From Obinna Odogwu, Awka
Some years ago, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) reportedly predicted that the Igbo language spoken in the South-East Nigeria, parts of Delta and Rivers States in the South-South, and some areas in Benue State in the North Central, might become extinct in the next 50 years.
There have also been a number of reports which made similar predictions, adding that Igbo names and other forms of identity might soon become extinct.
But to ensure that these predictions come to nullity, a lecturer in the Department of English Language and Literature at Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Prof. Ngozi Ezenwa-Ohaeto, collected, compiled and translated over 6,000 Igbo names in a book she titled Afamefuna: An Encyclopaedia of Igbo names.
Ezenwa-Ohaeto, who specialises in Sociolinguistics with special interest in gender studies, in this interview with Saturday Sun, regretted that Pentecostalism is gradually killing the Igbo identity.
Why did you embark on this collection of and research into Igbo names?
The research was motivated by my observation about the attitude of some Igbo people towards their names. I observed that some Igbo people, first and foremost, don’t appreciate their names. They appreciate foreign names. I don’t want to say English names. Why I said foreign names is because when they answer these names, they don’t even know whether it is English, American, Canadian, or even other African names. Once it’s not Igbo, it is better. I also observed that many Igbo people do not know how to write Igbo names. And because they do not know how to write the names, they do not pronounce it correctly. Or because they don’t pronounce the Igbo names correctly, they don’t write it correctly. One other thing that triggered this research was; there is this programme I used to watch on TV. I don’t want to mention the name of the station. The presenter doesn’t know how to pronounce his name. The name is Agbata. He pronounces his name wrongly. I got to know that the person is an Igbo person from his first name. He pronounces his first name correctly but does not pronounce his surname well. He does so, perhaps, to make it sound English or foreign. What is Agbata? Agbata is an abbreviation of Anigbata (or Anagbata). Overtime, I started thinking about this because I know that Igbo naming culture embraces a large chunk of Igbo culture. This is because language expresses people’s ideology, philosophy and everything. It is through language that you express who and what you are. And so, onomatology, which is the study of names, is an aspect of linguistics. So, through names you express yourself. Igbo people, just like every other African nation, speak a lot about themselves through their names; not just personal names but even through their surnames and titles. What are they expressing? They express their experiences of fear, anticipation, joy, belief and even their frustrations. Through names, Igbo people express their joy, their anguish, their disappointments; everything about them. And so, when you don’t actually pronounce or write the names correctly, you are missing the historical aspect, the philosophical aspect and the ideology. So, we lost a lot of our cultural heritage through the mispronunciation and wrong writing of our names. So, these things are some of the things that triggered my interest in documenting the Igbo names and then interpreting them. There is the need to interpret them. It is not just about documenting. So, I went ahead to interpret the names.
So, what was the scope of the research? Did you just sit behind the table to write down names just because you know some people write certain names wrongly?
There is no way I can just sit down like this and start compiling names. It is a research of more than two years. I had to move out. I did a lot of research. I interviewed a lot of people. I went to places. I travelled a lot to do that. I also used my PG students, past and present, because I needed to touch all Igbo geographical areas; not just around here (Anambra State). I tried to make it an Igbo thing, not just here. So, I got in touch with my past students that are here and there to help me in getting the research done. Unfortunately, most of them didn’t know the meaning of the names they collected. I still had to go out to look for the meaning. Some of them, I didn’t know their meaning; and so, I had to ask people what the names meant. So, it took me a lot of time. I did a lot of interviews particularly. That is when I really know that Igbo names are historical. This is because when you call somebody and ask the meaning of certain names, they would respond ‘Ah! My forefather had these names’ and before you know it they will start telling you stories about the name. Sometimes while talking to people on the phone, the phone will become very hot. I needed to get it. Sometimes, someone would refer me to some old people in one village or the other and I get their contact, book appointments and I needed to be there. In fact, I collected more than 6,000 names. I got the meaning of over 6,000 names. There were others that I could not get their meanings. They are over 100 but I documented them in one section of the book. I kept them there for future research.
In the course of your research, you must have encountered the problem of dialects. This is because dialectically, a person from Nsukka will have a different kind of name that is also the same name somebody bears in Abia. How were you able to manage that dialectical problem?
That’s why I said that I travelled. I travelled and I interviewed. So, I requested my students from Nsukka and Abakaliki areas to help me get the meanings; and they will tell you that these people have died but they’re still answering the names they don’t know their meanings. So, I had no option than to find myself on the road because I needed to get to the root of the thing. I couldn’t get the meaning of some of the names but I documented them. I still have many in my phones for future use. So, there are obvious dialectical issues.
How were you able to manage these because, for instance, if you go to a place like Ohofia, they don’t call money ego. They call it okpoho.
If you get that book, I divided them into three columns – A, B, C; the names, the translations and the interpretation. Under that translation, it will tell you that okpoho also means ego (money). I’ll translate it into English. So, the essence of that translation section is that, one, when you read the translation, it will now help you to, at least, know the meaning, point out the dialectical issues and handle it, and then, the pronunciation.
Who did you have in mind when you embarked on this outing? Did you author the book for the students in the tertiary institutions or secondary or who?
It is for anybody that can read Igbo whether you are in any level of education. As long as you can read Igbo, it is for you. It cuts across all levels.
Research requires a lot of money. How did you go about the funding?
It was self funded. It took a lot of money from me. You know, it’s not easy to fund research. It is one of the problems we are having in the academic sphere. And I needed to get that book done. If I had started applying for funding, maybe by the next five years I would still be on it. We have TETFUND but there are issues I will not mention here. I tried it. I wanted to apply. But before I made that attempt, I researched. One, I didn’t want the managers of TETFUND to start having issues with me; issue of final quality. Igbo people say that the eyes eat first before the mouth. I went round to see the final products of those that applied for TETFUND. If I had done all these things and in the end I see that book in that quality I would not be happy. So, when I went round and saw the quality of the TETFUND products, I said no. Again, there is also the issue of bottlenecks. I didn’t think I could do the politics there. So, I decided to do it myself. It has not been easy for me. Till this moment, I still owe my publishers.
You said earlier that you observed that some Igbo people are not proud bearing Igbo names; some don’t also know how to pronounce them well. From your findings, why is it so? And what solutions do you recommend?
One major problem that we have is the colonial mentality. Everything foreign is better. That’s one primary thing. Secondly, the new churches, all this Pentecostalism, they are not helping matters. You will hear somebody answering Shekinah Glory. What does it mean? You don’t know. Some will answer some names they say are biblical. And my question is, is biblical a language? Most of those biblical names are Hebrew names. Some answer names they call Christian names; like the names of the apostles. And I ask them, these people already have these names before they started following Christ. So, what makes them Christian? And they didn’t change the name. What if these names were names of idols before they started following Christ? What if these names mean snake and some others? So, these are the issues. Another issue is; I said before that some people have this mentality that anything foreign is better. Some want to run away from Igbo names. Instead of answering Igbo names they will prefer it translated to English and answer it as English name even when the English man doesn’t answer such because it’s not in their culture. For example, you see names like Faith, Gift, Godspower, Hope, etc. You won’t see any English person answering the name. You see names like Kingdom which means Anaeze in Igbo language, some other such translations. They’re funny. Why wouldn’t you answer them in Igbo? Even the kingdom, you didn’t tell us which of the kingdoms; whether it’s the kingdom of hell or what? For them, because it is English, it’s better. Another issue I discovered is the clipping of names. You make the name sound fun and convenient. Like when you have Chimamanda, there is another foreign name Amanda. When you call Amanda, it is no longer Chimamanda that you’re referring to. Some people answer Moore. And it is the mispronunciation of the white man’s version. Instead of Mmuo which is Igbo name, they now answer Moore. Another one is Ma’chie which is an abbreviation of Mmaduadichie or Mmaduanochie but when they write Ma’chie, they write it as Matchie. What is the T doing there? This is just as we foolishly retained the TSH in Onitsha instead of Onicha. See Manafa which is Mmadinafa (Mma di na afa); you see Ote which is Nwaotite; you see O’ole which is Ofodile; you see Oree which is an abbreviation of Oraegbunam or Oranye and others. So, when they clip these names they keep away their meanings. And the people bearing these names, when you ask them the meaning, they tell you that they don’t know; that they came up and met it. I interviewed some married women about their surnames but they said that they didn’t know and referred me to their husbands. A marriage you have been into for years, you don’t know the meaning of the name you bear. Igbo people believe that someone’s name leads them. My name is Ngọzị and I believe that I am blessed, and the blessing follows me. Igbo people are very careful when it comes to giving their children names. Another thing I discovered is that male names far outnumber female names even when females are more in number. I mean the names I collected; I mean core Igbo names I collected. I discovered that because Igbo people are patriarchal in structure, culture and in philosophy, you see that surnames are male names. The female names don’t come in. And so, when the females die, they die with their names but the male names continue. And this is one of the ways we lost an aspect of our cultural ingenuity and heritage. This is because Igbo names are not only contextual and significant but are pointers to circumstances surrounding the birth of a child, the history of their family, the psychology, what they believe in and all that. So, we lost and keep losing that heritage. When I started collecting these names I doffed my hat for the ancient Igbo people. From these names, you could see the kind of life they lived. Some of them expressed their anguish; like when I heard a particular name, I shuddered. The name was Ajọnụma (Ajọ ọnụma). It means deep anguish. You can imagine the kind of experience which the parents of that child had that made them give that child that kind of name. We also have Ajọiwe (Ajọ iwe) which means bad anger or deep anger. Ajọiwe is lighter compared to Ajọọnụma. I felt that there was a need to document these names and interpret them for our children even if they don’t want to answer them, they will now know their history; where they’re coming from, where they are; and possibly, where they’re going.
Did you in the course of compiling these names punctuate them appropriately?
Yes, I did so correctly. One of the reasons why we mispronounce Igbo names is because they’re misspelt. And Igbo names are dotted, up and down where appropriate.