Image credit: William Blake, Jacob’s Dream

Yesterday started off as an ordinary day on African literary Twitter. There was the usual announcement of newly published books and essays, congratulations for recent award winners, and of course, a tweet or two about Chimamanda Adichie. We were, in short, performing our regular scroll-through of our Twitter feed, thumb swiping up, thumb swiping up, thumb swiping up, when suddenly, we came across this:

Thumb frozen, eyebrow raised, we held our phone up to our nose to look more closely at this rather odd tweet from one of our favorite authors, Chika Unigwe. Surely Chika Unigwe, author of more books than you can count on two hands and recipient of numerous writing fellowships, would know that a hymen is NOT where angels live. What was going on?

From the way Chika Unigwe’s tweet was phrased, it seemed that she was offering a correction to the definition of hymen tweeted by none other than the prominent writer, journalist, and critic Molara Wood. Molara Wood, apparently, had tweeted that “a hymen is a sanctuary.” But surely Molara Wood too would know that a hymen is NOT (or maybe, not necessarily) a sanctuary!

Intrigued, we tapped our thumb on the little bubble in which Molara Wood’s tweet appeared. Twitter then led us to this:

So now it seemed that it was Molara Wood who was initially correcting Chika Unigwe, who had tweeted that a hymen “is a group of women associated with one man.” No, Molara Wood is saying, “a group of women associated with one man” is a “harem”; hymen, actually, “is a sanctuary.” Yet at the same time, Chika Unigwe, in suggesting that “a hymen is a group of women associated with one man,” was also already correcting someone, who had tweeted that the definition of hymen was equivalent to the definition of a hermit. To find out who, we tapped our thumb on the little bubble again and arrived at this:

Enter Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún, linguist, writer, and current Chevening Research Fellow at the British Library. It was he who tweeted that a hymen meant “someone who never leaves the house” – that is, as Chika Unigwe correctly points out, a “hermit.” And yet Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún, by tweeting “that’s a heretic,” was in turn correcting Molara Wood, who had tweeted even earlier that a hymen was “a person accused of unbelief by members of certain creeds.”

And yet Molara Wood, by tweeting “that’s a hedonist,” was in turn correcting a certain @tegaphoenix, who had tweeted even EVEN earlier that a hymen “is a lover of pleasure.”

And yet @tegaphoenix, by tweeting “that’s a heartbreak,” was in turn correcting Molara Wood, who had tweeted even EVEN EVEN earlier that a hymen is “a let-down by a lover, or a lyrical hotel.”

And yet Molara Wood, by pointing out “that’s a hijack,” was in turn correcting a certain @MulaloMamburu, who had tweeted even EVEN EVEN EVEN that a “hymen is a robbery.

At this point, four things became clear:

  1. A hymen was none of these things these authors were suggesting.
  2. Some sort of Twitter back-and-forth between correction and erroneous definition was occurring.
  3. The condition for offering an erroneous definition as a correction to a previous erroneous definition was to use a definition for a word beginning with “h.”
  4. Our thumb could not stop tapping the little bubble in which each correction and erroneous definition appeared. Both the momentum of our thumb tapping and our mounting curiosity were too much. Because what exactly started this back-and-forth on words beginning with “h” and the definition of hymen in the first place?

So we tapped the little bubble again, and again, and again…coming across, over the course of these taps, propositions for the definition of a hymen such as:

“a hymen is a piece of writing about a person’s life, done in an obsequious manner or to serve an agenda, often political” (“that is a hagiography”)

“a hymen is part eagle part lion” (“that’s a hippogryph”)

“a hymen is the sound they make in karate movies when they kick” (“that’s hi-ya”)

“a hymen is like one of those wild cats in Lion King” (“that’s a hyena”)

After these taps – nineteen in total, to be exact – we finally arrived at this:

A tweet which was, in turn, an innocent and sincere question (we believe) to @OhEmmeG’s tweet inquiring into the general condition of humanity – erm, hymen-ity – that is, the tweet which started it all:

Several responses to @OhEmmeG’s tweet echoed ours:

Is nineteen the magic number of tweet responses – nineteen degrees of tweet separation – to arrive at any original tweet? And truly, how many “branches” were there going forward? We only followed the “branch” of Chika Unigwe, Molara Wood, and Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún, yet there were certainly many more. But our thumb got tired of tapping.

To end, a final tweet from Molara Wood:

Update November 8, 2019, to the original piece published November 7, 2019

We have received intel that @OhEmmeG’s tweet may have been prompted by this piece of news.