I have been fascinated by the subject of names for a long time. I read an article in Newswatch magazine many years ago that sparked my interest in the politics and sociology of naming. This piece is an extension of that brilliant Op-Ed.
What's in a name? A lot. Especially in Nigeria. Nigerian names are particularly revealing. They amuse, shock, outrage, enlighten, ennoble, and empower.
Take the name Longshack, which - believe it or not - is a Nigerian name, not a British or American place name. The name is fairly common among our compatriots on the Jos Plateau. At first encounter one wonders if the name is a product of colonial Anglicization, a curious relic of colonial social encounters. One also wonders, on the lighter side, whether there might be a Shortshack to complement Longshack.
What about the monosyllabic names for which our Plateau brothers and sisters are also known? In Nigeria, Pam is not short for Pamela. It certainly is not a popular culinary oil substitute known to residents of America. Pams are living, breathing, vibrant humans from Plateau State . Lar may be a less common name on the Plateau, but what it lacks in number of bearers it makes up for in the prominence of its few bearers. Remember Solomon Lar?
Then there is Dung. It's the last name of my high school classmate. From - you guessed it - Plateau State . I am sure Miss Dung - if her marital status has not changed - would resist any comparison of her last name to a certain undesirable byproduct of the metabolic processes of a popular domestic animal.
In the Hausa speaking parts of the country, it is quite common for people to take on the name of their trade. Not as a way of drawing attention to their competencies, or as a strategy of - let's use a fancy postmodern term - business branding, but as a formal, legal identification. Inuwa Maidoya (literarily translated as Inuwa seller of yams) would not be a strange nomenclatural occurrence in these parts. Nor would Ibrahim Maishayi (Ibrahim the tea salesman) be uncommon.
These are acceptable, even dignified, vocations in the Hausa speaking milieus of Nigeria, where modesty of ambition and dignity in lowly labor are celebrated, if dying, virtues. Hausa men harbor no shame about engaging in trades that men in other parts of the country would shirk as "women's work." These adopted trade names show the social boundaries of the permissible, the tolerable, and the acceptable.
I often wonder why it is hard to find a Maitaba (tobacco salesman) in the Hausa states. There are, of course, plenty of Maitabas in the generic sense of tobacco seller. Smoking is after all tolerated in Hausaland and violates no mainstream Islamic precepts. But where in the name of nicotine are the Garba Maitabas and Lawal Maitabas?
Is the dearth of Maitaba legal name names a reflection of the ambivalent status of tobacco in Hausa social life? Does it say something about tobacco's existence at the hazy interstices of Hausa social life, or about the fact that tobacco straddles the social territory of de facto social toleration and timid condemnation?
In other words, it may be fine to sell tobacco and/or smoke it, but taking a tobacco-associated name pushes the envelope of social acceptability too far. What does this tell us about the place of tobacco in Hausa society? Perhaps it is that tobacco exists uneasily in the ill-defined and murky zone between socio-religious permissiveness and social resentment of habits that are tolerated but not encouraged.
If we can't find a Maitaba in Hausa society, we can't even conceive of a Maigiya (alcohol salesman). For no Hausa Muslim - or any Muslim for that matter - would associate their name with a product outlawed by their religion. Not as a trade name, and certainly not as a proper, legal name.
In the same Hausa context, individuals, especially those who are successful, like to adopt the names of their hometowns as their legal name. Aminu Kano, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Shehu Shagari, Kabiru Gaya, Shehu Usman Katsina are all names that boldly and proudly proclaim the ancestral origins of their prominent bearers. Through individuals' adoption of place names, five-hut villages have found instant fame, etched indelibly onto Nigerian history and our social consciousness.
But there is the occasional aberration. Even in Northern Nigeria, where the obsession with adopting the hometown's name is more fully realized. For instance, Sadiq Mamman Lagos is not a Lagosian. He is a popular Kaduna businessman, a member of a prominent family from Kaduna state, whose patriarch is said to have made his fortune in Lagos. Here is therefore an adopted place name that does not announce the bearer's ancestry but his abbreviated economic biography.
Still, identifying with the place of origin or adopted place of origin is a strong factor in the politics of naming among the Hausa. So strong is this relationship between naming and identity that even those who are suspected of having become Hausa through a process of voluntary assimilation have to try and establish a verifiable link to a hometown or village in Hausaland.
A few years ago, some "disgruntled opponents" of then Governor Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso of Kano state displayed their gripe by daring to question the Governor's Kano identity. All the governor had to do was simply remind them that his last name was the same name as that of a small, dusty village a few miles from Kano city. It doesn't get more Kano than that. That shut the "disgruntled elements" up, or ought to.
Even among the Hausa, one comes across the odd, accidentally Anglicized name. For instance, Ujudud Sheriff is a prominent journalist and has had no association with American law enforcement.
In the South, Osa Director is neither a movie director nor a director of a company. He is a newspaper editor whose directorial experience is limited to directing reporters under him on what subjects and stories to investigate or what kind of reports to write.
There is a pan-Nigerian dimension to our naming culture: names encapsulate statements of wealth and proud accomplishment across Nigeria's cultural and ethnic spectrum. Maikudi (the rich or owner of wealth) is popular among the Hausa as first and last name. Alhaji Maikudi Daneji is a prominent Kano businessman. Kabir Maikudi may be made up, but it is not implausible.
Olowo (the rich or owner of wealth) is a fairly ubiquitous name among the Yoruba, both as a praise name and a legal name. I knew Alhaji Abdullahi Olowo, who was the chief of the Yoruba community in Kano. Ironically, when I knew him, he was a financially troubled man who bore only traces of a once-wealthy existence.
In his peak as a wealthy, if notorious, moneyman, Victor Okafor preferred to be known as Eze Ego (king of money). He named his popular Lagos high rise Eze Ego Plaza to underscore his preference for this expressive, more declaratory name.
Nigerians want their names to do much more than identify them. They want it to supply a crisp, catchy summary of what they are about. How else do you explain the immodesty and vulgarity of proclaiming your wealth through your name? The Euro-American rich have their conspicuous consumption. We have our immodest names that bespeak our wealth and accomplishments. Not that our big men do not also consume conspicuously. They do.
But why stop at showy materialism when you can inscribe your status eternally onto your name - onto your formal, legal identity? It's a rare chance not to be missed.
Nigerians understand the politics and significance of naming. That is why few Nigerian names betray the random, whimsical vanity of the Hollywood variety.