By Prof Terhember Shija
Just mention any foreign or Christian name of a Nigerian, and I will tell you the sect of his or her faith. Names like Athanasius, Appolonia, Ignatius, Anthonia, Mercilinus and Augustine are of Latinate background from where the Catholic liturgy emanates. The Catholics also hail the tenacity of the archangels Gabriel and Michael as well as the obsequious devotion of Mary and Mary Magdalena.
The protestants are more enchanted by the mythical exploits of old testament prophets like Abraham, Elijah, Ezekiel, Joshua and Moses, and do not even mind those with polygamous or adulterous reputation like David, Solomon, Samson and Hosea. They are also enamoured by the 12 fishermen disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ. The pentecostals are more motivational and allegorical in approach. In their roll-call is a preponderance of contemporary puritanical buzz-words like Miracle, Happiness, Hope, Christian, Hossanah, Pentecost, Maranatha, Prosperity, Godswill, Love, Salvation and Peace.
Certain Nigerian foreign names are not necessarily religious, but are adopted to exhibit their bearer’s pride of association with Western European or American culture. That’s where we get such exotic seclar names like Collins, Jenkins, Harrison, Sandra, Natasha, Wilson, Stephanie, Richard and so on.
There’s definitely something more spiritual or abstract about Nigerian or African names than those of the Europeans and the Americans. The whiteman’s names may sound just so simplistic and secular, but they are also meaningful, at least they illustrate the materialist mindset of the West. In the line-up of players of English Premier league, for instance, you come across such names as Rice, Fish, Forest, Green, Brown, Drinkwater, Window, Southgate and indeed various aspects of the European landscape.
This post is inspired by Professor Isidore Okpewho’s 2004 novel, CALL ME BY MY RIGHTFUL NAME, which demonstrates in a complex way that spiritual beliefs, environment, aspirations and self assertiveness are motivations for naming individuals and groups.
Perhaps colonialism and its aftermath have further accentuated the desire and demand for people to be addressed by their rightful names. It is no longer fashionable for someone else with a different orientation to insist on calling you by the name of his choice. People have learnt to define themselves.
The Tiv man, for instance, does not take kindly to being called Munchi by anyone else except by his fulani playmate in the context of their mutual historical relationship. So also is the Idoma man intolerant of being referred to as Akpoto, except of course by his Tiv neighbour on condition of reciprocal acceptance of imichi appellation from him. Everybody wants to be called by his or her rightful name.
In Okpewho’s novel, the main character, an African American by the name of Otis Hampton becomes delirious and utters certain incantations which are not understood by the people around him. He sounds like someone speaking in tongues in a pentecostal church. The text recorded by psychiatrists and interpreted by linguists reveal that the man was chanting the oriki, a form of unintelligible poetry of the yorubas, from where his great great grandfathers were enslaved a few centuries earlier. He traces his way back to his yoruba roots, stays for two years and returns to the United States, all in a metaphorical demonstration that identity is fluid and is determined by one’s arbitrary situation.
What is more significant about Otis Hampton’s oddessy is the magical realist illustration of contrast and complementarity between America and Nigeria, life and death, reality and surrealism, modernity and primitivity, objectivity and subjectivity, all of which lead us to the inevitable conclusion that identity formation is a random exercise that has no rigid formula or interpretation.
We are now in a season of name calling in Nigeria. Electioneering campaigns bring out the worst of bile to describe opponents and the best of garlands to hoist on oneself. It is the game for the immodest and the narcissist. It is also a field day for praise singers and sycophants. Derogatory name-calling, panegyrics and the branding of the “other” are indeed an ideological game charged with social codes to score cheap political goals. It constitutes a huge market for political racketeers, dishonest people and merchantalist folk singers.
Who are those Nigerian politicians calling others corrupt? Who are those saints calling others ungodly and sinful? Who is that kettle calling the pot black? And who are those patriots branding others as traitors?
Let us all desist from name calling, the demonisation or lionisation of individuals whose rightful names are really not securely understood by us.
Shija is a professor of Critical Theory, Nasarawa State University, Keffi