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In the cusp of our names lies revolution

My father’s ultimate lesson was this: Give your children “difficult” names. So the world may learn to unfurl its tongue and bow to all the languages they stole along with our brothers and sisters. This is the revolution in our names.

“Last name?”

“Goshu.”

That’s your last name?!” She manages to tint her incredulousness with a layer of racism.

I swallow the sun blazing in my throat. She doesn’t notice. Or maybe doesn’t care. She holds all the power after all. This is immigration. She is the goddess of thousands of refugees’ futures. And she will wield her power with the carelessness afforded those privileged to be born on the good side of colonialism. The global north.

“Give me your birth certificate.” She is impatient. She works with the hastiness of a government representative who has all the time in the world to be efficient but is consumed with the security of unionised employment.

I hand it to her. On it, printed in the clear strokes of a typewriter, are the three names that bear my lineage.

“The last name on this is Abebe. Your last name is Abebe.” She is definitive, proceeds to fill out the form on the computerised database.

“NO!” My reservation flew out the window before I could grab some modicum of tact. Her assurance as the expert on my identity left my rage exposed like lava flowing down the side of a mountain. My lawyer, a well meaning Ethiopian man, grabs my arm and squeezes it while begging me to shut up with panicked eyes.

“Excuse me?”

“NO! My last name is my father’s name. Goshu. We don’t have last names in Ethiopia. Your last name is your father’s first name. He gave me life, he will be honoured as such.”

“Well in Canada, we have last names. So here you have a last name. It says here your last name is Abebe. You will be called by that.”

“NO!”

She sighs dramatically.

“Sir, control your client.”

“Sorry Miss, yes, yes, listen to her.” My lawyer is fully panicking now. He grabs me tighter and whispers in my ear in Amarigna. “You can change it once you have citizenship. For now, just shut up and let her do what she wants.”

“NO!” I rip my arm out from under his grip. I look at her badge.

“Langham is it? Let me ask you a question Ms. Langham, who is Langham?”

“What?”

“That’s your last name isn’t it? Langham? Who is Mr. Langham? What does he mean to you? What did he teach you?”

She laughs. A mirthless, impatient, I-can’t-deal-with-these-dramatic-immigrants laugh.

“Langham is my family name. Like I said, in Canada, you have a first name, a middle name and a last name. Goshu is your middle name. Abebe is your last name. It says so on your birth certificate. I’m sorry but that’s what we’ll use here.”

“That doesn’t answer my question. Who is Langham? Who was called Langham first in your family? What did that person do to become the place holder in your lineage?”

“Ugh! What is it with you people?! Do you realise where you are? This is your immigration proceedings, not mine. I go by what is officially listed on your birth certificate. If you have a problem then go back to where you came from.”

“The problem is that I don’t have any other options. I am a refugee. The problem is that you know that. But because you’re sitting on that side of the table, you have made yourself an expert on my life and my culture. Despite what I’m trying to tell you. So if you’re going to deny me, then go ahead, I’m pretty sure your bosses will not accept a denial based on my name and I’ll repeal until I get deported. But my last name is my father’s name. Goshu. No one gets to change that. Not for a second.”

Girl in car with father, Ethiopia. Photo by Aida Muluneh
Girl in car with father, Ethiopia. Photo by Aida Muluneh

She stares at me. The blood rushing to her cheeks is making her look like smoldering iron.

“So why does it say your last name is Abebe on this?” She wags the yellowing paper at me.

“It does not say it’s my last name. It just lists the two names of my ancestors after mine. Abebe is my grandfather’s first name. His last name is his father’s first name. We don’t have arbitrary names for entire families where I come from. Or middle names we never use. We honour the men who contributed to our lives by carrying their names. We are taught the names of our forefathers seven generations deep for a reason. So we don’t forget their sacrifices. So we can claim our heritage with pride and knowledge of our histories. My father died two years ago. The man who taught me everything I know, right from wrong, empathy, kindness, the man who taught me to stand up for my rights is dead. I don’t get to call him and tell him about my accomplishments, I don’t get to hear his laugh or his stories. I don’t get to fall asleep on the couch trusting that he’ll carry me to bed. I don’t get to run back into his arms when a man breaks my heart knowing he’ll wipe my tears then go after him with a shotgun. But most of all, I don’t get to tell him I love him everyday since he passed. The only thing I have left is his name. And you will not take that away from me. Not for a single day. I would rather be stateless than nameless.”

The silence that followed could be cut with a butter knife. She has gone from red to ashen. My lawyer slumps back into his seat, defeated. As if I had sealed my fate to deportation with my outburst.

“I’m…I’m sorry for your loss. We’ll use your mid…I mean Goshu, is it? We’ll use that.”

“Thank you.”

I’m silent after that. The lawyer takes over with a gasp of relief and proceeds to give her the rest of my information. In the interim, I am lost in reflections. I think about the revolution raging in my gut. The one my father ignited the day he took me on his lap as a six year old, and made me promise to question everything I am taught. To be cautious of the irrational, no matter how seductive. To shun assimilation posturing as civilisation. To never forget where it originated from, to remember the nubian Egyptians who taught democracy to the ancient Greeks. To never degrade myself or my culture in the name of westernisation. To seek out reason and love for myself always. To chant Atse Tewodros, Yodit Gudit, Yaa Asantewaa, Steve Biko, Kwame Nkrumah, Miriam Makeba, Madiba, Julius Nyerere, Samora Machel, Amilcar Cabral, Thomas Sankara and the many more names he drilled into my psyche every time I feel isolated from my power. And his parting gift, his ultimate lesson was to give my children “difficult” names, so the world may learn to unfurl its tongue and bow to all the languages they stole along with our brothers and sisters. This is the revolution in our names.

Our business is done, the lawyer collects the paperwork and ushers me out hastily, lest I open my mouth and fuck up my chances for good this time. As we walk out of the building, he hands me my new interim health insurance paper. On it, she has deliberately misspelled both my names. There will be a lot of explaining to do when I have to fill out forms or applications in the future, but I laugh anyway. At least I get to hear his name called out whenever I’m being referred to. There will be many more little wars in this lifetime, I like to think I won this one. Thanks for the verve, Dad. Forever Goshu’s daughter.

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