What is in a name? The Oxford Dictionary defines the ‘name’ to mean ‘a word by which an individual person, animal, place or thing is spoken of’. The Nigerian culture lays much importance on the actual choice of name given to a new baby. We believe that this can have a significant impact on the lives of both the child and the family.
Western cultures are more laid back when it comes to names. Children are sometimes named after older or dead relatives, houses, streets or cities where they were conceived and even favourite flowers. After the birth of my first child, nurses wasted no time asking me what name we had chosen for him. I wasn’t aware that I was expected to produce his name straight after birth.
In my epidural-induced haze I explained that in my culture, babies were normally named in a religious/ traditional ceremony 8 days after their birth. I didn’t add that as he was my parents’ first grandson, there was going to be a list of specially chosen names from them, and also from his paternal grandpa and other ancient uncles and great aunts in both families.
Our health visitor (nurse) came to visit baby and me a few days after baby’s naming ceremony. After a number of unsuccessful attempts to pronounce his name, the poor lady gave up and started referring to our son as ‘the little darling’. I have heard of health visitors who mispronounce names. A friend of mine named ‘Damilola’ was called ‘Daddiloa’ and her son, ‘Chukwuemeka’ was called ‘Chuchumaker’.
When my son started play group at the age of two, his teacher enthusiastically called him ‘Adiyemi’ which means ‘my chicken!’ in Yoruba. That was the height of name-assassination. My chicken ko, my drumstick, ni! (i.e. you must be kidding me, right?) I didn’t want his teacher to label me a trouble maker, but I made trouble that day. Imagine him growing up to being called Adiyemi (my chicken) all through primary, secondary school and beyond.
You must agree that doing so would have surely invited bullying and ridicule from his Nigerian cousins and other friends and family. I would also deride a child for having such a ridiculous name, if I am honest. More worrying, at least to my mind, would be the abomination of calling one’s child a chicken. Suffice it to say the teacher started calling him just ‘Yemi’ after my rant.
There have been a number of times when my children and I have seen Nigerian names on TV, especially on Sky Sports News when athletes and sporting events are being discussed. At first, my kids thought I was just good at guessing if a person was Nigerian. I explained that it was not guesswork but that Nigerians mostly had, surprise surprise, Nigerian names.
This led to questions about the meaning of the names. I tried to explain to them that Nigerian names always carried a special meaning, which was why they weren’t given English-sounding names like ‘Cameron’ (which means crooked nose) or ‘Barbara’ which means strange, savage or uncouth. I am hopeful that they will still agree with our cultural beliefs in the future and give their own children Nigerian names.
Why then are Nigerians, both at home and abroad, giving their children all sorts of foreign names that have no resonance with their culture? I am not referring to names with religious or biblical origins. I mean names like ‘Seniqua’ (I still can’t find a meaning for this name on the internet) or Melissa, which means bee (seriously, bee? Why?)
I understand the pressure behind having a name people can pronounce, especially when you live abroad. I have also experienced the embarrassment of having people struggle to pronounce my name. I’ve been called ‘Ravioli’ and ‘Avilola’. I recently won an award and the award presenters, who where local Birmingham celebrities, announced to everyone at the town hall that they couldn’t pronounce my name. I felt like slapping each one of them, at least twice. However, I will never change my name to Abigail or Abijah or any English or foreign name for other people’s convenience.
My children and children of other Nigerian immigrants born and living abroad won’t have their parents’ accents and won’t look any different from other black children from other countries and continents. Their only marker as children of Nigerian origin will be their names, of which we should be immensely proud. As for Nigerian children living in Nigeria, such children have no business being given meaningless foreign names. What would be their parents’ excuse?
Names tell others so much about our story, our parents’ aspirations for us, our family background and our cultural milieu. We must treasure our names as they form a great part of our identity, one which we must not allow to disappear as we migrate to different climes.
I am going to a naming ceremony next week. Let’s hope the new parents give their daughter names that reflect their hopes and dreams for her. However, as they arrived in the UK via Greece, I hope one of her names won’t be Greecella!
Writer – Abi Adeboyejo lives in Birmingham, UK with her two children and her fabulous man, who by the way, prefers that his wife writes down her thoughts than listening to her musings on everything.