Oniyemofe The Story of a Name
When I was born the name on my birth certificate wasn’t name I have now. My father’s last name was Oniyemofe. When I was 5 years old, after my parents’ divorce and my father’s deportation, I was issued a new birth certificate with a new name, my mother’s.
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.
As I grew older and learned more about Nigeria I became curious to know 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 pronouced as O-nee-yay-mo-fay) was the key to answering this question. So, I 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 as 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 if my life depended on it.
The strangeness of the name Oniyemofe is what eventually led to me being able to find my father. The only Oniyemofes in the world are my father’s relatives. When I went to the Nigerian High Commission in my mid-twenties in order to see if I could find any documents relating to my father there the staff immediately recognized the name. It ends up my uncle Simeon was a career diplomat and so many other Nigerian diplomats knew of him and remembered this name. To make a very long story short, any Nigerians who had met an Oniyemofe remembered as it is such a peculiar name and eventually I was led to my father.
It ended up that 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 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 out of the love and respect he had for his mother.
And that is the story of the name Oniyemofe.
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