Throughout the Ancient Near East of which Israel is a part, a name denoted the essence of a thing. The name was an icon of the person. Little wonder during the plight of the sons of Israel in the hand of Pharaoh in the land of Egypt. When God commissioned Moses to go and deliver the son of Israel, he requested for a name that he will tell them, if they asked me. “I Am who I Am” was the answer (cf. Exodus 3: 13-15). Names were chosen based on the circumstances of the birth of the child – Gen. 29:31. The circumstances could be an event contemporary with the birth of the child 1Sam. 4:21. Their choice of names may also be influenced by the situation of the parents as in the case of Gen. 35:18.
Pre-colonial Africa had the same tradition of naming a child after the circumstances of his or her birth. Names derived from God were far greater than those derived from other things or phenomena. They express a religious idea, the power, or glory or praise of the mercy of God. They express a religious idea, the power or glory of the mercy of God and the help expected of him.
Christian missionaries rejected African names during baptism. Converts to Christianity were thought to be ‘pagan’ and fetish. Where children were given native names along with Western names, the former was suppressed. Converts had to be known as Fabian, Joseph, Peter, John, James, Paul, Mark, Elizabeth, Catherine, Martha, Mary, and other western Catholic saints’ names. The missionaries could not distinguish between the message of the Gospel and the cultural mode with which they brought the faith. Thanks to so many dialogue today between the Church and culture.
It was William Shakespeare, the literally legend of the western world, in one of his classical Romeo and Juliet, of English literature, discusses what is in a name? He wrote: “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Further, in Julius Caesar, another of his classical work, he continued his rhetorical, “Brutus and Caesar: what should be in Caesar? Why should that name be sounded more than yours? Write them together yours is as fair a name.” There is no doubt to an African that this great mind had asked one of the most stupid and foolish questions unimaginable to the African mind. Why so? In Africa, names are not given to people arbitrarily. Names are not just mere identification mark for the person. African names are charged with highly religious, philosophical, anthropological, and social import.
The name each African bears tells the story of his or her life. It reveals the fears, aspirations and innermost yearning of those who chose the name. I feel much more comfortable addressed by my native names; Chukwuebuka Umekachikelu. It reminds me of who I am, an African, an Igboman. It reminds me of the history of my family. Unfortunately, I never ‘knew’ that Umekachikelu was my name until recently. I suspect this is the experience of many other people.
At the close of the biblical times, there arose the custom of giving a patronymic name, that is, the child was called after its father, grand father, great grand father, or uncle. This was the common practice at the birth of John the Baptist (LK. 1;59).
In the Greeco-Roman epoch a person might have a Greek or Roman name in addition to a Jewish one; example Salome, Alexandra, John-Mark, sometimes semitic names were given Greek forms such as Jesus and Maria. One could also change his name when one grew up. The names of Abram and Sarai were changed to Abraham and Sarah (Gen. 17:15). Jacob became Israel. These were only dialectical forms of the same names.
Change of name marked a change in the person’s destiny (Gen 17:6,16). To name a person is to assert one’s authority over him or her, and this explains changes of names imposed by a master. Pharaoh gave Joseph a new name (Gen.41:45). The chief Eunuch changed the names of Daniel, Ananias, Misael (Dan. 1:6-7).
The seriousness with which African names were taken is reflected in the book, Roots, by alex Haley. Kunta Kinte, a young African in that novel was captured in his village, Juffure, during a slave raid and taken to America, his master tried to impose a new name on him. The reaction of Kunta underscores the import of an African name. Acceptance of the new name: Tobby, would have meant to Kunta a loss of his roots, personality, family’s aspirations, and the values of his people. Throughout that book, the importance of African names is eulogized in the way Kunta gave his children names.
How are we Africans to answer a name that is foreign to our roots as Africans without feeling alienated from our people? How can we sing our song with a foreigner’s name? How can we inculturate by rejecting to accept that we are Africans? Some of us rather than answer our native names prefer to answer European and American names that sounds good to us, even highly placed Africans at that. Unfortunately some Clergymen, like the white missionaries, refuse to have children baptised with native names. Recently I was a participant in a debate of which I had to introduce myself. Trust me I gave my native names, to my surprise I was approached by one of the contributors during the “tea break”. Guess what? She asked me if I was baptized. Her question betrayed this idea that native names are irreconcilable with being a Christian.
To appreciate and promote our cultural heritage, we must go back to our language which is the vehicle for cultural transmission. In the words of Pope John Paul II, speaking to the African bishops: “by respecting, preserving, and fostering the particular values and richness of your peoples cultural heritage, you will be in a position to lead them to a better understanding of the mystery of Christ, which is to be lived in the noble, concrete, and daily experiences of African life...” to regain our cultural heritage, we Africans must take the lead.