunday school to play with your friends. Just an unfriendly scowl, or the usual, You want to sully my good name? But the one time it entered your head to skip school for the usual idiocies of childhood you and your friends partook in when your heads turned south, the first three slaps that greeted your face when he discovered (before your mother’s timely rescue), gave you the stars. You could only imagine the possible visions of a full beating− stars, moons, perhaps the entire Milky Way and the sun. Afterwards you reset the compass of your brain and never skipped school again.
And he was right. Because no sooner were the ‘heathens’ admitted did fathers and sons go warring, and daughters and mothers sparring. This was after the announcement of the masquerade dance which coincided with the celebration of the new moon. A rarity of no other kind. But the school children refused to partake of the preparatory rites and rituals for which the unschooled crying foul, tendered the matter before the elders. This formed another complaint from the town: that the mission school was not only teaching their wards to forsake their ways but to also pose defiant disregard to the words of parents.
Your father, diplomat extraordinaire, drew the line there. He washed his hands off the charge and asked everyone to partake in the rites. Then as a quiet afterward in a winking pause (and in English) added, that they infuse Christian lyrics to the heathen songs they were required to sing. God would understand, he said. At the end, both parents and the church were content.
He had his demons too. Like most men he was not without his own battles. For twelve years after marriage, no life crystalized from he and your mother’s bedtime reactions. It was more testing because then, Brother Hezekiah was lay preacher who went about evangelism. At the onset of his marriage, the lines he used often in converting town folks was, ‘There is nothing God cannot do’ and ‘Those who put their trust in God can never be put to shame.’ After the third year of marriage and still no third person within his household, his conversion lines became ‘There is nothing too difficult for God’ and ‘God is faithful to anyone who believes.’
By the fifth year, when the lines seemed more like an excuse than a firm belief on which he stood, the church came to his rescue, promoting him to the office of the secretary to the director of education, and that post he held till eight years later, when the director retired. Too old to continue with the growing demand of not just any education, but the mission education. Its touch was clearly visible they said. Most importantly, it was free.
Like magic, your mother began to retch the very week Brother Hezekiah became director. And in the following months she was swollen all over. Your father bursting with joy, but gripped with caution, made no fuss about it. He would when the fruit fell.
It did fall and they were two. Girls. Your father, with a new-found swagger, paraded himself chest up with lengthy strides, walking the town as though he owned it. That was not all, he made sure there was no naming ceremony, citing it a baseless heathen ritual.
Years later, when you heard the story, you but smiled because you know your father. That was a ruse to prevent those who had mocked him in his back prior to fatherhood from feasting at his expense. Perhaps the pain of missing out on free food fuelled them anew. For they rumoured that perhaps your father had not truly sired them. Their tongues were sooner clipped because as your twin sisters grew, it was needless to profess they were out and out extensions of your father. Some confessed to them being Brother Hezekiah in woman form. After hard musings, Brother Hezekiah came up with the names for his daughters, which paralysed your mother with laughter at first, but she retreated to seriousness when she glimpsed on her husband’s countenance, the very countenance she knew too well to mean he was not fibbing about this.
‘Hope of glory’ and ‘Hoping on Jesus’. Even though your mother knew all she would try to say was likely to fall on deaf ears, she complained nevertheless. They were more like sentences− evangelical lines than human names, she observed. But your father, being who he is− stubborn as a mule− would not budge. I hoped and God gave substance to my hope. I have always wanted to christen my first seed Hope and nothing more. But since God gave me two and I cannot call both by one name, well… he shrugged.
Without doubt, your sisters bore the brunt of your present troubles, because if your name, Jil, was bizarre, theirs was off the graph of bizarre. And classmates being what they are, without a second of hesitation, did what they knew best to do: They taunted the Hopes to death.
As a child, you remember when your sisters came back from school in tears. Your mother had inquired what the matter was and they said their new English teacher had asked the class to give her a sentence. The first hand shot up and ‘Hope of glory’ was what the boy who was beckoned on came up with. The teacher scribbled that on the board and everybody laughed. Still confused as to the cause of their amusement, she asked for another. A longer, more encompassing of everyday words, she said. The same boy was quick to poke his hands in the air, sharp as a zealot as he motioned to be called on. The teacher gave in, and he spoke: ‘Hoping on Jesus, the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, the author and finisher of our faith, who died on the cross and washed away our sins.’ Everyone went amok with laughter.
At first Brother Hezekiah’s fury was without restraint when he read the newspaper the following week. The nation’s laws were clear on change of names: No ward without the go ahead of a parent or guardian was capable of changing their names. He knew your mother was the weight behind it. The new names were distinguished from the old ones which were written in block letters by underling: I formerly known as HOPE OF GLORY ADEKUNLE now wish to be called IRETIOGO ADEKUNLE. All former documents remain valid. The general public please take note. I formally known as HOPING ON JESUS ADEKUNLE now wish to be called IRETIJESU ADEKUNLE All former documents remain valid. The general public please take note.
It was the first time he saw how funny it looked on paper because when he thought about it, it was still within the confines of his will− the meaning remained− only the language changed to Yoruba. His anger would hold no water and the house was aware.
Now it is your turn. With your sisters long married and breeding, it is just you and Brother Hezekiah by yourselves. Even though in aspects you resembled your mother, your quietude also stemming from her, God rest her soul. Unfortunately, of all the traits from your father, it is his blind pig-headedness that somehow found its way to you.
Your mother had always told you that there was more than one way of doing things. That life was like a tree, and to get to the top, there were several branches through which to climb. But most importantly, an interplay between branches was surer to get you there. Of course you saw the wisdom in her words, you dwelled on them every so often. But you’re your father’s son, and blood being what it is, you oftentimes let that lesson seep through your brain, and you would have your way as you deemed fit. It was after you got into an overwhelming pickle that the tree analogy creeped back into your stubborn skull. And you would rue for days why you so choose to partake in a three-in-one folly: to be all at once blind, deaf and stubborn.
Now that you’re seventeen and the house seemed more like a graveyard than a home, the one thing that ignited a spark in the conversations between you both was his imminent retirement. He was all grey now. His life was a calendar everyone knew. From his juvenile years he had loved books above everything else; choosing them over the hoe. He was mocked and jeered, told he would grieve over his choice in the distant future, because farming in those days was the only way to wealth. I never wanted to be wealthy, he would say. Looking into the distance as though the wind from the window was whom he addressed. Comfort was all I sought. We come alone, we die alone, what does one do with all that amassment? That was the first time you were aware the word amass even had a noun. He served the church in exchange for an education. After which he taught till he was able to get a place of his own. That was when he became an evangelist under the mission, and afterwards he met your mother the choir mistress.
Whenever you recall their story, you would smile to yourself. Because Evangelists and choir mistresses pairing up for matters beyond church didn’t begin today, it goes farther back the onset of missionary Christianity.
He was in his late thirties. Thirty-seven or thirty-eight you cannot remember now, and she was just twenty-one. But for the next twelve years they would bear no child, and even after your sisters in the thirteenth year, it would take almost eight years to conceive of you.
That afternoon as you talked, he suddenly went mute. This mercuriality came with his advancing age. Or could it be on account of your mother’s death? You never could tell. How he could be all spirited with life one moment and without warning go quiet. It started after your mother passed away three years ago from a persistent headache after her fall that evening when she slipped in the bathroom.
It was the first time you saw him cry, when they lowered her casket laden with wreaths to the ground. He did cry, like a suckling too. No, more like an infant encountering the first gust of air in its lungs. Worse even, because no one, not even your sisters who have mastered him seemed capable of placating him.
What would you do after retirement? You asked, breaking the anaemic silence. Brother Hezekiah came to. He grunted and babbled some gibberish before you heard some actual words he muttered. Something about waiting and taking one day at a time because he had few tomorrows. And then he asked whether you wanted to go to university or serve in the church as he did till you found your feet. When you assented to the former, his grin knew no bounds. You could swear you almost saw the end of his teeth on both sides of his mouth. And then he wafted off again, peering through the window, humming hymns you’ve never before heard. These days you worry about him, even though he reiterates every time he stumbles or fumbles that he is fine. Your concern bordering more on affection than duty. By all standards, except his occasional scheming and blunt singlemindedness, he was a good father. He had served both his family and the church without wavering, without guile. You had friends who wished they had a father like him. He gave both bible and pragmatic answers to every question, depending on which fitted the context, except for one− your name.
There and then you wanted to ask him one more time. Hoping he would not give the usual glib reply of, It is a Christian name. Or, It is a special Christian name. But you held back. He was in a jolly mood, you didn’t want to take that from him. You wanted him to revel in his moment, in the news that you have chosen to go to University. The first in the town. Then he spoke. Do you know what that would mean? You would be the first man from our parts to go to the Whiteman’s country to learn what he knows. You would be an equal. He paused. If God takes me now, I would tell your mother we did it: that it was us, our seed that first held a candle to the most superior knowledge on earth. Then he began the sermon, which for the most part sailed without stain across your ears. But three struck you:
One, God becomes to you what you think of him. Two, before he had your sisters he looked up to God with hope. Three, before he had you he meditated on the lordship of Jesus. It all came together, clear as the skies in dry season. You almost yelled with that dawning of satori, but somehow you found yourself containing the revelation, processing the revelation, and making a decision there and then, that come next year, when you are eighteen, and before you leave for studies overseas, you were going to the court house to change your name. And this time not to Yoruba as your sisters did, because it was still going to be a sentence. Of course you felt no animosity as you had felt in the past years when he skirted around what it meant. You were going to answer to a real name, perhaps his own name, Hezekiah, a Christian name− you had mapped out your line of defense. Lest the old man dies of a heart attack and you regret it the rest of your life. Moreover, a name like Hezekiah II or Hezekiah Jr was sure to swell his sense of vanity. What father would oppose the idea of his son adopting his very own name, a gesture of filial honour? It was an infallible win-win.
You are beset with self-disappointment as you wonder how you were blind to its meaning from the beginning, because it was what you heard every other day. Its simplicity, its ordinariness. It had to go. You could not bear to think of it, not to talk of endure any second more of it as your name. Jil: Jesus is Lord!
Kelvin Kellman writes fiction and poetry. His works has appeared in magazines like Sankofa, Kalahari, Sentinel, Brittle paper etc. He lives and writes from Nigeria.