By Michael Egbejumi-David
In the period leading up to the last presidential election in Nigeria; that period when Mrs Patience Jonathan was beginning to signal how conspicuous she was going to be in our lives and we all had no choice but to learn to live with unforgiving verbal assaults and other coarse shenanigans, a friend of mine told some of us with absolute authority that Mrs Jonathan was not a Dame. That is, she is not so titled.
The correct term (though rarely used) is Damehood. Damehood is the female equivalent to Knighthood. Where a Knight is addressed as ‘Sir,’ the female equivalent is called a Dame. Both are titles given out by the British Monarchy, the most notable being via the OBE – Order of the British Empire.
In the past, a Knight's wife or widow was also given the title of Dame to precede her name, but this usage was replaced by ‘Lady’ during the 17th century.
Then the Church stepped in. In the Catholic denomination, Dame is a title of respect for certain Benedictine Nuns. We all know that Mrs Jonathan is not a Nun. In Mrs Jonathan’s case, my friend said that ‘Dame’ (pronounced Da-may) is the abbreviation of her native name, Damenebi.
Well, I don’t know whether this is true or not; and to be honest, I wasn’t bothered one way or the other. However, I was reading a newspaper just the other day when I saw the wife of the current Lagos State governor referred to as Dame Abimbola Fashola. And that was when I went, “Oh oh!”
Nigerians! We are very good at our usual copy, copy. We can’t wait to follow, follow. We love honour and adulation but we are never prepared to put in the commensurate hard work. Shortcuts and arbitrariness is our thing. When and how did Mrs Fashola become a Dame?
Well, in September 2010, Mrs Fashola was given the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice medal. Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice means for the Church and the Pope and its medal is awarded to people in the Catholic church that have distinguished themselves by working hard for the Church; e.g., by helping to increase attendance, long standing charity work, etc. There are quite a few people who have this award around the world and in the UK. Interestingly, not one of them rechristened themselves a Dame or a Knight. Mrs Fashola did.
On my last trip home, I attended the wedding of a beautiful young couple in Benin. The newlyweds were in their early twenties and both only recently graduated from the same University. During the ceremony, the officiating Pastor referred to the bride as ‘Barrister’ so and so. The girl, who had never worked a day in her life, and who had never smelt the interior of a courtroom, beamed. The groom frowned. The Pastor had committed the sin of calling him ‘Mr’ so and so at a public gathering. Pastor carried on talking until he realised that the groom was wearing a long face. There was a pause in proceedings. Awkwardness marched into the church wearing Dunlop slippers. The Bestman had to whisper something in the ear of the Pastor before the later smiled awkwardly and declared that the groom was ‘Engineer’ so and so.
In the past, when I read Nigerian newspapers, I used to think that ‘Arch’ referred to an Arch Deacon. It wasn’t until Namadi Sambo became our Vice President that I realised ‘Arch’ is for Architect. The chap helping me to look for a house to purchase in Maryland signs off all his emails as Eng. Segun. That is Engineer to you and I.
One of my closest friends in Lagos appends ‘Syr’ before his name. No, he is not from Syria. He is a Lagosian who trained as a Quantity Surveyor. Every past and present local government Councilor insists on being addressed as ‘Honourable’ – even if they cannot spell the word.
How about Chiefs? That title became so common, so cheap, that the Yorubas were forced to invent ‘Otunba.’ Others invented ‘High Chief.’ In Lagos, the Oba doesn’t reign supreme anymore. Depressingly, there is now a King in every dirty neighborhood. There was even one man who crowned himself the Eze of Lagos Igbos. He installed himself in his living room and was briefly on the payroll of the State government until he was busted for armed robbery.
But this craze is not limited to Nigeria. The UK is littered with Nigerian Barristers. 99% of them never even bothered to retake the UK Bar exams after they failed their first attempt. But they are ‘Barristers’ at Nigerian parties and functions. Half the people that go by the title of ‘Dr’ in London are largely Pentecostal Pastors. The other half are young Babalawos (native doctors).
Our vanity, our insane quest for titles and vacuous aggrandisement led us to acquire the grand puba of all misnomers: Alhaji – which we corrupted from El-Hajj. Contemporaneously, this term has come to refer to a person who has successfully completed a pilgrimage (the Hajj) to Mecca. But I understand the term was originally meant to identify a stranger who has only come into Saudi Arabia for the purposes of the holy pilgrimage. Apart from the odd Ghanaian or two, I don’t know of any other people that bear this title with so much happiness.
I’m willing to bet that in a few years time, those Nigerian Christians that ferry themselves across to Israel on sight-seeing tours would come up with a befitting Hebrew-sounding title – JP being inadequately and unsuitably shared with those pesky Magistrates and Justices of the Peace.
Eid Mubarak, everyone.