Since a long time now, whenever I check my blog statistics to see the popular posts for the day, I have noticed that this particular post “On the Origin of Names”, written in jest more than seven months ago, keeps coming back into the charts. Either by searches through Google of people wanting to know what a particular Yoruba, Swahili or Nigerian name means, or by regular readers curious to read that post again in line with their current discoveries, I have found it strangely popular. On the list of popular posts, on that bar to your right, it is number three. As it is going, it will one day make it to the top of the list. I’m revisiting it today then, by popular demand. Maybe you should read it to if you haven’t. And when you’re done laughing at the post and comments, you may return here for my concern for today.
Now let me review a few things that has happened since I wrote the article. I have discovered some even more bizzare naming patterns across the continent. While having an evening conversation with our host in Ife, a German professor originally from Uganda, I found that a tribe of people exist – the Muganda, where he was from – who never give the same last names to brothers of the same family. I mean, if I give birth to two boys, none of them would have Tubosun as their surname. Now assuming that their first names are Demoke and Murano, they would be something like Demoke Agboreko and Murano Adenebi respectively. (You can tell which of Wole Soyinka’s plays I’ve been reading lately). In the Muganda clan, there are about fifty male last names to choose from to give to children and “Agboreko and “Adenebi” will just be two of them. And each of the clans in Uganda practice this, with each of the having a bank of different numbers of names to give to their sons as last names. So when they grow up, two or more brothers will have different last names, and would have to explain the culture to anyone who asks, e.g the visa office saddled with the responsibility of allowing one of the brother to go and meet the other in a foreign country and verifying that they are actually brothers even though one bears Shaban and the other (perhaps) Dada. How does the visa offer convince himself that they’re not playing tricks on his intelligence? The same applies to the women as well. It turned out to be the most interesting naming phenomenon I’ve ever heard of, and I was suddenly glad to be staying a night within the University campus on that night.
As the conversation progressed into the night, I found out that there were some even more peculiar ones not related to any particular culture, but rather government policy of orderliness. I have a German friend, present at the gathering, who has been stuck with a last name only because her mum did not get a divorce from her husband (the man whose name she’s now stuck with) before having children with another (the other man who was her own father). German laws do not allow children born of that union of have any other man’s last name except the man to whom their mother is currently married, even if they are no longer together. And more from Germany, if you ever bring a name to the registry to give your newly born child, you must also have proof that the name exists in real life, and that it doesn’t mean anything ugly either in German or in another language. The writer Gerd Meuer joked a while ago that when he chose to name his first child after his friend Wole Soyinka, he was turned back because “Wole is not a real name (in Germany)” and he had to return with a stack of the author’s books before he was granted the privilege. I’ll tell you one more. In China (and perhaps most of Asia), women’s names are the ones that end in “a”. e.g “Aya”, “Anja” etc. If you enter China with a name like Kola, she said, and you’re a man, don’t be surprised if people start looking at you funny. It was for this reason that I forgave my friend Yun Hsin from Taiwan just concluding her field trip in Nigeria who, in her postcard to me, had written her adopted Yoruba name as Funmilaya. The last vowel should have been an “o”.
Now, poet Ogundare Foyanmu’s family name is Akinlabi – as his nephew kindly informed me a few weeks ago (and corroborated by someone who ought to know). King Sunny Ade’s family name is one of Adeniyi and Adegeye (talk of a double heritage). And so one day in my youth when it occurred to me that my surname is actually my father’s first name and not his own last name or our family name, I approached him, worried, especially since my mother bore his own name as her last name. I wondered aloud what kind of point he was trying to prove. My mother and I bear two different last names, each belonging to the same man. “Look to the Bible,” he said. Patriarchs and other notable people did not automatically become inconspicuous when they had children by retaining the name of the dead great grandparent. “How could you all retain the grandfather’s name and render all descendants inconspicuous? There was J.J. Ransome-Kuti, then I.O Ransome-Kuti (his son), and then Olikoye Ransome-Kuti (the grandson). All descendant children would also be Ransome-Kuti. Many years down the line, how would we be able to know which of the Ransome-Kuti someone actually came from?”
His logic seemed a little sensible, but faulty. Thus although my mother became Mrs. Hisownlastname, we all – children – became Mr. Hisfirstname and have remained like that ever since, except my sisters who have now got married and changed their names. So whenever I filled forms that asked for my mom’s name, I wrote Mrs. Myfather’slastname. When it is time to write my name, I wrote it, and then proceeded to explain. What pop didn’t consider, of course, is that if my brother and I choose to go by that same rule of having our children be Whatevertheirnameis Myfirstname, then my father’s first and last names will also be lost forever. Doesn’t it then seem like an extreme measure to battle mortality? And what’s the solution then? Perhaps the Kutis can help us again. Fela rebelled and became Anikulapo-Kuti after a while, while his own son became simply Femi Kuti. Of course, the name was originally Kuti before the British brought the Ransome in so not much has changed. Many generations down the line, we still won’t be able to tell who was from Femi, Seun, or any of Olikoye or Beko’s sons. I’d better not confuse myself trying to figure it out. The family already have that as a lifetime task. Some people in America have changed their names from Clay to Ali, some from Little to X to prove political points. In Nigeria, some have change their names Ogundare to Oludare, and Sangobiyi to Jesubiyi, and Ifadeyi to Ayodeyi in order to ward off the siege by imaginary gods and spirits in the original prefixes. My last name too (my father’s first name) is not Tubosun. As a pseudonym, I’ve cut out the first three letters just to make space (a long story), and to make it faster to pronounce. Some people just have all the time in the world :).
“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare had wondered. I’m guessing that he won’t have loved this century very much.
PS: Happy Birthday Yemi. Good thing you’re beyond the problem of the family last name 😉