Names, Meanings, and Trends




Friday, February 26, 2010


The elevation of Dr. Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, from Vice President to Acting President of Nigeria, has thrust African naming phenomenon to the front burner of social studies. Names are a very personal phenomenon as well as popular vehicles through which generations advance and pass on cultural creeds and linguistic legacies in all their rightful ramifications. Names are the linguistic legacy of a people, their extensive experience as a nation, their reflective religiosity, their social sophistication, and a tribute to their traditional tenets.


As I noted in Igbo Names: Forms & Foundations:  “Names encapsulate the philosophy of a proud people; they tell stories of existential experiences from time immemorial, of human experiences on earth, and of beliefs in realms beyond our world, the hereafter. Therefore, names must not only be meaningful they must reflect on certain circumstances and experiences of human sojourn on earth or border on the child’s conception, birth, and societal expectations. Names tell stories of happiness, joy, sorrow, death, travels, prospects, potentials, and even belief in the seemingly impossible.”


The question on every lip is how the Jonathans knew that their son was going to be lucky in life, or were they just wishing that he would bring good luck to the family? The answer is simple: no one really knows. I know a lady called “Mmasinachi” (Divine Beauty); she may be indeed beauty-full in the spirit world but, in this world and by our worldly standards, she is bat-ugly! Of course, naming a male child “Prosper” is not going to guarantee him prosperity. Some girls called “Ngozi” (Blessing) have turned out to be a curse to the family.


The giving of European or Arabic names is a direct result of religious indoctrination of Africans. Time was when churches did not allow the use of native names in baptism. Yet, many Africans did not abandon their philosophical thoughts and expressions of life’s aspirations; they moved them to English or, surprise, surprise, Arabic. As legend has it, when Nnamdi Azikiwe was born in 1904, a local Zungeru seer called on Onitsh-native Mr. Chukwemeka Azikiwe and his Nsukka-born wife, Chinwe. The man of Allah took a good look at the baby boy and named him “Ibrahim” (Arabic for Abraham). The seer predicted that he would be the father of a nation. It came to pass.


It is therefore not surprising that in some Igbo communities, you have such names as Godsaveus (from Igbo for Chizoba); Godknows (Chukwuma); ThankGod (Ekenedirichukwu); Godswill (Uchechukwu); Godwin (Chukwuemelie); Godspower (Ikechukwu) Grace (Amara); Mercy (Ebere); Joy (Añulika); and Love (Ifunanya). The middle name of Imo State Governor Ikedi Ohakim is “Godson”; apparently, his folks simply translated a popular Igbo name “Nwachukwu” (son of God)!


In Ijaw Niger-Delta region, names take fancy feathers. There is the ex-militant leader High Chief Government Ekpemupolo, alias Tompolo. Another ex-militant Mr. Victor Ben Ebikabowei goes by the alias “General Boyloaf.” I still wonder why! Then there is, for real, Senator Heineken Lokpobiri, a Nigerian senator from the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) representing Bayelsa State. Another PDP senator from neighboring Delta State is named James Manager.


These are just some prominent persons. There are people named Allwell, University, Independence, Conference, Brown, Handkerchief, Fedeco (after the defunct Federal Electoral Commission), Education, Endurance, Excellence, Friendship, Polo, Bread, College, Summit, Aeroplane, Bicycle, Fineboy, Juniorpope, etc. Some may appear weird but, to the name giver, the names tell stories and transmit history. If you ever want to know, ask the bearer; s/he may know—if s/he ever asked the name giver.


There are no general rules to names; they evolve. Some people pack up three or four, only to use the initials in later life. Firebrand veteran politician, Chief Melie Chikelu Kafundu (MCK) Ajuluchukwu used ”MCK.” The first military head of state of Nigeria was Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe (JTU) Aguiyi-Ironsi. The first civilian governor of Bayelsa State DSP Alamieyeseigha, Ganuwan Katsina, was not a deputy superintendent of police; he is Chief Diepreye Solomon Peter Alamieyeseigha. In President Obasanjo’s first term, Dr. Alphonsus Bosah Chukwurah (ABC) Nwosu, a former professor of parasitology, was minister of health. Of course, who would forget the most popularly elected president that didn’t preside, Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale (MKO) Abiola.


Even those with two names found it necessary to use their initials. Dr. Kingsley Ozumba Mbadiwe, Agadagbachiliuzu Arondeizuogu, was popularly known as KO”; ditto legendary Professor Kenneth Onwuka Dike. The same is true of Maazi Frederick Chiedozie Ogbalu, Oba Odezulumba n’Abagana; he used “FC” and sometimes dropped the English name and used “F Chiedozie Ogbalu.” I fall into this category: I dropped my given names for the initials “M. O.” I further added the last name (Ene) initial to get “MOE” as my email signature. Now my name is fast becoming "Moe Ene”—as in ex-Florida Governor Jeb Bush, from John Ellis Bush!


After independence, many prominent politicians dropped their English names. Dr. Benjamin Nnamdi Azikiwe became Nnamdi Azikiwe, or simply Zik. Jeremiah Obafemi Awolowo, dropped Jeremiah and, later, he became simply “Awo.” The last president of Nigerian Senate in the First Republic and second only to Zik, Prince Abyssinia Akweke Nwafor Orizu, became Nwafor Orizu. Major Patrick Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu became Kaduna Nzeogwu. Life President of Togo, Gnassingbé Eyadéma was formerly Étienne Eyadéma. A devout Catholic, Captain Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara did not change his name, but he changed the name of his country “Upper Volta” to Burkina Faso (“the land of upright people") before his military buddy Blaise Compaoré assassinated him in a France-inspired coup d'état on October 15, 1987.


In Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah dropped his entire name, Francis Nwia-Kofi. His father was named Kofi Ngonloma, but he was born on a Saturday, so “Kwame” was most appropriate. The first president of the Republic of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, quietly shed his real name, Johnstone Kamau wa Ngengi. In neighboring Tanzania, formed from Tanganyika and Zanzibar, Julius Kambarage Nyerere kept Julius Nyerere, as did Apollo Milton Obote in Uganda and Kenneth David Kaunda (KK) in Zambia; ditto Robert Gabriel Karigamombe Mugabe and Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.


The change that took the cake was Joseph-Desire Mobutu. He did not stop at changing Congo to Zaire, he changed his name to Mobutu Sésé Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga or, simply, Mobutu Sésé Seko. I bet you want to know the meaning. In Blighted Blues, I offered its idiomatic English equivalent: The cock that leaves no hen unconquered! I am not sure if the President of Guinea dropped Arabic “Ahmed” officially, but he was more Sékou Touré. Of course, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, the life president of Côte d'Ivoire did not have to lift a finger, as was the other black Frenchman, Léopold Sédar Senghor of Senegal.


Africans did not have to take foreign names. Authentic Africans names are available and more appropriate. Among the Igbo, names containing the four days of the native week, Eke, Orie, Afo, and Nkwo, are all too popular. Unbeknownst to non-Igbo people and even to some Igbo speakers, every Igbo person bears a name of any of these four native days. Every male born on Afo day is Okeafo or Nwaafo—anglicized Okafor or Nwafor; on Nkwo, Okonkwo or Nwankwo, etc. Every woman born on Eke day is Mgboeke or Adaeke; on Orie, Mgboorie or Adaorie, etc.


In Ghana, the Akan follow the seven-day week. Hence, any child born on any day of the week has a special name. For males born on Monday: Kojo or Kwadwo; Tuesday: Kwabena or Kobena; Wednesday: Kwaku or Kweku; Thursday: Yaw or Ekow; Friday: Kofi; Saturday: Kwame; and Sunday: Kwasi or Kwesi. For females born on Monday: Adwoa or Adjoa (pronounced “Ajuwa”); Tuesday: Abena or Araba; Wednesday: Akua or Ekuwa; Thursday: Yaa or Yaaba; Friday: Afua or Efua; Saturday: Ama or Awo; Sunday: Akosua or Kisi.


Nigerian Christians adopted English days; hence we have such male names as Sunday (very popular as Sunny or Sonny), Monday, Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday. Surprisingly Wednesday and Thursday are not popular, which makes one wonder if children do not pop out on those two days! There are no corresponding names for females.


Modern Africans failed to build the back-to-base efforts of independence politicians. They still give such names as Love, when we have Ifunanya (Igbo) and Ife (Yoruba). Patience (name of Nigeria’s Acting First Lady) has Edo and Igbo equivalents, Iziegbe and Ndidi respectively; Hope (Olileanya), Trust (Nchekwube), Mercy (Ebele or Ebere), Blessing (Ngozi), Happiness or Joy (Añulika), Faith (Okwukwe), Favour (Ogochukwu), Gift (Onyinye), Glory (Ebube), etc.


Some parents do not just stop at using English equivalents; they keep both! I know a lady who bears “Happiness Añuli”; of course, “Blessing Ngozi” is common! Such names reached a point of becoming materials for jokes: Godspower Ikechukwu, Godwin Chukwuemelie, Innocent Odinkemmere, Godson Nwachukwu, Thankgod Chukwudaalu, Godknows Chukwuma, Mercy Ebele, Delicious Nwadiuto, Destiny Akalaaka, etc.


It won’t be surprising to find such trends in other Nigerian languages. In Ibibio-Efik names, for example, there could be Blessing Uwakmfon, Peace Emem, Joy Idara, Victoria Erikan, and Glory Ubong. Among the Edo, Favour Esohe; Precious Ivie; Mercy Itohan, Patience Iziegbe, Joy Oghogho, etc. There is no known similar trend among Muslims, and Nigerian language combinations are not common. A child born into prosperity is named Adesuwa or Abieyuwa (Edo) and Obianuju (Igbo). Esosa (Edo) and Ogochukwu or Onyinyechukwu (Igbo) mean the same thing: God’s gift. Osasere and Chika or Chukwuka (God is supreme); Nnamdi Babatunde (Igbo-Yoruba) Abasiofiok Chukwuma (Ibibio–Igbo), Ijeoma Tokumbo (Igbo-Yoruba), Nwakaego Omoboriowo (Igbo-Yoruba), Nosakhare Oderaa or Chideraa (Edo-Igbo), Chinenye Osaze (Igbo-Edo), etc.


Goodluck Jonathan is not the first to sport a lucky name. In fact, the name “Lucky” is popular in Edo and Delta states. Governor Lucky Igbinedion was lucky to be born into a prominent and rich Okada family. When he failed to deliver the dividends of democracy in his first term, his father allegedly pleaded with Edo people that his son should be allowed to repeat the class! They let him. He repeated the same feat! However, the name did not save him when EFCC’s Malam Nuhu Ribadu came for him. He took a quick plea, got a slap in the wrist, and walked out to enjoy his wealth. Lucky Imasuen was not so lucky. Mr. Imasuen left the Hudson banks in Bronx, NY and eventually became deputy governor of Edo State in 2007. Alas, the courts ruled that Osunbor-Imasuen ticket did not win; maybe next time lucky.


It does not look like Africans are about to stop experimenting because names are a living phenomenon. Names are indeed an interesting phenomenon. A person who inherits Lonely, Lonesome, McMorris, or McAlister should have some history behind the name, but it cannot compare to deeply meaningful African names. Just as native names were taking root, fancy new imports now flood Africa: Jessica, Jennifer, Amanda, Sharon, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Kayla, etc. Nollywood movies help to promote such imports. They overlook Sade, Oluchi, Jumoke, Agbani, Folake, Chioma, Biola, Tumina, Obiageli, Itohan, Amina, Emem, Ene, Nnenna, Esohe, etc. Fortunately, old Christian names are now passé: Gertrude (sounds rude too), Appolonia, Obed, Methuselah, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (sounds like “Aba is in money” in Igbo).


Who would have thought that barely 50 years after the founding father of Nigeria shed his English name, Nigeria would produce a president with English first and last names, a man whose grandmother nicknamed ”Azikiwe”! Note that Goodluck Jonathan (2010-2011?) is not the first head of state with foreign first and last names albeit Arabic: Nigeria had Murtala Muhammed (1975-1976) and Abdulsalami Abubakar (1998-1999). Note that the current president of senate is David Mark. Let’s not forget the former two-term governor of Cross River and, by the grace of God, the next president of Nigeria: Donald Duke.


POSTSCRIPT:Goodluck to you” now means “may your deputy succeed you at a prime position and when you least expect it” –as opposed to “Good luck to you,” meaning… well, may you have good fortune in whatever you do. The traducers of Acting President Goodluck Jonathan cannot now wish him “Goodluck”; there is no deputy looking over his shoulders… if you discount the Acting First Lady, who is possibly wishing “Goodluck” to Turai Yar’Adua on her return from Saudi Arabia.