In 5th grade, I moved from Lagos, Nigeria to New York City. Right away, I learned that my name, Boluwatife (pronounced bow-luh-wah-tea-feh), is a tongue twister for many Americans. They just cannot get it right.
In school, almost everyone butchered my name. With every mispronunciation, the laughter of my ignorant peers was never far behind, saying it sounded like a witch’s incantation.
I wondered why my parents had given my younger sister, Tobi, a name that was far easier for people to pronounce in this new country. 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 added to my suspicion that they favored her over me. I thought my parents had named me after their indecision about having me, that they had left it up to God’s will. I never sought out reassurance from them and kept these feelings bottled up.
Meanwhile, I felt burdened by the continued mispronunciation of Boluwatife at school. It was like part of who I am was being dismissed. I wished that my middle name, Viola, after my aunt who gave us shelter when we first moved to the U.S., was my first name. I wanted to be like others with an easy name to pronounce.
So, a year into my move, I decided to make Viola my unofficial first name everywhere. Just as Aunt Viola had given us shelter, her name became my haven.
Whenever my teachers took attendance, I watched their facial expressions and, when I saw them pause or look puzzled, I assumed they were struggling with my name. Even though I introduced myself as Viola to everyone, the attendance sheet still showed Boluwatife; that was the one thing I couldn’t change. To combat this, I shot my hand up and called out “present,” before they attempted to pronounce it. Soon, Boluwatife was rarely mentioned.
Years passed like this until one day in 10th-grade history class. We were learning about foreigners arriving at Ellis Island. As the teacher explained the different ways in which the foreigners tried to better fit in with American cultural and social norms, he said immigrants often changed their names to Western ones. I shifted my gaze from the clock and its loud tick-tocking noises to my small desk as I rested my head on my arm. Then, I heard my name being called.
“Viola here is the perfect example,” he said, “She, too, sought out a more Western-sounding name to fit into America.” Suddenly, the clock didn’t seem so loud. Though I wished for it to drown everything out with its insistent tick-tock sound, the classroom went silent.
In a whisper, I quickly responded, “I’m not a good example because Viola is my name. It’s on my birth certificate. I didn’t change it.” I might as well have said, “I am American! I fit in!” I was shocked to realize that I was still seen as Boluwatife, despite all my efforts otherwise. It was frustrating to admit, but trying so hard to be Viola had made me uncomfortable. I thought it had been worth it to be uncomfortable if it meant I could fit in seamlessly, but I didn’t fit in after all.
As soon as the dismissal bell rang, I forcefully packed my stuff and flew out of class. Being called out in class made me feel angry and sad. Sad because a small part of me knew that he was right. I was trying to fit in. Angry because what gave him the right to call me out? He had embarrassed me despite my desperate efforts to blend in.
Learning to Take My Own Advice
A year later, in 11th grade, I was in the guidance counselor’s lounge during lunch, drawn toward a group of laughing and whispering girls from my European History class. They were huddled over a small, circular table filling out applications to be peer mentors. They asked if I wanted one, and I applied on a whim so I’d be included in a group of people sharing laughs.
To my surprise, I got accepted and, by the next semester, I had six mentees under my wing. The goal of the program was to create a supportive environment for incoming 9th graders, strengthening their relationships with older students to ease the transition to high school.
I made flashcards with different prompts for open-ended conversations about self-care and affirmations. I frequently reminded them that their authentic selves were more than enough. In our meetings, some of them shared vulnerable parts of themselves. Usually, I participated in the activities, but I didn’t let myself be as vulnerable as they did. At the time, I told myself that it was because I wanted to be the voice of reason or a “strong mentor,” but, deep down, I knew that I lacked their courage.
With one of my mentees, let’s call him John, I felt as though I was talking to a brick wall. He had his headphones blasting music half the time. The other half, he teased some of my other mentees. He rarely agreed to participate in the activities, not even when I turned to bribery, promising pizza parties in exchange for participation. Despite all this, I kept trying. At meetings with other mentors, I sought out their opinions and suggestions on how I could make him eager to participate.
So, it came as a surprise when, near the end of the program, John texted me: “Yo I preciate u fr, I just got a lot going on but thank you.” I teared up. I realized that I was legitimately making an impact on my mentees’ lives. I was helping them to see themselves differently. It also made me feel like a hypocrite. I preached self-love, understanding, and appreciation but I was not upholding any of those values. I hid who I was in fear of rejection. In search of acceptance, I took on a name and persona that wasn’t true to me. This was the wake-up call I never knew I needed. I realized that I had pent-up sadness and was angry with myself. I had been feeling guilty about leaving Boluwatife behind this whole time. I regretted not giving her the chance that she deserved.
Even though we no longer live with Aunt Viola, and my relationship with her has become rocky, I will always be grateful for the name. However, it was time to restart my relationship with Boluwatife and reclaim the part of me that I had changed to fit my distorted idea of what society would accept.
When my mindset changed, so did my ability to see the good in my name. I thought that flying 5,250 miles away from the land where it came from had caused its light and power to dim, but I was wrong. Now, I see that the name Boluwatife gives me the opportunity to choose for myself what path I take in life, the path that suits me best. Bearers of the name are said to overcome turbulence, after all. I used to wonder why I was so unlucky, why I couldn’t have a “normal” sounding name. But I can’t and shouldn’t dim myself to fit into a crowd.
During the first year of the pandemic and my last year of high school, one of my cousins started calling me “Tife” (pronounced “tea-fe,” with the “fe” like the “fe” in fennel). I liked it so much that I decided to switch my name from Viola to Tife on WhatsApp. My family noticed this shift and also started calling me “Tife.” They even stopped introducing me as Viola.
At first, I worried that choosing to go by Tife contradicted my renewed relationship with my full name. Then, I realized that Tife is a nickname, no different than Liz for Elizabeth. As the name bearer, I get to have them both.
Recently, for the first time in eight years, I introduced myself as Tife to a group of fellow writers. It felt like I was introducing a reformed version of myself, one that was new, even to me. The wave of confidence surging with my name felt right. These writers were understanding, frequently asking for the proper pronunciation of my name, making sure I was comfortable with their best shot at it. I realize that not every person I meet will treat my name’s pronunciation with such patience, but I will conform no more. My name is Boluwatife Ogunbodede.
- Why does Boluwatife decide to go by the name “Viola,” and how does this decision affect her?
- How did the mentorship program start to change Boluwatife’s perspective about using the name Viola?
- After Boluwatife changes her mindset, what does she recognize as positive or powerful aspects of her name?
- What advice do you think Boluwatife would give to her younger self?