Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Determinative naming practices in Nigeria

(Did that blog post title scare everyone away? Anyone still reading? ;)

I had a very interesting conversation recently with my friend and coworker, Kelechi Eke, on the importance of names in the Yoruba and Igbo cultures of his native Nigeria. It all started when I came across an intriguing Yoruba proberb: oruko lonro ni, which means “names imply behavior.” The Yoruba people believe that names — and their transparent underlying meaning — are extremely important, and that they in fact affect or determine the behavior of the person so named. As I read, “[a] child with the name Sumala, meaning ‘thief,’ would go on to steal anything that wasn’t tied down. If parents make a bad choice of name at the birth of their child, the only way to deal with the problem is to rechristen the child.” [1]

Of course, the Sumala example is probably apocryphal or merely instructive. Assuming such a belief system, what parents in their right minds would ever give a child a name like that? But in any case, I wanted to know more, so I sought out Kelechi (whom we know here around the office as “K.C.”) to dig a little deeper. Kalechi speaks Yoruba and Igbo natively, and I’ve engaged him previously in conversations of this nature, over lunch at a couple of the very few African restaurants squirreled away here in Dallas. I knew he’d be receptive to the inquiry, and I was not disappointed: he gave me a wealth of detail to share with you.

Apparently, the belief is indeed alive and well in Nigeria, though it has been on a gradual decline due to the steady westernization of West Africa in recent decades. I found from Kelechi that the practice also tends to be perceived as more honorific than determinative, though it is still somewhat the latter; but it’s definitely a pervasive belief among the Yoruba, Igbo, and even to some extent the Hausa tribes in Nigeria to this day. Hausa, of course, both its language and its people, has been much more influenced by Arabic and Islam, so one encounters “determinative naming” less there. Most of the pre-Arabic Hausan names have disappeared. Likewise, in the Igbo tribes, the similar (but lesser and later) influence from Christianity has introduced a number of Biblical names such as David and Helen (the actual first name of the Nigerian singer, Sade; her middle name is Yoruba: Folasade = “honor confers a crown”). The Yoruba show a mixture of these belief systems and linguistic influences, but seem to retain more traces of their original pre-Christian / pre-Islamic religion — one still finds evidence of a pantheon of gods and goddesses worthy of the Greeks or the Egyptians, each with his or her dedicated province. K.C. tells me that these ancient deities are probably still worshipped in the remotest villages, even today.

But regardless of the tribe, Nigerians are considerably more aware of the underlying meanings of their names than we are here in the West. K.C. tells me that he can commonly deduce a number of things about a person, simply by hearing his or her name. For instance, he can get a sense of where they come from, which region of the country, which tribal origins, sometimes the exact village they call home, and so forth. Often, he can also draw some conclusions about the familial circumstances surrounding the person’s birth — all just from a name.

For example, the Yoruba name Babatunde means “my father has returned” — which suggests the premature loss of that parent not long before a child was born. The equivalent for a daughter is Yetunde = “my mother has returned.” A similar name in Igbo is Nnamdi = “my father still exists.” Another interesting name is Yoruba Abeni, meaning roughly “we asked for this daughter, and now we have her” — suggesting perhaps a difficult conception. And some names give you some information about the rest of the family or the circumstances of the birth, as in the quirky names, Idowu = “born after twins”, Ige = “born feet first”, and Okoye (Igbo) “born on a market day”. Many of the names are astonishingly creative.

K.C.’s own name is rich with meaning. When he was born, his mother experienced dangerous complications, which his parents acknowledged in his naming. In Igbo, Kelechi means “thank God”, and Eke means “creation”. The usual Igbo name for God, Chineke, means literally, “God of Creation”, and you can see both elements (chi + eke) in his two names. When K.C.’s own son was born, it was in the wake of difficulties in bringing his wife to the United States; consequently, they chose the name Oluchi, meaning “God’s work”, suggesting their gratitude that the immigration problems were resolved before his mother went into labor. Such explicitly Christian references are very common in Igbo. A less Christian, but more or less equivalent name, is Uzoma (Ijeoma for a girl), literally “good road”, implying a safe journey leading up to the birth of the baby. This is the name of one of K.C.’s brothers, and it reflects the fact that he was born a week before coming to the United States.

If Igbo names tend to be more religious in nature, Yoruba names — no less descriptive or elaborate — are often more related to the suggestion of royalty. Originally, this was literal royalty, but today, the usage is more metaphorical. Common elements include ade– “crown”, ola– “treasure”, and oba– “king”. Igbo, to a lesser degree, also has elements of this sort; as an example, K.C.’s daughter’s name, Adanze, incorporates the Igbo element ada– “princess”. I told K.C. about a Nigerian friend I used to know, whose name was Mobolaji. K.C. immediately told me this meant “I woke up with a (little) king” — what a beautiful sentiment for the naming of a child. Certainly a far cry from naming your baby Apple, Pilot Inspektor, or Moxie CrimeFighter. These are real names, by the way, lovingly (?!) bestowed by lunatic Hollywood parents on their innocent children. Then again, perhaps these names are determinative after all — all translating roughly as “expensive therapy later in life”, hahae.

It’s different for the children of Europe and America. Even though I know the meaning of my own name, it doesn’t have any special determinative or descriptive significance for me. Or almost none: I do have a strong affinity for swimming in the ocean. ;) But were I a Yoruba or Igbo and given a name meaning “healer” (as my first name signifies in Greek), I would have grown up realizing the significance of this and would almost certainly have actually become a doctor. I would have wanted to live up to my name, to justify my parents’ choice of it.

The brilliant Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe, may be another example — Chinua = “God should hear” + Achebe = “Guidance”. Perhaps the decision to express himself — to provide a permanent written commentary on Igbo society as it struggles to find its place, to the extent it still has one, in our “modern” world of colonialization and globalization — had something to do with his awareness of the meaning of his own name. If I ever get to meet him (unlikely as that is), I’ll be sure to ask!

As far away from this kind of universal awareness of the meanings of names as we are here in the West, in the 21st century, this kind of culture reminds me of Tolkien’s naming practices, where his choice for the name of just about every person and place is richly imbued with meaning. The Yoruba element oba– is almost a direct equivalent to the tar– prefix in the names of the Númenórean kings, for instance. And what would you make of a family line with the names Númendil, Amandil, Elendil, and Meneldil? If you knew a little Quenya, their reverence for and loyalty to the West, the Eldar, and the Valar would be no mystery to you at all. As with a Yoruba or Igbo family, you’d be perfectly justified in drawing some conclusions, wouldn’t you? Too bad it isn’t like that in the “civilized” West. If it were, I’d surely be a doctor-king on some remote island! :)


[1] Moore, Christopher J. In Other Words. New York: Walker Publishing Company, 2004, p. 78.

14 comments:

  1. I had no idea Nigeria names were so fascinating! As one of many women my age with a very common name, I am jealous. :)

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  2. Gary Schmidt9/12/2007 9:07 AM

    Fantastic post, Jase -- one of your best ever. I love the combination of personal insight and scholarly research. This definitely makes up for your frothy post about Khamul, hahae. :)

    One thing that surprised me is how many of those Nigerian names I've heard before, whose meaning I never knew -- usually all from the world of sports, but occasionally from music as well: the famous drummer Babatunde Olatunji; Venus and Serena Williams's sister Yetunde; Oakland Raiders' pro-bowler (and fellow Cal graduate) Nnamdi Asomugha; the running back known as the "Nigerian nightmare," Christian Okoye; and up-and-coming supermodel Oluchi Onweagba.

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  3. Cat Bastet: I know how you feel. My own name, Jason, and my wife’s, Jennifer, were two of the most common in 1970 (Jason was #3 for boys born in that decade; Jennifer was #1 for girls). Yours is a little less common, depending on when you were born, but still quite high in frequency.

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  4. Thanks, Gary! (And poor Khamûl, hahae.)

    I thought you might mention some Nigerian sports figures (see how well I know you? ;), but I didn’t expect you to know of so many examples of the actual names I discussed. Very cool. There are other public figures with interesting names, too (e.g., Hakeem Olajuwon and the musician, Seal — whose full name, according to Wikipedia, is Seal Henry Olusegun Olumide Adeola Samuel), but I couldn’t include everything in what was already a long post.

    By the way, thanks for mentioning the supermodel Oluchi Onweagba — who certainly lives up to her name as “God’s Work”! It gives me the opportunity to observe that many more Nigerian names than western ones are unisex, which is probably what you’d expect, given their meanings.

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  5. You don't actually believe a name has any correlative factor to quality of life, do you? There's zero reason to believe that other than anecdotal evidence.

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  6. Welcome, Anon. First of all, quality of life, I think you’re putting words in my mouth there. But yes, incontrovertibly, there is a correlation between name and behavior in Nigeria, even if it’s only psychologically motivated. What there may not be, and this is perhaps what you actually meant, is a causal relationship (not the same as a simple correlation) between name and behavior. That would certainly be difficult to prove, as you suggest — whether true or not.

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  7. How about African Americans that adopt Nigerian names like Iyanla (which means "big mama" or could mean "someone who has gone through difficult times"); I can't imagine anyone using a name like that because it does not really mean anything and then we have parents who are giving those names to their children without actually knowing what it means. For whatever reason Iyanla Vanzant chose that as her name, I feel she could have chosen a better, meaningful name. As a yoruba person, when I hear that it makes me cringe.

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    1. I disagree with you about Iyanla choosing that name, she is an initiated Yoruba priestess, and may have been giving that name by her babalawo

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  8. Hello Anon., welcome to the conversation. :)

    I agree with you completely. I think there is a lot of random naming going on these days. I can only make my own guesses at some remove about why African Americans might choose some of the names they do (since I am Caucasian myself), so I appreciate your comments very much. My guess would be that people might choose names like these for their evocative connection back to ancestral people and homelands. That in itself is laudable, but you are right: it would be better if people took the time to learn what those names mean, and then to choose appropriate ones.

    Here in the U.S., most Americans seem to choose names completely at random. Well, not completely at random, but nearly so. To be fair, I should say most Americans choose their childrens’ names a) for purely phonaesthetic reasons, i.e., because they like the sound of them; or b) to honor a relative or someone they admire with the same name. But most Americans have no idea what their names really mean.

    I think that’s a loss.

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    1. I was blessed not to have given a Christian name, so my children are named, Nkosazana, Maimouna, Sequoyah, and Munir. And I know exactly what result I expect from those names

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  9. You are on target. Names in Nigeria nay Igbo land carry a lot of meanings and one's name sort of influences one's behaviour. The name Ugochukwu (my name) for instance symbolises an eagle (ugo) from God (Chukwu). it literaly means an eagle sent by God, which means something very good. There are other names that convey such meanings in Igbo land and parents take delight in giving such beautiful names to their children. Igbo names and very rich in meaning. Charles Ugochukwu Okere

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  10. Thanks for the comment. As you see, I am still responding to them two years on. ;) Ugochukwu is a wonderful, evocative name; thank you for sharing that. It’s a great pity that names in the United States are chosen with so little care nowadays.

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  11. Hello Jason!! I stumbled upon this beautiful piece of yours. Quite a nostalgic conversation. I hope all is well with you and yours. -- Kelechi
    www.KelechiEke.com

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    1. Hi, KC! So nice to hear from you again after all these years. And a very strange coincidence too, since I just ran into Rusty the other day. He was on vacation here in Seattle, and we just happened to run into each other at a restaurant. What are the odds!? Hope you are well! :)

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