The Power of a Name

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There are only so few a time that one is able to witness the process of being disliked, and it is such that one hardly forgets those moments. It is an unmistakable thing to see, as you watch a person’s eyelids dance about and uncharacteristic stuttering occurs.

It happened at a baby shower I recall being invited to for a friend of a friend. I had mingled with guests and I had gotten acquainted with the buffet table, navigating dips, vegetable platters, and dazzling miniature cupcakes that proved disappointing. The crowd that surrounded the couple had dispersed and there was finally room to give my greetings to the expectant parents.

“It’s a girl. We’re so excited!” The future mother responded when I asked what the sex of the baby was. “Yeah! We’re thrilled it’s a girl, I hear boys are a handful.” The father chimed in with a look weary from answering repetitive questions. The wife, black Brazilian and the husband, Caucasian French met at a pharmacy in Portofino on holidays. The wife talked on having interracial children and how worried they had started to become because you know, “Kids can be so cruel.”

We snickered and teased about parenthood and how they vowed not to become predictable parents, striving to be in-tune and hip to what would be happening in their children’s lives. The conversation was simple and pleasant but then I made the mistake of asking what they planned on naming their child.

“Oh it’s actually African, oh! Nigerian, like you. We love Remi and it’s also French.” She said ending with a giggle. I looked at her lips puzzled, wondering who had led them astray and what baby naming website had provided them with an incorrect “African” name.

“Remi in Yoruba means tired. You’re going to name her tired?”  I asked with my voice heavy with sarcasm. The expectant mother began to appear agitated.

“We, we, we want to give her an African name and it came close to a French name so it worked out.” She said. I was pushing my luck but I couldn’t let these people relegate their child to a folly of a name.

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 “In Yoruba and quite a few African cultures, names have prefixes, there needs to be a word before Remi for the name to make sense and have meaning.” I replied watching her scowl, which I imagined was the aftermath of her killing me a thousand times over in her mind.

“But it is a beautiful name.” I said, hurriedly concluding the conversation and realizing that I had very well cemented an unpleasant opinion of myself. I got the attention of my friend and narrated what had just transpired and she laughed assuring me they’ll only hate me a little bit. I stuffed my face with some cupcakes and feigned a stomach upset and begged my friend to call it a day.

On the long drive home, I wished I had spoken to the couple about what naming a child where I am from entails, the thought process and customs that often surround the naming of a child, the furthering of a lineage.

In Nigeria and most African countries, the importance of a name lies far beyond identification. A name can serve as a cultural marker, a name can represent the hopes and dreams of parents for their child, often telling of the long suffering to conceive or the status they would like their child to achieve.  A name can detail a lesson learned by a parent, hoping the child does not inherit their sins.

Naming your child Akpabo in Ibo culture tells one that the parents may have experienced excessive hostility in their life and wants their child to avoid having the same fate, or naming your child Ekundayo, which in Yoruba translates to sorrow becomes joy, a parent’s declaration that the birth of the child has brought joy into their lives.

I’m very much married to the idea that a name can set a person on a path, help shape one’s life journey, going as far as serving as an armor against life’s brutal blows or cultivating a sense of self before experiencing the nuances of life. Imagine having a name like, Olanrewaju, which in Yoruba translates to my wealth is the future, the seed of confidence planted with such a name could only fortify one’s self efficacy. What is in a name could very well serve as a map to navigate an unknown future, taking the path filled with hope and heavy with great prophecy.

I am often saddened by western names that don’t provide a sense of direction for the life of the bearer, because I imagine, at the saddest hour, when hills seem harder to get over, valleys prove tougher to come out of, and hope has waned, perhaps then one’s name might just be the last thing to help one remember what one is capable of.

Images by Carrie Mae Weems

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