Monday, 17 December 2012

The Benefits of Regret

I should’ve played basketball when I was ten.

Not attempting to do so is one of my lingering regrets, even though I realize that holding on to this sentiment thirty years later makes little sense. It’s just that I can’t count the number of times I was asked back then if I played basketball for my secondary school, with everyone that asked just assuming that I did.

I was tall and lanky and looked like I played a sport. I also had a history of being a die-hard tomboy who played soccer with my brothers and their friends just as roughly as they did. When it came to baseball, I was a ‘feared’ pitcher as the only girl on our informal basketball teams. My brother had groomed me well, teaching me how to pitch a deadly curveball, corkscrew, and fastball.

Then I spent my tenth year of life at a girls-only, Catholic secondary school and moved on to a mixed boarding school the year after that. Both schooling experiences cured me of my tomboyishness. I learned what it meant to be ‘a girl’ at one, and these lessons were reinforced at the other where girls and boys largely lived in two separate worlds within the same school compound.

With the realization that I was ‘a girl’ and an enhanced understanding of what this meant, my natural shyness grew exponentially and, for the first time, I became shy about participating in sports. Painfully shy. And not just about sports, but about pretty much everything else, too. This is not a complaint about the schools I went to, though (I look back and I’m convinced they were both great schools at that time). It’s merely an observation.

I still wish I had played basketball, though, because I really did want to at the time, and I believe I would’ve been good at it. Plus, playing a sport comes with many benefits that I would’ve been happy to carry into my old age.

One of the reasons why I hold on to the memory of this regret is because it reminds me to push myself. I have this fear of not living up to my potential, of not making a difference. Of ending up like the proverbial wicked servant who, instead of putting the ‘little’ he had to use, buried it out of fear and low self-esteem.

Over the years, God has REALLY helped me with my crippling shyness. I’ve come a long, long way, but I have by no means overcome it. I have done many things afraid, with my stomach churning, trembling on the inside, doubting myself, unsure and far too worried about how I would be received.

My work has been an excellent training ground for managing this annoying trait of mine. Its very nature demands that I stretch and step into the unfamiliar all the time, that I multi-task and juggle far more than I think is humanly possible. It has created a situation where I have so little time to focus on the fact that I’m terribly shy. I’m forever meeting deadlines by the skin of my teeth, and once I’m done with one task, it’s time to get up there and speak (for instance), and as the waves of shyness hit me and try to bowl me over, it’s too late. I’m up there already and I have to say what I came to say within a limited amount of time and move on to the next thing.

I consider it as one of my greatest achievements that few people I meet today believe me when I say I really struggle with this. They’re shocked to learn this and I’m shocked that they’re shocked. It proves to me just how much I’ve worked on ignoring it and just how much I’ve been helped.

When I finally decided to take the plunge and contact a publisher, I did it afraid.

For my 40th birthday, among the presents I got were two copies of the same book (from different people) – a book by a Nigerian author based in the UK who published her novel (which was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize) in East Africa. When I started examining different books to figure out which publishers would be best for my sort of writing, my eyes were drawn to these two birthday presents. I looked at the back of the books and wondered: Why would a Nigerian woman based in the UK choose to publish her book all the way out here?

I looked up the address of the publisher online and found out they were practically in my neighborhood. This was really strange. I could literally get in my car and be there in 10 minutes or less. Not wanting to deal with a possible rejection letter, I called instead. The people I needed to speak to were out of the office, so I was asked to send an email. I sent a link to the blog on October 4th and waited. And waited. I waited impatiently for a couple of weeks before finally getting a nice (if non-commital) response, asking that we set up a time to meet. That meant more waiting because of our busy schedules and because I suddenly had all these trips to make. And then I didn’t hear from them for a while. We had agreed to set up a meeting, but hadn’t actually selected any dates.

Should I wait for them to follow up on this? I wondered.

I swallowed my fear of putting myself out there and of ‘bothering’ people and contacted them again, letting them know my availability. We set a date, but then there was some hitch that required our postponing the meeting. Needless to say, I was on edge the whole time.

I finally met with the publisher on November 20th. We had an amazing, hour-long conversation which easily could’ve gone on longer if not that we both had to get back to work. He was fine with my using a pseudonym and asked me what name I had in mind, with his pen ready to write it down.

‘Nnenna Ndioma,’ I said.

‘Nena Ndioma,’ he said, trying it out for himself. And he proceeded to write it down (as ‘Nena,’ I later discovered). I explained the meaning of each name to him. ‘Ndi oma’ means 'good people.'  ‘Nnenna,’ on the other hand, literally means ‘father’s mother.’ It’s a common name among the Igbo, who traditionally believe in reincarnation, and who often feel honored that their mother, for instance, has come back into the world as their child. My father firmly believed that I was his mother and I always came up with counter arguments demonstrating why I couldn’t possibly be. He chose not to give me a name reflecting his belief, but when a reader on the blog referred to me as ‘Nne Nna,’ it occurred to me that this was actually the perfect pen name.

‘That’s the perfect name, actually,’ the publisher said pensively, after I told him what it meant.

‘How d’you mean?’

‘Well, Nena [he said, mispronouncing it again] in Kiswahili means Talk or Speak it out. And from your blog, I can see that this is essentially what you’re trying to do. And Ndioma [mispronounced, too] could easily be a name anywhere in East and Southern Africa.’

He pronounced ‘Nnenna Ndioma’ as one would pronounce it if speaking Kiswahili (a language widely spoken in East Africa). Delicately. It gave the name a nice ring, but totally messed up the meaning. In Igbo, it is pronounced with much more emphasis on the syllables and with a certain kind of deep tonality that’s hard to describe – you just have to hear it.

But I was extremely pleased with the name, however it was pronounced. I was even more convinced that this was the perfect pseudonym for me. I was totally enamoured with the idea that this Nigerian name could pass for an East African one and I saw it as a way of paying tribute to my father, but at the same time, of paying tribute to a region that has been so good to me professionally. I packed up and moved to East Africa 8 years ago and it was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my entire life. This region has given me an extremely rewarding career, and now it has given me another great opportunity.

I am grateful for it all – even for the shyness. Yes, it makes me ‘over-think’ things unnecessarily (really exhausting, trust me), and although I don’t recommend analyzing things to death the way I tend to, it does seem to leave someone like me better prepared to confront whatever I need to.


  1. So the name is Nnenna, not Nena. Right?

    1. It's really supposed to be "Nnenna," and I will continue to pronounce it that way, but I will spell it as "Nena."

  2. I LOVE that it is a tribute to your Father, being a Daddy's girl, myself. I know he would be SO proud!

    1. Thank you (you Daddy's girl, you)!