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What's in an African name?

 

By Chippla Vandu

 

The late Nigerian musician, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, had a song in which he criticized Africans for answering foreign names. In this song, he spoke of the African continent as an upside down place.

 

Fela, whose surname was Ransome-Kuti, opted to remove the word 'Ransome' from his name, referring to it as a slave name.

 

Fela hardly sang in English. He most often used Pidgin English blended with Yoruba, his mother tongue. He was a believer in the Africanization of Africa, the need for African nations to return to their roots and do away with foreign influences that had, in his opinion, kept them in perpetual stagnation.

In practically every part of the world, people take pride in their culture. The way they dress, what they eat, how they dance, what they believe in...Distinct cultures make societies unique, helping to distinguish what is Chinese from what is say, Ethiopian.

 

Cultural diversity makes the world an interesting place. But, one hardly discussed aspect of culture is this—no culture in the world developed in isolation. All borrowed one thing or another from other cultures.

So-called Western civilization traces its roots to the Roman Empire, which goes further down the line to the Greek civilization. The Greeks borrowed a lot from the peoples of the Middle East—a simple comparison of the Hebrew and Greek alphabets shows how much the latter relied on the former. The Latin alphabets as used by several European languages are modified forms of the Greek alphabet.

Before the advent of the British to Nigeria in the 19th century, few languages were written down. One of these was Hausa, which utilized Arabic scripts.

 

This form of writing, known as ajami*, is present on all Naira notes issued by the Central Bank of Nigeria. Most other languages had no written forms, explaining why the dominant alphabetic form used in Nigeria today happens to be Latin scripts, fully borrowed from the British.

 

Scholars of languages such as Hausa and Yoruba modified the English alphabets to suit their pronunciation and intonation needs. For instance, the letter s in Yoruba is pronounced as sh, while the Hausa alphabet has a 'curved k', reflecting an emphasized pronunciation of the letter k from the top of the esophagus.

 

But, in essence, Nigeria's de-facto written scripts are all of Latin origin.

What then did Fela mean when he said African nations should reject foreign influences?

 

Fela happened to believe that by openly accepting Western ideas and rejecting their cultural roots, Nigerians were being left disillusioned. Western names and Western clothes were more or less commonplace in Lagos of the 1970s.

 

As a matter of fact, in the certain areas of Southern Nigeria, Anglo-Saxon first names had become the norm rather than the exception, and remain so till this day.

 

Of the 36 provinces in Nigeria, six bear names of European origin—Delta, Rivers, Cross River, Plateau (English), Lagos (Portuguese) and Niger (named after the Niger River. The origin of the word Niger is disputed, but is most likely Latin).

Objects and items, which were not in existence before the arrival of the British, go by modified English words. The Hausa words for electricity, telephone, computer, orange, mango and automobile are unmistakably of English origin.

 

This leaves out the fact that the Hausa language has borrowed extensively from Arabic. Its numeral system is almost exclusively Arabic. A study of other languages in Nigeria would reveal the great extent to which they have borrowed words from one another, as well as from other tongues in surrounding regions.

The story of human civilization is but a story of innovation and being open to new ideas. No single culture could achieve the level of development it has today without learning a thing or two from other cultures.

 

Cultures that tended to either borrow a lot from others to add to their own innovations, or that grew in regions of competing cultures, tend to be the most advanced in the world today.

Some cultures are more advanced than others. Had the San people (Bushmen) remained roaming in Southern Africa without been conquered by the Bantus, who eventually created the mix of peoples found in Southern Africa today, great societies like those of the Zulus and Xhosas would have taken a much longer time to build.

 

The hunter-gatherer lifestyle of the San was simply no match for the agrarian and well-fed societies of the Bantus.


When Fela speaks of Africanization, I am left wondering. The term appears as meaningless as it is vague.

 

The inextricable link between say Nigeria and the rest of the world by the 1970s, had come to mean that no single society could chose to remain in isolation while at the same time, wanting to be considered as a part of the modern world.

 

If people fancy Anglo-Saxon names, so be it. After all, the so-called indigenous names were created by other people. If people choose to put on American jeans and T-shirts, let them be. These outfits are much simpler than the elaborate Nigerian traditional clothing, a great deal of which are better suited for ceremonial occasions.

Rather than complaining about cultural invasion, societies need to think about how to reinvent themselves as the times change.

 

There will always be dominant and not-so-dominant cultures. Not even government legislation can prevent dominant cultures from being ever present. Under different guises, dominant cultures have a way of spreading their tentacles across the globe for the simple reason that they appeal to people.

As for what people choose to be called, that should be up to them. In Hausa Northern Nigeria, most people go by Arabic names—which have more or less become indigenous names.

 

Most Yorubas in the South-West still answer names of Yoruba origin, most of which have deep meaning. Strolling down to Cross River and Akwa-Ibom states in the South-East, first names of English origin tend to be all too common.

 

And if one wants to go deeper in history, one would find that a lot of the so-called English names of Biblical origin are nothing but Anglicized forms of Jewish or Greek names.

 

Some of these names may have had their initial roots on the African continent thousands of years ago!

 

Chippla Vandu is a Nigerian academic and writer. He blogs as Chippla.

 

Do you think that the late Fela Kuti was right to emphasized Africanization and a rejection of Western values or do you agree with Vandu's assertion that African culture should openly embrace elements of Western culture?

 

Join the debate, please e-mail your views to comments@thenewblackmagazine.com


 

 

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