I was somewhere between five and six years old playing on the veranda of our house with my elder brother and some of the neighborhood kids. What we’d been doing remains a blur to me, although I think it was somehow related to ‘cooking’ with sand and leaves.
“My English name is Fred,” Nonso, one of our playmates suddenly piped up. “That’s what I’m called in school. What’s yours?”
It had never occurred to me that having an ‘English’ name was important. I didn’t know how to answer, and I was slightly miffed at my parents for naming me ‘Azuka’ — at the time, it seemed like the most unimaginative name ever.
“When’re we going to get English names?” I asked my mom sometime after that.
“Isn’t Azuka enough for you?” my mom was surprised, but looking back it now, I don’t think I’d blame her.
“But everyone on our street has an English name!” I protested.
“You don’t need one,” my mom had said curtly, and that was the end of the matter — or so she thought…
I’ve always been ‘strong headed’ since I was little and although the cane could be counted on to get my ‘cooperation when’ I was younger, as I’ve grown older and more cane-resistant, more of my stubbornness has surfaced. Back then, the cane still held sway and even in my young mind I could tell that something as little as changing my name would have dire consequences.
I didn’t need to look very far to find a name I liked. From reading my stack of [children’s] encyclopedias, I had come to admire the inventor Thomas Alva Edison. I became Edison and began to call myself that, but never in any way it would leak back to my parents.
To strike a suitable compromise between getting my way and appeasing my parents, all my school notes from Primary 4 through 5 had the name ‘Main Guy’ instead of mine on their backs. I think my teacher was amused and condoned it only because I was his best student. A classmate who used the name ‘Muammar Gaddafi’ on his got 12 strokes of the cane for his pains and had to put his real name back on. On one of my tests, however, my teacher’s veneer wore thin. I wrote ‘Dharam V Okuleye’ (after the Indian movie Dharam-Veer) as my name on my test script and got into trouble with my Dad.
My elder brother got himself a plethora of names, getting on my parents’ nerves many times. My little brother Uche came along and when I was eight I dubbed him Eric (at the time Vikings were my rave and both Erik the Red and his son Leif Erikson fascinated me). He’s the only one among us boys who legitimized his name with my parents’ approval when he got baptized.
I kept using my Edison name secretly throughout secondary school until I had to represent Nigeria at the 2003 National Geographic World Championship. I sneaked it onto my passport application and although my mom raised eyebrows, I didn’t care. I’d finally achieved my silly childhood dream formed when I was probably making idle chatter over sand and leaf soup.
I’ve evolved since then, and I keep wondering what led me to make that choice. My Dad (and all his family) answer to English names but my mom doesn’t and I think somewhere within me I wanted to belong. My parents knew why they gave us Ukwuani and Yoruba names, and in the folly of my youth I thought the names unrelated to my culture were ‘cool.’
I’m proud of my name now and it’s a source of embarrassment to me every time I look at my passport and see that name Edison on it. I won’t drop it because I believe it should server as a reminder to me that I once refused to identify with my culture.
There’s this video on Youtube featuring the Nigerian comedian Basketmouth joking about the way we respond to different names. Names like ‘Natasha’, ‘Sandra’ and ‘Latifa’ are considered more ‘tush’ than ‘Chioma’ and ‘Kemi.’ If you have the misfortune of bearing one of those ‘conc’ cultural names like ‘Atutupoyoyo’…
I think it’s high time we became proud of our names as an embodiment of Nigerian and African culture. Sure, most non-Africans would say ‘whatever’ when given a difficult name to pronounce. It’s ironic that they’ll most probably get annoyed if you call them ‘whatever’ when it’s your turn.
I’m proud of my name. I’m proud of my accent. I’m
not exactly proud of my country Nigeria.
Sorry, I just had to rant…