Linda Djougang: 'I'll pronounce your name right but please pronounce my name too'
Cameroon-born Ireland prop says Irish society needs to be more willing to learn about others
Linda Djougang: “I tell people, ‘try and live in my shoes just for one day and see what it feels like being black, being different.” Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Linda Djougang listened and learned how to pronounce Saoirse, Aoife, Caoimhe, Siobhán. She has a simple request. Say her name like she can say yours.
In Djougang’s essay, reacting to the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, the international prop and frontline nurse succinctly captures life as an immigrant growing up in 21st century Ireland.
The 24-year-old arrived from Cameroon on August 15th 2005.
“That day changed my life forever,” she writes. “I flew here by myself at the age of nine. Ireland was a completely different world. I had to grow up so much that day.”
Djougang, who joined her father’s family in north county Dublin, believes her “childhood was taken” by the change.
“Where I was raised [in Cameroon] our family are your neighbours! You can’t say you don’t have a family because your neighbours are your family, your neighbours are like your parents, like mom and dad. That’s how I was raised.
“I remember my first day in Ireland and I was asking my dad, ‘can we go and play with the neighbours?’ and my dad was like, ‘no, you can’t play with the neighbour, this is not Cameroon.’ It was really like, ‘this isn’t how life here works’.”
Now in the final year of her nursing degree, Djougang has been working in Tallaght Hospital on a ward that treats positive cases for Covid-19.
Her first experience of racist abuse happened while playing football with the boys in primary school.
“It’s really sad because I felt like I really wanted to respond back but I can’t because I will get in trouble. You can’t fight back because you already know that you’re different.
“When you open your eyes, you see that there is not enough diversity in everything that we do. Sometimes I feel uncomfortable because people will look at you, probably asking, ‘what is she doing here?’ And that’s hard. That is so hard. That’s why I tell people, ‘try and live in my shoes just for one day and see what it feels like being black, being different’.
“I have sat down on buses and someone asked me, ‘are you black? The colour of your skin is so dark!’ and I’m thinking, ‘are you ignorant or what?’ But you can’t talk. I just go on about my day.”
Djougang, whose words were published on the Leinster website alongside a piece by Ireland winger Adam Byrne, touches upon a repetitive theme when it comes to racism in Ireland: “If some people have put in their head that they are not racist then you’re putting it in your head that you don’t need to change or you’re refusing to consider it. This is a bigger issue than ourselves.
“George Floyd’s life shouldn’t have been taken for people to start talking. ‘This is not right’ – it hasn’t been right for generations.
“You either want to make a change or you just don’t. This thing will never go away. For centuries, my grandma, her grandma, and her grandma have relived it.”
Byrne is more hopeful racial equality can become a reality in his lifetime – stating his “experiences have been 99 percent positive” growing up in Kildare – and he believes “from America to Ireland, and worldwide” that some day there will be “no inherent bias.”
But Djougang keeps returning to a lack of willingness by Irish society to educate children about African culture.
“We are not born to be racist. We’re not born to harm others. But it’s the system that we live in that affects us. People say here they want to educate themselves but where do you even start?
“For example, my hair. People are like, ‘can we touch your hair? How come your hair is long today, how come it’s short?’ Because you don’t understand my culture. You don’t understand my hair texture. You’re not educated about me. But I know everything about your hair.”
Echoing the lyrics of Zambian-Irish rapper Denise Chaila’s new song (C.H.A.I.L.A), she concludes with a cutting observation about how white people refuse to learn how to say her name.
“I would try and pronounce your name right. Names, like Caoimhe, Saoirse, Aoife. I will pronounce your name right but please pronounce my name too. I go home and I practice your name. I don’t tell you that I’ll go home and practice your name, but God damn, I do it.
“Because I want to treat you the same way as I would like to be treated too. So when I go home I will write your name several times and pronounce it and come to you the next day and pronounce your name.
“Saoirse. Aoife. Caoimhe. Siobhan. Oh God, you better pronounce my name right too. But that has been a topic where I’m just like, ‘it’s fine’. I have to accept it. I don’t understand how people can pronounce ‘Djokovic’ and can’t pronounce ‘Djougang.’
“My simple name cannot be pronounced or written properly.”