Nigerian names and the stories they tell

May 26, 2011 12:00 am

, LAGOS, May 26 – So what do you get in Nigeria when you take Sunday, God\’s Gift, Whoknows, Noisy Place and, of course, Goodluck? Could be a family gathering.

This Sunday\’s inauguration of President Goodluck Jonathan will do more than officially bring an end to a landmark election period in Nigeria.

It will also highlight what is perhaps a little known feature of the country\’s culture: names with a story behind them. Whether in local dialect or in English, many Nigerian names hold meaning as subtle as a whack on the head.

Children in many parts of Nigeria are given names at elaborately arranged ceremonies, replete with food, drink and celebration. They range from the religious — Godswill, Godspower or God\’s Gift — to the downright curious, such as Brown Question.

"People don\’t just give names — names tell a lot," said Austin Nwagbara, a lecturer at the University of Lagos.

He points out that many African cultures believe that "your name follows you, like Goodluck."

Easy to dismiss such nonsense, right? Well, not so fast.

Consider the president, whose name many say has matched the trajectory of his life.

"I called him Goodluck because although life was hard for me when he was born, I had this feeling that this boy would bring me good luck," his late father Lawrence Jonathan was quoted as saying in a recent biography of the president.

His mother Eunice said although she had a history of lengthy labour in childbirth stretching for several days, Goodluck was born in record time — the very day she went into labour.

But the plot thickens.

Some argue that Jonathan, a zoologist from a family of canoe makers, owes his entire political leader to … yep, you got it. The 53-year-old leader has benefited from a series of events that have advanced his career by default.

He became governor of his native Bayelsa state in 2005. He had been deputy governor and took over the office after his predecessor was impeached on money laundering charges.

A couple years later, he was selected to run as vice president under Umaru Yar\’Adua, a northerner who needed to balance his ticket.

Jonathan himself, in one of the US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, purportedly acknowledged he was not the most experienced candidate for the vice presidential job and was selected to represent the oil-producing Niger Delta.

Flash forward to 2010. Yar\’Adua dies in office after months of illness, and Jonathan is sworn in to replace him.

And then April 2011: The power of incumbency behind him, Jonathan easily wins the presidential election.

One of his friends, Amalate Johnny Turner, told AFP that Jonathan "never dreamt becoming what he is today."

But enough about Goodluck and his fortune. The phenomenon goes far beyond the president in Africa\’s most populous nation.

A child\’s name can be influenced by circumstances of birth, cultural or religious beliefs, expectations and philosophy.

Some of the other interesting birth certificates include native names that translate roughly to phrases like "noisy place" for a child born in a noisy environment and "along the road" if a baby comes out before the mother makes it to a hospital. A child born of parents embroiled in a feud with another family, can go by a name meaning "cannot buy your family\’s love".

English versions of names with a story are also abundant.

One government worker answers to the name Brown Question. His grandfather, then a traditional adjudicator settling land disputes, named his son Question simply because his work involved asking lots of them.

Believe it or not, he says he was made fun of because of it once or twice growing up.

Naming a child is an elaborate, ritualistic affair in Nigeria.

On a recent working day, guests filed into a white marquee pitched in the middle of a street in Lagos\’ ghetto of Mushin for a child-naming party. Smoke wafted from a cooking fire where food for the guests was being prepared.

According to the tradition of Yorubas, the ethnic group dominant in Nigeria\’s southwest, naming rites have to be conducted exactly eight days after birth.

In the mainly Muslim north of Nigeria, most names are culled from the Koran, but some carry surnames denoting their home towns, such as ex-president Shehu Shagari, from the town of Shagari.

Some names among the Igbo ethnic group, predominate in the southeast, indicate days of the week a child was born. The same is sometimes true for Yorubas.

So you could find yourself on a Saturday night hanging out with Sunday and Monday, planning to visit Mr. Gusau from Gusau and hoping to find Goodluck and Godswill.


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