Your Name, Your Experience
To close out the “What’s In A Name?” series, I posed a few questions to my friends online:
…what were some challenges you had growing up, (or even now), with your name? Did you like your name growing up? Did you ever want to change it? How has your perception of your name and your heritage changed from childhood to now?
I initially targeted the question towards those who had grown up in the States from diverse cultural backgrounds, such as those who, like me, had the “immigrant experience” in different ways. I later reached out to my friends who were born and raised in the United States and whose families have been living here for generations, with similar questions but with a slightly different focus. For those of them who have an interest in African diaspora studies, I asked them to share their stories about how they came to adopt or identify with African names — who gave them the name, or how they acquired the name for themselves? what the name means, both on a cultural level and personally to them? and why did they feel it necessary to identify with Africa in that way?
Here are their names, here are their experiences:
“Baakir was a Swahili name typically given to the 1st born son. Tyehimba meant “of nations” or someone who was rooted in building for his community. Barashango was a title for leader or doctor. A former friend gave [the name] to me. A name is supposed to provide you with a sense of pride in your cultural heritage. I felt having that name connected me to my roots.” – Justin C.
“My name is really common in Israel so growing up there I didn’t think much of it… Since moving to the U.S. it’s obviously become a more “exotic” name…I can’t just introduce myself casually in conversation without someone asking me how my name’s spelled, what it means, where it’s from, etc. I work at a restaurant & I never introduce myself by name to customers because I realized quickly that it always leads to them asking for my whole back story, sometimes even asking my opinions about politics in the Middle East…I personally like having a foreign name because it’s a part of my language and my identity, but sometimes it’s a burden because it tends to give me a certain label (and explaining it to others is not always convenient).” – Noam S.
“I always dreaded the first day of school because the teacher would always mispronounce [my name] and the other students would laugh. Sometimes teachers would just skip my name instead of trying to pronounce it. The worst part was that I missed participating in a school spelling bee final because the person that was calling names of finalists to come and participate just skipped my name because they couldn’t pronounce it”. – Ugo C.
“I have a very old school name – people are always asking me if I was named after my grandmother. When I had [my daughter], it was very important for me to give her a ‘normal name’ so she would not be teased or questioned.” – Gladys K.
I did not like my name when I was young, but now I love it.
“As a child my name was troublesome for me because people had such a difficult time pronouncing it. As I grew I began to realize that it was a great conversation starter for people that are unfamiliar with West African names. I am not sure when exactly, (probably sometime in late high school ), but at some point my name became almost a kind of battlecry or personal flag.” – Azubuike N.
“It took me awhile to grow to love my name the way I do now. My brothers all had ‘common’ names: Isaac, Jose, Ricardo, and even Thomas. It always bothered me to have a name that no one could ever pronounce. A substitute teacher in High School once stood in front of class confident the pronunciation of my name was diarrhea. I made light of the situation by correcting the teacher but it bothered me very much. It is for this reason that when I became a mother I chose names that, to me, were ‘normal’. I’ve asked my mother on several occasions the reason behind my name. Her response was that she named me after one of her dearest friends in Honduras. I’ve even looked up the meaning of my name and never really got anything other than its varying form, Daria. As an adult, I love my name and its uniqueness. I am not very often confused because I’m not a Sara, Jessica, or Samantha. My name stands alone and represents me and honors someone, my mothers friend. Although I may never find a keychain, shirt, or anything inscribed with my name – it’s my name.” – Daira R.
“My name has ALWAYS been mispronounced and at some point in my life, I decided to shorten it and tell people the first part of it only! Not because I was ashamed, just wanted to make life easy for me. Now I take so much pride and always tell people my full first name, and if they care that much, they’ll try their best. I thank my parents for not giving me any European names that have nothing to do with where I came from. I always loved my name and NEVER wanted to change it. I would love to meet someone with the same name though!”- Amekjang B.
I didn’t like my name growing up because teachers and classmates would always mispronounce it…
“…I had to either always correct or simply accept the mispronunciation, (which always ended up being the case). Then there were the mean, dumb, and stupid kids in class that called me Ma-Zola corn oil….Now I embrace my name pronounced Soy-la…And what’s better is that when coupled with my middle name Esperanza it gives an empowering meaning: Soy la Esperanza. It’s Spanish that translates to ‘I am the hope.'” –Zoila B.
“Even till this day my name is still unrecognizable within the Igbocentric domain, so one can only imagine how I felt bearing such a name in 1970s England. It was a struggle for me and I had no English name as a “backup” or alternative. My dad constantly assured me and emphasized the uniqueness of my name as he explained the meaning of Onyeibo to mean “a companion” or “the 2nd.” It was not until we arrived in Enugu in the early 80’s that my dad gave me a book written by Prof. Chukwuemeka Ike titled “The Potters Wheel”. Contained within its pages in black and white was my name as one of the main characters. None will ever comprehend or imagine my ecstatic euphoria upon seeing this, and thus began my awakening into taking pride in my name.” –Onyeibo A.
“I loved my name growing up. Obianuju is not as common as [Igbo] names starting with chi. The difficult part was teaching non-Igbos to pronounce the stresses right, but I just shortened it to Uju. I go by Cynthia because my Igbo name is very dear to me and only people I love and care about call me that. It is Cynthia for public, Uju for intimate.” – Cynthia M.
“I never liked my name. I’m often judged on my character, intelligence and capabilities before I even speak a word. My name on paper doesn’t define me… I thought about changing it several times, I just don’t feel like going through all the motions. Oh! And growing up hearing people say my name wrong only annoyed me more. So nobody calls me Shaquasia. I go by my last name or other nicknames for years now.” – Shaquasia W.
It was annoying seeing teachers, kids, and one time my principal (sometimes purposely) butcher my name.
“…I would get called: Wackachoo, Wakachoochoo, Wachoo, and the one I hate most — Wachovia, (this was done by my old manager). It is the EASIEST name to pronounce WA-CHOO-KOO Wachuku means ‘Child of God’ in Igbo/Rivers, (most likely Opobo/Ikwerre region). Its a name that I’m proud of. In the future, I plan on naming my children Igbo names. – Nina W.
“Omolabake means ‘my child shall be cherished.’ My name was constantly butchered, and I always wished I had an easier Nigerian name. I remember in 6th grade I was asked what name I would pick if given the opportunity? I said Funke because I liked it and thought girls named Funke were pretty. I was ridiculed, called funky, & one of my friends actually told me I should’ve picked a name like Ashley. I felt so bad and even ashamed. Once I graduated from high school, I began using Winifred officially. Yet, even then, I was still being picked on. I was called Winterfresh (gum), etc. Let’s just say it’s been an interesting childhood. – Winifred W.
In Nigeria, it made me feel important, it had meaning, it made me feel like I belonged. In America, it made me feel like an alien, “the African girl”, and most importantly, it meant nothing to no one and it began to lose meaning to me as well.
“I didn’t have much challenges with my name growing up in Nigeria…Growing up in America is another story. It’s like people do not have respect for people’s names. I’ve had my last name butchered, up to the point that I just asked people to call me Song. It made me embarrassed to be African and when people would ask me what [my name] meant. I did not like my name growing up in America. I think my perception of my name changed drastically between two worlds, because really, America a
nd Nigeria ARE in fact 2 different worlds. In Nigeria, it made me feel important, it had meaning, it made me feel like I belonged. In America, it made me feel like an alien, “the African girl”, and most importantly, it meant nothing to no one and it began to lose meaning to me as well. Today, my perception of my name has changed. It makes me stand out in the midst of others. Before, it made me feel like an outsider, but today when I say my name, I get to tell people about my heritage and who I am and where I grew up. – Victoria S.
“Our teacher asked everyone of us to go home and ask our parents the meaning of our names, so I asked my mom why she named me Chibuzor. She said while giving birth to me, I came out without much pain to her, so with joy she named me Chi na eburum uzor, cut short as Chibuzor, or ‘God first’. It’s important for everyone of us to ask our parents why they named us the way they did.” – Chibuzor O.
“I make people pronounce it the right way and I don’t make them feel bad if they just can’t get it.”
What did you think about the “What’s In A Name?” series? What topics would you like us to explore next? Please leave your comments below. Share your stories with us. What does your name mean to you? Is it just a name or something more?
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-NKIRUKA OBI | FOLLOW ME ON INSTAGRAM AND TWITTER @AFRICANMINDED