Nigeria: What Is in a Name? Ask Donald Trump

24 September 2017

When last week the President of the United States of America created a new "Nambia" country in the African continent, we all laughed and questioned his intelligence.

While it could be regarded as a classic Trump moment, my mind was occupied with reminiscences of similar events in my life. As expected, it did not take so long before "Nambia" became subject of memes all over the world.

But, in all honesty, we knew it was mispronunciation of the name of an African country. The question now is which of the three "bia" countries - Namibia, Gambia or Zambia - did Trump have in mind?

While it is easy for us to laugh and joke about this, it brings to reality what we Africans with "heavy" indigenous names go through in foreign lands on daily basis. In most instances, just as Trump did last week, we always have our names mispronounced. While technically we may not compare this directly with Trump's error, we can attribute this to the fact indeed we have some names that are jaw breaking and challenging for "non-tribal" people.

Ever since my sojourn in the United Kingdom, I have had to coin out many simple-to-pronounce aliases to make life easy for my classmates, colleagues, neighbours and friends. I remember my first experience while facing a panel of interviewers for a job a decade and three years ago. I was fresh (this means just coming from Africa) and innocent, and I sat in front of them, watching them practically "murdering" my names.

When I could not take it anymore and also to put them out of their misery, I suggested to be called my initials of O.B., to which they all agreed to excitedly. I was offered the job eventually and introduced to other staff as O.B. For two years in this employment, I answered to O.B. Despite the simplicity of the initials, some colleagues renamed me Obi-Wan Kenobi, of the Star War fame.

To my then British neighbours, pronouncing Babajide was a mouthful, so to them I was Baba. Not long after I became "Ali Baba" and everyone in the neighbourhood was interested in meeting the man with the fairy name. Eventually I got to where I wanted with my name, as Morak has become accepted as easy to pronounce. You cannot, however, win all the time.

At a training earlier this year, I got the name amended again for me, as the friendly trainer decided to make it "Morak-attack". Interesting you will say, but still better than Apple's Siri attempt to pronounce Morakinyo.

You may ask, just like William Shakespeare - "What's in a name? That which we call a rose. By any other name would smell as sweet." Unfortunately you cannot "preach" this to an African parent. By our traditions and cultures we are named after circumstances and events around births. While this is apt for the "home" scene, unfortunately, outside the shores they create uphill tasks trying to call them. I know quite a number of my friends who had to take on English names for them to blend in the society.

This is understandable as researches have revealed that people with simple and easy to pronounce names have many opportunities than individuals with jaw breaking names. In a study by the New York University, it was found that people with names easy to pronounce often have higher-status positions at work. Adam Alter, one of the psychologists was quoted as saying: "When we can process a piece of information more easily, when it's easier to comprehend, we come to like it more."

This position was not far from the truth, as it was acknowledged even by the former UK Prime Minister David Cameron when he said in October 2015: "Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names?" The reality of this is a topic for a write up for another day.

I remember 12 years ago walking down the Great George IV bridge, Edinburgh looking right and left trying to locate the birth registrar's office. On my left hand was a piece of paper issued to me by Edinburgh's Royal Infirmary Hospital as the official confirmation of the birth of my daughter a few days ago. In the back pocket of my jeans trouser was another paper, handed over to me by my wife containing the names we had chosen for the baby.

As customary of African parents, we consulted wide and near and deliberated through the night before we came to a conclusion on the names that are appropriate for our little princess. This was not our first experience of naming babies, but it was our first in the UK. We were clear on the names we wanted for our baby, but as tradition demands, we needed to throw the exercise open to grandparents, siblings, cousins, helpful friends, etc. It was therefore not surprising that we got a long list of names for the baby.

Climbing the few steps to the Registrar's office, I gingerly touched the paper in my pocket to be sure it has not disappeared. To avoid losing the piece of paper and getting confused with the names, I decided to pull it out as I eased myself to the seat in front of the smiling lady that eventually registered the birth. They were the best of a long list.

I was very proud of the names, as I slipped the paper forward to the lady registrar so she could start writing. She looked at the paper, smiled and said, more in surprise than in compliment, "this must be a very special baby." I knew what she meant, and I didn't let her wait too long for the answer as I started to explain the rationale for the long list of names. She was, no doubt, intrigued by this education, as she could not take her eyes off the paper in front of her. The shortest of the names has ten letters and no English name among them.

After a few minutes and still with that wide grin on her face, she handed me the birth certificate with all the names in place. As I stepped out to the cool breeze of June, I panicked a little bit and "transported" myself to the future and how the baby would handle the names. Momentarily I pushed the thoughts back as unnecessary and walked towards the Princess Mall for a bite of something hot.

Just like her brothers, it was a challenge accommodating all her names on her passports. Some of the names have to be written in the observation column for record purposes. I just realised I needed not to have worried about the future. The future is here now, and she has made her decision - to ditch the long winding, hard to pronounce names. Thanks to the British government's flexibility, there is always an option for a preferred name, and she is truly making use of this. She does not have to go through any judgement by her high sounding and jaw breaking names. No one deserves to suffer for what was not their fault.

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