By Sunny Awhefeada
Growing up, whether it was in Kaduna, Ibadan, Evwreni or Ughelli, we were given indigenous names that reflected significance and wisdom. Some of our names were influenced by happenings and cultural nuances. A mere mention of such names evoked memories, good or bad, of such happenings. The generations before mine had even more profound and significant names than ours. Parents, grandparents or whoever it was that gave names did so after reflections before settling for what was considered apt. Names were not just given. Names were telling and meaningful. As age and education endowed us with the capacity to interrogate things and infer meanings, we began to appreciate the depth, beauty and philosophical character of indigenous names. Many of us have come to see African names as part of the continent’s claim to cultural validation in the vortex of postcolonial politics. In literature, philosophy, politics, sociology, anthropology, religion and other allied fields, names have assumed some measure of philosophical elevation which foregrounds the African mind as rational and cultivated. Philologists will do well to evaluate the etymology, meaning and relevance of African names as part of scoring a point for the continent in the unending intellectual cum cultural squabbles for validation in humane matters between Africa and the West. It has become necessary to locate our indigenous names as cardinal to Africa’s variegated indigenous epistemology.
Many an African name is aesthetically wrapped in poetic dignity. They are not only imbued with a high dose of artistic integrity, but they also exhibit the workings of a conscious and deliberately cultivated mind. The naming practice among the Urhobo people of Delta State in Nigeria reflects the sublime tendency in the cultural and artistic practice of Africans. Among older folks and, far and in between, the younger generation are such names with meanings that are either literal or metaphorical. Although the flavor of such names is lost in translation, their meaning even in a foreign language such as English still points to the circumstances enabling the names. Such names like Adjarho (flee to survive), Omavuaye (they have been shamed), Diemiruaye (what did I do to them), Ukochovwera (may adversity pass me by), reflect existential circumstances that are mediated by the philosophical equanimity the names evoke. In a world riven by strife and the acute belief in human induced spiritual catastrophes, the Urhobos like other Africans seek reprieve and relief in naming practice as counter measures. Names thus become amours against the buffetings of life.
There are names that are celebratory which speak to ideals and approximate the essence of the sunny side of life. The names Ukpegharovwe (I am favoured by the year), Adarighofua (the path of wealth is clean), Ighofimoni (money/riches befits kindred), reflect the feeling of exultation that comes with prosperity among the people. Many of such names abound. However, it was quite recently that I discovered a unique name that went against the grain of Urhobo naming practice. The name is Omotetobore literally interpreted to mean “we now have a girl”. The matrix of naming in Urhobo does not overtly celebrate the female essence. A society that is moored on patriarchal anchors the Urhobo place a lot of premium on the male gender. Only a few names, for example like the flattering Omotekoro (girl like gold) are given to the female child once in a rare while. The marginalization of the female essence in naming is hinged on the primordial value placed on work and war, two domains where male hold sway. The tendency is also enshrined in Urhobo spirituality. The gods and ancestors are largely depicted as male. The Urhobos when praying to their ancestors invoke Baba (father) and not Nene (mother). This then gives the impression that Erivwin (the abode of the dead) is peopled by only men.
The name Omotetobore has excited all those I mentioned it to and they all claimed it was their first time of hearing it. The “Tobore” names in Urhobo manifest in Efetobore (wealth has come) and Uvietobore (royalty has come). Omotetobore therefore positively violates and subverts a practice that negated the female child. The dominant name which stands in contrast to Omotetobore is Omotejohwo (a girl is also somebody). Omotejohwo is a consolatory name given by mothers to a daughter that was born after three or four or more daughters. In those days, many a man and his family would get anxious if the first two or three children were female. The extended family was bound to encourage the man to “try another leg”, sleep with another woman to bear a male child. As the pressure mounts on the man, the wife is verbally and psychologically assaulted by being reminded that she was an “ovwiemete”, bearer of girls. So, when the next child is a girl, she names her Omotejohwo (a girl is also somebody) in consolation. This played out in my extended family with my uncle’s wife.
My mother experienced the opposite of the Omotejohwo syndrome. She gave birth to four boys following one another. She became the toast of the family as mother of boys. But that was not to last long. Soon after the fourth boy was born, she was accused that her given birth to only boys was the reason why my father was not rich. My mother cried. She was told in clear terms that she needed to give birth to a girl which will be Elohor (blessing/wealth/good things). My mother’s name is Etarheri (words of destiny) and, may be, her destiny heard those words and her next child was a girl. Whether she brought wealth or not is a topic for another day. My uncle’s wife’s ordeal and my mother’s experience speak to the duality of societal expectations. The Urhobos have a name to underpin this tendency in Unuakpotovoo (the mouth of the world does not say one thing), which speaks to how uneasy it is to satisfy social expectations.
The complexity of social experience among the Urhobo people prompted names that reflect a wide range of concepts which define the life of old. Giving the lie to foreigners thinking that African lives were simple and without depth or complexity, Urhobo names cover all spheres of human experience attesting to the fact that their past was well lived in tune with the social imperative of the different epochs of old. Again, it must be repeated that that world of old had poetry that was reinforced by a philosophy which still subsists in the names of older people, especially in surnames. Many a name often gets the hearer thinking and smiling or nodding depending on the emotion such a name stirred. For example Akakabota (no matter what we say) depicts a tough situation or personality; Ojagbighwruu (suffering not in vain) gives hope if not therapy that good things will come after toil; Eruemukohwarien (be grateful for good deeds) emphasizes the moral necessity of appreciation; Oyovwevotu (prosperity attracts friends) attests to the lure of good things. Obomeyoma (my hand is good) is an affirmation; Ogberejeko (there are poor people in Eko/Lagos) contests or contradicts the notion of the good fortune ascribed to Eko/Lagos. One name that provoked hearty laughter among my friends a few days ago is Obebeduo which we had thought meant “clandestine lovemaking”, but actually refers to how difficult the traditional healing practice using “obe” leaf is.
There are names which derive from spite and rivalry. This signifies the existence of social conflicts that find expression in naming which at times also offer resolution. One of such names is Enivwenaye (look at me and look at them) compels a comparison between two rivals; Onotakaroma (who has no blemish) rebuffs backbiting; Midinaye (I am just looking at them) spites adversaries; Onokerhoraye (who listens to them) ignores taunts; Akpomedaye (they are pained by my life) mocks adversaries, Onotasamiderhi (who has reached where I was created?) depicting invisibility in defiance of adversaries. Other names evoke laughter as they derive from animals, fish and birds. There is Okri (he-goat). A classmate of mine had it as surname and the name was the object of jokes. He was to dump that surname. His children now bear two English names (first name and surname)! There is also Omokri (kid/young goat), Udi (grass-cutter); Omologbo (small pussycat); Okpogonro (big toad), Onigu ( a species of catfish with a big head), Adjalakpo (lion), Omoko (parrot).
Sadly, the range, variety and depth of our names are vanishing. Religion, aided by the encroaching phenomenon of modernity, has done in our names. People now prefer to give English and what they call Christian names to their children. We have lamented the gradual erosion of the indigenous language speaking base without reprieve. Our indigenous names are slipping away, but the ones that will survive will remain fresh and alluring for us like Omotetobore and Omotejohwo. I celebrate both names and those who bear them.