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oniyemofe

Black History Month for me is a time of reflecting on loss and the efforts and outright miracles that have helped us reclaim some of what has been lost.

This is my part of that history.

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Growing up, I thought I was like most of my friends and neighbours, a child of a single parent, whose father was off somewhere, not at all interested in being involved in my life. Fathers were rare figures in my community. Fathers were not considered very important in the world of my childhood.

However, I was aware that if it had not been for my father, I would not be Black. My skin was a constant reminder of his existence.

When I was born the name on my birth certificate wasn’t name I have now. I was born Chelby Tamara-Emi Oniyemofe.

My father’s last name was Oniyemofe and Tamara-Emi was the name he gave me.

Then my father was deported when I was one year old. By the time I was five, my mother was granted full custody of me and he lost all parental rights and my mother changed my name.

I was issued a new birth certificate with a new name, Chelby Marie Daigle.

My mother’s divorce documents as well as an intermediate Spanish textbook had my father’s name, Oniyemofe, on them so I was always aware that this name had once been mine.

I had no contact with my father growing up. My mother cut off contact after the divorce. She erased him from my history.

I didn’t even have a photograph of my father. My mother had destroyed all her pictures of him.

Or so she thought.

When I was eight years old, while playing with an old typewriter at my grandmother’s home in Aylmer, I discovered a polaroid of my father  that had been taken in Nigeria stuffed in the back of the typewriter,  underneath the keys. My mother had no memory of putting it there.

I showed it to my mother and asked, “Is this my father?” She said yes and wrote on the back of the  polaroid. “This is your father.”

As I grew older, I asked more questions and my mother was able to provide me with more details about my father. I learned that he was from a country in Africa called Nigeria. I learned that he was studying languages, such as German and Spanish, at Carleton University and had been supported to do so by the German Lutheran Church on Preston Street. I learned that he had worked for an Italian pizzeria run by Arabs while my parents were together. I learned that my father’s brother had also lived in Ottawa and had children here.

As I learned more about Nigeria, I wanted to learn what ethnic group my father came from. I realized that the name Oniyemofe (which I had grown up pronouncing as O-nee-ya-moff but I would later learn should be pronounced as O-nee-yay-mo-fay) was the key to answering this question. So, I would ask any Nigerian I ran into what the meaning of Oniyemofe was.

The first Nigerians I met in Ottawa were all Yoruba. This was a good thing as it ended up that Oniyemofe was a Yoruba name. However, finding out that my father was most likely a Yoruba if his last name was Oniyemofe just ended up leading to more questions…this time posed by the Yoruba themselves.

You see Oniyemofe is not a real Yoruba family name. It is actually a sentence. I remember one Yoruba remarked accusatorily that Oniyemofe was a name created in order to sound like my family was royalty. I had to explain that as I had no real memory of my father and no contact with him or his family it obviously followed that I had absolutely no knowledge of the Yoruba language and therefore would not be able to fabricate a royal sounding Yoruba family name in order to impress people if my life depended on it.

The strangeness of the name Oniyemofe is what eventually led to me being able to find my father.

One day, in my early twenties, I was walking down Metcalfe Street and realized that I had passed the Nigerian High Commission. I didn’t immediately go in but instead decided to call and make inquiries about the ethnic origin of the name Oniyemofe. After being passed to several people, I eventually spoke with a Cultural Attaché who informed me that the name was of Yoruba origin. But he also told me that the name sounded familiar and that I should come to the High Commission to discuss this further. I went to the High Commission and met with the Cultural Attaché who introduced me to another High Commission Staff Member, Mrs. Abiola Agoro, who said that she had known my uncle. She told me that he and his family had moved to Britain and that he now worked for the Nigerian High Commission in London. She said that she would make inquiries and try to relay a message to him that I was looking for my father. She asked for my contact information so that she could get in touch with me if she had any news. She also told me that “Your father is all over my face.” I wasn’t sure what this meant but I guess she was simply making the observation that many other Nigerians had made that I have very strong West African facial features despite being of mixed race, particularly my prominent cheekbones, which are not as apparent now that I wear hijab and have gained weight but were quite striking when I was younger.

In early 2003, I received a phone call from Mrs. Agoro, who I had kept in touch which in an effort to learn more about the Nigerian community in Ottawa. She told me that she had a guest staying with her named Labi who knew my father and that I should come over and meet him. It ended up that this man was the same man who the Nigerian man I had met at Carleton University had worked with. Labi told me that he had last seen my father ten years ago in Lagos. He had been working as a security guard at a bank there. Labi, who worked as a petroleum engineer, was planning to go back to Nigeria soon and promised to make inquiries about my father. He took my contact information, including my e-mail, and a photograph of me.

Later that year, while I was in hospital after a suicide attempt, I received an e-mail from Labi while he was in Lagos. He told me that he had went to the bank where he had seen my father 10 years earlier and had learned that my father no longer worked there. Another dead-end. Or so it seemed. A few days later, Labi e-mailed me to tell me that someone who worked at the bank often ran into my father in the city and would try to contact him. A few days after this, I received an e-mail from Labi saying that he had found my father and was planning to meet him.

The next day, I received my first e-mail from my father:

Dear Daughter, this is the first time i’m calling someone my Daughter.I’m an Ijaw man one of the most powerful tribes in ngeria and oil producing area .in Ijaw language your name is Tamara–Emi which means there is God and really there is God.it is only God that has made it possible for us to meet again in this world.  I want you to come to nigeria very soon to know your origin ‘cos you have an interesting origin.

    Like father like daughter.i speak up to fourteen languages . ijaw, english, french, german, italian, spanish, yoruba, hausa, igbo, urobo, benin, calabar, idoma and arabic.   i’m a security guard earning a very small salary.

I had found my father.

But who were the Ijaw? I had thought my father was Yoruba.

My father wasn’t Yoruba at all although he did grow up in the predominantly Yoruba state of Ondo. But his family was from the Arogbo Ijaw community. So why does he have a Yoruba last name?

It ends up that my great grandmother was Yoruba. She was purchased by my great great grandfather as a slave when she was still a small child. She was inherited by my great grandfather and became his concubine. One of her sons, my grandfather, used to be called Oniyemofe by her as a pet name. Oniyemofe means “The person I love” in the Ijebu Yoruba dialect. Eventually, when my grandfather was an adult he helped his mother trace her origins to the Yoruba town of Imakun near Ijebu-Ode. My grandfather chose to take the name Oniyemofe as his family name when he converted to Christianity out of the love and respect he had for his mother.

And that is the story of the name Oniyemofe.

So, I was able to find my father because a slave girl remembered words of love from her language, a fragment of heritage passed on, like the many fragments of heritage passed on within the African diasporas formed by slavery around the world.

Fragments, like breadcrumbs, that can, sometimes, lead us back home.

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