“You can’t steal my name!”
I must have yelled this at my brother half a dozen times when we were kids, my hair fixed in one centered Afro puff, pointing a finger across the dining table with my back straight and taut as a clothesline, ready to snap if he teased me again. My siblings and I often sat around on quiet Saturday afternoons, passing the time by coming up with names for our future children. The only condition was that you couldn’t steal someone else’s name if you happened to grow up and have a child first. Sometimes one of us—like my brother—would pretend to like a name someone else had mentioned just to cause a fight.
The roll call of names would spill onto the table like marbles from a jar. James, Julian, Penelope, Rose, Chloe, Claire, Tessa, Henry—a litany of names that sounded nothing like our own Nigerian names and very much like the ones in the Enid Blyton books we devoured. It made sense to pick names based on what seemed popular, or whether or not we liked how the names sounded out loud. Who in their right minds, besides our parents and family members, would pick names that nobody at our American and later British schools could pronounce or spell? By first grade, we already knew how our foreign names sounded bouncing about in those classrooms, the accents ricocheting off the wrong syllables and dropping like ludicrous beach balls at our small feet. At times our names felt too big for us to manage in addition to all the small ways we were trying, as children of immigrants, to shrink our foreign selves into the cultural molds laid out for us.
What we didn’t know was that we came from a culture in which the act of naming was a powerful ritual, one meant to overwhelm—to claim for a child an identity large enough for them to grow into. We didn’t know that where we came from, we named like praying.
I was born in a place where my name did not make sense. When I slid out of my mother’s womb on a cold February night at a hospital in Manhattan, the nurse on duty misspelled my middle name. Perhaps there was no category of “correct spelling” in her mind for a word she could not imagine. So I have spelled my own name wrong on purpose for most of my life, adding the extra vowel “a” on all official documents to match the misspelling on my birth certificate.
My correctly spelled middle name, Chinedu, comes out sharp and strong, not delicate or melodic like some people think a girl’s name should be. But my people, the Igbos of southeastern Nigeria, do not pick names for their sweet sounds, their novelty or their popularity. Maybe it’s the belief that a whisper of breath as slight as a name can hold a child’s destiny in its exhale. In Igbo culture, the act of naming a child is part of bestowing full humanity, part of solidifying the baby’s journey in the kingdom of the living, and a means of offering her a blessing to stand on. It sounds dramatic because it is.
Typically, eight days after a baby is born, the child’s Umunna gather for a naming ceremony. The official Umunna is made up of the child’s immediate and extended family, all the descendants of the family name. But neighbors, friends, and elders also come together to witness and affirm the ritual of naming the child. It is a way of welcoming her into the world and into the community that now claims her.
There is a time lapse between the birth and naming ceremony for many reasons, one of which is the traditional belief that an unnamed newborn child exists between two worlds, that of unborn children and that of the human world. The days between birth and naming give the newborn enough time to consider whether or not she wants to stay in this new world, or go back to the spirit world. Every child comes from somewhere and is going somewhere. Within that waiting period, family members might even try to discern who is behind the child’s journey to the human world—who is the “Onye-uwa,” or the child’s spiritual patron.
In Igbo culture, a child’s heritage is rooted in her father’s people and his ancestral village. My father came from a dusty village in the southern part of southeast Nigeria where the roads are red and the shadow of the earth grasps at your heels, leaving ochre-colored handprints on the hems of dresses and trousers. I was born and named in America, away from my Umunna, away from the elders, and without the elements of tradition: a rooster to slaughter for thanksgiving; a calabash of freshly tapped palm wine to pour out to my ancestors.
But I like to think that when my parents said my name for the first time in Manhattan, someone somewhere, worlds away, raised a closed fist in the air and whispered ferociously, “Isee!” or “Indeed this we say!”—an acknowledgment and affirmation of the prayers, the praise and the naming.
As a child, everyone called me by my middle name, Chinedu. We lived in New York, and once I started school other children either found my name too difficult to pronounce or chose to butcher it for fun. I wore my name like a scarlet letter, shamed into accepting the guilt of being foreign.
Around third grade, I tried to change my name. I chose Diane. Everyone refused to call me that. But I would sit around practicing my new signature, Diane Okoro , too young to know that my parents had chosen my true name as a way of speaking into my future, sketching verbal boundary lines of an identity of being claimed wherever I might find myself in the world.
At some point while still in grade school, I found out the meaning of my middle name. This name, that people played with and mocked, means “God is my leader.” The only thing I can say about my childhood concept of God was that it was luminous. I slowly learned how to stand in my name as though caught in that slant of light. I might have hated how it sounded, how others laughed. But I loved its meaning.
Still, at seventeen and off to college, I began answering by my first name, Enuma. It means, “The Heavens know [everything].” It is not difficult to pronounce. It is phonetic, spelled and spoken just like it looks. Yet people rarely get it right. We are trained to see difference as a challenge.
Outside of Nigeria, I remain accustomed to saying my name more than once with almost every new meeting. There are gestures that indicate this is necessary. The leaning in, the head cocked to the side, the offering of a right or left ear for a second hearing. Some people part their lips as though about to say something while their eyes widen just a fraction.
So I say my name again. I say it like a work of art, tilting my voice as though spilling poetry between the syllables, beautiful and clear, rousing like an anthem. Then there are smiles, attempts to repeat and parse it.
“Oh, I love it.” They affirm.
“Where is that from?” They explore.
“What does it mean?” They probe.
Now, after a lifetime away, I live in Nigeria. But there are many of us living in cities away from our versions of Umunna, with names that do not fit. Living in pockets of the world where people stumble and trip over our first lines of identity. Ginikawa, Somadina, Chimamanda.
Sometimes I imagine a world where people actually call us by the meanings of our birth names. The homes and streets where I come from would ring with mothers yelling, “What Is Greater Than A Child, call your brother! You Shall Never Walk Alone, come here now!” Fathers would instruct, “My God Can Never Fail, go and get me my slippers.” The thought makes me laugh. Yet I know if I thought of it long enough, it would move me to tears. Imagine being told a million and one times a day that you are a blessing and a gift, with a future held in the palm of gods.
Not all Igbo names reference God. But all Igbo names signify some aspect of the Igbo belief system, ethics and values, or something particular and true for the family or community into which a child is born. My sister’s middle name is Ndubuisi. It means “Life is priority.” It is spelled incorrectly on her graduate degree from an Ivy League university.
I have learned that where I come from, getting a child’s name right is a priority. Our Igbo names are sacred, threaded with blessings and woven around us to fit us tight like second skins. So when people misspell them, mispronounce them, shorten them, misappropriate them, it is like pulling on a thread, the beginning of an unsanctioned disrobing.
I am writing a novel with characters from Nigeria with Nigerian names. My Word document is full of red lines, places where the program believes I have made a mistake; that these names that carry heaven and spirit in their breath do not make sense.
One day while writing, I see the unedited page of red lines and, on an impulse, I type a string of names that I know will “belong”: Lisa, James, Ethan, Chloe, Diane, Sebastian. It is a childish game. I know there will be no red line for any of these, but something in me wishes for maybe just one. It is not new, the way some systems are built to try and deny you of yourself. Perhaps I should be over it by now.
My father was very intentional about not giving any of his children English names, even though his father had given him one. My grandfather lived in a time of dominant colonial influence. A convert to Christianity could not be baptized, nor a child registered in school, unless they took a Christian first name.
The ritual of naming in Igbo culture is a way of drawing borders around a child’s identity, delineating parameters of belonging—a connection to a wider community, and to specific values and views. A name places a child in the center of a world and declares, “This is your relationship to your world. Your name is a treasure chest that will hold riches of your people’s history and beliefs. Your name will give record to the things we fear and deem powerful. Your name will testify to our answered prayers. Your name will bear witness to our blessed expectations for the future.”
Lately, over lunches, and in car rides, and on WhatsApp messages and phone calls, I’ve been asking my girlfriends what their names mean. Onyekachi means “Who is Greater Than God?” Amarachi means “Mercy of God.” Nkolika means “Dialogue is Better Than War.” Yagazie means “It Shall Be Well With You.” I am storing all these names in my mind like marbles in a jar, waiting for that time when I have my own child and may need to steal one.