What Is In A Name?: The Relentless March of Colonialism, By Bunmi Fatoye-Matory
Names are so primary to our identity that it takes a deep level of inferiority to change or mutilate them for any reason at all… Names plant us solidly on this earth, even when we no longer live in our ancestral homes or land… Depriving coming generations of this heritage in the name of any religion is perhaps the greatest crime committed by this violent act of name pruning.
When I was in high school decades ago, I got the idea that I should add a new name to the names given to me by my parents. Like all Yoruba children, I had many names given to me by relatives and well-wishers during my naming ceremony, in addition to those given by my parents. My dominant names are those given by my parents. However, as a teenager in high school seeking to enrich my names, I didn’t take any of those names. I took Elizabeth and quietly added it to my names without telling my parents. I tried this name out for size. In almost all my books from that period of my life, you could see, “Betty”, “Betsy”, “Eliza”, and other permutations of Elizabeth on the pages.
My parents acquired English-Christian names not out of choice. During their youth, while seeking Western education in the early part of the 20th century, children were not allowed to enroll in school without being members of the Christian denomination that controlled the school, and they must take “Christian” names through baptism. My father, seeing through this colonisation ruse, jettisoned “James”, his Christian name, once he got to the university. He reversed to the names his parents gave him. Officially, for the rest of his life, he answered to the names given to him at birth. But my anti-colonial father discovered the persistence of colonialism when he went to collect my passport for me in Akure decades later. I was already an undergraduate at Great Ife. He got to the passport office and they told him they had my passport ready, but on reading the names out to him Elizabeth popped out. My father said that for a moment he was confused. Yes, her first name is Olubunmi and her last name is Fatoye, but I never named her Elizabeth. They showed him the passport and indeed it was me. My photograph proved it. All my official documents now have Elizabeth as part of my names. I still don’t know what it means, but I could tell you what my Yoruba names mean and why they were given to me. It was a thoughtless but significant act on my part to take an English name. I was not asked to by my school, neither was I forced to do it by church baptism. I was a very colonised young person, in spite of my father’s best efforts.
Like an indestructible virus, this colonisation is still present in the names given to almost all his grandchildren. They have English-Christian names, again justified by the brand of Christianity their parents practice. Some of the grandchildren are even called exclusively by their English-Christian names. Naming in Yorubaland has gone beyond adding a Christian name, it has morphed to violence against ancestral family names that are now irrationally judged paganistic. The new wave of Pentecostal Christianity has been able to persuade people that their religiosity is undermined by the names their families had borne for many generations. We are still a people of Oral History. Most people do not have a written record of their families. Family history and heritage are encoded in our last names and our oriki. Somehow, those names are now experiencing active destruction by being “converted” to what their bearers imagine are Christian names. Names starting with Ogun, Oya, Osun, Ifa, are under assault, with that part of the name sheared off and replaced by ‘Olu’. For example, Osungbemi becomes Olugbemi, and Ifadara becomes Oludara. If this is not utter memory and cultural destruction and a deep sign of inferiority complex, I don’t what is.
For the past few decades, African-Americans have been creating new names for themselves, some of which are African-sounding, to reclaim their African origins and ancestry. They are deliberately trying to root themselves in a healthier reality from what that they’ve experienced in America, and they know names are critical to this admirable endeavour.
It reveals the psyche of a confused people who feel they are not worthy and who regard their venerable ancestors with disdain and contempt. It is a sign of a damaged psyche that people living in their own land preach against the names of their ancestors. I lived in Berlin, Germany for a year with my family. There we met an Ibibio man who had lived in Berlin for a long time. He told me his son was named Anton and I asked him what it means. He said he doesn’t know. He was going to give his child a meaningful Ibibio name when he was a new-born but the Germans refused, saying they were not familiar with that name. The Germans named him Anton, obviously trying to give a German identity to children born on their soil. Many European countries have rules about what their citizens can name their children. The Chinese believe that your names matter because they foretell your path in life. They share this belief with the Yoruba.
Names are so primary to our identity that it takes a deep level of inferiority to change or mutilate them for any reason at all. Names in Yorubaland are given after the eighth day of the child’s birth, Ikomojade, the day the child is brought out to the public to be named. Names reflect the history, heritage, family professions, hopes, and circumstances of birth. They are given with a lot of thought behind them. An Ayan family had professional drummers in their lineage. A Sangofunmi family had Sango as their family god. Names plant us solidly on this earth, even when we no longer live in our ancestral homes or land. We carry our names like snails carry their shells on their back. Depriving coming generations of this heritage in the name of any religion is perhaps the greatest crime committed by this violent act of name pruning.
The state of Israel is celebrating its seventy years as a nation. When it was being founded, its leaders who came from Western and Eastern Europe had European names, but they changed these to Jewish names to signal the identity of their new nation. It was a deliberate policy that leaders of the new nation must have Hebrew names or Hebraicise their European names, and they must speak Hebrew. Golda Mabovitch became Golda Meir, the fourth prime minister of Israel. The first prime minister and founding father, originally from Russia, Hebraicised his last name from David Gruen to David Ben-Gurion. They rejected the names from whatever Diaspora they came from to form a national identity. Not only that, Hebrew, a long-dead language for over three thousand years, was revived to be the language of their nation. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda brought it into everyday usage and made it a national language through persistence and scholarship. He spoke only Hebrew to his son in childhood, making his son the first person in Israel to have Hebrew as his mother tongue. Today, all Israelis speak Hebrew and all aspects of national life is conducted in that language, including science and technology.
It is a serious mark of destruction when people think their ancestral names are no longer viable for whatever reason. It is the mark of a people who do not think, who do not use their God-given minds, but are blown helter-skelter, unrooted and diminished. If you think this is not a serious matter, you should be curious about why no pre-Islamic names survived Islamisation and Arabisation in Northern Nigeria.
In the United States, African-Americans whose ancestors were taken there as enslaved people had their identities stolen as well. Their ancestral names were replaced by the names of slave masters and their African languages were lost over the centuries. For the past few decades, African-Americans have been creating new names for themselves, some of which are African-sounding, to reclaim their African origins and ancestry. They are deliberately trying to root themselves in a healthier reality from what that they’ve experienced in America, and they know names are critical to this admirable endeavour.
Colonialism is marching on in our society because we are not producing intellectual frameworks that support healthy anti-colonial development. Ideas are the most difficult to destroy. We might not have the British living in our society anymore, but some of the ideas they governed with, our inferiority, our being worth less, are played out in our lives in ways big and small. Lightening of the skin with dangerous chemicals, wearing wigs, desiring unhealthy imported food, stealing pubic funds and storing it abroad, are marks of a society that feels it’s not worthy. What they call organic chicken here is extremely expensive, unaffordable to most Americans. They are chicken raised without hormones, antibiotics, and other harmful chemicals. This type of healthy chicken is what Nigerians normally eat, whereas here in the U.S., we eat chickens full of chemicals. Fruits here are laden with preservatives and chemicals, and ripened with gas, but fruits in Nigeria are as fresh and as healthy as they come. It takes careful thinking to make healthy and culturally-affirming life choices.
Indians were colonised by the same British who colonised us. Indian-Americans today founded some of the most important technology companies in Silicon Valley, California, worth billions of dollars. Indians still worship their gods and bear their own names. You would never see them parading semi-naked in the fashion runway as Nigerians are beginning to do, or show naked or half-clad women in their movies. A Yoruba proverb goes, the vermin that is eating the vegetable lives inside it. Changing names to excise your people’s ancestral gods and beliefs is nothing short of value disorientation. The people from whom Christianity and Islam sprang from, Jewish people, went back to bearing their ancestral Hebrew names, dropping the European names their families had adopted in Diaspora. The Bible says a people without a vision perishes. It is a serious mark of destruction when people think their ancestral names are no longer viable for whatever reason. It is the mark of a people who do not think, who do not use their God-given minds, but are blown helter-skelter, unrooted and diminished. If you think this is not a serious matter, you should be curious about why no pre-Islamic names survived Islamisation and Arabisation in Northern Nigeria. Islam thoroughly expunged ancient tribal names. Names in Northern Nigeria today are of Arab origin, and people who are alive now never even think that any names existed before Islam. They did. They have been obliterated.
Bunmi Fatoye-Matory was educated at the Universities of Ife and Ibadan, and Harvard University. She lives with her family in Durham, North Carolina. She is a Writer and Culture Advocate. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org