Naming: Naija Edition

Caption: Every Generation by Jay Bakari
Caption: Every Generation by Jay Bakari

Original piece found here

BY udeebee

Let’s talk about the Diaspora, shall we?

I attended at a literary event when I lived in Abuja in 2011. It was hosted in one of my fav restaurants, J.B.’s Grill and there was a four-person panel present to share their work and answer questions. The topics of discussion ranged from romance literature to political activism. As attendees shared their views and questioned the panel, the issue of the disapora came up. One young Igbo man went on a rant about how one of the panelists did not pronounce her name correctly. I remember groaning audibly. Mind you, the woman his complaints were aimed at was an Igbo lady named Ngozi. She was very fair in complexion and shared that she was of mixed Nigerian descent and had married a German man. Clearly, there was much that was un-Nigerian about her, as the complainer expressed his apparent disgust at why Ngozi could not pronounce her name properly, riling about how Nigerian culture had become watered down among members of the diaspora. He went on to say that he would not buy her book for purchase that night, because she wasn’t really a daughter of the soil. I mean, really, calm all the way down and relax your edges, sir.

I sat wide-eyed. I cannot quite remember Ngozi’s response, but I do remember her explaining her background and mixed heritage and the reasons for her accent and the way she pronounced her name. She was not apologetic, but she was firm, patient and gracious about it. I commended her for that. But the larger issue about this discussion that was never addressed at that gathering was on Nigerian naming in the disapora and what happens to your authenticity as a citizen when you cannot speak the language, or say your name with the proper inflections, or cook a traditional meal.

Let me share my thoughts, beyond the obvious fact that old dude was a highly disrespectful of the panelist in the manner in which he expressed his thoughts. He was unduly harsh in discounting her Nigerian-ness on account of how she identified herself through the way she pronounced her name. Something about his rant made me wonder whether he would talk to a man in like manner, but that’s a completely different topic…

There is power in naming. Once you are able to bring a concept from abstract expression and call it something, it becomes tangible and definable. This why there are scientific discussions about what really is in a name and whether your name is introducing or inhibiting you from participating in the economic system. There are whole studies and articles on this, just pick up Freaknomics – there’s a whole chapter on the significance of what you name your children. Therefore, such power ought to be left alone for the bearer; people are allowed to name themselves – however they choose. Just as nations have sovereignty, so do human beings and a person’s name ought not discredit them from the other identities that make them who they are. Some names are blatantly ridiculous or odd or unfamiliar, however who am I to say to a fellow human that their primary identity – their name – is incorrectly pronounced or spelled? I don’t know their life!

I remember debating this with a colleague once and they brought up a fair point about Nigerian names, specifically: if a child is unable to call themselves in the manner to which they were named, their name could, quite literally, change in its meaning. While I am not Igbo, my colleague used the example of the name Ikemefuna (if I can recall correctly). Apparently, in the Igbo language, different intonations of the name changes its meaning and therefore the name’s significance to the bearer. While that may be the case, does pronunciation truly exclude you from a group’s membership? And what if you grew up, as Ngozi did, outside the country from which your name is derived, despite holding heritage there? Are you then less Nigerian?

As a person who has lived more years collectively outside the nation of my heritage, I say ‘no’. I refuse to have my Nigerian-ness under scrutiny and rejected because I choose to name myself a certain way. While names are inextricably linked to cultural pride, naming is just one of many ways a person holds allegiance. Among other things, I’m sure Ngozi bleeds green and white, I wonder, is that not enough?

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