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First published on September 24, 2017.
By Morak Babajide-Alabi
When last week (September 20, 2017) Donald Trump, the President of the United States of America created a new “Nambia” country in the African continent, we all laughed and questioned his intelligence. Trump was speaking at a United Nations event. While it could be regarded as a classic Trump moment, my mind was occupied with reminiscences of similar events in my life. As expected, it did not take so long before “Nambia” became subject of memes all over the world. But, in all honesty, we knew it was a mispronunciation of the name of an African country. The question now is which of the three “bia” countries – Namibia, Gambia or Zambia – did Trump have in mind?
While it is easy for us to laugh and joke about this, it brings to reality what we Africans with “heavy” indigenous names go through in foreign lands daily. In most instances, just as Trump did last week, we always have our names mispronounced. While technically we may not compare this directly with Trump’s error, we can accept that, indeed, we have some jaw-breaking names that are challenging for “non-tribal” people.
Ever since my sojourn in the United Kingdom, I have had to coin out many simple-to-pronounce aliases to make life easy for my classmates, colleagues, neighbours and friends. I remember my first experience while facing a panel of interviewers for a job a decade and five years ago in Edinburgh. I was fresh (just coming from Africa) and “innocent”. I sat in front of them as they practically “murder” my names. When I could not take it anymore and also put them out of their misery, I suggested my initials – O.B. They agreed and I was offered the job eventually and introduced to other staff as O.B. For two years in this employment, I answered to O.B. Despite the simplicity of the initials, some preferred calling me Obi-Wan Kenobi, after the “Star War” character.
To my Scottish neighbours, pronouncing Babajide was a mouthful. They had to find a simpler name. I picked “Baba.” They were okay with this. But it did not continue for long as some of them, especially the mischievous ones turned Baba to “Bubba” (the black character in the Police Academy film). To some, I was “Ali Baba.” Everyone in the neighbourhood wanted to meet the man with the fairy name. It was not uncommon to get on Buses 30, 30A, 33 or 33A from Clovenstone to the City Centre and be hailed by a random strange person. Trust me, I enjoyed the name “fame”. The African man with the big-sounding name. I still answer to “Baba” once in a while, as it confers a kind of royalty on me.
At my local Indian restaurant, Gate of India, in Morley, Leeds, the staff hail me as “King Baba” every time I make an appearance. The staff, despite their Asian backgrounds, are thrilled by the name. They are nice people and always make sure the Chef comes out to say hello to “King Baba” on every visit. Classic, you will say. I digress.
I am where I want with my name now. I have adopted Morak as the official first name as it is accepted as easy to pronounce. You cannot, however, win all the time, as I still get the odd query (especially on the phone) “Are you Polish?” I got to know recently that Morag is a town in Poland. So out of laziness (or mischief), my listeners take the “k” for “g.” The most hilarious amendment of the name for me was when at a training course three years ago, the trainer decided to make it “Morak-attack”. Interesting you will say, but still better than Apple’s Siri attempt to pronounce Morakinyo. Try it.
You may ask, just like William Shakespeare – “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose. By any other name would smell as sweet.” Unfortunately, you cannot “preach” this to an African parent. By our traditions and cultures, we are named after circumstances and events around births. While they are apt for the “home,” unfortunately, outside the shores they cause headaches trying to call them. I know quite a number of my friends who had to take on English names to blend in.
In a study by New York University, it was found that people with names easy to pronounce often have higher-status positions at work. Adam Alter, one of the psychologists was quoted as saying: “When we can process a piece of information more easily when it’s easier to comprehend, we come to like it more.” This position is not far from the truth, as acknowledged by the former UK Prime Minister David Cameron. He said in October 2015: “Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get callbacks for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names?” The reality of this is a topic for a write up for another day.
I remember 12 years ago walking down the Great George IV Bridge, Edinburgh looking right and left trying to locate the birth registrar’s office. On my left hand was a piece of paper issued to me by Edinburgh’s Royal Infirmary Hospital as the official confirmation of the birth of my daughter a few days ago. In the back pocket of my jeans trouser was another paper containing the names we had chosen for the baby.
As customary of African parents, we consulted wide and deliberated through the night before we concluded the names that are appropriate for our little princess. This was not our first experience of naming babies, but it was our first in the UK. We were clear on the names we wanted for our baby, but as tradition demands, we needed to throw the exercise open to grandparents, siblings, cousins, helpful friends, etc. It was therefore not surprising that we got a long list of names for the baby.
Climbing the few steps to the Registrar’s office, I gingerly touched the paper in my pocket to be sure it has not disappeared. I eased myself to the seat in front of the smiling lady registrar. They were the best of a long list. I slipped the paper forward to the lady registrar so she could start writing. She looked at the paper, smiled and said, more in surprise than in compliment, “this must be a very special baby.” I knew what she meant, and I didn’t let her wait too long for the answer as I started to explain the rationale for the long list of names. She was, no doubt, intrigued by this education, as she could not take her eyes off the paper in front of her. The shortest of the names has ten letters and no English name among them.
After a few minutes and still, with that wide grin on her face, she handed me the birth certificate with all the names in place. As I stepped out to the cool breeze of June, I panicked a little bit and “transported” myself to the future and how the baby would handle the names. Momentarily I pushed the thoughts back as unnecessary and walked towards the Princess Mall for a bite of something hot.
Just like her brothers, it was a challenge accommodating all her names on her passport. Some of the names have to be written in the observation column for record purposes. I just realised I needed not to have worried about the future. The future is here now, and she has made her decision – to ditch the long winding, hard to pronounce names. Thanks to the British government’s flexibility, there is always an option for a preferred name, and she and her brothers are making use of it. They do not have to go through any judgement by the high sounding and jawbreaking names imposed on them by their African to the core parents.
No one deserves to suffer for what was not their fault.
As published in the Sunday Vanguard of September 24, 2017