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We Don’t Need New Names

We Don’t Need New Names

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There are plausible reasons for such names, and to understand why such names exist, one has to first understand the endearing ways Africans give names […] there are several ways to name a person according to certain traditions that are rooted in beliefs…

By Sybil Fekurumoh

It’s become common to associate people from south-south Nigeria with English names many in the country and some other places may refer to as peculiar. These peculiar names are especially so for people from Bayelsa State. Naturally, due to the unconventional nature of these names, individuals with unconventional names have become the butt of light humour for non-Bayelsans. One of the personas from content creator, Igbo Wolf’s cache is the Igbo “Professor Uwa” who mispronounces Yoruba names using an Igbo intonation.

In one of Igbo Wolf’s skits, he adds a seeming Bayelsa character whose last name is facetiously called “Doesn’t Matter.” The joke is not unfounded. It’s not uncommon to hear people named after cities or countries, common nouns, verbs, or even adjectives, as if the nomenclators were forming sentences with the names. These names sound unusual because they seem incomplete. While Nigerian names are not made without context, most English names may have standalone meanings.

 

As a Bayelsan who lives in Bayelsa, I hear these names, both first and last, all the time from relatives, friends, and acquaintances. I’ve come across people named after places; China, England, Lagos, and Niger. There are persons with names such as Evident, Authority, Dressman, and Fine Face.  Before Igbo Wolf put out his skit, there was a viral meme that showed the IDs of people in Zambia with the names “Because,” “Inauguration,” and unsurprisingly, “Doesn’t Matter,” which I’m guessing is where Wolf got his material from.

 

In January, I came across a humorous post that suggested “Congratulations” for a Zimbabwean baby. The reference was to make a jab at Zimbabwe whose populace has just as much unconventional English names in its populace, such as Addmore, Passmore, Peace-maker, Typewriter, and Trouble.

It is not far-fetched to blame British colonisation for what necessitated the need for Africans to take up English names. As with several aspects of African culture colonisation has largely impacted, the preference for English names, much like the preference for the English language as a sign of refinement began to hold sway. Zimbabwean writer, Tatenda Gwaambuka wrote about unusual English names as a “reflection of the level of access more and more Africans had to education in post-colonial society.” Ambitious names became a sign of literacy. A man who admires education and wants his child to be an academic could call his Professor. There’s a story of another man who wanted his child to be a successful businessman and thus named his child Shopman. Africans also like to commemorate events through names. When America’s former President, Barack Obama, visited Kenya in 2015, some parents named their babies born at the time of his visit “AirForceOne Barack Obama.” When the story of a South African man who survived an ambush of tigers was shared on Twitter, one South African Twitter user posited that everyone from the survivor’s region would soon begin to call him “Tiger.”

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But away from the hilarity, these names drive a point that shouldn’t be scrutinised merely at face value. In the defense of the parents that call their children peculiar names, the intent is usually never to subject the child to ridicule. There are plausible reasons for such names, and to understand why such names exist, one has to first understand the endearing ways Africans give names. First, it is important to understand that names have cultural meanings in the context of African societies, and there are several ways to name a person according to certain traditions that are rooted in beliefs. Names could coincide with the time of the day or the day of the week a child was born.  In Ghana, for example, Kwaku (for male) and Ekua (for female) are names given to people born on Wednesday. In Kenya, a person born in the night may be called Kalenjin. People also choose faith-based names according to their religious inclination. Some other influences could be tied to events and circumstances around a child’s birth which are rooted in beliefs or superstition. Perhaps the child’s birth coincided with the death of a family relative, such as with Babatunde and Yetunde in Yoruba cultures in Nigeria, or Kiptanui and Cheptanu in Kenya for children whose mothers suffered difficulty during child birth, and Kamba for a child born during the raining season.

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Culture is nonlinear; it adapts and creates several dimensions while still trying to hold on to its authenticity. Names were given in isolation, without a need for them to be understood in the English language. Many of these name-givers had not even been introduced to the language. There was a backdrop for each name, and that backdrop could become lost when those names were said in English. For instance, the essence of my Ijaw name, Okuboere, becomes lost in English as “Money Woman” when in the actual sense, it means “a wealthy woman” or “a woman who brings wealth.” When colonisation necessitated English names, the alternative became traditional names translated to English, or simply English names that could hold meaning in the traditional context. I have a friend whose English name is Realman, as a loose translation of his Nembe-given name, Iliabo. The proper meaning of Iliabo variates between “none like him” and “the real deal.”

Ijaw persons that bear Preye and Pere become Gift and Wealth or Riches when translated to  English. Self-professed Christians exercising their faith can choose LoveGod, TrustGod, ThankGod, Goddey, or the more audacious Confidence. In English, these names seem truncated, but put in their cultural context, they become more profound. The names gain more depth and take on a life of its own.  Names still hold the context of the events around childbirth. People in Igboland would be named Thursday and Saturday, rather than their Igbo equivalents. In the Ugandan biopic, Queen of Katwe, Phiona Mutesi’s sister is named Night, likely alluding to the time of the day she was born. Perhaps, excluding British colonization, Night would simply have been Kiplagat. Today, more and more individuals denounce colonial influences by reclaiming their traditional names, and younger parents are opting to solely give African names to their children. Others who still take up English names in a way that fits their culture should not be criticised.

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With names, African-Americans have created for themselves a distinctive cultural identity that represents their Black heritage. In African-American history, there are distinct names that separate African-Americans from the rest of the American population. Today, names like Latasha and Perlie prevail, and they are significant because they are creating the black culture as it is recognised today. Even as these names sometimes subject African Americans to harmful stereotypes and racial discrimination, they still carry on. In February this year, American actress, Keke Palmer, welcomed her first child and named him Leodis Andrellton Jackson. She shared this moment on Instagram with the caption that read, “…born during Black History Month, with a name to match….”

Names tell unique stories that may not be very clear when explained in English. In Ethiopia, a girl is called Misrak because her father was in Japan at the time she was born. In the same vein, another African parent can choose to name a child after the country they visit. Postcolonial influences have subconsciously created for many what should pass as good names. This is as if to say that English names can only be right or good if they sound only a certain way or follow a particular style. After all, westerners have just as peculiar last names such as Rice, Stone, Brown, and Drinkwater, but these names still get to pass as acceptable. When people begin to look at our peculiar names in an African cultural context, perhaps our names would be just as acceptable.

 

Sybil Fekurumoh is a senior writer for Afrocritik. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram at @toqueensaber.

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