Man of Timber and Calibre on a New York Train

by Yemisi Aribisala

A painting abstract, swirly people seated in a subway car. The ads on the ceiling look like collages One person is reading a book, another is hold his phone. A figure in the shadows stands to the side, holding a camera to capture the scene.
Painting by Yemisi Aribisala

When I was introduced to him it was with the name Timber. An unexpected consolation, when a lot of the university guys I had met had nicknames like “Tissue,” “Knacker-P”, “Suck-it,’” and “Dr. Cadaver.” Introductions made among these young Nigerian men were conducted with giggling and elbow digs. I was that anomalous young lady hanging out with Obafemi Awolowo University undergraduates, traveling by Ife-Ibadan expressway on insane expeditions that would have given my parents heart attacks if they caught wind of what was going on. I hung around long enough with these men to unfortunately become one of the guys. Most of their nicknames’ meanings were withheld as kinds of rites of passage but also because in the end I was a woman and guaranteed to be repulsed rather than amused at the reveal.

I learnt in due time that Olugbenga Oni, aka Timber, was nicknamed for his height and build. It was that simple, anticlimactic even—an innocuous nickname among a dozen appalling ones. They called him Timber for A man of timber and calibre—something that Nigerian M.C.s and praise singers once insisted on calling their patrons at every opportunity, deserved or otherwise—echoing a trend that seemed to catch fire a few decades ago.

So his friends called him Timber as an excoriation, not an accolade. The story might have gone that some Yoruba elder looked him up and down and crowned him with the title and his friends decided to mock him with it, because who the hell was he to have a wholesome nickname. Timber now goes by Olu Oni and is a managing partner in a financial consulting firm in New York City. Perhaps in line with what the Yoruba believe, that a child becomes what you call him.

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